A brotherly account of Joseph Brodsky

 

BIOGRAPHY: Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life,By Lev Loseff, Yale University Press, 353pp. $35

‘I CANNOT comment on Joseph’s life and work dispassionately,” writes the poet and scholar Lev Loseff in the preface to his biography of Joseph Brodsky, “not only because I loved him but also because I thought him a genius.” And with these words Loseff sets the tone of his affectionate, admiring, almost brotherly literary biography. God knows Brodsky needed a brother: there is a loneliness about Joseph Brodsky – the condemned man, the rootless exile, the poet without a readership – that gives his life a mythical shape, and in Joseph Brodsky: A Literary LifeLoseff writes the anti-myth with eloquence and persuasive precision, yet with never a doubt that he is presenting to us a genius, a poet of the first order.

Loseff opens with Brodsky’s childhood, aborted education and work as a casual labourer, but we are soon brought to Brodsky’s infamous 1964 trial and sentence to hard labour for “parasitism”, a Soviet term that meant long-term unemployed. The trial made a martyr of Brodsky across the world, and many of the international responses to the trial are documented here. Still, in Loseff’s careful prose, it was not Brodsky’s youthful poetry nor his political stance that got him into trouble. It was the work of a singularly nasty minor official, a bluebottle who buzzed around the Leningrad scene, alighting on Brodsky almost by accident. Brodsky, hapless and politically naive, did nothing to bat him off – and then, all of a sudden, his condemnation by those who had never even read his poems was a grotesque fait accompli. When the presiding judge commented in surprise at the crowds of people in the courthouse someone called out: “It’s not every day you hang a poet.”

Brodsky himself often referred to the Kafkaesque nature of his trial, and in Loseff’s telling the apparent randomness of events is far more compelling than the “fate of the poet” myth. When Brodsky is sent to do hard labour Loseff is at pains to note that although the conditions of his transit were appalling, he served his sentence in a rural outpost, finding his own work, able to write and think, and possessing more living space than he could have imagined in the communal flats of Leningrad. He wryly counterpoints the reality with JM Coetzee’s uninformed musings on the young Russian poet in a labour camp, eating fish heads and patching his boots with rags.

None of this is to belittle Brodsky’s hardships, but Loseff is determined that we should know the reality and not the myth. We should concentrate on Brodsky the poet, not Brodsky the abstract martyr. It is illuminating that Brodsky spent his free time in a hut with a straw pallet bed and desk of rough boards, reading Robert Frost and John Donne with the aid of a dictionary and a kerosene lamp.

Loseff charts the true development of a poet through the headline-grabbing facts of his life: trial, hard labour, exile, Nobel Prize. Interspersed with Brodsky’s “life” are critical passages on his poetics, his themes and influences: English-language poetry, his discussions with the great Akhmatova at her dacha outside Leningrad, his private beliefs, his existentialism and individualism (which brought him into conflict with Soviet authorities and, ironically, also alienated him from the liberal left wing in the West in his insistence that US politics were by far the lesser of two evils). These wise and perceptive passages are illustrated with elegant “non-poetic” translations of Brodsky’s Russian poems. Loseff acknowledges with regret that Brodsky was a phenomenon rather than a poet in the West. His poetry was respected in its various fine translations but hardly adored; his own attempts at poetry in English were not considered to be successes. But his essays in English achieved something of the heights of his poetry in Russian, and Loseff gives a fine analysis of the reception of Brodsky’s unique and eccentric poet’s prose.

Loseff himself shared Brodsky’s fate as an exile, and one of the purposes of this book, originally written in Russian and published in Russia, but clearly also intended for publication in the US, is to introduce the Russian reader to Brodsky’s life in the US and to explain Brodsky’s Russian past to his readers in the West. The second half of the 20th century was dominated by the differences between these two empires, and Loseff’s Virgil guides the reader very neatly through the gates that stood between Brodsky’s Soviet life and emigration to the US. He lays out with definitive delicacy the standing of a poet in either society, the geography of culture, political correctness, against which the Russian literary elites often fulminate, even western education, which places emphasis on analysis over knowledge, and the peculiar world of the Russian literary exile who has lost the very language and troubled legacy that sustained him, and has gained in its place barren fame and material comfort in a suburban university town.

Loseff’s portrait of the man Brodsky is particularly brotherly: Brodsky was human, awkward, arrogant, competitive, but also loving, accepting and kindly – it must be said that Yale University Press does him no favours with its curmudgeonly cover portrait. Loseff explains with great evenness every charge brought against Brodsky and mostly excuses him his outbursts and excesses, although among his excuses the masterful “Brodsky drank quite moderately by Russian standards” features more than once.

Jane Ann Miller is a wise and skilful translator, and she has produced a prose translation that is equal in its beauty and wit to the original. There is not a phrase out of place. She shares Loseff’s humility before Brodsky, labelling all her verse translations “non-poetic”, but these allegedly artless translations of Brodsky’s poetry are feeling their way towards poetic form, and the poetry in them speaks louder than many a “poetic” translation. A reader with no knowledge of Brodsky’s poetry or his genius would quickly find the discussions and snippets of verse intoxicating, and of far greater substance than the mythical circumstances of their composition.


Sasha Dugdale is a poet and translator. Her third collection, Red House, will be published by Carcanet Press in August