I finally got my very own copy of Clarence Brown’s classic Mandelstam, and I’m reading it with great pleasure and learning all sorts of interesting things. A few of them:
1) From page 2:
…it was in fact [his wife Nadezhda] who had insisted to Mandelstam himself that the poems be written down. In the most literal sense, he was no ‘writer.’ He was contemptuous of paper and ink, kept his poems in his head, and believed so strongly in their objective existence that once he had finished them he had no fear of losing them…. In the autobiographical Chetvertaia proza (Fourth Prose) he furiously megaphones:
I have no manuscripts, no notebooks, no archives. I have no handwriting because I never write. I alone in Russia work from the voice while all around the bitch-pack writes. What the hell kind of writer am I?! Get out you fools!
A writer who doesn’t write!
2) From page 89: “Mandelstam despised translation, especially translation in verse, even though Innokenty Annensky, a poet revered by Mandelstam and himself a masterful translator, had urged him to practise that discipline as a means of learning verse technique.” One result (Nadezhda is speaking):
In Voronezh, he and I translated some Maupassant. I think he did ‘Yvette.’ I took the manuscripts to Moscow and sat down to correct them and proofread what the typist had done, and suddenly I realized that some sort of butler was talking in the story. There wasn’t any in the text. I thought it must be another edition. Took another edition out: no butler. Then it dawned on me what had happened. Mandelstam hadn’t even translated — he’d described one of the illustrations! There was an illustration in the book showing some sort of very dignified butler. I mean, he was so bored by translation that he couldn’t even read the text!
3) Mandelstam kept falling in love with other women, which naturally put a strain on his marriage, though Nadezhda won out in the end. On pages 121-22 Brown writes, “At about this time Mandelstam fell in love with Olga Vaksel, about whom little is known except that she later emigrated to Norway, where she died. He wrote a number of poems to her…. His affair with her, though evidently brief, was very serious. Nadezhda Yakovlevna told me: ‘It was the one occasion in our life when we were on the verge of getting a divorce.'” But now we know quite a bit about Olga; I’ve discovered by googling around that she was Olga Aleksandrovna Vaksel (1903-32), known to her intimates as “Lyutik.” Her father, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich, was from an old military family and kept “hussar habits” in his retirement; her mother, Yulia Fedorovna Lvova, was from an old Petersburg family of the intelligentsia (she was a pianist and composer, and her father had been a political exile). Her parents got divorced in 1905. Lyutik had light brown hair and dark eyes—Akhmatova later called her a “blinding beauty.” She had literary and artistic interests; she fell in love quickly and deeply but fell out of love suddenly and irrevocably. Mandelstam’s brother Evgeny was briefly engaged to her and lamented that she had “slipped away.” In 1921 she married Arseny Fedorovich Smolevsky and had a son, but felt trapped and got a divorce. She got a job with the film studio Factory of the Eccentric Actor (FEKS), where she became friends with Mandelstam and his wife (they had previously all met at Max Voloshin‘s place in the Crimea). Mandelstam fell madly in love with her, but she was did not want to betray Nadezhda and refused him. She wound up marrying the Norwegian vice-consul in Leningrad, Christian Irgens Hvistendahl (1903-1934), and going with him to Oslo, where she dictated her memoirs to him, wrote some final poems, and on October 26, 1932, shot herself with his revolver. (If you read Russian, there’s more about her here.)
In the early ’30s, Mandelstam fell for the poet and translator Maria Petrovykh, who turned out to be interesting enough, and a significant enough person in Russian literature, for me to spend part of today writing a Wikipedia article about her.