Form and Content
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.
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...
(The entire section is 1,443 words.)