This is such a wonderful anecdote:
“It was 1937, the Soviet Writers Congress. It was the worst year. One of the worst years. People disappeared like flies everyday. They told [Boris] Pasternak, “if you speak they arrest you, and if you don’t speak they arrest you — for ironic insubordination. There are 2,000 people at the event. It is a three day event. Just off stage stands Zjdanov, the Stalinist killer, police killer. It was a three day meeting and every speech was thanks to brother Stalin, thanks to Father Stalin, thanks to the Leninist-Stalinist new model of truth — not a word from Pasternak. On the third day his friends said, “look, they are going to arrest you anyway, maybe you should say something for the rest of us to carry with us.” He was well over six feet, incredibly beautiful, and when Pasternak got up, everyone knew. He got up and I’m told you could hear the silence still Vladivostok. And he gave a number. A number, and two thousand people stood up. Thirty. It was the number of a certain Shakespeare sonnet — of which Pasternak had done a translation which the Russians say, with Pushkin, is one of their greatest texts, so Shakespeare: when I summon up remembrance of things past. A sonnet of Shakespeare on memory. And they recited it by heart, the two thousand people, the Pasternak translation. It said everything. It said: you can’t touch us; You can’t destroy Shakespeare; You can’t destroy the Russian language; You can’t destroy the fact that we know by heart what Pasternak has given us. And they didn’t arrest him. Well, even if the sons of bitches do arrest you — it’s too late. The people already have your treasure with them.”
It’s difficult reading poetry in translation. I’ve read all the usual Russian poets: Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, Brodsky, and the elusive Mandelstam, but I can’t imagine that much of the poetry comes through. English translators usually avoid trying to reproduce the metres with any exactitude, and English is a notoriously rhyme-poor language, despite its richness and subtlety.
I’ve read, on and off, for some weeks Mandelstam’s poem Solominka which, even in English is beautiful and abstruse. As Guy Davenport writes in The Geography of the Imagination, “A Mandelstam poem lives inside itself.” Mandelstam likened the physical quality of the word to a paper lantern with a candle inside. “Sometimes the candle inside was the meaning and the paper and frame were the sound structure; and sometimes the paper and frame were the meaning and the candle was the sound.” Even the poem’s title is rich in allusion, being the diminutive of the Russian word for straw, but also the Russian diminutive form of Salomé, who not only famously danced for John the Baptist’s head (my favourite Strauss opera), but also is the name of a Georgian beauty with whom Mandelstam was in love.
Mandelstam was also a superb essayist, and these offer a more accessible way to his thought, as in the collection in The Noise of Time [PDF]. In particular I adore Mandelstam’s apprehension of the rhythmic cadences “of the Divine Comedy first of all as a literary sublimate of the physical motion of walking”:
The question occurs to me-and quite seriously-how many shoe soles, how many ox-hide soles, how many sandals Alighieri wore out in the course of his poetic work, wandering about on the goat paths of Italy. The Inferno and especially the Purgatorio glorify the human gait, the measure and rhythm of walking, the foot and its shape. The step, linked to the berthing and saturated with thought: this Dante understands as the beginning of prosody. In order to indicate walking he uses a multitude of varied and charming turns of phrase.