Mandelshtam in love


[…] Where Russia breaks off
Over the sea so dark and dumb.
[…] How soon you tanned
And came in time for Poor Festival of the Saviour
Kissed without stopping,
Although in Moscow you had been strict.
We are left with the name alone:
a blessed sound, a short time.
Accept, poured though my palms,
These grains of sand.


This was written [by Mandelshtam] in the Crimea, written by a poet who was madly in love. But those admirers of Mandelshtam who, on the basis of these bare facts (the Crimea, the sea, love, poetry), imagine a scene worthy of Ayvazovsky (who, incidentally, painted just such a picture – and it’s terrible – ‘Puskin says farewell to the sea’) – these admirers are rather mistaken.

Maksimilian Voloshin:
View of Koktebel, 1931
Mandelshtam was living in Koktebel. And since he was not paying for his accommodation nor, in spite of his hosts’ insistence that he pay up or move out, did he have any inclination to leave, he was subjected to a special kind of torture, one which is possible only in this ‘picturesque corner of the Crimea’: he was given no water. Water in Koktebel was brought from afar and was sold in barrels. There was no river or well, and Mandelshtam would use cunning or threats to wheedle a carafe of the liquid from the owner or the virago serving-woman. When given it, he would drink it down immediately, of course, and his torture would begin all over again… They fed him with scraps from the table. When visitors arrived to spend the Sunday in Koktebel, he would be ejected from his room and would sleep in the store cupboard. Catching a cold on one of these occasions, he developed a horrible abscess on his gum – and went around wrapped in bandages, smeared with iodine, and followed by jeers from the local boys and smiles from the rest of the population of this ‘picturesque corner’. He was especially laughed at, incidentally, by the object of his affections – she whom he asked to ‘accept’, as a token of his undying love, ‘these grains of sand poured through my palms’. She – a very pretty, slightly vulgar brunette, a doctor by profession – was hardly disposed to accept presents of this kind: she had been brought to Koktebel by the man who kept her, an Armenian merchant who was fat, oily, and dark of skin. He had brought her here and was very satisfied: at long last he had found a place where there was no one but Mandelshtam for him to suspect her of deceiving him with…

Maksimilian Voloshin:
Blue Bay, 1912
With his abscess, unfed, offended, Mandelshtam would leave the house, trying to escape the notice of the owner or the angry serving woman. Dishevelled, barefooted apart from sandals, he walked along the seashore. The local boys snorted in his face and ??? He would walk to the little kiosk where a Jewish old woman sold matches, papirosy, bread, milk… This old woman was the only creature in the whole of Koktebel who treated him as a human being (maybe he reminded her of her own grandson, some Jankel or Osip) and from the warmth of her heart kindness she allowed him ‘credit’ – allowed him to take a bun and a glass of milk ‘on the book’ every morning. She knew, of course, that she would never get a kopeck back […] Sometimes Mandelshtam would be allowed, in addition to his usual, a pack of second-class papirosy, a box of matches, or a postage stamp. But if he, forgetting himself, absentmindedly reached out for a something more valuable – a box of biscuits or a bar of chocolate – the kind old woman would politely remove his hand and say – sadly, but firmly, “I’m sorry, Mr Mandelshtam, but that’s more than you can afford.” And he, blushing and offended, would shrug his shoulders, turn round, and walk quickly away.

Georgy Ivanov, pp. 320-322
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