Hope Against Hope (Harvill Press Editions) Paperback – 28 May 1999
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Nadezhda means "hope" in Russian, and for the wife of one of the greatest Russian poets of the 20th century, Osip Mandelstam, Nadezhda needed to hang on to it for survival. This is the first of two volumes of memoirs, and it is a harrowing account of Nadezhda's last four years with her husband. So she recreates in terse, stripped-to-the-bone sentences the atmosphere of intense paranoia that enveloped Russia's literary intelligentsia. In 1933 Osip had written a lighthearted satire ridiculing Stalin. It proved to be a 16-line death sentence. Nadezhda recalls the night the secret police came for him; "there was a sharp, unbearably explicit knock on the door. 'They've come for Osip,' I said." He was arrested, interrogated, exiled and eventually re-arrested, and Nadezhda chronicles each turn of event describing her feelings of heartbreak and joy with self-effacing discipline. Not only does Mandelstam write with the vitality and insight of the classic Russian novelists, she is far too selfless to write an account of her own travails. Instead, she acts as witness to a society's. Similarly, although Osip's mind became unbalanced by his ordeal in prison, his spirit remained unbroken; it is this liberating, imaginative force that Nadezhda celebrates. - -Lilian Pizzichini
"A superb memoir... A reminder that it is only a genuine work of art which is capable of communicating a reality so appalling as the Stalinist terror" (Philip Toynbee)
"Not only a vivid account of persecution during Stalin's terror, it is also one of the few convincing descriptions of how a genius writes poetry" (A. Alvarez)
"A Day of Judgement on earth for her age and its literature" (Joseph Brodsky)
"Surely the most luminous account we have- or are likely to get- of life in the Soviet Union during the purges of the 1930's" (New York Review of Books)
"The story is so fascinating and terrible, and told with such vitality and insight, that it englarges one's sense of life as well as of death and horror" (Isabel Quigly)
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Aside from the informative accounts of how Mandelshtam used to create poetry and descriptions of the poetic and social landscapes of 1920s-30s Russia, we find out about the self-sacrificing and tireless efforts made by Nadezhda Mandelshtam to protect her husband's legacy and name for future generations (Mandelshtam never wrote wrote much poetry but recited it to Nadezhda Mandelshtam, and a few select others, who then wrote down the poems and made sure the Russian reader got hold of them, for in Soviet times it was not a wise idea to have poetry written by a non-conformist artist in one's possession).
This is a memoir of artistic quality and brings the reader closer not only to the great poet Osip, but also to the great writer Nadezhda Mandelshtam.
In 1934 Osip read his satirical poem about Stalin to a small group of friends and within days he was arrested and sentenced to be `isolated but preserved'. Osip and his wife, who chose to go with the poet, went into exile in Voronezh where he continued to write his poetry. In 1938 he was arrested once more and he died in a labour camp near Vladivostok on 27th December 1938.
This remarkable book (the title by the way, is a play on the author's name Nadezhda, which in Russian means `hope') is a harrowing account of the poet and his wife's last four years together and the persecution they underwent, as indeed many suffered, under Stalin. Each of the short chapters, translated by Max Hayward, fully holds the attention throughout and this book stands as a testament to the human spirit and confirms Osip Mandelstam to be one of the great poets of the last century and should be remembered as such! Amazing!
During their exile together, and after his death, his wife Nadezhda somehow managed to preserve his manuscripts, and then in 1964 she started to write this book about Osip's arrests, their exile and his death. Ironically, Nadezhda in Russian means hope, so her title for the book, as she looked back, has a strange poignancy.
Nadezhda's memoir is a vivid account of everyday life under Stalin's repression, of terrible poverty and hunger, and of fear. It is a testament to her husband, as a gentle person and as a poet, and to relatives and friends who helped them, and at the same time unsparing of others who joined in the repression. It is a deeply humane and truly wonderful book.
This easily stands comparison with Solzhenistsyn's works and with others such as Rybakov's fine 'Children of the Arbat' trilogy.