Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life by Lev Loseff (trans. Jane Ann Miller). Yale University Press, 333 pp. $35.00.
Leningrad, January 1964. The young poet Joseph Brodsky was writing at his desk, taking advantage of the rare moment of quiet in the communal apartment where he lived with his parents.
The 23-year-old had already been arrested, interrogated, and jailed. In the previous month alone, KGB agents had wrestled him into the back of a car, authorities had labeled him a social parasite, and his journals and papers had been seized. Solitude was undoubtedly welcome.
It was also, however, short-lived. The Soviet police burst in to tell the poet that if he didn’t find a job in three days, he’d be sorry. “I choked out some sort of response, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking that I had to finish this poem,” he told his lifelong friend Lev Loseff, author of Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life.
Brodsky’s insouciance was no gesture of contempt—or at least not only. He believed he held a distinct evolutionary edge—and went on to prove it by winning international acclaim and a Nobel, becoming a Russian poet, an English essayist, and, of course, an American citizen. In his opinion, poets were not only the forefront of civilization, but nothing less than the cutting edge of the human race itself.
Loseff boiled down Brodsky’s 1987 Nobel lecture to this syllogism: “Art is the means by which a social animal became an individual ‘I,’ and therefore aesthetics is superior to ethics. The highest form of aesthetic activity is poetry, and therefore the creation of poetry is the ultimate goal, the evolutionary goal, of the species.”
This, perhaps, provides the basis for what Loseff calls in those early days “a conscious moral stance, a struggle for inner freedom.” Brodsky’s p.o.v. was already providing a protective armor in 1964.
He would need it: a month after the unpleasantness in the Leningrad apartment, he endured the petty thuggery of a fixed courtroom trial, which Loseff describes with fresh insight. For Brodsky, however, the entire affair was almost beneath his notice. Don’t give your enemies your attention, he would later say, it only prolongs their life.
For Brodsky, poetry was a ticket out of this world. And in Russia, the poet is godlike. To know both is to understand the context for this erudite and often wise book—a work more likely to find readers among current fans, rather than find new ones. Yet Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life is simultaneously enlightening, perplexing, and exasperating.The knowledgeable reader is left feeling rewarded and cheated at once, as if invited to a sumptuous banquet and offered only canapés. The protean figure remains beyond the range of these pages. The door remains at once half open and half closed to us.
You’ll read no secrets in Loseff’s volume. But neither will you get Brodsky’s bewildering, mesmerizing blend of hubris and humility, charm, and abrasiveness. Brodsky was a Catherine Wheel of metaphysical brilliance, scathing insults, and intellectual splendor.
Russia’s longing for pure poet-heroes held an incandescent grip on the Russian psyche, and the nation bleaches its bards to an unearned whiteness. Writers have always claimed special moral exemptions for themselves—wishing to be something grander than simply a guy who wields a ballpoint or stares at an empty computer screen. Brodsky upped the ante.
He told Loseff that the lesser cannot comment on the greater, the mice cannot review the cat. Was he exempting himself from criticism? Certainly. But Brodsky was also the first to bend his knee to those he saw above him on the ladder—from Ovid to Auden. The sense of hierarchy may rub against the egalitarian Brodsky who once wrote, “Evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another,” but the contradiction can be chalked up to his complex humanity as easily as his self-blindness.
While the worst within us may salivate for sordid details and evidence that our hero is no better than us, we look to be inspired and transported, too—many of us read memoirs and biographies for precisely that reason.
Recalling the frequent appearance of a star as “a sacred constant in Brodsky’s poetry,” Loseff writes: “But the star was always the point at which suffering and divine love were joined.” But that’s the very point of contact he erases, for the most part, in this literary life.
What’s to hide? For one, Brodsky’s life was messy, and the simple truth is that he was not a “nice” man—sometimes he could be a downright cruel one. A spate of unkind memoirs in recent years has uncovered a substratum of Russian resentment, but the boil has yet to be lanced in America. Those who didn’t know him remained transfixed by his perceived martyrdom—but Brodsky, to put it mildly, was not the martyr type.
A martyr is not necessarily a saint, in any case, and those who knew him didn’t turn to him for saintliness. He was spellbinding, an electrical jolt for the psyche. An encounter with him, as a colleague or as a mentor, could be life-changing and endlessly rewarding. Warts and all, the real man carries far more interest than the photoshopped one Loseff gives us. The portrait that emerges on these pages has lost its sizzle. One does not taste a single spoonful of borscht, or feel the nip of a single Russian snowfall.
So Loseff made a safe bet when he wrote Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life. He cautiously adopted Brodsky’s own position that the writing is the life, and bypassed any resistance from the gatekeepers.
Yet a real biography cannot come too soon for this curiously vaporizing presence in American letters. Many of Brodsky’s poems have not appeared in English at all, and many could be more effectively translated. Many of his letters are literary, not personal, and would find a grateful audience. A major American poet is disappearing from bookstores, from bookshelves, from our literary conversations.
Loseff’s microscope is focused on the early years—an instructive lens for an American audience. For example, we begin to see that the 1964-65 internal exile in the Archangelsk region really was, as Brodsky had insisted, one of the best times of his life—he was not being defiant, merely precise. After the trial, he had found quiet, at last—a straw pallet, a desk made of boards, and Oscar Williams’s New Pocket Anthology of English Verse. He taught himself English and discovered Auden under a kerosene lamp. It was the solitude and study he had longed for in Leningrad.
With his 1972 expulsion, Brodsky lost the psychological fixtures of his life, its few stable points—he also lost his poverty of spirit. Shocked and blinded by the loudness and bright colors in this otherworld, he wrote to Loseff: “Abundance is just as hard to take as poverty, maybe harder. The latter’s preferable because the soul is engaged. I personally can’t take anything in—everything seems to bounce around, I’ve got spots before my eyes.”
Then his compass found a new magnetic north. Within a day of his arrival in stopover Vienna, his friend, the Russian scholar Carl Proffer, drove him to Auden’s cottage in Kirchstetten just as Auden was walking back from the train station after a trip into the city.
The unexpected encounter baffled both sides: Brodsky’s limited English, learned only from books, was unintelligible; Auden spoke no Russian and, a little more than a year from his death, was constantly soused.
Brodsky wrote to Loseff about the Kirchstetten routine: “W.H. Auden drinks his first dry martini around 7:30 a.m. … since he writes with a ballpoint pen, the bottle on his desk holds Guinness rather than ink. … After lunch, a nap, which I think is the only sober hour in his day. … Before bedtime he sips some aged Chateau d’whatever…”
Brodsky was a houseguest for twelve days, nevertheless. The rapprochement would have a seismic impact on the rest of Brodsky’s life—but what was the fabric of this encounter, and what was the embroidery?
Loseff writes that Brodsky wrote verse “strikingly like that of an Anglo-American poet twice his age.” For the English ear, nothing could be further from the truth. Brodsky’s pent-up energy, restless intelligence, the relentless struggle to equal the sound of a passionless metronome—how different from Auden’s clipped, Oxfordian, well-governed intelligence and taut stanzas!
Loseff pretty much loses interest in the narrative somewhere in Austria. Thematic chapters follow, for the most part. Odd, given that nearly half Brodsky’s life, and nearly all his poetic career, was in America. Loseff blithely asserts that “whatever the next quarter-century might bring, from this point on, Brodsky himself would not change.”
Brodsky’s marriage gets little more than in a passing sentence—not even a mention of the Sept. 1, 1990 wedding in Stockholm City Hall. Crucial friendships and feuds, the womanizing, the ruthless climb to the top of the New York literary pile—and, on the other hand, the kindnesses to students and colleagues, the generous helping hand he extended to Russian friends in need (reportedly his Nobel money was showered on them)—all pass into silence.
Loseff’s lone voice in the published chorus is lyrical, sometimes sentimental, occasionally tendentious. “He could be irritable, he could be sharp. But he never hated anyone” he writes of Brodsky. It’s a ringing way to wind up a chapter, but … never hated, really? I guess it depends on what “hate” means.
The mother of Brodsky’s son, Marina Basmanova, is glossed as an artist with a Mona Lisa smile. A more impartial eye might see her not as a Beatrice or Circe but, as is usual in such cases, an attractive, ordinary woman who happened to become the obsession of an extraordinary man. (She has steadfastly refused interview requests.)
Similarly, Loseff insists on buttressing Brodsky’s credentials as politically liberal—apparently important to the biographer, but it doesn’t square with the anti-communist who bellowed to a crowd: “You liberals should try to solve one problem instead of diffusing your energy all over the world!” Loseff hits the target when he writes, “For him there was no human history outside individual human lives; the central object of a writer’s interest had to be the person whom history had made suffer most.” Brodsky expressed this way, in translator Jane Ann Miller’s non-poetic rendering: “So much light packed into this shard of star/at nightfall! Like refugees into a boat.” Loseff noted that “nowhere in Brodsky does the good attain such metaphoric intensity.”
Loseff dwells lovingly on the Brodsky before he acquired the urbane carapace—before the accumulating gossip, squabbles, fame, women, heart attacks, gossip, and marketing.
One transformative star-point of suffering occurred in that kangaroo courtroom—a courtroom designed, according to a witness that Loseff quotes, so that “it plunged all of us, the defendant included, into the depths of our utter insignificance.” Brodsky was alone perhaps beyond anything he had experienced in his isolated life. “Brodsky’s poetic philosophy is being born,” Loseff writes. “Suffering is taken as a term of human existence; the world is taken as is.”
The witness, writer Izrail Metter, said that the judge “couldn’t hurt him, couldn’t goad him into blowing up; he wasn’t frightened by her shrieking at his every other word. … from time to time his face expressed dismay, when no one seemed to understand him, or when he in turn could not fathom why this odd woman seemed so unreasonably hostile; he couldn’t seem to get across even what in his mind were the simplest of ideas.”
In bringing these unforgettable images to an American audience, Loseff delivers to us the matchless moment when Brodsky’s pure verse rang out from the cold heart of a weaponless war.
“To put it simply, I began to feel that I really didn’t need any other poetry apart from Joseph’s,” said Loseff, speaking to scholar Valentina Polukhina of his early friendship. “Of course I still needed poetry of the past. But contemporary poetry, my own included, was something I no longer felt any need for. Brodsky was saying it all for me.”
It wasn’t true, of course—or at least it didn’t stay true. Loseff began publishing poetry in 1979, and would became a distinguished poet before dying in 2009. But his Russian biography of Brodsky is probably the book for which he will be remembered in the America that was his home for three decades. Dead poet, dead author: destiny put both men on facing pages of a forever closed book.
Cynthia L. Haven has written for The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, World Literature Today, The Kenyon Review, and others. Her An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz was published earlier this year; Joseph Brodsky: Conversations in 2003. She was a Milena Jesenská Fellow with Vienna’s Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen. Her blog is Book Haven.
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