THERE is something oddly legendary about the life and posthumous career of Osip Mandelstam, as though he had died not in a Soviet concentration camp in 1938, with a death certificate issued in due form by the totalitarian bureaucracy, but in some shadowy recess of medieval mystery. He is just now beginning to be recognized in the West as one of the major 20th-century poets; many of those who can read him in the original regard him as the greatest Russian poet since Pushkin; but he has achieved this prominence only through an uncanny resurrection after Stalin’s attempt to bury his poetic legacy together with him. His poetry has survived largely through the efforts of his extraordinary wife, Nadezhda, much of it actually in an “oral tradition,” held fast, line by unpublishable line, in her tenacious memory and in that of a few loyal friends. There is a much more varied oral tradition about Mandelstam’s life and death, a good deal of it contradictory, and one of Mme. Mandelstam’s functions as a memoirist has been to sift these sundry accounts, trying to separate fact from fabrication.
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