Reading. Brodsky. (on Mandelstam). (Nadezhda).
I think I first read Hope Against Hope in high school. I must have been sixteen or seventeen years old. Back then I was in love with Bulgakov (and remain so to this day) and was feverishly reading all his writings, the novels, short stories, plays. Slowly I began reading about the other doomed writers of his era, and the stories told by their widows and the others who were left behind. There was a book I found in my school's library, called The Widows of Russia, written by the late Carl Proffer, who with his wife Ellendea had founded the publishing company Ardis and who had been instrumental in translating and bringing many Soviet writers to American readers. (For this they were, if memory serves, kicked out of the Soviet Union). Proffer's book led me to Nadezhda Mandelstam, who led me to the poetry of her husband Osip.
Somewhere - I forget where - I came across one of the letters written by Nadezhda to Osip, the last letter she wrote to him. Reading it is like being torn apart by the raging furies of despair, of love, of bitter tears. I wept and wept when I first read it; I weep now even just thinking of it. A chill goes through me when I realize that all we have of Osip Mandelstam, all his poems that might have been lost forever, are left to us because Nadezhda committed them to memory. (Most astonishing to me because I can barely remember the shortest of poems, let alone enough to fill several volumes). Beyond that bond, that love between husband and wife, burned the even more immortal fire of the guardian and the works she saved for the generations to come.
It is with some sense of shame that I admit to not reading Joseph Brodsky until this year. I can only say that once I began reading I immediately fell hopelessly, irrevocably in love, and the more I read the deeper I fell. It was with a sense of shock and fate that I opened Hope Against Hope for the first time in nearly a decade, only to find that the foreward that I had slipped past all those years ago was by Brodsky. It is rather like meeting someone in passing at a party when you were in love with someone else and noticed only that he was tall and had dark hair, and years later when you meet again and fall in love you wish you had paid more attention the first time around and not wasted all those years in between. (Didn't I say this before, about Ferlinghetti?). I wish I had known then what I know now, what I would feel now, but it is fate that that keeps me turning around again and again in circles, only not in circles, because I never entirely come back to the point where I began. Or rather that I come back to the same point where I began but I have changed so much that I can no longer see it all the same way I had before. Now I return to the Mandelstams and find that how I view them, their works, their lives, is filtered through the lens of Brodsky's words, which give clarity, throw light into the shadows.
In his foreward to Hope Against Hope Brodsky writes about the last time he saw Nadezhda, smoking in a dark corner of her apartment, how she looked "like a remnant of a huge fire, like a small ember that burns if you touch it." I felt that burn when I first read her words long ago, and I feel it again now...