Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 664
Nadezhda Mandelstam may well ultimately prove to be the greatest “witness-as-writer” among twentieth century women. Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo wrote (before the ecumenical surge) that if the Roman church in its wisdom were to appoint women as confessors to men, as it had men for women, the men would bare their souls in a way they would not to another man. Nadezhda was, as well as colleague and collaborator, the confessor for her husband, the poet whose murder was long drawn out. In the course of serving the poet by memorizing his verses—tirelessly repeating them aloud above the roar of machinery in factories where she worked, for example, or more quietly as she taught school or in hounded exile—Nadezhda became, as well as witness, interpreter. “If there is any substitute for love, it is memory,” wrote Brodsky in his obituary on Nadezhda. The phrases of her two poets—her husband and Akhmatova—“became her mentality, became her identity.”
She is not so much concerned over the freedoms people claim they need, which they scarcely use if given them, as she is with inner freedom, the entire magical world of the spirit when systematically invaded by organized minions of the state. Even her account of Osip’s method of constructing his work gives insight into the inner world of art and love and spirituality. Osip did not often write down the first drafts of his verse (he was finally sent to his death because he did write down and read aloud to a small circle of friends a poem about the ogre who ruled Russia and sent entire categories of people and provinces to their destruction). The poems were dictated to his wife; sometimes, on their first reading aloud, they were memorized by both Osip and Nadezhda. In his note on Nadezhda Mandelstam in his anthology The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader (1985), Clarence Brown speaks of her legendary feat of memory: “She carried not only the poetry but even the prose in her head, rehearsing it in a cycle of daily routines—a feat of literary devotion not unknown to the history of sacred letters but surely unequalled in our secular times.”
Later, as the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, one woman “rescued M.’s letters to me by putting them all in an old tin tea caddy and taking them with her as she left the burning city [Voronezh] on foot.” Another destroyed a copy of some verse by M. when her mother-in-law was expecting to be arrested for a second time:All I could do was to deposit copies with as many people as possible and hope that some would survive. . . . I used to carry around a heap of first drafts of M.’s prose pieces in my suitcase, and I always interleaved them with notes I had made on linguistics for my dissertation—I hoped this would mislead any semi-literate police agents who might rummage in my belongings.
Apart from a memoir of a most remarkably spiritual and artistic relationship between a man and woman of the highest aesthetic and moral standing, the book is a record of most of the remarkable intellectuals of the time, of their travails and attainments in the midst of the Terror, all written with wise judgment and high novelistic detail. The most mundane search for an egg or a bed turns into a luminous epiphany. Her portraits of the main actors in the drama, whether acerbic or merely alive with wit, are incandescent. Her own learning and languages equipped her to discuss the literature of the West. The conversations between the pair or with other people of exceptional mind or even of remarkable baseness are never pedestrian. At the very least, there is a note of wry humor at every turn. The pair did not suffer fools gladly, though they showed warmth and humanity for all those who suffered; they shared the despair of many of their fellow tormented, even when met by chance.
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