The life of Joseph Brodsky, which for the last thirteen years has been relegated, alas, to the past tense, continues to generate a tsunami of literary scholarship. Some philological, some biographical, a lot of it comes out from penmanship of Brodsky's friends and acquaintances who demonstrate a latent feeling of obligation to share what they know of the poet's life and how they understand his verse. 2.
Brodsky famously requested in his will that those who closely knew him refrain from writing memoirs or biographies, reemphasizing the no less famous opening line of his Nobel lecture: "For someone rather private, for someone who all his life has preferred his private condition to any role of social significance…" His preoccupation with privacy has translated into a belief that poets should veer away from elements of biography, written by self or by others. For instance, Brodsky once dismissed Sylvia Plath's autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, claiming that poetry itself is confessional enough. His own essays on Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Cavafy, among others, only perfunctorily touched upon what happened in their respective lifetimes, focusing more on the underlying poetics and the intertextual associations.
Brodsky was also cognizant of the reader's common tendency to substitute the poet's biography for his verse. This tendency becomes all the more acute with the Russian poets, many of whom have lived through the thriller-intensive period of the Leninist-Stalinist era, an era that has left an indelible mark on their poetry's content. While Brodsky's formative years unfolded during the less cannibalistic decade of the 1960's, they, too, received an infusion of uncommon biographical material, enough to please any tabloid-seeking publisher. Hence, Brodsky had his reasons to be discreet. In his two autobiographical essays from the 1980's, "Less Than One" and "In a Room and a Half," he cautiously navigated the straits of memory with only a few personal revelations, adding first-class literary content to what by then was already a Nobel Prize-destined collection of work, but clearly disappointing some who were wistful for facts, rather than literature.
The wistfulness did not subside with time, however.
Pure biographies aside, the world saw three different books of interest, surprisingly - all in the Q&A format, come out after Brodsky's death. The first volume was Solomon Volkov's Conversations with Joseph Brodsky, a product of some two decades of taped dialogues with the poet. The second book was a chronological collection of Brodsky's interviews, a text so popular that it has already gone through three editions. Both volumes benefit from the first person of Brodsky's I, indirectly putting together different pieces of his lifetime puzzle. The third collection, one that speaks of Brodsky in the third person and is the object of the present review, is Valentina Polukina's Brodsky Through the Eyes of his Contemporaries, Volume II.
Volume I came out back in 1992, when Brodsky was still alive. Carefully guarding his privacy, a number of Brodsky's friends spoke with Polukhina on the subject of his verse. A decade and a half later, Volume II brings back some of the previous interviewees, with the vast majority of the names being new. This time around, however, there is a lot more biographical information supplied to the reader. While the nucleus of poetic discussions dominates, it is too often circumscribed by personal anecdotes.
Valentina Polukhina is as much of a contemporary of Brodsky, as anyone she has interviewed for her book. She is clearly among the best of the best: together with Yakov Gordin, Tomas Venclova, and late Lev Losev, she represents the core of the senior Brodsky scholarship. It is hard to imagine a better qualified individual to conduct such interviews. Polukhina commenced her studies of Brodsky's works back in the1970's, standing a witness to the evolution of his poetics and, indeed, biography.
It is also hard to ascertain Brodsky's attitude toward interviews of this kind, except for his famous line: "I've been reproached for everything save the weather." Indeed, there is an intrinsic human inclination to fathom reproach in any dialogue that one either cannot hear or cannot dignify with a response. Polukhina should receive the highest of marks for being extremely cautious and sensitive in her questions. In turn, she has set the tone for the contemporaries she speaks to.
The book is divided into four sections, with each section presenting a distinctive cohort of audience.
Section I takes us into Joseph Brodsky's world of friends and acquaintances, which is largely Russian-speaking. The friends and acquaintances come both from the 1957-1972 Soviet period of the poet and from the 1972-1996 American timeline. In many ways, the interviews give them an opportunity to frame their attitude toward Brodsky's poetics and even certain poems, without having to write a formal article or author a memoir. That is not to say that some of them have not done this already, but Polukhina builds on those writings to go a step further and orient each interviewee toward a specific topic. She delves into such inevitable themes, as Brodsky and Christianity, Brodsky and the Soviet authorities, Brodsky and the role of the language, to name a few.
For every fact, or thought, or anecdote provided by the interlocutor, Polukhina possesses at least several related ones. She is the ultimate and the indefatigable Brodsky annalist, standing in an excellent command of events and dates in Brodsky's life. Polukhina's endeavor is comparable to that of Lydia Chukovskaya, a famous chronicler of Anna Akhmatova's life, though the latter had a far greater and regular access to her protagonist.
Section II uniquely frames the interviews around female voices that played a role in Brodsky's world. "But how much more joyous the un-bodied beauty", and yes, despite this phrase - there are several voices of varying female pitch levels adding to the concept of reminiscences. There is Tatyana Shcherbina, a poet who came to appreciate his verse from afar or Annalisa Alleva who was doing the same at close proximity in the environs of Italian cities. There is Ludmila Shtern, a long-time Leningrad friend who was among the first to publish a (somewhat controversial) personal memoir about the poet. There is even Susan Sontag, one who needs no introduction, speaking about her longtime friend in the last days of her own life (Sontag passed away shortly after the interview). Polukhina gathers these voices not for the reason of debunking Brodsky the male, as contemporaries and posterity have often unfairly done with Pushkin or Blok. Rather, she seeks to understand the concept of female poet, or reader, or companion in Brodsky's life. In a century, which had Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva playing roles of immense prominence, it is only right for Polukhina to tangentially and subtly unweave the thread of femininity surrounding Brodsky. In doing so, she epitomizes courtesy: the name of M.B., the famous addressee of numerous love poems, barely appears in any of the interviews.
"The farther one goes, the less / one is interested in the terrain" - true for many cases, unless the terrain is poetic. In Section III, in the one that focuses on interviews with English-speaking poets who largely define the modern-day English language, this exception is particularly pertinent. The English-speaking terrain has been rather genial toward Brodsky. After all, in the aftermath of his 1972 departure from the Soviet Union, Brodsky could have faded into oblivion, living out the second part of his life in semi-obscurity, much like Dante in Ravenna. But things have turned out more favorably. Like Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney, he received the Nobel Prize. He succeeded Mark Strand in the post of US Poet Laureate. Brodsky became an equal to many of his colleagues in the United States, contributing to and enhancing the poetics of the English language. The colleagues and he did not always agree, of course. For instance, Brodsky was famously less tolerant of free verse and was a great advocate of a (rather anachronistic) mellifluous, precise rhyme. Some fellow poets in Polukhina's text ascribed these beliefs to his invariably Russian poetical background; others saw in them an omen of new things to come for the English verse. Brodsky was true to his principles not only in the original English poems he authored, but even more importantly - in the translations that he meticulously supervised throughout his lifetime.
This brings us to Section IV, the book's last section, which contains interviews with several key translators. Alan Myers - among his translations are "In England" and "Lithuanian Divertissement", in addition to countless others in conjunction with the author. Daniel Weissbort - his English language graces "Anno Domini" and "On Love". As for Peter France, he braved the elegant, yet monumental, "Twenty Sonnets to Mary, Queen of Scots." The interviews with these men allowed Polukhina to make a journey beyond mere lines, rhymes, and meters, as she tried to bring to light what can sometimes be a technicality-abundant process of translation. Such journey is particularly fascinating for bilingual speakers, who witness the rebirth of a poem they already know in Russian. Most certainly - poetry is what gets lost in translation. But upon hearing from Myers and France about how obsessively Brodsky revised their translations of his verse, could it be that the latter attempted to defy reality itself?
In fact, perhaps yes! As we follow Brodsky's poems from Russian to English, line by line, it is difficult to overemphasize strict adherence to the original, which is achieved without putting the actual verse intensity into jeopardy. No matter what they claim in some British publications…
Section IV ends with the Roger Straus interview. Polukhina affably engages the famed octogenarian publisher, largely responsible for Joseph Brodsky's PR campaign in the literary world. What do they talk about?.. The topics of discussion range from the looks of Queen of Sweden to Alexander Solzhenitsyn's attitude toward Brodsky's poetry. Content aside, however, this thirty-seventh interview becomes the final chapter in the book, much like Roger Straus' publishing house has always been the final chapter in the literary process, which spanned from the poem's inspirational inception somewhere on Morton Street to its prominent display on the shelves of Barnes and Noble.
By now, we have heard from some three dozen men and women, who stood as witnesses to that process. Ideally, the reading took us at least several weeks, for books of this nature should be read at a maximum pace of ten pages per day. Otherwise, the good old Mnemosyne might not retain much. Hence, the book is finished. So what? What is its ultimate purpose? Will it serve as a guide to those who seek better understanding of the poet's verse? Or will it become a raw material for some future comprehensive biography, whose thoroughness would not be possible without the details that emerge from Polukhina's volume? Thankfully, there is no clear answer. The present text, so rich in the mosaic of reminiscences and in the well-meant reproach for everything, save the weather, compels us to take a step back and marvel at the uncertainty. There is no clear answer. But good things might ultimately happen. Good things, save the weather!