THE OTHER

St Petersburg

Mandelshtam’s
first poems


were printed in Apollo in 1910. They possesed all that was delightful in Mandelshtam – all his mistily piercing charm. The poems did not go unnoticed: they were welcomed by Vyacheslav Ivanov and scorned by Burenin. Soon their author himself, freshly arrived from abroad (he had studied in Paris) began making his appearance in St Petersburg’s literary ‘salons’.

His looks had a strange quality that drew people’s attention – dandyish and dishevelled clothes, sideburns, a bald patch skirted by thin curling hair, a face that was typically Jewish, and amazing eyes. If he closed his eyes, he was a chemist’s apprentice. If he opened them, he was an angel.

And at the same time he bore some kind of resemblance to Pushkin. This was something many people realized at a later date, but it was first discovered by the old woman who was my cleaning lady. Like all the cleaning ladies, relatives of his friends, concierges, and so on, who had nothing to do with poetry but were forced to have dealings with Mandelshtam, she hated him. Hated him for the cigarette butts, nocturnal visits, dirty galoshes, requests for tea and sandwiches at odd hours, and so on.

One day (Mandelshtam was at that time away from the city) I brought a portrait of Pushkin and hung it over my desk. On seeing it, the old woman shook her head disapprovingly: “Really, Sir, you just can’t do without Mandelshtam. He’s only been gone for three days and you’ve already hung up his portrait!”

Mandelshtam’s poems did not go unnoticed. But there were few who truly valued this ‘miracle’ as Akhmatova called them. And Mandelshtam, instinctively feeling his ‘divine’ provenance and with childish nonchalance making no effort to conceal this, gradually took offence.

He was of extremely high opinion of Sollogub. When only a child, he had known the whole of Sollogub by heart. He wrote him an excited letter from abroad and sent him his own poems. He never got a reply, but – who knows? – perhaps the letter got lost on the way.

When he came to St Petersburg and had his poetry published in Apollo, he decided to ring Sollogub using the telephone. They had the following conversation:

“Can I speak to Fyodor Kuzmich?”

“Speaking.”

“This is Mandelshtam.”

Silence.

“I would like to come and see you, Fyodor Kuzmich.”

“What on earth for?”

‘To read you my poetry.”

“I’ve already read it.”

“And to hear your opinion.”

“I have no opinion.”

In 1916 I was visiting Bryusov. On the desk in his study there were two piles of new collections of poetry – one smaller than the other, the other larger. Bryusov explained: “This one – the smaller pile – I shall write about in Russian Thought. The others are not worth writing about.”

The heap of ‘others’ contained Mandelshtam’s Stone, which had just been published.

“You mean you’re not going to write about Stone?”

[…] “He hates him,” said Akhmatova when she heard my retelling of this conversation. “Hates him because Mandelshtam is an angel, whereas he’s only a man of letters.”

Georgy Ivanov, from: St Petersburg Winters, 1928
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