Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life by Lev Loseff (Translated by Jane Ann Miller) - review by Derek Mahon

Derek Mahon

Nowhere To Go

Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life

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Brodsky’s poetry is both addictive and exasperating. Addictive because, never satisfied, the reader keeps going back for more; exasperating because it eludes every attempt to pin it down. What was he saying? Russians like to remind you that the October Revolution was no sudden break with a feudal past, that the previous twenty years had seen significant changes: a new liberalism, industrial advance and so on. Culturally, of course, these years saw extraordinary achievements in music, art and literature that hardly need enumerating. The poets of the ‘Silver Age’ are read, both there and here, more widely than ever before, now that everything is available: Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva (a great favourite with Brodsky). There’s a continuity here, a renewal of the tradition.

It was Mandelstam who spoke of a ‘nostalgia for world culture’. Brodsky (1940–96), raised in some of the hardest times, shared this nostalgia. When the thaw came, with the worst constraints removed, he was somewhere else. He too was a provincial, or so he claimed, in search of world culture, hence all those poems set abroad (Rome, Paris, London). He insists on his provincialism: ‘I was born and grew up in the Baltic marshland.’ In fact he was born in Leningrad, where his father was a news photographer; Joseph and his mother were evacuated to a district north of the city during the siege of 1941–4. Describing his first visit to Venice many years later he writes, ‘The sky was full of winter stars, the way it often is in the provinces,’ a charming thought not really impaired by its ambiguity (what, even in summer?). It was a windy night, he says, and his ‘nostrils were struck’ by the smell of happiness – of ‘freezing seaweed’. The Baltic littoral, he says, is not the source of this epiphany but something beyond biography, ‘somewhere in the hypothalamus’ where our ‘chordate’ ancestors stored their impressions of ‘the very ichthus that caused this civilization’. It comes to the same thing, but note the vocabulary. A driven autodidact, who at fifteen just walked out of school, he liked unusual words (chordate means vertebrate) and worked at his English and his spiritual survival: ‘From the grey, reflecting river flowing down to the Baltic, with an occasional tugboat in the midst of it struggling against the current, I have learnt more about infinity and stoicism than from mathematics and Zeno.’

His English is impressive, sometimes even showy. During his later years he was known for his essays as much as his poetry – and these, despite a maddeningly breezy tone, are often brilliant. Several, like those on Frost and Auden, are masterpieces of critical exposition. The autobiographical ones are among the best (‘Spoils of War’, ‘The Condition We Call Exile’); and Watermark, his book about Venice (yet another book about Venice), has wonderful moments of delighted imagery. Noting the violin necks of gondolas, he says ‘the whole city, especially at night, resembles a gigantic orchestra’, and he records memorable reflections about water, time and monsters (basilisks, sphinxes, winged lions, chimeras) – ‘our self-portraits, in the sense that they denote [our] genetic memory of evolution’. On Ezra Pound: ‘For someone with such a long record of residence in Italy, it was odd that he hadn’t recognized that beauty can’t be targeted, that it is always a by-product of other, often very ordinary pursuits.’ (He disliked the idea of Pound, but is buried near him in the island cemetery of San Michele.) Aphorisms abound: ‘If there is a substitute for love, it is memory.’ An exile ‘is thrust from, he retreats into, his mother tongue.’ ‘Art is not a better, but an alternative existence; it is not an attempt to escape reality but the opposite, an attempt to animate it.’ ‘Exile makes a writer more conservative.’

Brodsky himself is sometimes guilty of targeting beauty, a by-product of exile as it was for Pound. He was certainly a location snob, no doubt a by-product of early hardship and ‘internal exile’ in the mid-Sixties. The episode, says his friend Lev Loseff in this warm and appreciative study, was a formative one. Sentenced by a rigged court in Leningrad to five years’ hard labour for ‘social parasitism’, he was roughly treated in prison before being transported to the remote village of Norenskaya, Archangel, where he spent eighteen months while influential names campaigned for mitigation. Norenskaya, where he worked the land, was bleak, though he later described this period as one of the best times of his life. He lived in a log cabin with a desk made of boards, an oil lamp, a typewriter and a baroque inkwell given to him by Akhmatova. He read the Anglo-American moderns and seems to have experienced a revelation about his own poetic project. 

He emerged with renewed confidence. Subsequently exiled from the Soviet Union itself he moved, with Auden’s help, first to Britain, then to America where he lived thereafter, teaching in Michigan, Massachusetts and New York – ‘like a snake-charmer, like the Pied Piper of old’. America paid the piper. Some thought him the best American poet of his generation. His work, though written in Russian, was quickly translated by him and others into a racy English notable for ingenious rhyming. His co-translators included Auden and highly regarded American poets such as Anthony Hecht and Richard Wilbur, a team that had done the same for Andrei Voznesensky. A Part of Speech (1980), the first fruit of this collaboration, remains his finest verse collection. Included there are such good things as ‘Autumn in Norenskaya’, ‘The End of a Beautiful Era’, ‘I Sit by the Window’, ‘Lagoon’ and ‘Lullaby of Cape Cod’, perhaps his single greatest achievement. Translated by Hecht, it is ten pages long and relates Brodsky’s flight from Russia and the anomie of a hot American night:

From the empty street’s patrol car a refrain
of Ray Charles’ keyboard tinkles away like rain.
Crawling to a vacant beach from the vast wet
of ocean, a crab digs into sand laced with sea lather
and sleeps. A giant clock on a brick tower
rattles its scissors. The face is drenched with sweat.
The streetlamps glisten in the stifling weather …

A Coca-Cola sign ‘hums in red’ like the writing on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast. Sometimes Brodsky is right on, sometimes verbose, sometimes he loses the reader in a riff of knotted cleverality; he gives his inner cod full play. All his strengths and weaknesses are evident in this era-defining lament, a turning point in his own development: the drama, the lyric thrust, exact and meaningful description, casual insights; but also the obtrusive wisecrack, the too obvious Lowell note, the apparent lack of direction. The lack of direction, though, is a function of his exile theme, the sobering thought that some things stay the same wherever you go. The elaborate stanzaic pattern clearly owes much to a world of Russian prosody known only to the specialist (such as Lesoff, who provides much elucidation in this area). With his fondness for mirror images, the exile has already noticed a surprising East–West correspondence in the ‘change of Empires’, and his primary intended readership still seems to be the folks back home, to whom his work was not then available (but who are now enthusiastic):

I write from an Empire whose enormous flanks
extend beneath the sea. Having sampled two
oceans as well as continents, I feel that I know
what the globe itself must feel: there’s nowhere to go.

Nowhere to go? And perhaps nothing to say except that freedom is more than the knowledge of necessity. An apocalyptic undertone suggests a notion such as Fukuyama’s unfortunate ‘end of history’, but there’s more to Brodsky than that. It never quite emerged clearly in his work (he died in his fifties) but there’s a strong religious current fighting to declare itself beneath the cultural travelogue. Except for ‘some nostalgic recollections of childhood and a brief and happy love’, says Loseff, Brodsky ‘always speaks as an outsider: he has no home, no family’. A ‘nobody in his raincoat’, he is an existential hero, ‘a crystallization of a whole range of literary and film characters, from Camus’s Jean-Baptiste Clamence (La Chute) to the lone-wolf detectives of Hollywood’s film noir.’ Exceptionally for a poet, he made music of this condition. Whatever his American fame, he is the Russian poet of his disillusioned generation:

A loyal subject of these second-rate years,
I proudly admit that my finest ideas
are second-rate, and may the future take them
as trophies of my struggle against suffocation.
I sit in the dark. And it would be hard to figure out
which is worse; the dark inside, or the darkness out.

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