Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1032

The Noise of Time is a poet’s autobiography. Osip Mandelstam, working in the Russian genre of childhood reminiscence, attempts a completely new transformation of the form. Jane Gary Harris describes it in her introduction to Mandelstam’s The Complete Critical Prose and Letters (1979): “The Noise of Time is structured around fragments or vignettes involving recurrent poetic images and a density of references and associations unified by the autobiographical impulse and ordered ‘according to their spatial extension.’” The genre provides an unconfining frame for the fragments, images, and associations arranged like stanzas in a poem, their juxtaposition more important to the effect than chronology or causation. The internal connection of the fragments achieves Mandelstam’s interpretation of his age, his ideas about the role of the poet, the nature of the word, and his view of art. Prince Mirsky speaks of the “daring, depth, and truth” of the work’s “historical intuition.”

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The work is divided into fourteen such fragments, each seemingly complete in itself. “Music in Pavlovsk,” the first, presents in sensuous detail memories of a summer concert in the mid-1890’s at the railroad station restaurant in Pavlovsk, a popular retreat from St. Petersburg, but the year-round home for the Mandelstam family in those years. Detail about Pavlovsk at that time of every kind—architectural, literary, musical, human, social, economic—saturates the three and a half pages. The description catches the moment with a fullness that combines the fresh responses of a child with the attention and understanding of the adult, letting the reader experience the way it was then for a small boy but with the irony born of hindsight.

Part 2, “Childish Imperialism,” reproduces the emotional effect on the child of the militaristic images of St. Petersburg—the equestrian statues, the horse and marine guards, the navy ships, the great barracks, the Field of Mars, the “funeral pomps of some general,” the military bands, the stately progress of the czar and his family through the streets. Mandelstam says that the “very architecture of the city inspired me with a kind of childish imperialism” and in a last paragraph distinguishes all that glitter from the middle-class Jewish family life of which he is a part.

“Riots and French Governesses,” part 3, describes first the student riots, well controlled but nevertheless an early sign of the coming revolution. This image of disorder is supported by a memory of the three-year-old boy’s responses at the funeral of Alexander III. These signs of the breakup contrast with the anglicized and frenchified fops promenading on the avenues, their inadequacy emphasized with a description of the superficial French tutors with which the boy was provided in his family’s attempt to join the dominant culture.

Part 4, “The Bookcase,” characterizes the Jewish “chaos” of his own home by describing the contents and arrangement of books in their bookcase. From his father’s and mother’s books he moves to their character, each showing a different response to the culture of which they were not truly a part. A section on the nineteenth century popular poet Semyon Nadson catches the sentimentality of the age which loved him.

Petersburgers vacationed in Finland, and the next section describes visits to a Vyborg family, Jewish but secure, “stable” and “oaken,” unlike his own family life. Part 6 describes his family in greater detail, with a long section on the different speech of his mother and his father. The word is already important to the poet to come.

Part 7 returns to the theme of music, this time the Lenten concerts of a violin-piano duo who induce a “Dionysian” delight in the St. Petersburg crowds. The scene is at the classical Nobility Hall, and the virtuosi are “rational and pure,” contrasting with the hysteria of the audience. The boy is growing, and part 8, at the turn of the century, finds him at the Tenishev School, an anglicized and exclusive preparatory school where Mandelstam is introduced to literature and politics. He describes his classes, classmates, and the old-fashioned head of the school.

Mandelstam characterizes the year 1905, with its abortive revolution, in the person of Sergei Ivanych, an intense, disorderly, and ineffective rehearsal coach for the revolution. Like the clash itself, the man was a “chimera,” unable to face the reality of the change he advocated. Part 10 describes Yuli Matveich, a friend and arbiter in his family, an image of a wise epicurean touched with despair at death, ever a presence in the book.

Part 11 introduces the reader to Vladimir Gippius, a Symbolist poet but here a teacher of literature of the Tenishev School, where Mandelstam encounters the Erfurt Program and idealistic Marxist economic views. From that reading, it is only a step to part 12 and the young man’s introduction to the intellectual Sinani family and especially to Boris, the son, half-Jewish and a spiritual Russian Populist and Socialist Revolutionary. The narrator also begins to find his way into classical and contemporary Russian poetry, but the approach of revolution and the fierce debates about its direction leave him troubled and anxious, like the time itself.

Part 13 states the purpose of the work: “to track down the age, the noise and the germination of time.” His labor, he says, is to distance the past. He writes of the actress and woman director, Vera Komissarzhevskaya: spare, “Protestant,” in her acting style. He lets the reader hear her voice and says, “The theater has lived and will live by the human voice.” Her theater tried to be contemporary and European just before the revolution carried everything away.

In part 14, “In a Fur Coat Above One’s Station,” the young man recognizes himself as a raznochinets (an intellectual) and a writer. He sees the autobiography as making his way alone “back up the dried riverbed.” The prose becomes denser with literary reference and metaphor as the nineteenth century passes to the twentieth and the brink of revolution and civil war. The narrator visits his teacher, the poet Gippius, full of joy and malice, in his disorderly apartment; through him, the young man connects with the literary tradition and sees the newcomers to poetry watch the century freeze. He feels the raw power of literature in the wintry scene.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 80

Brown, Clarence. Introduction to The Prose of Osip Mandelstam, 1965.

Brown, Clarence. Mandelstam, 1973.

Cohen, Arthur A. Osip Emilievich Mandelstam: An Essay in Antiphon, 1974.

Harris, Jane Gary. “An Inquiry into the Function of the Autobiographical Mode: Joyce, Mandelstam, Schulz,” in American Contributions to the Ninth International Congress of Slavists. Vol. 3, 1983. Edited by Paul Debreczeny.

Harris, Jane Gary. Introduction to The Complete Critical Prose and Letters, 1979.

Mandelstam, Nadezhda. Hope Abandoned, 1974.

Mandelstam, Nadezhda. Hope Against Hope: A Memoir, 1970.

Monas, Sidney. Osip Mandelstam: Selected Essays, 1977.

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