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Nadezhda means hope in Russian, and this book proffers hope for Russia (even in the proverbial “against hope”: The book had no title in manuscript, and the Russian edition published in New York the same year as the English translation was given the title Vospominaniya, that is “memoirs”)—hope through its past and its poetry, through its language and its tradition. The book’s first sentence places the reader in medias res with an opening as vivid and evocative as any in modern writing: “After slapping Alexei Tolstoi in the face, M. immediately returned to Moscow.” The initial “M.” stands for Osip Mandelstam, “the greatest Russian poet of the modern period,” in the words of Clarence Brown, scholar and essayist, who writes the introduction to this book. The Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky has written that Mandelstam’s poetry “will last as long as the Russian language exists”; in Less Than One: Selected Essays (1986), Brodsky calls Mandelstam “Russia’s greatest poet in this century.” The present memoir is a pungent record not only of life with such a man but also of Nadezhda and Osip Mandelstam’s collaborative struggle in an unhinged world of terror and death, one in which the poet died in a transit prison camp near Vladivostok after passing through many other concentration camps.

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While Hope Against Hope touches on the whole span of the Mandelstams’ nineteen years together—from their first meeting, on May Day, 1919, to their last moments together, on May Day, 1938—it centers on the period between Mandelstam’s first arrest, in 1934, and that final arrest in 1938. In the second volume of her memoirs, Vtoraia kniga (1972; Hope Abandoned, 1974), Nadezhda recalls in greater detail their early years together as well as providing a selective narrative of her life in the decades after her husband’s death. Both volumes, however, are concerned as much with ideas as with events. Hope Against Hope, then, is not simply a memoir; it is also a work of wide-ranging reflection, partaking of intellectual biography and autobiography, cultural criticism, and literary criticism.

Nadezhda made her own her husband’s search for a worthy worldview, an apprehension of all culture and civilization, specifically that of the West. His definition of “Acmeism” (an intellectual and poetic movement) as a “nostalgic longing for world culture” served as a description of her own quest. Her search for a true meaning in art, for a definitive artistic means was based on the millennial values of Judeo-Christian civilization. The Bible was a primary source: Their friend, the poet Anna Akhmatova, their closest colleague since Acmeist days, held to the Old Testament; Osip, however, was attracted to the New Testament, because, with the Trinity, “Christianity had overcome the undivided power of the Jewish God,” and undivided power (the Soviet state) was a plague and a horror. In an early essay, Mandelstam sought for the source of joy in artistic creation. Early in his career, he wrote that Christian art was “joyous” because it was free, and free because the world had been redeemed; thus, the world was left for pleasure and even beatitude in art and thought.

Another central source was Dante. Indeed, though Jewish, the Mandelstams held to Dante’s Christianity as their lodestar as well as their most intimate tie with the Hellenic Mediterranean. Osip considered himself “the last Christian-Hellenic poet in Russia,” and he constructed his verse with the dynamic meticulousness which went into the building of a Gothic cathedral. He compared himself in his poems to a medieval master builder fashioning lyrics out of heavy stone.

Nadezhda was proficient in languages and it stood the pair in good stead in the 1920’s and 1930’s when they were driven, like many of the displaced educated class, to translating in order to eat. They edited and translated all manner of books, and they helped each other and signed their work arbitrarily. She even collaborated on some of the books which appeared under his name, even those in verse; her knowledge of English even then was better than her husband’s. Later, in 1956, she earned the equivalent of a doctorate in English philology; her thesis was titled “Functions of the Accusative Case on the Basis of Materials Drawn from Anglo-Saxon Poetic Monuments.” On the copy she inscribed to Clarence Brown she called it a “thoroughly pleasant bit of rubbish.” After Osip’s death she taught English in a variety of provincial schools, until she was permitted to return to Moscow, where she wrote Hope Against Hope along with the even more dire Hope Abandoned.

Though the central character of this book, Osip—usually referred to as M.—has been called (by Western radicals) “an independent radical,” he was a radical only in his search for the roots of Western literature and art. Central to the Mandelstams’ view of the world, as noted above, was their study and appreciation of Dante. Two rather obscure, and constantly persecuted, Jews—in the heart of the anti-Christian and officially atheist Soviet Union—discovered Dante, in Moscow (though Osip had made two trips to Italy when he was a student at the Sorbonne and later at Heidelberg):In Moscow, when M. “met” Dante, . . . [he] immediately decided that nobody was more important . . . and regarded him as an inseparable companion ever afterward— even twice taking him to prison with him. Anticipating his arrest—everybody we knew did this as a matter of course—M. obtained an edition of the Divine Comedy in small format and always had it with him in his pocket, just in case he was arrested not at home but in the street.

Akhmatova, their closest colleague and friend for half a century and their most steadfast ally, began reading the works of Dante at the same time “by sheer coincidence” and recited to M. a passage she had learned by heart: “M. was moved almost to tears at hearing the lines read in her voice, which he loved so much.” Both M. and Akhmatova had “the astonishing ability of somehow bridging time and space when they read the work of dead poets. . . . With them it meant entering into personal relations with the poet, . . . a kind of conversation with someone long since departed.”

It was more than a personal relationship with peers of the past: Italy was “the measure of all things. It was not for nothing that M. chose Dante as the starting point for a discussion of his own poetics: for M., Dante was the source of all European poetry, and the measure of poetic ‘rightness.’” Dante’s Mediterranean was the center of all Western culture and was “a holy land where history had begun, and which by a process of continuity had given Christian culture to the world,” for “culture, like grace, is bestowed by a process of continuity,” and thus the Mediterranean basin—perhaps including Crimea and the Black Sea—was still the center of the universe. He constantly referred to Rome and Italy in his verse, for “Rome is man’s place in the universe, and his every footstep there resounds like a deed.” They dreamed, in Osip’s poem about Ludovico Ariosto, of uniting with the Mediterranean: “Into one broad and brotherly blue we shall merge your azure and our Black sea.”

In form, Hope Against Hope is anything but a conventional memoir. A long book (in English translation, some five hundred pages), it is divided into eighty-three short chapters. Each chapter is titled; the titles are alternately straightforward and ironic, playful and elegiac. This division into short chapters emphasizes the episodic character of the work. While the general drift of the narrative is chronological, Nadezhda freely shifts back and forth in time. The English-language edition includes an appendix with biographical notes on persons mentioned in the text and background information on the leading literary movements and organizations of the period.

One chapter of the Russian text of Hope Against Hope—it would fall between chapters 41 and 42 in the English text—was deliberately omitted in translation, because it deals in linguistic detail with the genesis of several closely related poems by Mandelstam. The translators believed that this material would be intelligible only to a reader of Russian. Subsequently, however, this missing chapter was published in English translation in pamphlet form, under the title Chapter 42 and The Goldfinch (1973), with a helpful introduction by Donald Rayfield and the Russian texts of the relevant poems.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 47

Alvarez, A. Review in Saturday Review. LIII (November 28, 1970), p. 27.

Brodsky, Joseph. Less Than One: Selected Essays, 1986.

Brown, Clarence, ed. The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader, 1985.

Carlisle, Olga. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXV (October 18, 1970), p. 6.

Hayward, Max. Writers in Russia: 1917-1978, 1983.

Mandelstam, Osip. Fifty Poems, 1977.

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