The Egyptian Persuasion dates from the period 1926-1931 when Mandelstam found he was unable to write verse and wrote only prose. It was published in 1928. In all, he wrote four extended prose works -– the others being The Roar of Time, The Fourth Prose, and ‘Feodosia’ –- and some shorter pieces as a roving newspaper reporter. Mandelstam’s prose is not a fast read. The associations he makes are so unexpected, it is easy for you to miss your footing. And his metaphors can be so beautiful, they make you pause and wonder.
Of his four extended prose works, The Egyptian Persuasion is the only one to use ‘fictional’ devices. It has an intermittent, unnamed, narrator, and a central dramatic character, who is the worried and rather weedy Parnok. For all this, it reads as Mandelstam’s most autobiographical piece of prose and seems to tap at the nerves that had blocked his verse-writing at that time. The writer Valentin Parnikh ??(see picture) thought Parnok was an unflattering caricature of him. While he may have inspired the tittupping heels and lamb shank legs that accompany the central character whenever he appears in the story, I think Parnok is more likely Mandelstam’s own self-image in the outside world -– alienated, ineffectual, and anguished -– and one of three personae who represent him in the text. A second is the unnamed narrator, who voices thoughts on creativity and change. The third is Angelina Bosio, the historic Italian diva. She starts out as a creative force with a prodigious career, like Mandelstam himself, but is cut short and stifled in St Petersburg.
The Egyptian Persuasion has eight distinct chapters, each sustaining one central theme, like books of the Psalms. On the surface, we have the story of Parnok’s trendy single-breasted jacket, stolen back from him by his tailor Mervis, and sold on to Captain Krzhizhanovsky, a hero of the recent Revolution and a man with an evident Future, whichever twists and turns the revolutionary process may take. Underneath, is the theme of St Petersburg itself, the spectacular and imperial city that the narrator fears, loves and loathes at the same time.
In brief, here is what happens. In Chapter 1, Mervis the tailor steals back the jacket as Parnok sleeps. Parnok makes one ineffectual attempt to reclaim it, then searches for it further afield in Chapter 3. He finds it in the laundry, now neatly ironed and falsely attributed to Captain Krzhizhanovsky. In Chapter 8, the Captain packs it in his luggage before setting off for Russia’s new capital, Moscow, and sure promotion. He is as pleased as punch with its playful pleat and panache.
Through the story floorboards we see St Petersburg. In Chapter 1 it is timeless; standing behind the childhood memories of Parnok and the unnamed narrator, and some way ahead of the blossoming Italian diva with her aspirations to musical greatness in Russia. We see central Petersburg is a forbidding and pretentious place for some in Chapter 2. Parnok chooses pacier parts of town while immigrant lives, like the unnamed narrator, blend into outskirts that have been barely reclaimed from the sea. The Church uncouples from the Russian State in Chapter 3 and in Chapter 4 we see the Imperial grip on Petersburg loosen, as vigilantes commandeer the streets downtown and drown a thief in front of the mob. Chapter 5 shows us Petersburg’s famous high culture — its conventions a cliché for the unnamed narrator and its monuments enough to stop Parnok dead in his tracks and sap his vitality. Chapter 6 brings us immigrants to Petersburg -– the Lutherans and the Jews -– and in Chapter 7 we see a death and the historic Italian diva fall silent. Chapter 8 brings us revolutionary fever and disintegration in Petersburg.
Factual context may help readers grasp some of Mandelstam’s mental leaps and associations. The Egyptian Persuasion is set in the nine-month interval between the revolutions of February and October 1917 — a period rarely described in literature. A Provisional Government is in session for the first time in St Petersburg, but the Tsar’s Table of 14 Ranks still divides and rules polite society. In Chapter 8 we see Parnok’s gloomy prognostications about his career chances because of it.
At the same time, another Table of Guilds still stratifies the merchants and traders in the cities. Because he is a Jew, Mandelstam’s father has rights of residence in Petersburg only as a 1st Class Guildsman, a status he achieves in the leather trade. This provokes the narrator’s memories of the world of small traders that we read in Chapter 2. It was a tenuous life for them. In his memoirs Mandelstam’s brother Evgeny recalls how their family would rent a 5-6 room apartment in town each year, then decamp in summer till the next time, lock stock and barrel, with all their furniture and belongings stored in Kokorev’s Depository Warehouses -– a process Mandelstam alludes to in Chapter 1.
In such a caste-bound society it is hard for us to understand how far Osip Mandelstam was an ‘outsider’, and much of The Egyptian Persuasion is about this. He was a Jew from Poland living in the Russian capital and in May 1911 he converted to Lutheranism in a church in Vyborg, to the north of the city. It may be that he converted because he needed to be a registered Christian to enrol at Petersburg University, which he did later that year. But if so, what stopped him joining the Russian Orthodox Church on his doorstep? The critic Sergey Averintsev suggests the spareness of Protestantism genuinely attracted Mandelstam.i For him ‘Judaism’ had always represented chaos. ‘Russian Orthodoxy’ represented another sort of chaos, that was filled with ‘despondency’ and ‘inertia’.ii Readers from northern Europe will know Protestantism can have its own special gloom and may read Chapters 6 and 7 of The Egyptian Persuasion with a bolt of recognition and amusement.
Mandelstam was writing in the 1920s, when he sensed that ‘everything had become heavier, everything more massive’. He saw social architecture forming that was monolithic and increasingly impossible to escape. In a leaflet in 1922 he compared it to a ‘new Egypt’ — where the intelligentsia colludediii, while slaves busied themselves like chickens at the feet of a huge Warrior Prince — the personification of a State whose rule was non-humaniv. After this outburst, several magazines blacklisted him in 1923, and his verse started to come more rarely. In 1925 it stopped altogether. Around this time the poets Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak also stopped writing. In Chapter 5 of The Egyptian Persuasion the unnamed narrator withers the Russian intellectuals who peddle old platitudes and cannot see for cliches.
It was the laundry scene in Chapter 3 that first drew me to The Egyptian Persuasion and made me think of translating it. It reminded me of Moscow in 1991 when dairy staff drank tea out of jam jars and the buses all ran out of bus tickets. As it teeters on the brink of independence from the UK, the atmosphere in Scotland today conjures up something similar. A sense of some old things coming unstuck and others looking fresh and suddenly dramatic, like the women wielding irons in the steam laundry. There is a sense of collapse and at the same time vitality. Mentally, I gave Chapter 3 the sub-title ‘Captain Krzhizhanovsky’s Smalls’, but after I had translated the rest, I realised a more fitting sub-title would be ‘Parnok’s Jacket’.
One figure wriggles up through the castes and breaks loose at the end like a genie from a bottle. He is Captain Krhizhanovsky, who we see first as a soldier voted to officer rank in revolutionary times by his men, then enjoying his pick of women, fashion, drink and the latest technology. At the end of Chapter 8 we see him transfer in one effortless move to the new capital, Moscow. Now he is no longer an officer, but moving freely in State Security circles, where he enjoys select accommodation and a place that is literally in the sun. By the end of The Egyptian Persuasion we see the future belongs to him. And so does Parnok’s jacket.
If you are used to Mandelstam’s verse and admire its ascetic restraint, The Egyptian Persuasion may come as a surprise to you. In it all the brakes are off. The critic Sergey Averintsev called its tone feverish: ‘ One wave of metaphors rips after another. An effusion of metaphor has the reader in its grip from start to finish”.v This is difficult to translate, both to maintain Mandelstam’s momentum and to prevent the literal sense from wandering. As I revised it, the translation got shorter and increasingly close to Mandelshtam’s own syntax. I had tried to observe his use of alliteration from the start and as I revised, I found myself moving closer to his rhythm — sometimes inverting a passage to do so, or finding three syllables instead of two, where he had. The more closely I read it, the more I admired. Feverish it might be, but it is like Bach on fire.
i Introduction to the Collected Works in Two Volumes, “The Fate and Import of Osip Mandelshtam” by Sergey Averintsev, 26 January 2010.
iii In a pamphlet on “Humanism and Contemporary Life”, published in 1922.
iv In a pamphlet on “Humanism and Contemporary Life”, published in 1922.
v Introduction to the Collected Works in Two Volumes, “The Fate and Import of Osip Mandelshtam” by Sergey Averintsev 26, January 2010.