Mar 4, 2010

Any Grand Poets Left?

Excerpt from ‘Nadezhda Mandelstam: A visit’ by Bruce Chatwin 1989

… when I pulled out three jars of my mother’s Seville orange marmalade, she stubbed out the cigarette and smiled.

‘Thank you, my dear. Marmalade, it is my childhood.’

‘Tell me, my dear…’ She waved me to a chair and, as she waved, one of her breasts tumbled out of her nightie. ‘Tell me,’ she shoved I back, ‘are there any grand poets left in your country? I mean grand poets… of the stature of Joyce or Eliot?’

Auden was alive, in Oxford. Weakly, I suggested Auden.

‘Auden is not what I would call a grand poet!’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Most of the voices are silent.’

‘And in prose?’

‘Not much.’

‘And in America? Are there poets?’


‘Tell me, was Hemingway a grand novelist?’

‘Not always,’ I said. ‘Not towards the end. But he’s under-rated now. The early short-stories were wonderful.’

‘But a wonderful American novelist is Faulkner. I am helping a young friend translate Faulkner into Russian. I must tell you, we are having difficulties.’

‘And in Russia,’ she growled, ‘we have no grand writers left. Here also the voices are silent. We have Solzhenitsyn and even that is not so good. The trouble with Solzhenitisyn is this. When he think he is telling the truth, he tells the most terrible falsehoods. But when he thinks he is making a story from his imagination, then, sometimes, he catches the truth.’

‘What about that story…?’ I faltered. ‘I forget its name… the one where the old woman gets run over by the train?’

‘You mean Matryona’s House?’

‘I do,’ I said. ‘Does that catch the truth?’

‘It could never have happened in Russia!’

On the wall across from the bed there was a white canvas, hung askew. The painting was all white, white on white, a few white bottles on a blank white ground. I knew the work of the artist: a Ukranian Jew, like herself.

‘I see you’ve got a painting by Weissberg,’ I said.

‘Yes. And I wonder if you’d mind straightening it for me? I threw a book and hit it by mistake. A disgusting book by an Australian woman!’

I straightened the picture.

‘Weissberg,’ she said. ‘He is our best painter. Perhaps that is all one can do today in Russia? Paint whiteness!’

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