Between Leah and Rachel

Osip Mandelstam’s Conversation About Dante is the major Russian work on the great Florentine poet. Ever since it appeared, and perhaps even before it did, we have known that this conversation would turn out to be about something different: about “time and the self,” as another poet wrote. Dante’s optical devices, his mirrors and his loupes, were designed for the intense scrutiny of the fabric of his contemporary world: its decaying weave, which was nonetheless destined inexplicably for salvation. Perhaps this is why his Commedia becomes more important when the possibility of salvation is more remote, or so it seems. At the beginning of 1933, Mandelstam arrived in Leningrad to take part in two evenings of poetry arranged especially for him. His evening at the Grand Hotel Europe (then called the European), where he was staying, was attended by Leningrad’s literary beau monde. The only one missing that evening was Anna Akhmatova, who was only fleetingly present to hear Mandelstam read and then departed after a brief and almost formal exchange of words with him. They would meet later, and without anyone present, in her room in a communal apartment. He had only just mastered Italian and he raved about Dante, reciting whole pages by heart. We talked about the Purgatorio and I read a passage from Canto XXX, the appearance of Beatrice. sovra candido vel cinta d’uliva a woman donna m’apparve, sotto verde manto vistita di color di fiamma viva. …….. ……….Men che drama di sangue m’e rimaso non tremi: conosco i segni de l’antica fiamma. a woman showed herself to me: above white veil, she was crowned with olive boughs Her cape was green; her dress beneath, flame-red. ……… ………I am left with less than one drop of my blood that does not tremble: I recognize the signs

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