He Was Commonly Viewed as a Retrograde... 80th Anniversary of Joseph Brodsky’s Birth/ Ãëàâíàÿ / Russkiy Mir Foundation / Publications / He Was Commonly Viewed as a Retrograde... 80th Anniversary of Joseph Brodsky’s Birth
He Was Commonly Viewed as a Retrograde... 80th Anniversary of Joseph Brodsky’s Birth
Joseph Brodsky would have turned 80 on May 24. His life was very short by today’s standards – he lived 56 years only. We spoke about Brodsky “seen through the lens of his time” with Constantine Pleshakov, a historian and writer, professor of political science at Amherst College, USA. For many years Constantine has also collaborated with Mount Holyoke College walking the same streets and breathing the same air as Brodsky did. Let us have an open mind and get an insight into the myths that still swirl around the poet’s name.
- Apart from your primary place of work, for many years you worked at Mount Holyoke College, and you still have series of lectures there. This is the college where Joseph Brodsky taught in his days. Is there, for instance, a lecture hall named after the poet or any special place dedicated to him?
- There is only a portrait in the library. To be honest, I doubt it would break Brodsky’s heart. He was not attached to the college, it was just a job. "My base," he used to say about Mount Holyoke.
Joseph Brodsky. Photo credit: russian7.ru
- I once read that Brodsky had been offered a place at a more prestigious university, but he decided to stay at Mount Holyoke, because his home there reminded him of the apartment on Pestelya Street in St. Petersburg. So, probably, it was not only “the base”, was it?
- If we are to proceed with the metaphor from Dialectical materialism, the “base” was a foundation for a “superstructure” —the college house which Brodsky lived in. It was an old farm in groves of New England. The farm was built in the 18th century, so it was really old. Some things just happened, they echoed – as if the key turned in the lock. When his parents died, two crows settled in the yard - one after the other. The first bird came after his mother’s death, the second one after his father’s: "Now they always show up or take off together, and they are too silent for the crows."
- What did people around Brodsky, including those in academic environment, think about him?
- Brodsky had a circle of friends in Mount Holyoke. And I would not recommend anyone to get at the poet’s memory in their presence. However, it has to be said that most of colleagues treated him with certain caution - what was he really like? What if he gave them hell? Socialism and socialist experiments in certain unfortunate countries are usually respected in academic environment of New England. Brodsky was a quick-tempered person and did not mince his words. Therefore a lot of people viewed him as a retrograde, the one who had been wronged by dictatorship, but did not believe in better tomorrow.
- They also say that Brodsky is the only major emigrant poet. Admiration for him started in the 1970s when he was exiled from the USSR. He was not able to see his parents anymore; he had to cut off communication with his son, relatives, and friends for many years. In America, Brodsky was immediately granted a high status among Americans, which was quite uncommon for Russian authors. How come the Americans embraced him as if he was one of them?
- I think it happened because Brodsky came to America to live and not to look back. Many emigrants can do nothing but only talk about their past. Oh, my estate! Oh, lawless streets of my Kharkov! Oh, how I drank vodka in Koktebel! Well, their American acquaintances are interested to hear about vodka in Koktebel once or maybe twice. Then they proceed with asking you what you think about The New Yorker and the senator from your state.
At Pulkovo Airport on the emigration day, June 4, 1972. Photo credit: kulturologia.ru
- One of my acquaintances, a journalist and author, “attacked” the genius’ image. He wrote an article where he shared his thoughts without any admiration. At no time he was literally dragged through the mud by those who consider themselves to be from Joseph Brodsky’s inner circle. We are talking about absolutely mature people. What astigmatic fanaticism is this? After all, even Brodsky used to say rather unpleasant things about himself while giving interview.
- I have a feeling that such exchanges of fire would really entertain Brodsky. It is so intense - cardinal’s guards clash with the king’s musketeers, Spartak clashes with CSKA, White Rose clash with the Red one. In any case, your acquaintance should be very satisfied: it is not the case when “a writer writes off and on, and a reader reads now and then”*. There is passion here.
- While reading memoirs about the poet, time and again I come across completely opposite reviews by those who used to be around him, including his colleagues. Do you think it was due to the fact that in America he all of the sudden got everything that he had lacked in the USSR — work, status, success?
- First of all, Brodsky wasn’t all sugar and honey. Being caught on the raw, he could be disrespectful, judgmental and toxic. For another thing, if Brodsky could be “a nameless lodger, a nobody,…in his raincoat”** while staying in a Venetian boarding house, his colleagues in America watched him really close. There are those who are still angry with him. In 1995 I witnessed one episode that resulted in resentment, though the episode was actually groundless. And now for twenty five years I have been observing that resentment.
- Brodsky’s list of books that everyone should read includes a lot of ancient literature, such as Bhagavad Gita, Epic of Gilgamesh, the Old Testament, writings of ancient Greeks, as well as works of some prominent Western writers and philosophers. However, as to Russian literature, he specified only one name – Dostoevsky, and two books - Notes from the Underground and Demons, though such a pick may seem odd. Why did he make this particular choice?
- I worked with one original list like that. It had been typewritten in hurry, with typing mistakes and just a few alterations. It was a one-day opinion, most likely, an impatient reply. It was not comprised for eternity or for the sake of eternity. You can say, the genius cracked back ("You ask me what you should read? Here you go: Bhagavad-gita and also Demons. You are welcome.").
- Brodsky ranked with Bunin, Pasternak, Sholokhov, and Solzhenitsyn after receiving the Nobel Prize in 1987. What do you think of this sequence of "random numbers"?
- Any award, I emphasize – any, is about politics, be it departmental, cathedral, collegiate, clannish, class-specific, international or any other one. There are hardly any random numbers in the prize-bearing section.
With friends before the Nobel Prize ceremony. Photo credit: kulturologia.ru
- In his Nobel speech, Brodsky said that a poetic word would triumph over a political one. Do you think his prediction came true?
- I am not quite sure if Brodsky said it that seriously. A Nobel speech implies uplifting optimism. And words shall all be in one dimension. It's like a Mobius strip.
- In his first interview after receiving the Nobel Prize, Joseph Brodsky said: “I have no ambitions to turn into an English-language author, let alone a poet.” What was his attitude to English? After all, he did write essays in English, as well as poetry.
- Brodsky was bilingual. His essays are “fine” English in the same sense as Joseph Conrad’s prose, for example. Something did not work out or never got a chance in terms of poems in English. Perhaps, because Brodsky discovered Essayistics as a genre in America, and the phrase melody should be English by nature. However, it was difficult to hear melody of the second language in poems.
- Do you consider Brodsky to be a “Russian poet,” and what defines this concept?
- I certainly do. Well, how can he be considered any other type of a poet? The only criterion here is language.
- Susan Sontag, an American writer and the poet’s friend, said: “I believe he regarded his exile as the greatest opportunity to become not only a Russian, but a global poet.”
- To the point.
Joseph Brodsky with two students. Photo credit: kulturologia.ru
- Today, we have probably discussed all the cliches about Brodsky, except the fact that he was a hit with the ladies. He devoted many poems to them and at the same time broke many hearts. In my opinion, some biographers pay too much attention to his personal life.
- The Don Juan list (by Pushkin or Brodsky) is a revered genre. It has a lot of admirers, and it is easier to work with – you don’t have to go word by word, but from one “anna kern” to another one. Oh, well, let us put biographies aside. Authoresses of memoirs have been stepping up – Brodsky in my life, Me in Brodsky’s life, There’s no life without Brodsky, just to name a few. So it goes. As JB put it, “there’s no help when it comes to youth, it can be neither suppressed, nor finished.”
* Inaccurate quote from The Colorful Letters (1884) by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1826-1889).
** Lagoon by Joseph Brodsky from Collected Poems in English (2000)