In praise of older books: Watermark by Joseph Brodsky (1992)

Brodsky, a survivor of the Gulag, went to Venice in search of love. He returned every winter for 17 years

Joseph Brodsky: no stranger to watery cities. Photograph: The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Joseph Brodsky: no stranger to watery cities. Photograph: The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

 

Joseph Brodsky, poet, Russian exile, Nobel laureate, first went to Venice in the 1970s in pursuit of a woman, “fine-boned, long-legged . . . almond-shaped eyes, with passable Russian on those wonderfully shaped lips”.

The woman was married to an architect, “of that ghastly post-war persuasion that has done more harm to the European skyline than any Luftwaffe”. The hoped-for affaire did not materialise. However, Brodsky did fall in love. Watermark is his love letter to Venice.

Brodsky was no stranger to watery cities. He was born in Leningrad in 1940 just before it was besieged by the German army. To survive those 872 days was a miracle, but his childhood left him with visceral memories. “A feeling of utter happiness . . . the smell of freezing seaweed,” he recalled as he stood on the steps of the Stazione Santa Lucia, at the end of the Grand Canal.

He remembered that “water unsettles the principle of horizontality. On water . . . your legs keep you and your wits in constant check”. He loses himself in the city, its streets “narrow, meandering like eels”, the only direction it has is “sideways”.

For Watermark is no guide book. The name-checks of buildings, painting and sculpture are absent. Brodsky visits only in winter, “low on colors . . . and big on the imperatives of cold and brief daylight.” It’s like “Greta Garbo, swimming”.

The “shorts-clad herds” of summer invite his contempt. His one experience of a gondola ride was on a cold, moonlit night. Five aboard including its owner, a local engineer who with his girlfriend did all the paddling.

“There was something distinctly erotic in the noiseless and traceless passage of it’s [the gondola’s] lithe body upon the water – much like sliding your palm down the smooth skin of your beloved.”

Brodsky went to Venice in search of love. He returned every winter for 17 years. A survivor of the ugliness of the Gulag, he deserved his years of beauty.

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