The Noise of Time, by Osip Mandelstam, translated and with introductions by Clarence Brown
I choose this book for two pieces of writing, the ‘Fourth Prose’ and ‘Journey to Armenia’. Both make discussion of genre seem ridiculous.
If you wanted to be a drunk librarian, ‘Journey to Armenia’ might be filed under autobiography, travel writing, history, biology, prose poetry, religion and half a dozen other Dewey Decimals.
Mandelstam is, for me, the most interesting, amazing, gift-giving prose writer of the twentieth century. He allows himself total freedom of idiom. His prose lacks respectfulness. It has to be quoted extensively, to demonstrate. This section from ‘Journey’ is named after the village of Ashtarak, 20 kilometers north of Yerevan:
I managed to observe the clouds performing their devotions to Ararat.
It was the descending and ascending motion of cream when it is poured into a glass of ruddy tea and roils in all directions like cumulous tubers.
The sky in the land of Ararat gives little pleasure, however, to the Lord of Sabaoth; it was dreamed by the blue titmouse in the spirit of the most ancient atheism.
Coachman’s Mountain glistening in the snow, a mole field, sown as if for some mocking purpose with stone teeth, the numbered barracks on construction sites, and a tin can packed to the brim with passengers: there you have the environs of Yerevan.
Then suddenly a violin, sectioned into gardens and houses, divided up according to the system of the whatnot – with spreaders, interceptors, dowels, and bridges
The village of Ashtarak hung on the purling of the water as on a framework of wire. The stone baskets that were its gardens would make the most splended gift for the coloratura soprano at a charity performance.
Mandelstam (1891-1938) is considered a great poet. I haven’t been able to read him in Russian, but – going by translations – I still find him more exciting outside verse forms.
There is, in his best paragraphs, a combination of offhandedness and dwelling that is unique. I have been to Ashtarak, following his route, and can confirm that everything is not only as described but as intuited.
One could watch Ararat for years, pen in hand, and never better that description.
Mandelstam’s ‘Conversation about Dante’ (not included in The Noise of Time) may be his most phenomenal prose. The best essay by one poet on another.
The ‘Fourth Prose’ is the kind of thing W.G. Sebald was attempting to do, and about a thousand other things. Bruce Chatwin – remember him? – worshipped Mandelstam. It is polyphonic writing. It is absolute.
I divide all the works of world literature into those written with and without permission. The first are trash, the second – stolen air.
If you want to go deeper, find The Complete Critical Prose and Letters edited by Jane Gary Harris. But The Noise of Time is portable; take Mandelstam away from your home, read him when you’re far off.