The expression on the face of the Mandelstam who no longer beat about the bush darkened. I knew what was coming and tried to catch his eye and head him off. No such luck. "The trouble with Soviet films, silent or talking," he allowed, slipping into an exaggerated Georgian drawl that was supposed to remind people of how Stalin spoke Russian, "is that they are marked by a wealth of detail and a poverty of ideas, but then propaganda doesn't need ideas."
Mandelstam might as well have poured ice water from the Moscow River over Ugor-Zhitkin and his entourage.
"What is he saying?" gasped one of the girls.
"He is suggesting that Soviet filmmakers are propagandists," another said.
"It sounds awfully like an anti-Soviet declaration to me," a third girl observed uncomfortably.
Rummaging in his pockets, Mandelstam came up with the receipt the secretary had written out for "One original manuscript of the 1913 edition of Stone." He strode across the room, past the streetcar drivers and conductors who were fortifying themselves for the night shift with stale beer, and flattened the receipt on the table in front of Ugor-Zhitkin.
"I've been meaning to get back to you about this," Ugor-Zhitkin said.
"Have you looked at my manuscript?"
"The value of any given manuscript depends on the writer's specific gravity. Frankly, the general opinion is that you are a minor poet. I am afraid it's not worth more than two hundred rubles."
"Two hundred rubles!" His hands trembling with rage, Mandelstam brought his walking stick crashing down on the table. The tea glasses jumped. Two of the girls sprang to their feet in fright. Ugor-Zhitkin turned pale. "Stone," Mandelstam plunged on, the metal tip of his stick tapping the table top, "is a classic of twentieth-century Russian poetry, so the reviewers concluded at the time of its publication. You paid five times what you're offering me for a piece of shit by -- " Mandelstam named a writer whose three-act drama glorifying Stalin's role in the Civil War was playing to full houses in Moscow.
My great friend the poet Anna Akhmatova claims there are moments in life that are so momentous, it appears as if the earth has stopped dead in its tracks for the beat of a heart. This was such a moment in the life of Osip Mandelstam.
"Who are you?" one of the girls demanded. "Who is he?"
I caught my breath. Mandelstam elevated his chin. "I am the poet Mandelstam."
"There is no poet of that name," another girl declared. "Once, long ago, there was such a poet -- "
"I thought Mandelstam was dead," said the first girl.
The earth resumed rotating around its axis, though nothing would ever be the same.
"The two hundred rubles," Ugor-Zhitkin said, determined not to let himself be pushed around in front of his protégées, "is a take-it or leave-it proposition."
My husband started toward the door, then turned back to the editor. "You are living proof that a man's character is written on his face," Mandelstam said so agreeably it didn't dawn on Ugor-Zhitkin he was being insulted. "Do you happen to have cigarettes?"
Ugor-Zhitkin collected the two partially filled packets on the table and handed them to Mandelstam. "Happy nineteen thirty-four to you, all the same," he said.
I saw my husband nod as if he were confirming something he didn't like about himself. "I accept the two hundred rubles," he announced.
"Come around in the morning," Ugor-Zhitkin said, barely swallowing a smile. "My secretary will have an envelope for you."
Kicking at a drift of snow outside the canteen, Mandelstam managed a cranky laugh. "Mandelstam dead!" he said, making no effort to conceal the anguish in his voice. The words that then emerged from his mouth seemed to be transported on small billows of frozen breath. "Dead -- but -- not -- yet -- buried."
Copyright © 2009 by Robert Littell
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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