“….all that you are cannot be avoided.” #mandelstam


I got myself in a bit of a tizz recently because I couldn’t find my copy of Jose Saramago’s Death at Intervals and I love it to bits and wanted to reread the end yet again. This irked me for several weeks, and so much so over Christmas that I finally resolved to take a stepladder and examine closely the bookshelf I thought it should be on (which is quite high up) Needles to say it was there, but had just fallen down the back of double shelved stacks with other books piled up on top… So I’m pleased to report it’s found!

Hurrah! It’s rediscovered! 😀

However, while I was rummaging, my eye fell upon  a slim volume from Glas publishers which I picked up some time back in my quest for everything Bulgakov. It’s a book which focuses on that wonderful author as well as poet Osip Mandelstam, and it was a timely find as the latter has been much on my mind recently. I own a number of works by this great Russian poet, and have been deeply moved by his fate; yet I’ve read little of what I own and have been vaguely nervous owing to his reputation as a possibly difficult poet with work full of allusion I might not get. I have dipped into his work via a number of anthologies, but I have poems, essays and travel writing lurking. Nevertheless, according to Russia Beyond the Headlines, “The greatness of Mandelstam was recognized even by Vladimir Nabokov, who despised practically everyone.” So I wondered if this might be a useful introduction the poet and to his work…

And I’m happy to report that it is! The book is “Glas New Russian Writing 5” and the translations are given as copyright 1993, although the publication date given on Amazon is 2000. Certainly, it would have been before the more recent slew of publications about Bulgakov, and it’s split into two halves which each focus on one of the two named authors. There are photographs, memoirs and examples of the author’s writing, and these build up to give a picture of their life and work.

Mandelstam’s life, or certainly the part of it after his marriage, is extensively covered in his wife Nadezdha’s two volumes of autobiography (which I intend to read when I’ve found a copy of the first…) However, the biographical interest in the Glas volume comes from a long section by Osip’s younger brother, Evgeny. He relates some family history, their Jewish heritage, stories of their early life and schooling, and reveals the problems between their parents which affected family life. As well as giving us insights into Osip’s personality and young life, Evgeny’s memories cover something of his own life. These reminiscences are fascinating in their own right, with tales of encounters with famous poets and the background of the drama of the revolution. An afterword reveals that the younger brother had an illustrious life of his own, working in medicine, but also with a literary side to his career, becoming involved in film scripts.

However, returning to Osip, the content is moving, beautiful and often so sad. Mandelstam, like Bulgakov, was inspired by, and reliant upon, a wife who supported his work, helped its survival and continued to promote it after his tragic death in exile. The poet was reckless enough to compose a critical poem about Stalin (reproduced in this volume) at the height of the dictator’s popularity. An NKVD mug-shot tells you all you need to know; he was exiled (along with his wife), returned to Moscow, was re-arrested and sent to a camp near Vladivostok where cold and starvation killed him.

Any other poet compared to Osip Mandelstam was like a spider weaving its web compared to a silkworm.

I’ve not read enough of Mandelstam’s poetry yet to decide whether the verses here are representative, but they’re certainly beautiful and memorable and not so scarily complex as I imagined. Add in the memoirs and images and you have what is a perfect little primer on Osip Mandelstam (and indeed on Bulgakov, if you’ve yet to make his acquaintance). You can still find this little book online, and if you want to explore these wonderful 20th century Russian authors’ life and work, this might well be a good place to start!

(NB – I’m normally keen to credit the translator, but although this volume is edited by Natasha Perova, the names of translators are spread out throughout the book. Here they are, and I hope I haven’t missed any: Kate Cook, James Escomb, Sonja Franeta, David Gillespie and Eric Guth.)

22 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lisa Hill
    Jan 11, 2019 @ 07:25:04

    I would be devastated too if my Saramago got itself lost. I loved that book, so clever, so thought-provoking.
    (It’s quite amazing the tricks our books get up too, eh?)


    • kaggsysbookishramblings
      Jan 11, 2019 @ 09:36:58

      Books have a life of their own, that’s for sure – I’m certain that mine take themselves on trips round the shelves when I’m not looking. I really loved the Saramago – I’d got to the point where I was almost considering buying another copy, so I’m glad I did some deep digging in the stacks! 😀


  2. JacquiWine
    Jan 11, 2019 @ 07:43:49

    While I don’t think the Russian volume is for me, I am a fan of some of Saramago’s work, particularly The Double and All the Names. Interesting to hear of your fondness for Death at Intervals – it’s not one I’ve come across before.


    • kaggsysbookishramblings
      Jan 11, 2019 @ 09:35:50

      No, maybe the Mandelstam is not for you Jacqui, but I do highly recommend the Saramago. I just loved it – the end was so moving – and I think it would definitely be one of my desert island books. I *must* read more of his books!


      • JacquiWine
        Jan 11, 2019 @ 10:52:13

        I will keep it in mind for sure. Have you read Blindness? It’s a tough read but definitely worth it – the best and worst of humanity on display there.

      • kaggsysbookishramblings
        Jan 11, 2019 @ 11:51:40

        I haven’t, though it keeps coming up in recommendations. I may have read what might be considered a ‘lighter’ Saramago, although it is dark in places and doesn’t shy away from considering some of the less pleasant sides of human nature!

  3. Claire 'Word by Word'
    Jan 11, 2019 @ 07:52:13

    What a double great find then and sad demise for a talented poet. Sounds like I should seek out a copy of Saramago, favourites like these are just the gems that await us readers who prefer our recommendations from other passionate readers, dusty times all the rarer and worth seeking.


    • kaggsysbookishramblings
      Jan 11, 2019 @ 09:34:40

      Rummaging in the bookshelves always seems to bring up some delights! I do love the Saramago – I don’t know if the style is typical of his other works, and it’s certainly individual, but I loved the book and it stayed with me all year. And yes – the fate of so many Russian poets, writers and artists was horrendous under Soviet rule – really heartbreaking.


  4. heavenali
    Jan 11, 2019 @ 16:56:46

    Books do sometimes get themselves lost, I’m still puzzling over a lost Atwood which I know I read and used to have. How lovely to have found such a lovely thought provoking book while looking for something else. These Russian writers so often seem to have led sad lives.


    • kaggsysbookishramblings
      Jan 11, 2019 @ 19:08:48

      It’s a wee bit annoying isn’t it?Those pesky books… But I shouldn’t really complain because I’m so glad I stumbled upon the Mandelstam as I searched!


  5. Simon T
    Jan 11, 2019 @ 21:44:02

    If my mention of Saramago sent you hunting for him, that I’m glad something good has come of me reading him. I’m struggling to get through Baltasar and Blimunda…


    • kaggsysbookishramblings
      Jan 12, 2019 @ 12:50:08

      LOL – it did! And I’m sorry you’re struggling – maybe I’ll get on better with it! 😉


  6. TravellinPenguin
    Jan 12, 2019 @ 01:40:02

    I’m not familiar with this book or author. You’re much more widely read than I am. I did laugh though at you trying to find the book. I have gotten so cross when I try to locate books that just disappear into thin air on my shelves. Glad you found it. 🤠🐧


    • kaggsysbookishramblings
      Jan 12, 2019 @ 12:49:18

      I don’t know how these books do it. I’ve had cases where I’ve searched and searched and then finally given up, only to stumble across what I was looking for the next day. Or more often, be looking for one book and fail to find it but instead find another one I’d lost…. Go figure…. 🤣🤣🤣📚📚📚


  7. madamebibilophile
    Jan 13, 2019 @ 18:13:31

    Pesky books! But it did lead to a joyful discovery so perhaps they did it deliberately 😉

    You’ve reminded me that i really want to read more Saramago, I’ve only read All the Names, I’ll have to make Death at Intervals next!


    • kaggsysbookishramblings
      Jan 13, 2019 @ 19:14:02

      Indded – I just have to accept it was intended.

      And I really do want to read more Saramago. I just hope the next one matches up!


  8. Liz Dexter
    Jan 13, 2019 @ 18:34:06

    Naughty book, getting down the back like that! Glad you found it and also this great read.


    • kaggsysbookishramblings
      Jan 13, 2019 @ 19:13:29

      They can be very sneaky, books – but I’m happy to have found it, and also to have rediscovered the Mandelstam, so a win-win situation! 😀


  9. Diana @ Thoughts on Papyrus
    Jan 14, 2019 @ 14:56:55

    I am happy too you have found your Saramago. I love every Saramago book so much that I am concerned for each and everyone of them 🙂


    • kaggsysbookishramblings
      Jan 14, 2019 @ 16:08:22

      This one is really, really special – and I do so want to read more of his books! 😀


  10. Jane
    Jan 15, 2019 @ 16:03:08

    I haven’t read or heard of Saramago so I must put that right, but I love it that you dip into a book to read the ending again, wonderful!!


    • kaggsysbookishramblings
      Jan 15, 2019 @ 20:29:20

      On the evidence of one book, I’m very sold on Saramago. And I’ve re-read the last four pages or so several times – gets me every time….


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