Sunday, 29 October 2017

Keep My Words Forever: Mandelstam at Pushkin House

London's Russian cultural centre Pushkin House is currently running a programme about Russian poetry in exile, to commemorate the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Along with information about their 101st km Further Everywhere pavilion on Bloomsbury Square (until 10 November) you can also find the programme of poetry events here. There are still a few events to go.

On 19 October I went to see the film Keep My Words Forever (directed by Roma Liberov, in Russian with English subtitles), about the life of Osip Mandelstam. The film combined puppetry, animation using cutouts and other effects, and documentary filming. I wasn't totally sure how this was going to work but it turned out to be an extremely moving film, capturing Mandelstam's often manic energy and its disintegration into illness and depression after years of persecution. As the director said, particularly with the use of puppets, it felt as though there was a short period of adjustment needed while watching and then viewers start to see the people in the puppets. This was exactly how it was, for me. The translations used were by a wide variety of Mandelstam's many translators.

Speaking after the film, Roma Liberov referred to the Russian Revolution and what followed as "interrupted history - a social experiment" (which reminded me of when I saw Russian poet Maria Stepanova some years ago and she spoke of decades of "frozen history"). Liberov pointed out that poets in Russia died for the right to write outside of the propaganda machine, and that Mandelstam died principally because people in the literary establishment didn't like him and decided to ensure his downfall. (The latter was an interesting point because it is often assumed that he died specifically because of the 'Stalin Epigram', but Mandelstam didn't particularly consider himself a political poet and his views were more complex than that.) He was hard to capture in the film, said Liberov, but I felt there was success up to a point. I thought Keep My Words Forever was a beautiful and appropriate title. Osip Mandelstam's wife Nadezhda memorised his work and ensured that it was preserved (her story is completely extraordinary in itself) and there we were hearing his words nearly 80 years after the poet died. I wondered how Mandelstam would feel if he could know that.

In the lobby at Pushkin House, film clips with photos of Mandelstam and his handwriting were playing, and a recording of his voice. Liberov said that while it is often difficult to know at which speed old recordings should be played, this one had been listened to by Mandelstam's friend Korney Chukovsky (himself a famous Russian children's poet and literary critic) and that Chukovsky had confirmed at which speed his friend's voice sounded right to him.


  1. Gratifying to hear of the existence of this film. Without Nadezhda Mandelstam (and others who memorized his verse), we would have much less to remember of Mandelstam.

    1. Under the circumstances it seems almost miraculous that we have his poems. Sometimes I wonder about what's been lost, especially if people die violently and unexpectedly, or just through the depredations of time - what wonderful works of genius and genuine feeling.