Books: From the Land of Shadows : Transparent Petropolis |
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Transparent Petropolis

Osip Mandelstam, poems chosen and translated by James Greene
(Elek, London, and Shambhala Publications, Boulder, Colorado)

Osip Mandelstam: 50 Poems translated by Bernard Meares
(Persea Books, New York)

By now half a dozen different selections from Osip Mandelstam’s poetry have been translated into English with varying lack of success. The better attempts seem to have been made in the knowledge that failure was inevitable. The worse have a deadly cockiness. The two most recent volumes, one by James Greene and the other by Bernard Meares, are humble enough — in Mr Greene’s case only just humble enough — in their approach. It might also be said that they are diffident enough in their results. A pity, really, that neither David McDuff nor the Clarence Brown/W. S. Merwin team translated a more complete corpus back in 1973. As things stand, their pioneering selections still look more authoritative than anything which has happened since, but new books can, and will, go on appearing, so long as each new translator is able to convince himself that he can offer an illuminating recension.

The case of Nadezhda Mandelstam shows how important it can be for translation to be done with proper reticence. Her two great prose works Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned are both translated by Max Hayward, whose tactful fidelity could scarcely be improved upon. If we should ever lapse into taking his self-effacing gift for granted, a glance at Mr Robert A. McLean’s translation of Mrs Mandelstam’s Mozart and Salieri, which emerged from Ann Arbor university in 1973, would quickly jerk us awake. The first sentence is sufficient warning. ‘Mandelstam was a hopeless debater, but he did not bite at just any bait.’ You don’t have to be a good writer to see that the original word must be translated as ‘incorrigible’ rather than ‘hopeless’, or that a clangorous echo like ‘debater’ and ‘bait’ must be avoided. Just not being a bad writer would do. It would be better to leave the text untouched than bruise it with such a ham fist.

There is an even stronger argument for leaving Osip Mandelstam’s poetry undisturbed. Even people who read translated prose without a qualm are worried, when they read translated poetry, about whether they are getting anything worth having. An irrefutable case, from the aesthetic viewpoint, can be mounted against the very idea of translating poetry. Yet when it comes to the point nobody lives by aesthetics alone. Criticism includes aesthetics, but is something larger, just as culture includes criticism but is something larger still. In the end we want to know as much as we can about what is going on in the major poetry even of languages we can’t read. The real questions concern the means of finding out. By now it is generally agreed that a plain translation, provided it does not make a fetish of plainness, is better than something poetic but not poetic enough.

James Greene is an honest and dedicated servant of Mandelstam, but he is also a bit of a poet on his own account. His book is equipped with a posturing foreword in which he explains, among other things, that he has found it necessary to leave parts of certain poems untranslated, since he could not find the poetic equivalent. The implication seems to be that for the other parts he has found a poetic equivalent. All this would sound very silly if there were not also a foreword from Donald Davie to remind us of what real silliness sounds like.

Professor Davie hails the uniquely European, rounded formal completeness which he sees as Mr Greene’s unprecedented contribution to the task of translating Mandelstam. According to Davie, the American idiom (exemplified by Brown/Merwin) is ‘discontinuous’. As wielded by Mr Greene, the British idiom does ‘what by its very nature the American idiom could not’ — i.e. it corresponds to the European, self-contained form of Mandelstam’s poems.

There is something to this notion. In much of his work Mandelstam really is a formalist, a fact of which Davie, in his time a redoubtable formalist himself, is very properly aware. The formal element is certainly what is missing in the translations by Brown/Merwin and McDuff. But a single glance shows it to be even more missing in the translations by Mr Greene. He is even more discontinuous than they are. Probably Davie, flying in the face of his own arguments, likes what Mr Greene has written because it sounds Poundian. ‘Previous British versions have been wooden,’ proclaims Davie: ‘this one rings — it is bronze, properly Roman bronze.’ Pound used to talk the same way about Mussolini’s speeches, and with the same justification. Mr Greene has his poetic virtues, but the clonk of timber, rather than the ring of bronze, is likely to be aroused by the testing knuckle.

Mr Greene may have left bits of certain poems out, but at least — like Brown/Merwin and unlike McDuff — he has given his chosen poems the appropriate numbers, so that they can readily be traced in Volume I of the three-volume Sobranii sochinenii, the monumental Collected Works edited by Struve and Filippov. Checking with the originals soon shows our translator to be deficient in that very sense of form which both he and his mentor, Professor Davie, are convinced is vital to the task. ‘Faithful as never before,’ declares Davie. But look at No. 6 (from Kamen), a small poem written in 1909. Neither Brown/Merwin nor McDuff includes this poem, so it is useful to have it translated, but from Mr Greene’s version you would think the original was fragmentary, asymmetrical — in a word, discontinuous.

April-blue enamel:
And pale,
A birch-tree hammocks in the evening sky.

This gives you some idea of the stanza’s component images but none at all of its form. If Mr Greene has to be preoccupied with Ezra Pound, it would be better if he could echo the strict-form Pound rather than the free-form; but really the model he should look to is one of Pound’s own models, Gautier, whose Emaux et Camées are a near equivalent of the way the young Mandelstam packed highly condensed imagery into a strict, symmetrical, exactly rhyming form. Another instructive example is Baudelaire, whose interest in Petrarch adumbrates Mandelstam’s own.

One of the ways in which Baudelaire transmits innocence in the midst of squalor is by confining his scabrous view of life within strict Petrarchan forms. If you subtract Baudelaire’s wilfully perverse element, Mandelstam’s own interest in Petrarch yields the same result: the more diversely inclusive his view of the chaotic world, the more likely he is to express it through the familiar simplicity of classical form. The same applies to his lasting involvement with Dante.

Mandelstam’s famous definition of Acmeism — as nostalgia for a world culture — is embodied in the formal element of his work from beginning to end. The Acmeist manifestos commonly expressed their rejection of the symbolist movement by calling for a clear, simple intelligibility of image. In that sense, Acmeism was rather like what we know as Imagism, and commentators are right when they point out that Mandelstam — whose imagery can be the reverse of clear — was not an Acmeist. But Mandelstam never courts obscurity. You always get the sense, when he is saying something in a complicated way, that there is no other way to say it. You always feel the presence, in his poems, of a central, controlling simplicity of spirit — and their unpretentious outward form is usually the medium through which you first feel it.

In the Russian tradition, Mandelstam harks back to Derzhavin and Tyutchev, both of whom dedicated their long lives to verbal refinement and a ceremonial style. In the European tradition — the world culture for which he was nostalgic — Mendelstam harks back to almost everyone. He was a great student of poetry. Above all he was a great technical student. Just as Virgil absorbed Homer’s technical substance and Dante absorbed Virgil’s, Mandelstam absorbed everybody’s. With the present disintegrating all around him, Mandelstam reaffirmed the integrity of the past. Any translation which fails to reproduce the architectural poise and balance of a Mandelstam poem might still give you a hint of his child-like nature, but is bound to miss out on the timeless confidence which makes that child-like nature so robust.

Because Mandelstam is as solid as a rock. If he ever sounds babyish, it is only because the translators are unable to find an equivalent for the centripetal force holding each of his poems together. In the modern art of Western Europe, the Blue Rider painters are the people most like him. Klee, in fact, is an extremely instructive parallel case. Klee’s vision was that of a prodigiously gifted infant, expressed with all the technical command of a mature artist. Mandelstam is like that, except that the pressures working both within and without are multiplied by many times. There is no sentimentality in Klee: you can tell just by looking at him that his ceremonies of innocence have nothing to do with cuteness. Nor is there any sentimentality in Mandelstam. When he says, in one of the poems of his siecond exile, that if he is born again he hopes it will be in the form of children’s games, the idea seems perfectly right, and poetic in the sense that no other way of saying it would do. But to preserve Mandelstam’s purity of soul without making him sound winsome, the translator simply must reproduce something of his formal power.

Perhaps it can’t be done. But some translators do it better than others, and you can’t have greater and lesser degrees of nothing. In his version of ‘Silentium’ McDuff has at least retained a four-line stanza, even if he hasn’t found any rhymes for it. Mr Greene doesn’t even give us that much, although the way he couples the two words ‘lunatic’ and ‘lilac’ provides a momentary hint of Mandelstam’s verbal delicacy. But even if you capture the verbal delicacy (and Brown/Merwin still do a better job than anyone else), the verbal delicacy doesn’t mean much without the verbal strength. The wealth of exquisite interplay within Mandelstam’s lines is always contained by stanza forms which either rhyme as solidly as Baudelaire’s or else — in the larger poems which will probably remain, to the Western reader, the most inaccessible part of Mandelstam’s achievement — possess the gravid syntactical coherence of a strophe by the mature Yeats.

Occasionally, as in ‘The Lutheran’, Mr Greene attempts a four-line form, even equipping some of the stanzas with rhymes, or anyway half-rhymes. But on the whole he is too much of a reductionist to feel comfortable about writing anything that might sound like padding. He is no end of a leaver-out. When he puts something in, it is usually for purposes of clarification, although some of his clarifications muddy the issue. It is all right to put some snow into No. 84, since I suppose we need reminding that in Russia it often snows in winter, but I can’t see what the ‘canvas’ is doing ‘shrouding’ Hellas in No. 78.

The latter is one of Mandelstam’s most famous early poems — his wife speaks of it in one of the many interesting critical disquisitions contained in her memoirs — and I really think that the Brown/Merwin version (McDuff does not attempt it) serves the turn as well as any. Merwin, who can be considered as the versifying partner in the Brown/ Merwin combination, is almost as much of a putter-in as Mr Greene is a leaver-out, but at least Merwin, with Brown helping, knows that when Mandelstam refers to the flight of cranes he means the cranes in Dante, Inferno V. In his first stanza Greene refers to them as ‘birds’. They are cranes in the second stanza, but why not in the first, where Mandelstam is so obviously combining one of Homer’s most resonant images with one of Dante’s? The shrouding canvas is small recompense for such a loss. After all, Mandelstam is not just a ‘literary’ poet in the sense of someone piling allusions together. He is proclaiming the continuity of human imagination.

Mr Greene’s language keeps getting the fidgets, for the good reason that he is all too often trying to find another way of saying what another translator has said already. To take another well-known poem, in No. 89 (from Tristia) the first line is translated by McDuff as ‘we shall die in transparent Petropolis’, which is literally what Mandelstam wrote. Mr Greene’s version opens thus: ‘we shall leave our bones in transparent Petropolis’, which is at once fancier and more commonplace than the original. One of the troubles about the reductionist impulse in poetry is that it becomes so concerned with local intensity it forgets how to make an ordinary statement. This quirk becomes a double handicap when translating Mandelstam, since among his denser passages of imagery he includes lines which are obviously meant to be as plain as day. Greene translates the first line of ‘Tristia’ (No. 104) as ‘I have learnt by heart the lesson of goodbyes’, which is almost as much his own idea as Mandelstam’s. There is a special Russian word for ‘by heart’ and Mandelstam does not use it in this line. Nor does he use the word for ‘lesson’. He uses the word for ‘science’. Brown and Merwin stick closer to the original, thus: ‘I have studied the science of goodbyes’.

Perhaps Mr Greene just didn’t want to sound like Brown and Merwin, but the inevitable side-effect is that he sounds less like Mandelstam than he should. He deserves credit, however, for at least trying to stay within hailing distance. Mr Bernard Meares really lets rip. Same poem, same line: ‘I’ve acquired the craft of separating’, which sounds like the boast of a drunken milkmaid. Mr Meares’s volume is sumptuously produced in the American manner, but in their local detail his translations are so self-assertive as to amount to ‘versions’, and the cold truth is that any ‘version’ of Mandelstam is bound to be inadequate simply because no poet in the West has been through a comparable experience. But one great advantage Mr Meares’s translations do have — they are, where appropriate, formally exact, and thus transmit something of the tension, fundamental to Mandelstam’s poetry, between expectedness of form and unexpectedness of content.

Meares’s book has a first-rate introduction by Joseph Brodsky, who thereby refutes his own argument that criticism of Mandelstam will always fall short. He says penetrating things about the importance of the city of Petersburg to Mandelstam’s view of the world; he is, as you might expect, informative about the Russian poetic tradition of which Mandelstam is an heir and culmination; and he is deeply and comprehensively right about the significance of Mandelstam’s personal fate. If Mandelstam had had merely political objections to the Soviet regime, Brodsky argues, he might have survived. But what he embodied was lyrical intensity, and since lyricism is the ethics of language, his very existence constituted an intolerable threat.

A lot could be said about such an analysis, but the first thing to say is that it is up to the subject. Leaving aside Professor Davie’s strange utterances, there is little in Mr Greene’s translations and notes, devoted and painstaking though they are, to show that he is fully aware of Mandelstam’s true magnitude as a historical figure. He unblushingly quotes Robert Chandler’s opinion that Mandelstam, during his second exile in Voronezh, was ‘like Pound in the Detention Camp at Pisa, knowing that he might die at any moment ...’. Not even Davie, who has a bee in his bonnet about Pound, would be capable of so disproportionate a comparison. For all Mr Greene’s display of learning and energy (he seems to have asked half the poets and professors in the world to read his manuscript), there is something immature about his whole approach to the subject. Nobody could object when, for purposes of elucidation, he gives us a passage from Pope’s Homer instead of just a reference to Homer, and then identifies the passage as emanating from Alexander Pope, in case we should think that someone else called Pope had translated Homer too. There is something charming about that. But there is nothing charming about sheer political obtuseness. It can certainly be proposed that Mandelstam was not a man of his time, but to grasp the full meaning of that proposition you have to be capable of imagining what his time was like.

This is not to say that Western opinions of Mandelstam don’t count. In fact they are the only kind that do: not even Brodsky, if he were still in the Soviet Union, would be able to speak of Mandelstam as he now does. Leaving aside Brown’s Cambridge monograph and his introduction (written in English) to the Sobranii sochinenii, his introduction to the 1973 Selected Poems (now available as one of the Penguin Modern European poets) gives us a better idea of Mandelstam’s importance than any essay which has emanated or is likely to emanate from the Soviet Union. I have the one and only Soviet edition of Mandelstam beside me as I write. It, too, came out in 1973. It is a handsome job, like all the books in the Biblioteka poeta series. But there are poems missing, and the introduction is pitiably mendacious. You would think, from the official account, that Mandelstam had silenced himself.

It seems unlikely that the Soviet regime will ever find a plausible way of coming to terms with Mandelstam. This volume was the best they could do, and after trying it once they have never tried it again. Someone must have realised that you can’t make Mandelstam ideologically clean just by leaving out his more questionable poems. He is not like Akhmatova, who has been given just such treatment, with results that the Writers’ Union and all the other hack institutions involved obviously regard as successful, since there are pop editions coming out all the time. They all have similar lying introductions, but you can easily see the rationale behind the selection and rejection of poems. Akhmatova’s work springs directly from her life and times. If you leave out the poems which explicitly protest against the brutalities of the regime, you are left with poems which in the regime’s eyes can be given a nihil obstat, since they relate to the shared patriotic experience of the common people. You would think, from the Soviet editions of Akhmatova, that the central experience of her later life had been the siege of Leningrad, and not the fact that Stalin locked up her son and threatened him with death. You get a hopelessly distorted picture, but you get the sort of picture that the regime can sanction. With Mandelstam, no matter how much you take away, the results are still subversive. His lyricism is as indefinable as music and even more impossible for a totalitarian state to put up with.

But it isn’t my purpose here to draw distinctions between Mandelstam and Akhmatova. The first thing to say about them is that they are together, not apart. As with Mandelstam, so with Akhmatova, all the important scholarly work has been done in the West. When you look at Struve and Filippov’s two-volume Akhmatova Sochinenia, standing in its off-white binding beside their black and gold three-volume Mandelstam, and then count in the two volumes of memoirs in which Nadezhda Mandelstam does so much to illuminate all the ways in which the lives of these two great poets are linked, you wonder if any age, let alone ours, can match such a concentration of creative intelligence.

Getting at it across the language barrier is, however, not easy. But I can promise anyone who would like to learn Russian that the rewards are worth the effort. I myself set out to learn something of the language simply because I could no longer bear being left out of whatever it was that Edmund Wilson and John Bayley appreciated in Pushkin. By the time you can read Pushkin, you can certainly make a beginning on Akhmatova, especially if you can equip yourself with Poems of Akhmatova (Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973), an exemplary parallel text with translations by Stanley Kunitz and an introduction by Max Hayward.

Turning from Akhmatova to Mandelstam, however, you find out with a shock that Russian is an even more copiously subtle language than you at first thought. It is like learning enough Italian to read, say, Moravia’s short stories, and then tackling the poetry of Montale — you can see the shape of the sentence but the words in it are all unfamiliar. Or suppose you were a Japanese professor of English who was up to reading A. E. Housman, and then you took your first look at Dylan Thomas. If you can imagine being bamboozled by Montale’s highly specific vocabulary, and then bamboozled all over again by the way Dylan Thomas ropes everything in instead of trying to make straight sense, you can imagine something of the bewilderment which a first encounter with Mandelstam in the original language is likely to induce, even when (especially when) you flatter yourself that you have got to at least an intermediate stage with Russian.

But in this case perseverance will never disappoint. Quite the contrary. Most of us grow out of Dylan Thomas, finding his little-boy act too embarrassing to stomach or else deciding that he never meant as much as he wanted to. But Mandelstam is a true innocent, with an innocence that could see everything and remain ingenuous. He will never stop reminding you of Montale, because Montale similarly emphasises the redemptive quality of inconsequential things — that amulet in his poem about Dora Markus is the kind of token which turns up in Mandelstam time after time, and the children in ‘Caffè a Rapallo’ might be playing one of the very games which Mandelstam saw as the only repository for his doomed soul. In a rhetorical age, the age of Fascism, Montale defended the classical succession by retreating to a hidden world of things too trivial for any tyrant to care about. Mandelstam is a lot like that, except that the tyrant is more powerful and the retreat goes further.

But the retreat always feels like an advance. Mandelstam is so successful in establishing his irrelevance to the State that he convinces you of the State’s irrelevance to him. Another poet he calls to mind is Rilke, but without the whine. Rilke’s lament for the collapse of Western civilisation is chiefly inspired by the possibility that the noblewomen he has spent his life sucking up to will no longer invite him to their castles for the weekend. Mandelstam was a long way beyond that. He had a world view.

The miracle is that the world ever came to hear about it. We can allow ourselves to be thrilled by the fact that so much of his work survived, but should never forget that its survival was an accident. As Nadezhda Mandelstam frequently points out in her memoirs, only chance could save you. In this respect the grandeur of the Struve/Filippov editions of Mandelstam and Akhmatova is misleading. You can hold the original volumes of both books in the palm of your hand. Kamen is a pamphlet. Akhmatova’s Anno Domini MCMXXI (datelined ‘Petropolis’) is no bigger than a pocket diary. Their littleness got them through. Perhaps there is a lesson for us in that. If the historical experience which has already overwhelmed half the world is on its way towards us, a low profile might be the thing to adopt.

But even supposing that the free human mind has come to the end of its time, Mandelstam is one of those supreme artists who convince you that there is such a thing as poetic immortality, and that it is at one with the simplest forces of creation, so that nothing can destroy it. He says in one of his poems that the horse’s gallop goes on being audible after the horse lies dead. The metaphor certainly applies to him, although no horse ever had to die as horribly as he did. But he somehow convinces us that the same metaphor applies to the whole of humanity. History came to its conclusion before Mandelstam’s eyes: if this wasn’t universal destruction, then what was it? And yet when he listened to what was left of existence, it still had a singing voice.

(New Review, 1978)