Excerpt from The Stalin Epigram by Robert Littell, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Stalin Epigram

A Novel

by Robert Littell

The Stalin Epigram by Robert Littell X
The Stalin Epigram by Robert Littell
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    May 2009, 384 pages
    Jun 2010, 384 pages

  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Derek Brown

Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt

With a courteous wave of his hand, Mandelstam gave the woman leave to pose a question.

"Tell us, Osip Emilievich, where in your experience does poetry come from?"

"If I could be sure, I'd write more verse than I do." Mandelstam savored the laughter his comment elicited. "To respond to your question," he went on when it had subsided, "Pasternak claims the artist doesn't think up images, rather he gathers them from the street."

"Are you telling us that the poet is something like a garbage collector?" the Pigeon asked.

"Garbage represents the dregs of capitalist societies," Mandelstam observed, smiling blandly at the stool pigeon over the heads of his listeners. "Our Soviet Socialist Republics don't produce garbage, which explains the absence of garbage collectors."

This, too, drew a laugh; a functionary in the Moscow City Cooperative had recently been arrested on charges of sabotaging the capital's sanitation department by failing to hire a sufficient number of garbage collectors.

"No garbage, no garbage collectors," Zinaida agreed under her breath. She uttered it in a way that dispatched a pang of jealousy through my soul; for the instant it takes an eyelid to rinse the eye, she actually sounded like Mandelstam.

"What about Akhmatova?" an intense young poet demanded from the row behind me.

"As for Akhmatova," Mandelstam said, "it is inaccurate to say she writes poetry. In point of fact, she writes it down -- she opens a notebook and copies out lines that, during what she calls prelyrical anxiety, have already formed in her head. I have known her to substitute dots for a line that has not yet come to her, filling in the missing words later." Closing his eyes, angling his head, exposing his throat, Mandelstam recited a verse of Akhmatova's that, like much of her recent poetry, remained unpublished:

If only you knew from what rubbish
Poetry grows...
An angry cry, fresh smell of tar,
Mysterious mold on the wall,
And suddenly lines ring out...

"Enough of Pasternak and Akhmatova," Zinaida cried. "Where does Mandelstam poetry come from, Osip Emilievich?"

Mandelstam favored her with a conspiratorial half-smile, as if they had covered this very ground during one of their so-called literary evenings together. "A poem begins with a barely audible voice ringing in the ear well before words are formed," he replied. "This signals that the search for lost words has been initiated. My lips move soundlessly, so I'm told, until eventually they begin to mouth disjointed words or phrases. Gradually this inner voice becomes more distinct, resolving itself into units of meaning, at which point the poem begins to knock like a fist on a window. For me, the writing of poetry has two phases: when the first words make themselves known, and when the last of the foreign words lodged like splinters in the body of the poem are driven out by the right words."

"God, he makes it sound easy," Zinaida was saying as we waited in the lobby downstairs for Mandelstam to finish signing slim volumes of his early poetry or scraps cut from newspapers with more recent poems printed on them (a rarity since our minders decided that Mandelstam wasn't contributing to the construction of socialism). "I could listen for the inner music from now until the Arctic melts," Zinaida continued with what I took to be a practiced theatrical sigh, "and still never come up with a poem."

"What Mandelstam has," I informed the young actress whom we were both lusting after, "is a gift from the Gods. Either you have it or you don't. If you have it, the music and the words are delivered to you on a silver tray."

"Is it true, Nadezhda, what they say about your knowing every poem he has ever written?"

"I am of course extremely familiar with his several volumes of published poetry. But our literary minders pretty much stopped publishing Mandelstam's verse, with the occasional exception, six years ago. In the late twenties, he went through what he calls his deaf-mute phase, when he abandoned the writing of poetry entirely. Every poem he has composed since I have had to memorize -- I repeat them to myself day in and day out. This way if anything happens to him, the poems could survive."

Copyright © 2009 by Robert Littell

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: A Death of No Importance
    A Death of No Importance
    by Mariah Fredericks
    Bringing the reader deep into the intrigue and privilege of the most elite boudoirs, A Death of No ...
  • Book Jacket: The Overstory
    The Overstory
    by Richard Powers
    Many glowing adjectives can be used to describe a novel by Richard Powers: brilliant, moving, ...
  • Book Jacket: American Histories
    American Histories
    by John E. Wideman
    In American Histories, a collection of 21 short stories, John Edgar Wideman draws America's present ...
  • Book Jacket: I Found My Tribe
    I Found My Tribe
    by Ruth Fitzmaurice
    Ruth O'Neill was only 28 when she married film director Simon Fitzmaurice in 2004. Changing her...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
Music of the Ghosts by Vaddey Ratner

A love story for things lost and restored, a lyrical hymn to the power of forgiveness.

About the book
Join the discussion!

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    The Girl Who Smiled Beads
    by Clemantine Wamariya & Elizabeth Weil

    A riveting story of survival, and the power of stories to save us.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win The Leavers

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

One of the most anticipated books of 2017--now in paperback!


Word Play

Solve this clue:

T E H N Clothes

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.