The Noise of Time Critical Essays

Osip Mandelstam


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The Noise of Time, a collection of intensely realized scenes and vivid characterizations, resonating with all the signs of doomed nineteenth century Russian culture, is at once the story of a boy’s coming of age, of his commitment to the power of the word, and of the life and death of a century. Both man and century open to a new and terrifying life.

Autobiography here becomes a highly compressed and meaningful interpretation of the “germination of time” for the poet, for the age, and for the reader. Guy Davenport calls the whole work a “spiritual inventory of the mode of life swept away by the Revolution,” but it is also a search for the roots of the poet’s commitment to his work. What seems a somewhat tenuously connected group of intensely realized moments in a young man’s life becomes an analysis of why the Bolshevik Revolution became possible and what elements formed the poetic psyche of the narrator. Jane Gary Harris sees this personal and historical perception as revealing a “startling parallelism” of history and the aesthetic consciousness of the country and the poet. The country and the age fall apart as the poet emerges into his profession.

The poet sees the superficiality and sentimentality of 1890’s Russia in the relaxed summer concert at Pavlovsk; he sees the childish and merely spectacular military regime of imperial Russia; he notes the beginning of trouble in the still easily suppressed student riots and the beginning of hysteria in the concerts at the Nobility Hall. The rumble of revolution is heard in the passionate political idealists of various camps the boy encounters at school and in Sergei Ivanych, the “chimera,” both a person and the truth of the 1905 revolution. Mandelstam’s image of Komissarzhevskaya is one of the rich culture still linked to the West but doomed in the turbulence to come. In The Noise of Time, as in Anna Akhmatova’s Poema bez geroa (1960; A Poem Without a Hero, 1973), the hectic end of an era emerges, full of both the triviality which condemned the culture and superb images of the culture to be lost.

These images of superficial glamour and passionate dissent have counterpoints in the “Judaic chaos” of the narrator’s family life. The characterization of his unintegrated father and mother (despite her efforts to integrate), the alien stability of Jewish friends who make no attempt to integrate outside of business relations, the exotic quality of his encounters with the Jewish religion—all of those trouble...

(The entire section is 1041 words.)