Blesok no. 55, July-August, 2007
The great Brodsky
Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987, Joseph Brodsky was recognized in his lifetime as one of Russia’s great modern poets. But in the English-speaking world his reputation has languished since his early death in 1996. Lev Losev’s new study is the best single literary biography of the writer yet to have appeared in any language. A friend of the poet nearly from cradle to grave – and the splendid choice of photographs has him popping up at the poet’s side in Russia and Stockholm – he is a meticulous and objective chronicler. His account of Brodsky’s trial corrects legendary versions of the exchange between Brodsky and the State Prosecutor, and is just one example of Losev’s subtle tactics in setting the record straight. This is not a complete documentary biography, and treatment of Brodsky’s life from the mid-1980s is thinner than that given to earlier decades. But Losev gets us closer to his subject than any other account by integrating a reliable narrative of the facts (enhanced by useful chronologies at the back of the book) and a penetrating study of Brodsky’s poetry and prose. The publication of such a volume in a series of “Great Lives” founded by Maxim Gorky and generally known for its biographies of Soviet heroes and generals would have amused Losev’s subject, who was one of a famous generation of Soviet exiles that included the likes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the late Mstislav Rostropovich and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Brodsky was born in Leningrad in 1940 to educated but socially modest parents (the description of his childhood is a helpful supplement to his celebrated autobiographical essay “A Room and a Half”). Driven from an early age by a profound belief in individual self-determination that exposed Soviet conformity, Brodsky seems to have discovered poetry and his talent for it almost by chance. A strong-willed autodidact, he quickly developed his poetic gift and mastery of verse form, and learned enough English and Polish to work as a literary translator.
On the subject of Brodsky’s early development, Losev writes with an insider’s expert knowledge of the Soviet Union’s literary system. We are given a portrait of the budding poet in this milieu, surveying avant-garde circles and assessing his distant relationship to groups like the Philological Poets. Among the most important early influences on him was Evgenii Rein, whose mastery of poetic form and elegiac psychology had a lasting impact. Losev gives due credit to Anna Akhmatova’s authority, as felt more in Brodsky’s sense of poetic identity than in his poetic technique. Losev revisits the question of why the example of Boris Slutsky, ostensibly a highly “Soviet” poet, inspired Brodsky to try his hand at poetry.
Central to Brodsky’s life and poetry in the mid-1960s was Marina Basmanova. The daughter of a painter and herself an artist, Basmanova inspired many of his greatest lyric poems, including the cycle “New Stanzas to Augusta”, which are among the most self-revealing confessional lyrics in Russian poetry, some written during difficult moments in their relationship (candidly and uncensoriously described here). She continued to haunt his late poetry. Losev is particularly perceptive in identifying the impact of the Basmanovs on Brodsky’s use of colour symbolism, and especially on the significance of white, in his poetry.
After Brodsky’s arrest and trial on charges of “parasitism” in 1964, Akhmatova famously commented that “our redhead is making quite a biography for himself”. The remark was prescient. In a detailed treatment of the accusations, trial and sentence Losev argues persuasively that Brodsky, whose poetry had scarcely made it into official or even samizdat print, was a most unlikely target for persecution. In the backlash against Khrushchev’s short-lived thaw, as Losev explains, KGB lackeys were quick to exploit opportunities for advancement. Brodsky fell victim to the careerist ambitions of one lowly operative who orchestrated the charges that led to his conviction (after two harrowing incarcerations in psychiatric hospitals) and internal exile (after passage through two notorious prisons) to a tiny village in the Archangel region. Exile turned out to be the start of a formative creative period in which Brodsky countered isolation by steeping himself in English and American poets such as Hardy, Frost, Auden and Eliot: all masters of the first-person voice that Brodsky would soon make his own. Although Brodsky’s poetry always seemed to be evolving in new directions, Losev observes that the essays on Frost, Rilke, Tsvetaeva and Pasternak that Brodsky published from the 1980s on were based on work undertaken some thirty years earlier.
In some of the early interviews that he gave after being forced to leave the USSR in 1972, Brodsky speculated that he posed a threat to the authorities not because his poetry was political – in fact, he saw political poetry as something of a betrayal of artistic independence – but because, as he said, “a man who sets out to create his own independent world within himself is bound sooner or later to become a foreign body in society and then he becomes subject to all the physical laws of pressure, compression and extrusion” (quoted in Joseph Brodsky: Conversations, edited by Cynthia L. Haven, 2002, where readers can experience Brodsky in full flow, at times testy and at times modest, he comes across as incisive, thoughtful and even charming). Losev convincingly demolishes unfounded claims that Brodsky courted trouble in order to enjoy the limelight of a dissident. In fact, Brodsky comes across as an often bemused observer of the twists and turns of his life. Once his first collection Ostanovka v pustyne (“A Halt in the Desert”, 1970) was published in New York to acclaim by émigré readers, the Soviet authorities concluded that Brodsky was an embarrassment, to be solved by “allowing” him to emigrate to Israel along with thousands of other Soviet Jews. In the event, Brodsky landed in Austria, where he was met by his publisher and friend, the American scholar Carl Proffer, who drove Brodsky to meet W. H. Auden, one of his idols and the subject of one of his best-known pieces of literary criticism (“On ‘September 1, 1939’ by W. H. Auden”). Resettled in America, Brodsky embarked on a distinguished career as a university teacher, first in Michigan and finally at top liberal arts colleges in western Massachusetts. He quickly improved his rudimentary English and eventually became a bilingual writer, publishing several major collections of poetry in Russian and a large, often distinguished body of essays in both languages as well as translations of his own poetry.
Losev’s book lives up to its subtitle as “an essay in literary biography” by giving equal weight to Brodsky’s moral and literary profile, and five of the ten chapters offer an interlocking set of essays and poetic commentaries devoted to aesthetic and philosophical issues. Losev’s love and understanding of Brodsky’s poetry inform a literary criticism that is also as objective as possible about Brodsky’s immense accomplishments as a thinker and writer and his sometimes glaring shortcomings, especially in English. His intellectual independence emerges as one of Losev’s main themes. For all his attentiveness to Brodsky’s wit, he clearly places great emphasis on the notion of Brodsky’s sincerity and commitment to truth as fundamental tenets of his poetic art and moral posture. While Brodsky was capable of great irony, he associated it with evasiveness. Losev is convinced that Brodsky’s lyric “I” speaks for the man himself, achieving a fusion of lived experience and aesthetic identity that puts Brodsky in the tradition of the Romantics. Aware of the biographical fallacy, Losev is not a naive literalist, and the Romantic unity of life and work makes sense of poems where Brodsky explores changes in his own identity, brought about by exile or by emotional circumstance, and projects his personality through literary personae such as Odysseus or Byron. All the same, some readers may also detect more self-irony and witty self-mockery than Losev accommodates in this portrait.
Exploring Brodsky’s early affinities with existentialist writers such as Camus and Lev Shestov, Losev identifies what would be a theme in his poetry for decades: the opposition between aesthetic fullness that is realized in poetry, and emptiness, which took the form of various bleak images in his poems such as deserted rooms, deadened organic matter, disembodied light. How Brodsky came to develop an attitude to Fate is a related strand in Losev’s narrative. Part-Cicero, part-Camus and part Steve McQueen (an actor whom he admired, particularly for his performance in The Magnificent Seven), Brodsky was taught by life to brace himself for the accidents of circumstance beyond individual control, and found in art types of ordering and control that had an autonomous beauty. The interviews in Haven’s collection and Losev’s analysis in Iosif Brodsky make clear that for Brodsky the limitless intricacies of composition rather than the limited stock of subject matter (death, love, parting) were the true expression of creative genius because they captured the movements of the soul. For this reason he adored the poetry of Marina Tsvetaeva, whose heartbreaking emotionality fuelled extraordinary feats of linguistic innovation; yet he was equally drawn to the less histrionic Auden, in whom he admired a differently voiced commitment to ethics. As a poet who wrote about sin and forgiveness, Auden also strengthened Brodsky’s attraction to aspects of Christianity. Losev is particularly illuminating on the numerous poems, including the seminal lyric “Anno Domini”, which treat values that Brodsky identified as specifically Christian. That said, Brodsky never thought of himself as other than a Jew – his Soviet passport would have recorded his nationality as Jewish – and Losev takes him to be a polytheist by nature.
At the end of his life, Brodsky was an American citizen, the country’s first foreign-born Poet Laureate, a powerful and acclaimed essayist, and an English-language poet. He earned the admiration of many other poets, but also provoked hostile reactions from respected critics, including Craig Raine and Christopher Reid, who attacked Brodsky’s verbosity and specious logic, and somehow smelt a fraud. It is certainly the case that Brodsky’s legacy in English is important – he remains an admired essayist – but it is also highly uneven, with eloquence and common sense doing battle with sporadic fits of fuzzy thinking, garbled syntax and pseudophilosophical pronouncements. Always a creative critic, Brodsky was at his exhilarating best when examining individual poems. But he was less persuasive when expatiating on cultural politics, and he misjudged sensitivities in his public statements about race and religion, further irritating some readers. Losev does not flinch from an even-handed discussion of the charges. A poet of philosophical depth (if no philosopher), Brodsky had a penchant for syllogisms and propositions over which he sometimes seemed to lose control. As Losev sympathetically suggests, some of this opaqueness stemmed from the haphazard nature of his education. But temperament and conviction also played a part. Brodsky found in language a solution to his horror vacui. The more substantial the verbal structures he created in describing absence and nothingness, the greater his psychological sense of mastery. When restricted to smaller lyric forms, Brodsky in Russian was inventive and musical, emotionally direct (sometimes brutal) and memorably aphoristic. His last poems are the equal of his earliest for their eloquence and capacity to move. Genuine problems arise, however, for readers who depend on English translations.
Daniel Weissbort’s searching chronicle of his own experiences in rendering Brodsky’s poems, From Russian with Love: Joseph Brodsky in English (2004), is worth reading for its views on Brodsky and on translation more generally. Yet despite the benefit that Brodsky had of working with distinguished poet-translators, the worst traitor among translators was Brodsky himself. While he proved to be a stern taskmaster regarding others – examples of his capacity for gracious collaboration and intimidation crop up in Weissbort’s gripping memoir-cum-study – his own versions are extensive and badly distorted rewritings. It is often the case that the closer he thought he came to the original, the more distorted the English idiom sounds. In part, the results reflect Brodsky’s enthusiastic ambition to make English work as Russian does; and in part they capture his tone-deafness to the intonational patterns of English verse. Anyone who has heard recordings of Brodsky reading English poetry will wonder about the exaggerated style in which he hammers out rhythm. Time will tell whether Losev’s discussion of Brodsky’s work as translator and essayist will provoke a critical reconsideration by Brodsky’s detractors. The publication of this well-researched, moderate and thoughtful book by a distinguished poet with an impeccable knowledge of Russian literature is a major event. A translation of Losev’s book into English would do a great deal to reveal to the larger public the true quality of Brodsky’s genius and to explain his stature as a major poet.