Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Nadezhda Mandelstam, the wife of one of the most accomplished Russian poets of the twentieth century, Osip Mandelstam, spent most of her married life sharing the good and the bad experiences of her husband’s life. When he finally succumbed to the reign of terror in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union and perished in a concentration camp on December 27, 1938, she took it upon herself to preserve for posterity her husband’s poetic works; without her gallant efforts, most of Osip Mandelstam’s work would have been lost forever, since he was prevented from publishing during the last decade of his life. Her efforts are all the more remarkable since she herself was always in mortal danger, in addition to having to struggle for basic life necessities in the years after her husband’s death.

The two volumes of her memoirs cover the nineteen years that the Mandelstams spent together, from their first meeting on May Day, 1919, to their last moments together on May Day, 1938; they also include the aftermath of Osip’s death. The eighty-three titled chapters of Hope Against Hope concentrate on Mandelstam’s first arrest in 1934, final incarceration in 1938, and eventual death later that year. Hope Abandoned, almost twice as large but condensed in forty-two chapters, builds on that foundation, complementing the earlier narratives but also providing lucid comments on poetic, political, and religious subjects, as well as perceptive analyses of some of Osip Mandelstam’s poems and those of their closest friend, Anna Akhmatova. The reader cannot avoid the conclusion that the author has used the second volume as her final reckoning with her time, in order to say everything left unsaid in Hope Against Hope. Both volumes contain appendices, with biographical notes on...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Nadezhda Mandelstam is a perfect example of an emancipated Russian woman. Though Jewish, both she and her husband were of the third-generation converts to Christianity, and they embraced this religion, not in the formal but in the spiritual and philosophical sense. Moreover, they were drawn more to the Western, Hellenic-Mediterranean Christianity as embodied in the works of Dante, rather than to the Eastern Orthodox sect. Osip Mandelstam considered himself to be “the last Christian-Hellenic poet in Russia.” Nadezhda, too, adhered to this position, as she often showed a remarkable compatibility with her husband’s views. At the same time, she always displayed an independent mind and was not reluctant to offer her husband both advice and criticism. Thus, she is typical of a Russian woman—a strong individual, yet willing to synchronize her will with that of her husband and at times to submerge her will in his for the sake of harmony (as when she collaborated with her husband on some projects yet allowed them to be published under his name). Throughout her memoirs, however, her individuality breaks through, so that the two books can be read as a testimony to her own intellect and soul, even though she professed to have lived only to preserve her husband’s name and poetry.

Nadezhda Mandelstam also made a lasting contribution to the genre of memoirs, in the long tradition of Russian writers. Her wide erudition—she was proficient in several languages, had translated widely, and had acquired a doctorate in English literature—enabled her to lace her reminiscences with lucid commentaries on times, mores, and cultures. Her most important contribution, however, can be seen in her enormous courage, not only while writing her memoirs but also throughout her married life. Without that courage she would not have been able to accomplish her main task of preserving Osip Mandelstam’s poetry. In doing so, she proved to be an optimist, despite the cruel circumstances. It is interesting that the title in Russian in simply “memoirs”; “hope” in the English title is a play on the author’s name. In fact, her full name is Vera Lyubov Nadezhda, which in Russian reads “Faith Love Hope.” These three words summarize best her personality, as well as her achievements.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Brodsky, Joseph. “Nadezhda Mandelstam (1899-1980).” The New York Review of Books, March 5, 1981, 3-4. An article by a Nobel Prize winner eulogizing Nadezhda Mandelstam and concentrating on her relationship with her husband and Anna Akhmatova.

Carlisle, Olga. Review of Hope Against Hope. The New York Times Book Review, October 18, 1970, 6. The reviewer touches upon the most salient points in the book, focusing on Osip Mandelstam as a poet but also on Nadezhda’s courage in writing the book and on her optimism despite the unfavorable odds.

Ludwig, Jack. “Hope Without Hope.” Partisan Review 41 (1974): 455-462. A review of Hope Abandoned, interspersed with an interview with Nadezhda Mandelstam and her remarks about various personalities affecting the life of her husband and her own.

Pevear, Richard. “On the Memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam.” The Hudson Review 24 (1971): 427-440. A review article about both memoirs, evaluating them as literary pieces and seeing their value and explanation in Nadezhda’s ability to harmonize her conscious will with an inner attentiveness. Also contains pertinent references to Osip Mandelstam’s poetry.

Struve, Gleb. “Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Remarkable Memoirs.” Books Abroad 45 (1971): 18-25. A walk through Hope Against Hope, (actually an extended review) by a distinguished scholar of Russian literature. Offers pointed commentary highlighting the important passages and praising the literary value of the book.