Which century?

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May 27, 2016 by AK

Say “the noise of time” to a Russianist or a literary-aware Russian, and the instant response will be: Mandelstam. This reaction is hardly universal. As Nikil Saval writes:

Julian Barnes’s new novel, “The Noise of Time,” is about Shostakovich… The novel’s title comes from the nineteenth-century poet Alexander Blok, who used the phrase to describe history. The Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam chose it for the title of his memoir, published in 1923…

Blok was a twentieth-century poet: he was born in 1880 and died in 1921, so most of his work was produced in the 20th century. Mandelstam admired Blok’s sense of history: The Noise of Time does sound like a reference to Blok, who wrote of hearing “continuous noise” around him when writing The Twelve. However, I doubt that Blok ever used the exact expression, “the noise of time”: Andrey Bely did, in a private letter to Blok, but how could Mandelstam know it in 1923?

It should also be admitted that Mandelstam, in The Noise of Time, did call Blok a nineteenth-century poet – appreciatively, not derisively – emphasizing Blok’s formal conservatism. Mandelstam even claimed that Blok’s The Twelve was an exercise in a traditional, “low,” occasionally salacious folk genre, the chastushka.


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