The Noise of Time

by Osip Mandelstam

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1041

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 writer, provide another image of unresolved problems in the empire, and ultimately counter with a strong sense of reality the unreal culture about to die.

Simultaneously, the images from both the Russian and the Jewish cultures feed the boy’s emerging interest in the work, his gradual commitment, not to politics, but to poetry. His teacher, Vladimir Gippius, shows him the way to himself. His father’s strange speech and his mother’s care to speak pure Russian make him acutely aware of language. His experience of poetry—the popular, of which he is contemptuous, the Symbolist, which he sees as over, and the great classics of the Russian tradition, which he values—is knit into every episode, both explicitly and implicitly. The theme of poetry and the poet emerges at the end, as the young adult emerges, to speak ferociously as the wintry chill of change takes hold. He is defined as the time is defined; literature has its role to play: the representation of the time, the distancing of the time, and the understanding of the time and the self. Literature is intuitive, naturally beastlike, but it is linked inexorably to personal and national history, as the work has made clear. The “noise” of time, conjoining the sounds of all the life here represented, turns at last into the sound of the poet’s voice.

One underlying theme runs through the work: death. The work aims to recapture the life and the quality of the past, now dead and gone. It presents a three-year-old child at the beginning and moves through his life until late adolescence—one knows this life too must end; funerals and episodes repeatedly, as it is borne in upon the reader that all this life has passed. Art, meanwhile, is re-creating this life; art conquers time and death, just as it reflects them.

The structure of the work is clearly not as casual as it first seems. Every element recalled contributes to the effect of the whole. Episode is bound to episode by psychological, metaphorical, and associational links. Literary allusion builds a context of literary history as it communicates the new word of the author. The selection of episodes works to the rich development of interdependent themes, each of which sheds light on the other yet remains a representation of a unique life.

The texture of the work is also not simple. Childlike responsiveness guides the scenes, but the quality represented comes to the reader in a network of references implying the sophisticated Russian and Western culture of the adult narrator. Like a collage, the work fits bits and pieces of past literature and knowledge into a new design that nevertheless richly reveals the old. The narrator assumes the culture he uses, making claims on the reader that presume mutual values and literary experiences with those of the writer.

Nadezhda Mandelstam in Vtoraya kniga (1972; Hope Abandoned, 1974) writes that her husband dictated The Noise of Time to her, and the sound of his voice is in the prose. Sounds generate and reflect meaning. For all of their resonances, the sentences, while long, are clear and the word choice precise. Characterization is loving caricature, single features of the people drawn giving vivid impressions of the essence of their personalities, which are defined by what they do. These images nevertheless reflect also the interest and feeling of the narrator, who is otherwise little in evidence. Everything is seen through his eyes. Clarence Brown points out in the introduction to his translation of the work that Mandelstam’s startling imagery, juxtapositions, and accumulation of detail “make strange” the scenes and people he depicts, using the formalist device of ostranenie to give a fresh and living sense of the reality.

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