Osip Mandelstam, who died in 1938 in one of Stalin's labour camps, is one of the greatest poets of this century. Brown's 1978 volume is a very full and important book which tells of Mandelstam's earlier life and gives an introduction to the poetry. Professor Brown tells as much as will probably ever be known about Mandelstam's early life, his studies, his literary relationships; and recreates in piquant detail the intellectual world of prerevolutionary St Petersburg. Indeed, the criticism of Mandelstam's three collections of poetry, quoted both in Russian and in translation, manages the seemingly impossible: the reader with no Russian begins to grasp - as though at first hand - how this poetry makes its effects, and he senses its originality and importance and its place in European literature. Professor Brown here presents the first critical study of the life and works.
"I have no manuscripts, no notebooks, no archives. . . I alone in Russia work from the voice when all around me the bitchpack writes." Mandelstam's suffering and moral courage, recorded by his wife (Hope Against Hope, 1970), are more widely known than his rather slender artistic output (a few books of published verse plus several unpublished notebooks that his wife managed to preserve). Looking like a figure in a Chagall painting, timorous and fastidious - "You must let me out, I'm not made for prison" he told a friend during the Russian Civil War - he was an unlikely hero. As a comfort-loving, anti-Bolshevik cosmopolitan for whom creation was a private act, he might have been expected to become a victim. Any critical biographer of Mandelstam faces a dilemma in that there is only sketchy information on his earlier life yet it is easy to procure the poetry; after 1928 the life is known but the work is not available. Brown has compromised by devoting half his book to biography and the remainder to an explication of the pre-1928 poetry. He discusses Mandelstam's relationship with the Acmeists, his recurrent use of architectural symbols, of literary and classical references ("The epic world of Homer is practically never to be found without a leaven of the low, the thoroughly Russian"), his ideas of poetry as the mediating word and as a craft. Brown indicates that he intended his study to be "an introduction to Mandelstam," as well as an anthology (the texts of the poetry are given both in Russian and in English), but the exegesis is much too detailed for the general reader. Strictly for the scholar, preferably one who knows his Russian rather well. (Kirkus Reviews)