Watermark by Joseph Brodsky - review by John Julius Norwich

John Julius Norwich

Did This Man Really Win the Nobel Prize?



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There are hundreds of ways of writing about Venice. One can be lyrical and high-flown like Ruskin; fastidious and dismissive like Gibbon; melancholy and nostalgic like Proust; ghoulish and disapproving like Dickens; sensitive and almost unbearably precise like Henry James. One can write histories or guidebooks, disquisitions on the painting or the architecture, poems, descriptive essays or novels. Watermark, however, is none of these things. It is hard to say what it is; hard, even, to be sure whether it is really about Venice at all.

According to the writer of the blurb, ‘Brodsky’s remarkable gift for narrative … is concentrated here in what amounts to a confessional – at times self-mocking – meditation on the relation between water and land, light and dark, present and past, stone and flesh, desire and fulfillment [sic], life and death’. Up to a point, Lord Copper. If Brodsky has a gift for narrative at all, it is so concentrated as to have disappeared completely; and though there may be an element of self-mockery in Watermark, there is a far larger one of self-indulgence. He has plenty of mildly amusing ideas – that beauty is brought out by low temperatures, for example, or that people feel challenged by Venice to dress in their best (a theory scarcely borne out by the tourist hordes in the Piazza on a summer morning), or even that water is the image of time; but they are all submerged in a style which somehow contrives to be simultaneously slangy and pretentious, jokey and obscure. Try this:

Well, perhaps, what sharpens your wits while travelling on water is indeed a distant, roundabout echo of the good old chordates. At any rate, your sense of another on water gets keener, as though heightened by a common as well as a mutual danger. The loss of direction is a psychological category as much as it is a navigational one. Be that as it may, for the next ten minutes, although we were moving in the same direction, I saw the arrow of the only person I knew in that city and mine diverge by at least 45 degrees. Most likely because this part of the Grand Canal was better lit.

I see – at least I think I see, though even the mighty OED won’t tell me what a chordate is – what he is getting at, but if this is good writing give me the cinema. We all know that Brodsky left Russia only twenty years ago and that he is struggling with a foreign language; but so did Conrad, so did Nabokov. Neither of those would have compared Sunday morning in Venice to ‘a gigantic china teaset vibrating on a silver tray’, with ‘the tilted profile of campaniles clinking like abandoned spoons and melting in the sky’, or to the churches’ ‘Medusa-like cupolas’. Nor would they have described Japanese tourists as ‘peeping through their cameras like new elders, at the pallid naked marble thighs of this Susannah-like city wading cold, sunset-tinged, lapping waters’ – if only because Japanese tourists simply don’t do anything of the kind; they just stand there taking photographs. Reading this perfectly maddening book, one becomes more and more conscious of the two golden rules to be followed when involved with a language not one’s own. First, write simply; second, do try and get it right. Come to think of it, there is a third rule too: don’t attempt a third language that you know even less well than the second. You might then avoid such effects as: ‘She was the kind that keeps married men’s dreams wet. Besides, she was a Venetiana.’ (A later reference to boatmen breaking into O Solo Mia may, I fear, be an intentional pun – you never know with Brodsky.)

And that is another problem. Sometimes – as when he tells us that the body of St Mark was stolen from Alexandria in the twelfth century – he makes a straight error of fact; but there are other times when I find myself wondering: does he actually believe what he says, or does he expect us to, or is the whole thing just an elaborate Slavic joke? The claim that when the fog comes down ‘planes neither arrive nor take off for weeks’ might, I suppose, be dismissed as harmless exaggeration, but what are we supposed to think of the statement that follows: ‘If you go out on a short errand, say, to get a pack of cigarettes, you can find your way back via the tunnel your body has burrowed in the fog; the tunnel is likely to stay open for half an hour’?

There are, it must be said, occasional felicities. Brodsky is quite good on Venetian lions and, far-fetched as it is, I quite enjoyed his comparison of the hideous modernist facade of the Hotel Bauer-Gruenwald and the adjacent seventeenth-century monstrosity of San Moisè to Albert Speer having a pizza capriccioso [sic]’; I also liked the story told by Olga Rudge – relict of Ezra Pound – of her first meeting with Stravinsky. But none of these things really compensate for the pages of pretentious claptrap that separate one from the next:

And, in the final analysis, the eye is not so wrong, if only because the common purpose of everything here is to be seen. In an analysis even more final, this city is a real triumph of the chordate, because the eye, our only raw, fishlike internal organ, indeed swims here: fishlike internal organ, indeed swims here: it dwells with atavistic joy on reflected palazzi, spiky heels, gondolas, etc, recognising in the agency that brought them to the existential surface none other than itself.

Did the author of that passage really win the Nobel Prize for Literature? It makes me wish Herr Nobel had stuck to armaments. Or is there, perhaps, a whole dimension to Brodsky that I have missed? I almost hope there is.

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