I was in good time putting my boots on this morning, ready for the station, the train and the bus to our project meeting, and was procrastinating in the bedroom. Happy to defer to the last possible minute my exit into the snow, lightly though it was falling and thinly though it was lying, I pulled from the shelf, as I often do, a book I hadn’t read for a long time, and read the first page. It was Hope Against Hope: A Memoir by Nadezhda Mandelstam, the widow of the poet Osip Mandlelstam. The first paragraph began
‘After slapping Alexei Tolstoy in the face, M. immediately returned to Moscow. From here he rang Akhmatova every day, begging her to come. She was hesitant and he was angry. When she had packed and bought her ticket, her brilliant, irritable husband Punin asked her, as she stood in thought at a window: “Are you praying that this cup should pass from you?”’
I had had no memory of one of the most memorable opening sentences in literature.
At the station there was no prospect of any trains -- the snow was presumably heavier out to the west -- so I returned home and, pleased with this unearned bonus of free time, awarded myself a pot of coffee and a further half hour of reading before ‘getting on with something’. Wondering what this book was, how it had come to be written, whether that was the real opening or what I had read was a fragment with the start missing, I turned to the introduction by one Clarence Brown, on the second page of which I found myself immediately startled by the sheer foreignness and, so often, lived idealism of the former Soviet Union. It was this sentence that pulled me up short, in a way I've come to expect when reading about that intriguing society:
[One May evening in 1965] ‘The students of the Mechanical Mathematics Department of Moscow University had organized on their own initiative the first memorial evening of Mandelstam’s poetry to be held in Russia.’
Students of maths -- let alone students of what sounded like engineering -- organising a poetry evening? In what sort of world could that happen? one with perhaps something to be said for it...?
But I recall similar instances in Alexei Yurchak’s book, Everything was forever, until it was no more: the last Soviet generation (I'm interested in this stuff). No time to dig it out now but there was a group of physicists in one of the major universities who had a string quartet -- that sort of, to us, barely imaginable phenomenon pops up repeatedly in such accounts.