Bumblefutzing around Barnes & Noble yesterday, I thumbed through a collection of Clive James’s essays, and my eye fell upon a concept he attributes to the Soviet-era writer Nadezhda Mandelstam: “the privilege of ordinary heartbreaks.”

I searched just now and found the passage from her memoir from which this concept comes. Mandelstam’s book, Hope Against Hope, is about the persecution and eventual murder of her husband, the poet Osip Mandelstam, for having recited a 16-line poem he wrote making fun of Stalin:

“To think that we could have had an ordinary life with its bickering, broken hearts and divorce suits! There are people in the world so crazy as not to realize that this is normal human existence of the kind everybody should aim at. What wouldn’t we have given for such ordinary heartbreaks!”

We who live with the privilege of ordinary heartbreaks, yet pine for some sort of utopia, are ingrates. Mandelstam’s lines shame me.

Advertisement