Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life
By Lev Loseff
Translated by Jane Ann Miller
(Yale University Press, 333 pp., $22)
Joseph Brodsky caught the attention of the outside world for the first time in 1964, when he was tried in Leningrad for the crime of writing poetry. That is not how the indictment read, of course: his “crime” was that he did not have a regular job, and was therefore a “parasite.” But a scurrilous article attacking Brodsky in the Evening Leningrad newspaper not long before his trial gave the game away. He was charged with being a “literary drone,” a writer of pointless doggerel, and therefore useless to society unless he was made to do “real” work. The newspaper attack and the subsequent trial were badges of honor for someone as young as Brodsky. He was only twenty-four and virtually unknown outside the narrow circle of his admirers, and campaigns of this sort were ordinarily reserved for famous older figures, such as Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova.
Brodsky was in fact the victim of political events far beyond his control. Khrushchev’s “Thaw” experiment of 1956–1962, designed, among other things, to do away with such embarrassments as show trials, had badly backfired in 1962 with the sensational success of Solzhenitsyn’s short gulag novel, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which scared the living daylights out of the Soviet leaders. They needed scapegoats, and so they launched a crackdown on all branches of the arts, especially literature—always a bellwether in Russia—looking for young and vulnerable writers less able to fight back than their elders.
So it was that in March 1964, the young Brodsky found himself alone in the dock in a large hall in Leningrad, facing a hostile judge and twice as many witnesses for the prosecution (none of whom knew him personally) as for the defense, and charged with not having a regular job. It was a setup, of course. A large placard outside the hall set the tone: “Parasite Brodsky on Trial.” The prosecutor made no bones about what the verdict would be. Brodsky’s defenders were “crooks, parasites, lice, bugs,” and Brodsky “a parasite, a lout, a crook, an ideologically corrupt human being.” After five hours of insulting innuendo and hostile questioning, much of it by the judge, Brodsky was informed of his pre-determined sentence, which was five years of exile from Leningrad, with compulsory physical labor.
The palpable injustice of this vindictive show trial aroused the ire of the liberal wing of the Russian literary community. They concluded that literature itself, and especially poetry, was on trial, and that the verdict set a dangerous example. Brodsky became “a symbol, an archetype—the Poet misunderstood and vilified by an ignorant rabble,” as the late Lev Loseff puts it in his illuminating but uneven biography (which has been admirably translated by Jane Ann Miller). Brodsky’s case was taken up by two older writers, Lydia Chukovskaya and Frida Vigdorova, who understood perfectly the threat to all writers posed by the trial. They enlisted a galaxy of cultural celebrities in support of the young poet, and Vigdorova circulated her unofficial transcript of the trial in samizdat (a new phenomenon in those days), which quickly found its way abroad and was published there. John Berryman, W.H. Auden, and Stephen Spender were among those galvanized by the trial to protest the persecution of a fellow poet, and instead of fading into oblivion the little known Brodsky became a minor celebrity.
VIGDOROVA’S TRANSCRIPT was a work of art in itself—a two-act drama full of tension and conflict, which revealed the reviled young poet, with his back to the wall, as a genuine (if involuntary) hero. The first act consisted of a preliminary hearing, after which the trial was halted for Brodsky to be sent to a prison psychiatric hospital for mental evaluation. (This was in the days before the Soviet authorities started regularly committing dissidents to psychiatric hospitals instead of putting them on trial—a rehearsal, perhaps.) Brodsky was there for only a few weeks, and the “barbaric treatment” he suffered there did not break him. Quite the contrary, as the transcript showed:
Judge: What is your profession?
Brodsky: Poet. Poet and translator.
Judge: Who said you were a poet? Who assigned you that rank?
Brodsky: No one. (Nonconfrontational.) Who assigned me to the human race?
Such exchanges were numerous and continued throughout his interrogation, which went on for several hours. “What struck me,” wrote a sympathetic observer, “was that this young man, whom I finally had a chance to see and observe at close range, in circumstances both cruel and unusual for him, radiated a sort of peaceful detachment—Judge Savelyeva couldn’t hurt him, couldn’t goad him into blowing up; he wasn’t frightened by her shrieking at his every other word.” Brodsky’s behavior in the Soviet Union in 1964 was astonishing, a sign both of the changing times and of his extraordinary courage. He did not cave or confess or plead for forgiveness, nor did he make a stirring political speech. He had not publicly opposed the Soviet system or its censorship (even though he had suffered from it), and he had no political message to communicate. He appeared to float above and beyond the realm of politics and ideology. He stated calmly (and prophetically, as it turned out): “I’m no parasite. I’m a poet, who will bring honor and glory to his country.”
His declaration was met with derision by the court officials, and few at the time, even among his friends, grasped the revolutionary nature of Brodsky’s stance. He seemed just like other young dissidents who were getting into trouble. But inwardly Brodsky resented and rejected his identification as a dissident, and fought it for the rest of his life—not because he disliked or disapproved of dissidents, but because he felt he had other aims than they did. His goal was to make his mark in literature, and everything else was secondary. He wanted to be judged exclusively for his poetry and for his success or failure as a writer, not for his resistance to the Soviet system.
I DISCOVERED THIS for myself a few years later, soon after Brodsky’s expulsion to the West, when I interviewed him for my magazine Index on Censorship. I remember his reluctance to talk about the censoring of his own poems in the Soviet Union at all. He disapproved of censorship, of course—who wouldn’t?—but he was already fighting the image of dissident that he trailed behind him, and it was clear that he found politicsof any description pointless and boring. “When you bump into an idiot and say to him, ‘You’re an idiot,’” he said, “it’s amusing, of course, but no more than that.” His indifference to the Soviet regime, to the dissident movement, to censorship, and even to his forced relocation to the West, which I thought was a bit of a pose at the time, turned out to be completely genuine.
Luckily Loseff, a friend from Brodsky’s Leningrad days, who understood him very early and remained close to him for the rest of his life, has managed to correct any lingering impressions that Brodsky had political motives. He reminds us that Brodsky had been writing poetry for six years before his trial, that he had developed phenomenally quickly as a poet, and that he already stood out among a talented coterie of young poets in Leningrad for his bold imagery, galloping rhythms, and willingness to experiment with both form and content. Trite as it sounds, he was a born artist—a genius (a word often applied to him from a surprisingly young age); and it is possible that his persecutors’ animal instincts had somehow enabled them to sniff out the threat that Brodsky posed to a dying dictatorship, and tried to stifle it as fast as they could. So his trial may not have been quite as arbitrary and senseless as it first seemed.
BRODSKY WAS BORN in Leningrad in 1940, and after escaping the long German siege with his mother (his father was away at the front) he returned to spend the rest of his youth there. For most of that time he lived with his parents in a cramped communal apartment that amounted to “a room and a half” (the title of a brief memoir Brodsky later wrote about his early life). Perhaps in reaction to this overcrowding and lack of privacy, the young Joseph was an unruly child. “The boy is obstinate, stubborn, lazy,” wrote his fourth-grade class supervisor. “He is rude, misbehaves during lessons, is disruptive in class.”
No wonder he dropped out of school at fifteen (though this was highly unusual for a child of professional parents), and tried to establish an independent life of his own, drifting from job to job as an apprentice machinist, morgue assistant, bathhouse stoker, lighthouse keeper, porter, and so on. Loseff totes up about thirty different jobs that Brodsky held at one time or another. Between jobs he joined geological expeditions to Siberia and other distant places, getting to travel and see as much of the country as he could. For the rest of his life, although deeply attached to the imperial splendor and luxuriant architecture of his native city (the once and future St. Petersburg), Brodsky also harbored patriotic feelings about his homeland, whose unity in vastness appealed to his imagination. Years later, when Ukraine seceded from Russia in 1991, he wrote a vitriolic diatribe excoriating the Ukrainians for betraying the union and warning that they would live to regret it.
Dropping out of school, according to Loseff, was the best thing Brodsky ever did as an aspiring poet, for he was spared the superficiality of conventional learning and saved from the clichés of high school literature classes and poetry workshops. He “never went through [the] official mill. No one ever beat it into his head that confronting issues of life and death directly was somehow in bad taste, or that writing on historical or cultural themes was somehow pretentious.” Though self-educated and self-taught, Brodsky staved off provincialism by his voracious reading and his steely willpower. Having realized early that poetry was his vocation, he pored over questions of rhyme, meter, rhythm, and imagery with a concentration and an intensity that far exceeded what was required in poetry tutorials.
Bit by bit he put together a personal poetics for himself, which Loseff brilliantly traces through his poems and criticism. Among the Russian classics, Brodsky was more drawn to Derzhavin’s neo-Baroque odes and Baratynsky’s realism than to Pushkin’s and Lermontov’s romanticism; and among the moderns, to Annensky and Tsvetaeva rather than Blok, Mandelstam, and Akhmatova. (The affinity for Akhmatova, Mandelstam, and the Silver Age that he felt from an early stage in his career was spiritual rather than poetic.) After the Polish uprising of 1956, Brodsky began to study Polish, and he particularly admired the writings of Czesław Miłosz (whose work he translated throughout his life—they later became friends) and Zbigniew Herbert.
FOR BRODSKY, as for many of his Russian contemporaries, Poland and the Polish language became important conduits to European and American culture—a subject that is covered by the Polish-born scholar Irena Grudzinska Gross in her fine study Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets. I haven’t the space to discuss her book in detail here, but I cannot resist an anekdot that she cites to describe the nature of the Polish connection to Russians who were cut off behind the Iron Curtain. “Question: What’s the difference between Swedes, Poles, and Russians with regard to group sex? Answer: Group sex in Sweden is when a Swede has sex with several people at once. In Poland it’s when a Pole tells his friends how he saw a group of people having sex in Sweden. In Russia it’s when a Russian describes listening to a Pole talking about the group sex he saw in Sweden.”
Brodsky may have learned a bit about sex from a female Polish exchange student who brought him some books, but it was the books that interested him most, both by Polish poets and by European and American poets in Polish translation. He was particularly drawn to the conversational rhythm and often colloquial diction employed by modern English-language poets, including Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Auden, and Frost, while sharing Eliot’s admiration for the Baroque extravagances of the English Metaphysical poets. Brodsky’s magnificent “Elegy to John Donne,” written very early in his career (and before he had read much of Donne’s work) a two-hundred-line meditation on death, decay, immortality, spirituality, and the role of poetry, still stands as his greatest tribute to that tradition, and one of the most moving works he ever wrote. It begins:
John Donne has sunk in sleep ...
All things beside
are sleeping too: walls, bed, and floor—
And continues in a later passage:
And you saw life: your island was its
And you did face the ocean at its shores.
The howling dark stood close at every
And you did soar past God, and then
drop back, for this harsh burden
would not let you rise
To that high vantage point from
This dread Last Judgment seems no
Brodsky learned from his contemporaries, too—the slightly older Leningrad poets, Evgeny Rein, Gleb Gorbovsky, and Vladimir Uflyand, and the much older Boris Slutsky in Moscow. Like Slutsky, he liked to write about everyday life and work, not in the Soviet sense of making propaganda for the proletariat, but in an attempt to grasp the grittiness of physical labor and the textures of the physical world. This led to a preoccupation with the language of the workplace, with slang and colloquial speech. Having borrowed the long lines of the Baroque poets and the enjambments of his Western models, he liked to splice their lofty words and expressions with exclamations, vulgarities, and in due course obscenities. These experiments were driven by his fascination with the spoken language, and by his striving for a uniquely intimate and informal voice, which had to command a wide range of tones, both elevated and profane, within the same work, and often took the form of dialogues, as in his long poem “Gorbunov and Gorchakov.” Deploying his razor-sharp intelligence, his store of knowledge, and his poetic versatility, Brodsky was able to forge a unique voice: energetic, high-spirited, musical, ironic, with an encyclopedic range of allusion and reference that issued from his vast reading.
BRODSKY DECLARED early in his career that one of poetry’s goals was “to make the future more tolerable.” He was fascinated by Dostoevsky and the famous “accursed questions” that tormented him, about the meaning of life and the nature of morality; and he deeply impressed Akhmatova, whom he was taken to meet and began to visit regularly at a very early stage in his career, with his comment that the most important thing in poetry was “the magnitude of the idea.” On reading Brodsky’s elegy to Donne, she exclaimed, “You have no idea what you’ve written!” It seems she spotted his exceptional talent immediately, and took him under her wing. She was genuinely shocked by his trial and concerned for his welfare afterward, doing her best to support Chukovskaya and Vigdorova in their efforts. “What a biography they are writing for our redhead!” she commented after learning of his sentence, having in mind, no doubt, her own sufferings at the hands of the regime, and that of her contemporaries Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva. Some of the most charming and fascinating pages in Loseff’s biography are devoted to this touching friendship between the seventy-year-old doyenne of Russian poetry and the eager young upstart destined to equal her in accomplishment. (Someone should write a play about them, or an opera.)
Brodsky served only eighteen months of his sentence before the determined efforts of Chukovskaya, Vigdorova, and Akhmatova, aided by an unexpected intervention from Sartre in Paris (the Soviet Union’s West European sympathizers were having trouble explaining Brodsky’s exile), succeeded in getting him released toward the end of 1965. “You know ... the two years I spent in the country were from my point of view one of the best times of my life,” Brodsky said later. His physical work on a sleepy collective farm in the north allowed plenty of free time, especially in the long dark winter, and there were few distractions to interrupt his reading and composition. His comment reminds one of Solzhenitsyn’s “Bless you, prison,” though Solzhenitsyn had his spiritual conversion in mind as well as his freedom to write. What it also meant in Brodsky’s case was that he “went into exile one poet and came back ... a very different one,” a better and wiser one.
Back in Leningrad, Brodsky tried to pick up his old life. He resumed an on-again, off-again affair with a tempestuous painter named Marina Basmanova—slender, intelligent, with a face like “[clear] cold water” according to Akhmatova—and, in Loseff’s words, “the very image of a Renaissance maiden.” She appealed both to Brodsky’s poetic instincts and his carnal ones, and caused a major upheaval in his life. Shortly before his trial, Brodsky learned that while he was away in Moscow she started sleeping with one of his friends, the poet Dmitry Bobyshev, and he slit his wrists in despair. Now, after his trial and exile, they were back together again, and in 1967 Marina had a son named Andrei; but a year later they separated for good.
BRODSKY NEVER FORGOT his first love. Some of his best early lyrics were written to her, such as these, while he was in internal exile:
September now. And night. My only
Company a candle. But a shadow
Peers over my shoulder at these
An apparition of you rustles
among the shadows, gurgling in the
smiling starlike in the open doorway.
And in a later poem, when in America, he exclaimed:
I was practically blind.
You, appearing, then hiding,
Gave me my sight and heightened it.
Marina was his belle dame sans merci, and in that regard irreplaceable—but as Irena Grudzinska Gross points out, turning a beautiful woman into an idealized muse does not necessarily imply love. Brodsky seems to have been more in love with the idea of Basmanova as a muse than with Basmanova as a person, and he soon found plenty of young women to take her place, including a pretty young ballerina named Marianna Kuznetsova, who had a daughter, Anastasia, by him in 1972. The relationship was kept so secret that Anastasia had to wait until she was 23 to learn who her father was, just a few months before he died and too late to get to know him. Brodsky dedicated a poem to Marianna called “You will recognize me by my handwriting” and later sent her money when he could, as he did also to Marina and Andrei.
In the Soviet Union, meanwhile, he was still unpublishable. Negotiations for a short book of poetry came to nothing, as did the rounds he made of magazine editors in Leningrad and Moscow, which resulted in just four poems appearing in an obscure almanac. Luckily, continuing pressure from the growing dissident movement and the increased attention it was attracting abroad persuaded the Soviet authorities to open a safety valve and allow small numbers of its restive Jewish population to emigrate to Israel. Not all of them went to Israel. Israel was the fig leaf for a host of destinations, most notably the United States. Brodsky, a Jew, had not shown the least sign of jumping to leave the country, but instead of jumping he was pushed. In the spring of 1972 he was called to his local visa and registration office and “invited” to leave. The invitation was accompanied by the threat of unspecified sanctions if he refused. In June of that year, with only a month’s notice, he boarded a plane for Vienna with a suitcase full of manuscripts and hopes for a new life in the West.
HE WAS MET in Vienna by George Kline, a longtime American admirer and translator of his poetry, who happened to know that one of Brodsky’s idols, W.H. Auden, was staying in an Austrian village nearby. Brodsky had admired Auden ever since he came across his poems in Leningrad. In exile he read much more, and experienced an epiphany when reading Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” especially the poet’s assertion that time “worships language and forgives/Every one by whom it lives; Pardons cowardice, conceit,/Lays its honors at their feet.” Auden later cut these lines from the poem, but according to Loseff their meaning passed through Brodsky like an electric current. It is easy to see why. Brodsky was still looking for the meaning of life and the place of art in it, and he had been circling round the idea that language was the defining feature of a poet’s life. Auden’s lines seemed to answer some of the nagging questions he had been nursing about guilt and forgiveness, language and time, and triggered a lifelong veneration of the older poet.
Despite language difficulties, Auden took an immediate liking to Brodsky and whisked him off to London to appear in the annual international poetry festival held on the south bank of the Thames. Brodsky’s expulsion from the Soviet Union had proved to be as sensational as his trial, and since many of his poems had appeared in English translation by then, his sudden materialization at the festival caused a major stir. I remember seeing him for the very first time with Auden on the stage, a rumpled, barrel-chested figure of medium height, who managed to seem both modestly grateful and yet remarkably self-possessed for someone who had just been arrested and kicked out of his country. The moment Brodsky was asked to recite his poems in Russian, he was transformed. He went into a trance-like state that I later came to recognize as his trademark when performing (there is no other word for it) his compositions. He would throw his head back, eyes half closed, his prominent nose stabbing the sky, and chant in a nasal voice reminiscent of a Jewish cantor (though Brodsky’s Jewishness was very thin and entirely secular).
“I’ve never seen anyone or anything like it,” declared Nadezhda Mandelstam after hearing him read for the first time. “[His] nostrils stretch, flare, go through all sorts of flourishes that bend every vowel and consonant. This is not a man, it’s a whole wind orchestra.” Nadezhda seemed to be mimicking (perhaps unconsciously) her late husband, who had once growled at Mayakovsky, “Don’t roar, Volodya. You’re not a gypsy orchestra.” Whether she had Mandelstam in mind or not, she was right about Brodsky; and since he also admired Mayakovsky’s early poetry, he may have been consciously imitating him. At the London festival he read part of his “Elegy to John Donne,” which lends itself naturally to chanting, and gave an extremely impressive performance, even for those who understood no Russian.
From London Brodsky set off for Michigan, where he had a job waiting for him and where he settled in surprisingly quickly. The key to his speedy assimilation was the stoicism with which he adapted to exile. He liked to describe America drolly as merely “a continuation of space,” and having been no stranger to alienation in Russia, he adapted to his new homeland with apparent ease, defining himself laconically as “a Jew, a Russian poet, an American citizen.” In fact, he became almost as patriotic about America as about Russia, and stoutly defended his new country against its critics. His path was eased by the large number of academic admirers he acquired, who spread the word about his poetry, collaborated with him in translations, and helped him to obtain a series of college positions as a professor or a poet-in-residence. In fairly quick order Brodsky established himself as a major poet and public intellectual, and eventually scaled the heights of the American literary and cultural world, winning almost every scholarship and literary prize possible. In 1987 he was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature, and four years later became the Poet Laureate of America, while being showered with honorary doctorates and honors in America and abroad. In 1990, late in life, he married a beautiful and cultivated young Italian woman of Russian descent named Maria Sozzani, with whom he had a daughter Anna, and seems to have enjoyed a brief period of calm domesticity in America and Italy before he died, after a series of heart attacks, at the tragically young age of fifty-five.
THE BREVITY OF THIS summary of Brodsky’s twenty-four years in America reflects a notable and decidedly odd feature of Loseff’s biography, namely the meagerness of its later chapters. Loseff devotes only two full chapters to Brodsky’s American years, compared with seven on his thirty-two years in the Soviet Union. This is disconcerting, to say the least, and the effect is magnified by Loseff’s decision to keep the poet’s Russianness at the center of his narrative even in this new environment. Loseff (who lived in America at the same time as Brodsky) readily admits the unusual ease with which Brodsky adopted alien American ideas about personal freedom and taking responsibility for one’s own material and spiritual existence, but he is at pains to underline how unusual it was for a Russian émigré to respond this way, and continues to intersperse the sparse biographical facts with lengthy commentaries on Brodsky’s new Russian poems. Even a subsection labeled “Brodsky in New York” is devoted mostly to the poet’s relations (good and bad) with other Russians in the emigration. As gossip and a reflection of Loseff’s own experiences after he arrived in America, these pages are fun to read if you know the characters involved, but I wonder how much an American audience will get out of them.
A partial explanation of this severe limitation of Loseff’s book is to be found in the small matter in the front, where we learn that it was originally written for a Russian audience as part of a venerable series called “The Lives of Famous People,” whose editors evidently had little interest in Brodsky’s life outside the homeland. It would have been helpful for the publishers to have made this more clear, and they might also have prevailed on Loseff to expand his American chapters. Moreover, the Russian series is not only venerable, it also venerates its subjects rather more than is customary in Western biographies; and while Loseff’s concentration on the poetry is at first refreshing, his lopsided method leads to distortions that can be highly misleading. The “central event” of Brodsky’s affair with Basmanova and the birth of their son gets half a page, even in the Russian section, with only a fleeting reference to Brodsky’s attempted suicide, compared with four pages on the poems dedicated to Basmanova. As for Kuznetsova and her daughter, they are not mentioned at all.
A perhaps more weighty explanation is hinted at in Loseff’s eccentric statement that he is not qualified to write a biography of Brodsky “because Joseph was a close friend of mine for more than thirty years.” What would Boswell have made of such a statement? It appears to be an indirect way of alluding to Brodsky’s strenuous strictures against a proper biography. “A writer’s biography is in his twists of language,” he wrote in his great essay “Less than One,” and to a would-be biographer he protested that “A poet is not a man of action.... If you are of a mind to write a biography of a poet, you have to write a biography of his verses.” To his will Brodsky appended the following injunction: “The estate will authorize no biographies or publication of letters or diaries [after my death] ... My friends and relatives are asked not to cooperate with unauthorized publication of biographies, biographical investigations, diaries, or letters.” Shelley, Byron, Hardy, James, Auden, and any number of illustrious predecessors would have agreed with him, but Loseff gets in a small dig by way of muffled revenge: in his lifetime Brodsky loved to read—what else?—biographies of famous poets.
It has to be said, finally, that Loseff’s biography is also a byproduct of ten years of work he put in as editor of Brodsky’s collected poems in Russian for the Poet’s Library series in Moscow. I have not seen that edition, but I understand that Loseff lifted parts of his commentary wholesale for inclusion in the biography, which accounts for the excellence of his critical passages. In the early chapters they attain a narrative tension of their own, offering one of the sweeter satisfactions of literary biography, which consists in reading about the early creative struggles and artistic successes of a major writer on the way up.
The second and more substantial of Loseff’s American chapters has short subsections labeled “Fame and fortune,” “The politics and morals of the American campus [!],” and “Brodsky and the erotic,” some of which lead Loseff into questionable territory. When Brodsky is asked how he feels about working in a women’s college and answers, “Like the fox in the chicken barn,” Loseff rushes to defend him with the assertion that Brodsky’s lyric poems “suggest an almost radical feminism,” and that the author of the poems dedicated to Marina Basmanova “can hardly be accused of male chauvinism.” But most of those poems are addressed to an idealized abstraction more than to a flesh-and-blood woman, and no one who ever watched Brodsky in action on and off campus could doubt the reality beneath the facetiousness of his comment. For a corrective to Loseff’s illusions I would refer readers to Brodsky’s essay, “After a Journey,” about an International PEN Conference held in Rio, where his contempt for the young Scandinavian woman he picked up there emerges in no uncertain terms. “I nearly punched her in the nose,” he comments after she made some remarks that he considered stupid. “It’s illuminating to watch a little beast wake up in a person.... With Stella, it was evidently a skunk.” I was at the same conference and I seem to remember that this did not stop him from sleeping with her.
But that is by the way. Loseff is more convincing when he turns to the poetry Brodsky wrote in America, which, perhaps under the influence of Miłosz, acquired a more philosophical character. Here is Brodsky on his transposition to America.
The change of empires is intimately tied
to the hum of words, the soft,
of spittle in the act of speech,
sum of Lobachevsky’s angles,
the strange way
that parallels may unwittingly collide
by casual chance someday
as longitudes contrive to meet at
Loseff is also interesting on Brodsky’s relations with intellectuals in New York. Once settled in a small apartment on Morton Street in Greenwich Village, Brodsky became a regular writer for The New York Review of Books and became friends with several of its contributors. He was also an honorary fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities, then led by Richard Sennett, which together with the New York Review dominated left-wing political discourse at the time. I was able to observe him there, and everything was fine so long as the talk was about literature and art. Once it turned to politics, especially international politics, Brodsky found himself at odds with the prevailing line, and he was not shy about challenging it. Loseff credits him, rightly, with helping to open the eyes of certain intellectuals in New York to the realities of life under communism in Central and Eastern Europe, and Loseff cites Susan Sontag as one of Brodsky’s more momentous converts.
Brodsky’s views on politics and religion and the malign nature of communism were not much different from those of his illustrious compatriot and fellow exile Solzhenitsyn, though his tone was vastly different and he did not always put these subjects at the front and center of his discourse. Loseff points out that when Brodsky was living in Boston and Solzhenitsyn in Vermont, the two of them were almost neighbors, and while they did correspond for a while, it was probably no accident that they never met. Nor did Brodsky meet that other distinguished Russian exile and former resident of America, Vladimir Nabokov, though Nabokov had paid for a pair of jeans for Brodsky while the latter was still in the Soviet Union, and Brodsky had exchanged letters with Vera Nabokov, the gatekeeper of her husband’s privacy.
It is interesting to compare these three great writers in the way they typified three different generations of émigrés. Nabokov, a member of the first Russian emigration, was the inheritor of modernism, able to straddle Russian and European culture, who started out writing in Russian and later switched to English, enriching both literatures in the process. Solzhenitsyn, almost twenty years younger and almost completely molded by a hermetic Soviet culture by the time he followed Nabokov to Europe and America, never ceased to think and write in Russian, and returned to die in Russia. Brodsky, a generation younger again, born just as new influences were filtering into the dying Soviet Union from Europe and America, wrote in Russian until the end of his life, but also learned to write quite well in English, and helped to close up the yawning void between Russian-Soviet and Western culture created by the Iron Curtain.
CRITICAL TO Brodsky’s enterprise were his heroic attempts to emulate Nabokov and write in English as well as Russian. In prose, he was pretty successful. As Loseff astutely points out, Brodsky was a fine essayist, and almost all his essays were written in English, in which he ably incorporated conversational language and large doses of American slang. It is true that they often sound a bit off-kilter to the native ear, but that is a part of their charm. Poetry is another matter. Loseff shows how Brodsky “ever more stubbornly continued to compose in English—not just light verse, but lyrics, philosophical poems, and reflections on the tragedies of the modern century,” despite the tremendous difficulties for one who had come so late to the language. I myself remember being approached by Brodsky on several occasions and having a poem in English thrust into my hand. “Here, read this,” he would say peremptorily, not telling me whether it was original or a translation. It was almost always composed in English and I could almost always tell that it was, which frustrated him to no end. It got harder to distinguish his English poems and his Russian poems in English, because he began to take a bigger hand in translating his own work, insisting to his co-translators that they reproduce both the rhymes and the rhythms of his original Russian. The problem with this arrangement was nicely articulated by Seamus Heaney: “the English ear comes up against a phonetic element that is both animated and skewed,” and “instinctively rebels at having its expectations denied” in terms of syntax and stress.
This inability to break through fully in English tormented Brodsky until the end of his days. It is the main reason that he is still under-appreciated in America. As Isaiah Berlin observed, “How could anyone who had not read him in Russian understand him by his English poems? It’s utterly incomprehensible. Because there is no sense that they were written by a great poet. But in Russian ... From the very beginning, as soon as it starts, you are in the presence of genius. And that is a unique sort of feeling—being in the presence of genius.”
This suggests that Loseff was perhaps right to put so much emphasis on Brodsky’s Russian life, Russian sensibility, Russian language, and Russian poems. In his best readings he offers the reader intimations of Brodsky’s genius, and captures crucial features of the poet’s achievement by obeying Brodsky’s injunctions to follow the twists of his language and write a biography of his verses. This is not, I fear, the sort of poet’s biography that Brodsky himself would have wanted to read. Judging by the vividness of his memoiristic essays, and also by what I remember of him, he would have demanded more flesh on the bones, more human interest, more drama, and—despite himself—more scandal. It probably will not happen very soon, but the world will see such a biography eventually. And so it should, for this astounding man deserves it.
Michael Scammell is the author, most recently, of Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic (Random House). This article appeared in the June 7, 2012 issue of the magazine.