The Last Days of Mandelstam
Shortlisted for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize 2021
The year is 1938. The great Russian poet and essayist Osip Mandelstam is forty-seven years old and is dying in a transit camp near Vladivostok after having been arrested by Stalin’s government during the repression of the 1930s and sent into exile with his wife. Stalin, ‘the Kremlin mountaineer, murderer and peasant-slayer’, is undoubtedly responsible for his fatal decline. From the depths of his prison cell, lost in a world full of ghosts, Mandelstam sees scenes from his life pass before him: constant hunger, living hand to mouth, relying on the assistance of sympathetic friends, shunned by others, four decades of creation and struggle, alongside his beloved wife Nadezhda, and his contemporaries Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Boris Pasternak and many others.
With her sensitive prose and innate sense of drama, French-Lebanese writer Vénus Khoury-Ghata brings Mandelstam back to life and allows him to have the last word—proving that literature is one of the surest means to fight against barbarism.
‘The Last Days of Mandelstam is, for its difficult material, a finely rendered work. Neither morbid nor maudlin, it holds to a tight emotional course as the narrative repeatedly laps at the shore of Mandelstam’s death—imagined, dreamed and finally realized—a quiet passing likely unnoticed for a time. The dramatic energy is sustained, the sparseness of the account gives the sorrow breathing room, and, in the end, Mandelstam’s troubled life is granted the dignity it deserves. A sad, but beautiful book. One that makes you want to return to his poetry, to allow him to continue to live for you again and again.’—roughghosts
‘A series of sentences perfectly snipped at their edges conjure the final days of the poet Osip Mandelstam in the Vladperpunkt transit camp, where he died aged 47. In Teresa Lavender Fagan’s translation of this poetic novella by Turkish-Lebanese writer Vénus Khoury-Ghata, each sentence is a crafted shock, savoured image, or moment of rage-filled absurdity. This work traces Mandelstam’s exhausted, pyretic thought as it ranges from his first days at Talmud school to the internal exile he endured with his wife Nadezhda. Read this book for a sharp angle on history.’—Judges’ citation for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize
‘This is a beautifully rendered, if harrowing, insight into Mandelstam, his persecution, madness, and death in exile. The language flowing poetically, the snippets, fragments slowly forming a picture of a man reduced to a threadbare blanket, stripped of his poetry, his creations, reduced to begging for food from a rapidly decreasing circle of friends. Vénus Khoury-Ghata uses poetic techniques, such as repetition, divergent metaphors, to recreate the final days of a persecuted, now celebrated, writer. Extremely moving . . .’—Tony Messnger. Read the full review here.
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