I’ve just finished Mandelstam’s novella “Egipetskaya marka” (see this post), and it probably took me longer than any other thirty pages of Russian prose I’ve read—not because the vocabulary was especially difficult (though some of it was) but because it’s very much a poet’s prose, and a particularly knotty poet’s at that, and it has to be nibbled at rather than gulped, and thought about in between bites. What little plot it has revolves around a Petrograd nebbish named Parnok (one of whose boyhood nicknames was “the Egyptian stamp”), who fails at both the goals he sets himself on a summer day in 1917: to get his morning coat and shirts back from the tailor who had repossessed them for lack of payment, and to save a man from being lynched by a mob. The first story line goes straight back to Gogol and “The Overcoat”; the second is ripped from the headlines of that revolutionary year (see examples in Russian here) but doubtless was intended to carry implications extending into the period of Bolshevik rule. But as always with Mandelstam, it’s more about the language and the network of images than the plot.
Clarence Brown, in the introduction to his translation, gives several examples of how words and images beget each other, like the bit in the fifth chapter that begins “The January calendar with its ballet goats, its model dairy of myriad worlds, its crackle of a deck of cards being unwrapped. . . .” He says, “The word ‘ballet’ appears because this is in the context of talk about Giselle, but it is applied to goats because it refers to the saltant image of a goat which is the tenth [...] sign of the zodiac, Capricorn, covering the period from December 21 to January 20, and represented on the calendar.” A few lines later we get “The Petersburg cabby is a myth, a Capricorn. He should be put in the zodiac.” If you don’t follow his train of thought, the images appear to come out of nowhere. I’ll quote (in my own translation) a more extended passage from near the end, in which fear and railroads and prose are all intertwined; among many other things, it’s Mandelstam’s apologia for the complicated way he writes:
Fear takes me by the hand and leads me. White cotton glove. [Fingerless] mitten. I love, I respect fear. I almost said, “with it nothing frightens me!” Mathematicians should build a tent for fear, because it is the coordinate of time and space; they participate in it, like rolled-up felt in a Kirghiz tent. Fear unharnesses the horses when we have to drive, and sends us dreams with pointlessly low ceilings.
At the beck and call of my consciousness are two or three little words: i vot ['and here'], uzhé ['already'], vdrug ['suddenly']; they rush around on the half-lit Sevastopol train from car to car, lingering on the buffer areas [platforms between cars?], where two thundering frying pans rush at each other and crawl apart.
The railroad has changed the whole course, the whole construction, the whole tempo of our prose, handing it over into the power of the senseless muttering of the French peasant from Anna Karenina. Railroad prose, like the woman’s purse of that death-foretelling peasant, is full of coupler’s tools, delirious particles, hardware prepositions, which have their place on the table of legal evidence, set loose from any concern for beauty or roundedness.
Yes, there, where hot oil is poured over the meaty levers of locomotives, there she breathes, my darling prose, all set down lengthwise, falsely measuring, the shameless wench, winding on her own predatory yardstick all six hundred and nine Nikolaevsky versts, with little carafes of sweating vodka.
“Six hundred and nine Nikolaevsky versts” represents the railroad line (called Nikolaevsky, for Nikolai I, before the October Revolution and Oktyabrsky, for October, after it) between Moscow and Saint Petersburg (proverbially a distance of 609 versts). As Brown says, “[Mandelstam's] prose could never be submitted as legal evidence in any imaginable court, for its aim is beauty and to be beautifully rounded. Its only testimony is to that ineffable satisfaction that comes when sentences wave like flags and strut like peacocks and roll trippingly off the tongue.”
The original Russian:
Страх берет меня за руку и ведет. Белая нитяная перчатка. Митенка. Я люблю, я уважаю страх. Чуть не сказал: «с ним мне не страшно!» Математики должны были построить для страха шатер, потому что он координата времени и пространства: они, как скатанный войлок в киргизской кибитке, участвуют в нем. Страх распрягает лошадей, когда нужно ехать, и посылает нам сны с беспричинно низкими потолками.
На побегушках у моего сознания два-три словечка: «и вот», «уже», «вдруг»; они мотаются полуосвещенным севастопольским поездом из вагона в вагон, задерживаясь на буферных площадках, где наскакивают друг на друга и расползаются две гремящие сковороды.
Железная дорога изменила все течение, все построение, весь такт нашей прозы. Она отдала ее во власть бессмысленному лопотанью французского мужичка из Анны Карениной. Железнодорожная проза, как дамская сумочка этого предсмертного мужичка, полна инструментами сцепщика, бредовыми частичками, скобяными предлогами, которым место на столе судебных улик, развязана от всякой заботы о красоте и округленности.
Да, там, где обливаются горячим маслом мясистые рычаги паровозов, — там дышит она, голубушка проза, — вся пущенная в длину, — обмеривающая, бесстыдная, наматывающая на свой живоглотский аршин все шестьсот девять николаевских верст, с графинчиками запотевшей водки.