A few days ago, we posted about the Siberian kitten named after poet Regina Derieva, and my dear friend Alexander Deriev referred to the occasion when the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova called her protégé, Joseph Brodsky, “a typical cat-and-a-half.” I’d never heard this before (though both poets identified strongly with cats), and the punctuation of the sentence seemed odd, so I did a little digging.
What I found was a very good article about the relationship of the two poets by their mutual friend, Anatoly Naiman in a 1999 issue of the London Review of Books. The relevant excerpt (and yes, it does have the odd punctuation):
What Derzhavin was to Pushkin, Anna Akhmatova was to Brodsky: the mentor who anointed him as the next great Russian poet. When Brodsky died, the journal Zvezda printed Akhmatova’s quatrain ‘I don’t weep for myself now’, with a new dedication to Brodsky in brackets. This is what Akhmatova used to call ‘popular wish-fulfilment’ – in other words, plain forgery. Akhmatova never dedicated a poem to Brodsky and the only excuse for thinking that ‘I don’t weep …’ might have been dedicated to him derives from the reference to ‘the golden stamp of failure’ – imagined by some to be a reference to his ginger hair.
Certainly, ‘we’ – by which I mean a group of four young Leningrad poets that included Joseph and me – found our way to Akhmatova in her last years, and her relations with Brodsky were on a higher level than her relations with the rest of us. She already knew what rank of poet he was in 1964, and we didn’t. A quarter of a century later, his biographer, Valentina Polukhina, interviewed me on a bus journey from Nottingham to Stratford. I was sitting by the window and the sun was broiling me, so that I associated the question, ‘When did you realise he was a great poet?’ (or even ‘genius’) with the various unpleasantnesses of the journey and snarled: ‘I still haven’t.’ Once I had cooled off, I decided that the question had been wrongly phrased. From our early twenties – or, to be more precise, starting when he was 19 and I was 22 – we had seen each other almost every day for years on end, but neither then nor later would it have been possible for me to say to myself: ‘That’s the great poet Joseph Brodsky!’ Akhmatova understood immediately that he was a great poet. Once, referring to her cat, Gluck – who exceeded the normal dimensions of his breed – by his nickname ‘Cat-and-a-Half’, she unexpectedly added: ‘Don’t you find that Joseph is a typical cat-and-a-half?’
When he died, I called Isaiah Berlin and said I’d like to talk to him about Joseph, and especially to hear what he was like when he first arrived in the West. Isaiah said that he, too, wanted to talk with me, not about that, but about what he was like ‘then, in the Akhmatova years, because everything was sown and came to fruition at that time, and the emigration years were merely the reaping of the harvest’.
Read the whole thing here. It’s worth it.