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

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The Stalin Epigram

A Novel

by Robert Littell

The Stalin Epigram
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  • First Published:
    May 2009, 384 pages
    Jun 2010, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Derek Brown

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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his head, exposing his throat, Mandelstam recited a verse of Akhmatova's that, like much of her recent poetry, remained unpublished: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

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