Posts Tagged ‘Anna Akhmatova’

Joseph Brodsky the Artist – now at Hoover Archives

Tuesday, July 11th, 2017
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Brodsky’s sketch of his parents in Leningrad. (Hoover Institution Library & Archives)

 

Last fall, Lora Soroka, archivist extraordinaire at the Hoover Institution’s Library & Archives, told me to come quick, quick, quick to the Hoover Pavilion. She had a surprise for me. Hoover had just acquired an important collection of Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky papers, which had been gathered by his close friend, Diana Myers, the wife of one of the poet’s translators, Alan Myers. It was not only a surprise, it was a wonder – letters, notes, photos, manuscripts, but perhaps most surprising of all, five self-portraits, a landscape, a still life, drawings in ink and chalk, and inevitably doodles.

Brodsky illustrated almost everything he wrote, often with self-portraits in the margin, or cats, which Yuri Leving of Dalhousie University, in an unpublished manuscript, Joseph Brodsky the Artist, called “acts as a metonymic self-representation of the exiled writer, easing the pathos of the message and translating it into a comic register.”  When I spoke to John Wronoski of Lame Duck Books about the collection, the man who is an expert on modern European literature and who has appraised many Brodsky archives said it was “totally exciting”— the letters alone, he said, would be “jewels in any collection.”

I wrote about the Brodsky papers at Hoover here, but I have a longer article up at the current Hoover Digest, “Brodsky and His Muses.” An excerpt:
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In 1962, the high-voltage poet met a dark-haired artist, a woman of silences. He was almost twenty-two, she was nearly two years older. The rest was destiny. Their love, suffering, and final separation forged a poetic identity for the young poet, who would go on to face trial, internal exile, forced labor, psychiatric prisons, and eventually exile.

For decades after the liaison ended, Brodsky immortalized Marina Basmanova in a series of poems eventually published as New Stanzas to Augusta. And what did she give him? A son. But surely a less-observed aspect of the liaison is this: she fostered the poet as artist.

Basmanova lit the fire, but the kindling had been prepared by others. His father was a photographer, and Brodsky learned early how to compose an image in a viewfinder, to develop a “camera eye.” His own photographs show the influence of the father on the son. Moreover, the classical architectural lines of his hometown, the former and future Petersburg, imprinted themselves on his aesthetics almost from birth and found expression in almost everything he wrote. Brodsky certainly would have known of Pushkin’s similar habit of illustrating what he wrote. His parents particularly prized the drawings of Pushkin, and pored over Pushkin albums—which also must have made an impression on the future poet who had been compared to Pushkin for his restless daemon and poetic equilibristics.

On his last day in Russia, June 1972. (Photo: Lev Poliakov)

The great poet Anna Akhmatova took note of her protégé’s drawings in a1965 letter: “When I see them, I always think of Picassos illustrations to the Metamorphoses,” she wrote, recalling the Spanish artist’s deft black lines and the classical motifs that intrigued both Brodsky and Picasso. Other Brodsky drawings have been compared with the work of the French Fauvist painter Raoul Dufy, another painter he admired. 

In America years later, in 1981, Brodsky acknowledged his debt of gratitude to the great love of his early years in “Seven Strophes”:

I was practically blind. 
You, appearing, then hiding,
gave me my sight and heightened it.
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 Read the whole Hoover Digest article here.
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A typical cat-and-a-half? You decide.

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016
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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):

akhmatova

From one cat…

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.

Brodsky1988

…to another.

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?’

regina-cat1When 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.

Six weeks old and a lot to live up to: Siberian show-cat named for poet Regina Derieva

Sunday, January 10th, 2016
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regina-cat1

The melancholy look gave her a name. (Photo: Mikael Ågren)

I have friends who named their cat “Eliot,” after T.S. Eliot, the poet who wrote “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” I’m sure other cats have been named after, oh, Wystan Auden, or Sidney Godolphin.

siberiancat2But for the late poet Regina Derieva, this is a first. (Read about the Stanford acquisition of her archive here.)

“Just this morning I got the best Christmas gift ever – notification that a new-born kitty was named after Regina,” her husband, Alexander Derievwrote to me. And no ordinary cat by a longshot. The Swedish Society of Siberian Cats has chosen the Russian poet for its newest show cat. Derieva joined Anna Akhmatova in this unusual honor.

“The naming of cats is a difficult matter, it isn’t just one of your holiday games,” wrote Eliot. But it doesn’t seem to have been the case for these two kittens, born on November 22. “First of all, we have a tradition of giving our cats Russian historical names,”” said Mikael Ågren, one of the directors of the 15-year-old society based in the small city of Gävle. “This time, we found these two newborn kittens looked so melancholic and poetic that started to search through Swedish Wikipedia for some special names for our sister kitten. We aren’t at all experts in poetry, but the fact that both Anna Akhmatova and Regina Derieva were born in Odessa made the decision for us. After that, we found Swedish translations of both writers’ work and read them with great interest.” It helped that Derieva spent the last fifteen years of her life in Sweden.

siberiancat3According to Alexander, who spoke with Ågren, the first ten cats were imported to Sweden directly from Russia in 2000. Now the total population of Siberian cats in Sweden is around 5,000. “The society is quite active in marketing and promoting their cats. Their ‘pupils’ participate in national and international exhibitions and cat shows every year,” he said. And so it will be for the little show-cat, Regina Derieva.

The names are fitting for another reason. Both Derieva and Akhmatova were cat-lovers and cat magnets. Derieva, in particular, identified with the lynx. And they weren’t the only reasons. Alexander recalled that in Anatoly Naiman‘s memoirs you can find the following passage: “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?’” That would be her protege, future Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky, another cat lover. Akhmatova’s lifelong friend Valeriya Sreznevskaya described her friend this way: “She was a sparkling water sprite, an avid wanderer on foot, climbed like a cat…” Alexander added, “And Modigliani in his drawings of Akhmatova depicted so well her feline’s body and expression.”

Check out the baby pictures below. Notice a resemblance?

UPDATE ON 1/13: Breaking news on kittens and Derieva in the Odessa press here.

baby-cats

Notice the resemblance? (Photo credits Russian State Archive of Literature and Art for Akhmatova, Stanford University Libraries for Derieva, and Mikael Ågren)

Who knew that Stalin was a lit critic?

Monday, June 25th, 2012
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Everything you wanted to know and lots, lots more. (1902 photo)

Just can’t get enough of Jozef Stalin?  Yale University Press is putting lots more online.  Two decades ago, who would have thought that visitors to a public library could  pore over Stalin’s marginalia and notes? Thanks to an effort by the press and the Russian State Archive for Social and Political History,  Stalin’s personal archive has been digitized, including of thousands of documents, letters, and books. You can read about it here.

According to Vadim Staklo, who heads the project, the Stalin archives are the latest in a research and publishing program that has its roots in the Annals of Communism series that Yale started in the early ’90s, which has already unearthed rich material from the Communist Party archives. Said Staklo:

“The popular perception of Soviet leaders mainly comes from the movies – you know, sclerotic stodgy men with thick eyebrows and golden stars on the lapel,” says Staklo. “In real life however many early Bolshevik leaders were very active, lively unorthodox people from very different walks of life. Some were refined intellectuals, others came from humbler origins, some were good writers… and some knew how to draw. These are the images people drew in the margins during the long hours of party meetings. There are caricatures, and also satirical depictions of current events and issues. They went unseen for decades as most of the artists fell victim to repression. They’re not just pictures however – they tell a story about early Soviet politics and personal relations on the Bolshevik Olympus, and the problems they had to deal with on the daily basis.”

There was, for example, the man Lenin called “The Golden Boy of the Revolution” – Nikolai Bukharin.  We wrote about him here. He probably had lots of marginalia, too.  That might be why Stalin had him executed in 1938.

“The common perception is that Stalin was brutal, paranoiac and senseless. But if you read the notes he was making you can see that, yes he may have been brutal and paranoiac – but he was not stupid. For example, he was very keen on the arts as the most important vehicle for propaganda and he read every important play or screenplay offered by a theater or screenwriter. He read them carefully, and wrote long letters to the authors or producers with his comments. He also personally supervised and heavily revised the Short Course In The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This was one of the most important books in the USSR, and you can see that it went through many drafts and that Stalin essentially rewrote the entire volume completely.”

One rather wishes, in fact, that he had been less attentive.  His interest in Osip Mandelstam and his poems – in particular, some verse ridiculing the Soviet chieftain – proved fatal.   (Mandelstam wrote that the words and influence of this “Kremlin crag-dweller” and “peasant-slayer” on literature were “leaden,” his “fat fingers … greasy as maggots.”)  Mandelstam died in a transit camp in the same momentous year that killed Bukharin – 1938.

In a recent interview with Chris Wiman, who recently published some “versions” of Mandelstam’s poems, the editor of Poetry Magazine was asked: “Was there a sense in which the horrors of the Stalinist era ‘made’ Mandelstam as a poet?”  Wiman replied:

Honestly, I don’t think so, though they certainly made that one poem. The horrors have made the legend of Mandelstam and are inevitably the lens through which we read his work and life. But if there had been no Stalin and no purge, Mandelstam still would have been a poet of severe emotional and existential extremity.

"The Sun!"

Then there’s this: Mandelstam was an artistic genius, the sort that any century produces only a handful of. If he hadn’t been driven mad and killed by Stalin, he might have managed to write something of Dantean proportions, that sort of huge unity and music. Dante, after all, was one of his literary gods: one of Mandelstam’s best pieces of prose is also one of the best essays on Dante ever written.

Joseph Brodsky would have agreed: ‘It’s an abominable fallacy that suffering makes for greater art. Suffering blinds, deafens, ruins, and often kills.  Osip Mandelstam was a great poet before the revolution. So was Anna Akhmatova, so was Marina Tsvetaeva. They would have become what they became even if none of the historical events that befell Russia in this century had taken place: because they were gifted.  Basically, talent doesn’t need history.”

In any case, Mandelstam had the last word after all.  Poets always do.

The ranks of human heads dwindle: they’re far away.
I vanish there, one more forgotten one.
But in loving words, in childrens’ play,
I shall rise again, to say – the Sun!

Pseudonyms born of schizonomia, imprisonment, and a stunning ear for sound

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012
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Dr. Seuss was not a “Dr.” at all – his father had wanted Theodor Geisel to pursue a medical career, and the title was a way of acknowledging the dad’s thwarted ambition. When Stephen King became successful, he had to kill off his pseudonymous alter ego, Richard Bachmann, via “cancer of the pseudonym, a rare form of schizonomia.”  William Sydney Porter, imprisoned for embezzlement at Ohio State Penitentiary, named himself after his prison guard, and became O. Henry.  Joanna Rowlings – like so many women before her – was encouraged to assume a sexually ambiguous name.  What does the “K.” in J.K. Rowlings stand for?  Why, nothing at all.

Read all these and more at Flavorwire’s “10 Odd Stories Behind Famous Authors’ Nom de Plumes” [sic]

One that didn’t make the list:  Anna Akhamatova, born Anna Gorenko.  Another commonplace situation:  her father objected to his teenage daughter befouling the family name with poetry.  What followed was not so commonplace.

As Joseph Brodsky explains in his essay, “The Keening Muse”:

"I am a Jenghizite."

As for the pseudonym itself, its choice had to do with the maternal ancestry of Anna Gorenko, which could be traced back to the last khan of the Golden Horde: to Achmat Khan, descendent of Jenghiz Khan. “I am a Jenghizite,” she used to remark not without a touch of pride; and for a Russian ear “Akhmatova” has a distinct Oriental, Tatar to be precise, flavor.  She didn’t mean to be exotic, though, if only because in Russia a name with a Tatar overtone meets not curiosity but prejudice.

All the same, the five open a‘s of Anna Akhmatova had a hypnotic effect and put this name’s carrier firmly at the top of the alphabet of Russian poetry.  In a sense, it was her first successful line; memorable in its acoustic inevitability, with its Ah sponsored less by sentiment than by history.  This tells you a lot about the intuition and quality of the ear of this seventeen-year-old girl who soon after her first publication began to sign her letters and legal papers as Anna Akhmatova. In its suggestion of identity derived from the fusion of sound and time, the choice of the pseudonym turned out to be prophetic.

 

For World Poetry Day: Tomas Venclova on Anna Akhmatova, Joseph Brodsky, and Czesław Miłosz

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012
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"Above all, love language" (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

I met Tomas Venclova in Kraków last May, at the festival celebrating the Czesław Miłosz centenary.  After the grand fête closing the week-long events – an awards ceremony and concert at the Kraków Opera House – a few exhausted party-goers had had enough and were ready for bed.  Those of us who were weary of wine and hors d’oeuvres looked for a way to head back to the hotel in the rain. I was shoveled into a taxi with two men.  One of them was Tomas Venclova, Lithuania’s leading poet, and a writer who is sometimes mentioned as a Nobel candidate.

We had corresponded before, as he was one of the contributors to my book, An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, and I had also heard him reading and reminiscing in the days before – the voice not quite what I had expected, the pitch slightly higher, the timber a little quirky, almost birdlike.

And here he was … or had I introduced myself in the crowded, jostling days before that night?  I must have. I honestly can’t remember.  But this is the first time I do remember, clearly:  he was in the front seat – silent … as tired as I was, perhaps? I could see his silhouette, with his trademark cap, against the rainy windows. I spent most of the time chatting with the fellow with whom I shared the back seat, someone who knew us both – and such are the tricks of memory that I cannot remember who, exactly, that third companion was. He has become a mysterious stranger, though the Lithuanian poet and I have struck up a correspondence since. A penpal by email or letter, from Yale, or Vilnius, or Paris – but  I haven’t seen him face-to-face since May.

Except on these newly released videos of interviews conducted last year in Paris.  I was greatly chuffed that Web of Stories has put them online to celebrate World Poetry Day on Wednesday, March 20.  It’s a good excuse to talk about this quietly marvelous poet – we aren’t likely to do anything later, on his birthday; it falls on September 11.

Here’s your chance to meet the poet and his poems.  Too few know the Vilnius-born poet and his work. Consider it a gift on the first day of spring.

From the email Web of Stories sent me:

In these absorbing clips, Venclova recounts his upbringing in Lithuania, including how he and his father had staunchly opposing political views. He also depicts how his first poems were dedicated to the Hungarian Revolution and despite not being published, they were circulated among groups of people: “I can say with pride that many, many years later when Hungary and Lithuania were free, I received a Hungarian medal for supporting the Hungarian Revolution then through my poems.

He also reminisces about his decision to emigrate to America, losing his Soviet citizenship, being offered a job at Yale and looks back over his career as a writer since leaving Lithuania: “When I left, I thought that it was possible that I’d end up as a lorry driver, for example, or a cleaner or a road layer. But that didn’t happen, I’d been a philologist and a writer and I remained a philologist and a writer.”

Alas, I was not able to embed the story of his meeting with Anna Akhmatova, and her interactions with Alexander Solzhenitsyn – you’ll find that here.

This clip describe Tomas’s meeting with Joseph Brodsky at Akhmatova’s funeral. My friend, the Lithuanian physicist Ramūnas Katilius, translated Tomas’s poems into Russian for the Nobel poet. “This was our triumvirate, our group.”

I didn’t realize that, in fact, that Tomas Venclova first brought Czesław Miłosz (or Česlovas Milašius, in the native Lithuanian) to Joseph Brodsky‘s attention. Here’s the story in the clip below.

 

Part Deux, with video clips discussing his help from Arthur Miller, his friendship with Timothy Snyder, and his unsuccessful attempt to save an imprisoned dissident, Viktoras Petkus, is here.