Posts Tagged ‘Ellendea Proffer’

“No place in the world for me”: Brodsky’s birthday fêted with an unpublished interview and more

Sunday, May 24th, 2015
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The poet in Ann Arbor, a year after emigration.

Today would have been Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky‘s 75th birthday. This weekend, there’s a celebratory conference in Saint Petersburg. Some of the presents arrived early – for example, Elisabeth Markstein‘s interview with the poet in The BafflerMarkstein died in 2013, and although the interview was published in Russian in Colta shortly  afterwards, this is its first appearance in English.

In her book, Moscow Is Much More Beautiful than Paris: Life Between Two Worlds (and thanks to Kurt Leutgeb for bringing the book to my attention), the award-winning translator and author describes how news of the emigration began with a phone call while she was getting her hair done: “I sat, my head with curlers sticking out all over, under the dryer hood with dear Mrs. Luise. ‘Telephone for you!’ I crept out from under the hood. ‘Hi, Markstein?’ The voice spoke Russian. ‘It’s Joseph Brodsky here.’ He has had to emigrate, he says. Could we pick him up from the airport today right away? It was the 4th of June, 1972. ‘Of course. We will be there.’” Markstein recalls their first meeting at the home of scholar Efim Etkind:

marksteinI had met Joseph Brodsky a few years before at the Etkinds’ place in Leningrad. I was there with our daughter Mirli; she must have been three years old. I had put her to sleep on a couch in the living room. (No one would expect that a Soviet university professor had a guest room!) So: Brodsky came in, beaming with happiness because on this day his son was born. We all congratulated him. Mirli could not think of sleep after this and flirted with Joseph. He, in a good-natured way, flirted back.

The trip to the airport was unnecessary. Brodsky’s publisher [Carl Proffer] came from the States to meet him. We didn’t connect with Joseph until that evening. He was confused, despairing, full of longing for his homeland. He had left his country, because even after his trial and the resulting banishment, the KGB was after him tirelessly. While still in Leningrad, before the flight, he had written a letter to Brezhnev, then the Soviet arbiter over the fate of men. Many people criticized Brodsky for this, accusing him of being craven and servile. But me, I was so moved by the letter, which had been published in a newspaper—a proud and at the same time helpless pleading. A significant poet begged for mercy from an completely senile Kremlin lord. For that reason, I’d like to quote a few sentences from it: “It is bitter for me, to leave Russia. I was born and grew up here, I lived here and am indebted to this country for everything that is in my heart. All the bad things that have happened to me, my country generously compensated me with good things, and I never felt myself to be disadvantaged. Not even now. I ask you to give me the chance to continue my existence on the Russian soil and in Russian literature.” To be published in Russia—Brodsky’s only wish. A pure fantasy. The few things of his that had appeared in print would be removed from the Soviet libraries, like the books and translations of all other involuntary emigrants.

The late Carl Proffer, who founded the Russian publishing house Ardis with his wife Ellendea Proffer, shared his own memories in her indispensable Brodsky Among Usrecently published in Russia, where it skyrocketed to #2 on the bestseller list (we wrote about its debut here): “It was Sunday, June 4, and the flight arrived more or less on time at 5:35. As the bus approached from the plane I saw Joseph in the window, and he saw me. He gave a V-for-victory finger flash. Downstairs at the window there was a ten-minute delay when one of his two bags was lost, the first of a series of mechanical details that would slow everything down for days. As Joseph emerged and we embraced, I discovered that a Viennese with strong ties to Russia, Elisabeth Markstein, and her husband were also there to meet him. He and I took a cab together; his repeated reactions were one of nervousness, saying, ‘strange, no feelings, nothing,’ a bit like Gogol‘s madman. The number of signs made his head spin, he said; he was puzzled by the vast variety of cars of different makes. He said there was so much to see that he couldn’t see (he repeated this for several days).” brodskyamongusBrodsky and Proffer had dinner with Heinz and Elisabeth Markstein that evening, and they discussed the Brezhnev letter. Carl Proffer’s memories: “Markstein said he should publish the letter, but Joseph said ‘No, it was a matter between Brezhnev and me.’ Markstein asked, ‘And if you publish it, then it’s not to Brezhnev?’ And Joseph said, yes, precisely. The Marksteins were very kind, and they offered the services of their young daughters to show us both around Vienna. But for the most part we were on our own, and since for the first time we were spending a great deal of time together alone, we talked a lot, especially at night.” (The Brezhnev letter, or one version of it, is included in the new Stanford collection – I wrote about that here.) Ellendea continues the story: “The shock of arrival converted to anger in Joseph: as the two men walked around Vienna, Joseph began spontaneously condemning entire groups of writers (especially Evtushenko and Voznesensky) and dissidents in general. These were things he had said before, but now it was with a kind of hysterical intensity and much more profanity.” In the Baffler interview, he attacks some of his closest friends and colleagues left behind in Petersburg. This then, was the context for his remarks. Several readers have commented on his surprising hostility – it may be one reason why the interview remained unpublished. But this interview is fascinating for many other reasons – really, almost all the Russian poets interviews are worth reading and rereading (that’s why I recommend my Joseph Brodsky: Conversations – it’s terrific, and not because of me). From the Markstein interview:

EM: Do you consider yourself a Soviet poet?

JB: I object rather strongly to all definitions except Russian, because I write in Russian. Still, Soviet would be correct. Whatever its accomplishments and crimes, it exists, and in it I existed for thirty-two years. And it did not destroy me.

EM: I’m glad you brought this up. There are émigrés, and Soviet citizens too, who try to deny its existence, pretend it’s not there. But how can you? The Soviet Union is a historical and cultural fact.

JB: A cultural fact. Exactly. So many Soviet artists drew their inspiration not from divine intervention but from the idea of resistance. That is something to consider, with gratitude even. True, I unexpectedly found myself in the position where one can feel grateful. While you actually live there . . . I’m not sure what it is, what is wrong with my nervous constitution, but when I lived there, I couldn’t quite raise myself to anger or to hatred. Anger, yes, but never hatred. I always remembered, you see, that the regime and its manifestations were individual, ordinary people. I couldn’t give it a single face. For a resistance fighter, for a questing dissident, such emotion is death. Therefore, I’m not a fighter. An observer, perhaps.

brodsky7The Viennese Markstein spent her childhood in Switzerland, Moscow, and Prague. She was expelled from the Communist Party and barred from the Soviet Union in 1968 (according to German Wikipedia) when she was discovered smuggling letters of Alexander Solzhenitsyn out of Russia. She was appalled by the Soviet invasion and apparently said so. She continued that line of thought with the poet:

EM: In Czechoslovakia in 1968, in some cities during the first seven days of Soviet occupation, or maybe it was just one city, there was a slogan, “Remember that you are people of culture.”

JB: This is precisely what ruined their cause.

EM: How so? I believe they had won more ground than was expected.

JB: I really don’t think so. They behaved like schoolchildren. They decided that the principles they were defending, that somehow they had discovered a new way of defending those principles. But in fact, if you really want to enforce them, if you don’t want them to remain just empty words, bubbles in the air, then the only way to do it is by shedding blood. Otherwise, all you will get is a better or worse form of slavery. Once you start talking freedom, how you deserve it, how you want it, how it’s been denied you, how you refuse to remain a slave, you’ve got to take up arms. There is no other way to fight a slave-master. True, they did disgrace the Soviet Union, but pragmatically speaking . . .

EM: I used to think that death is preferable to life on one’s knees. But now I’m not so sure. I’m beginning to think that any life is better than death.

JB: True. But still, the question is, what should we remain alive for? Man is not a rock, he can’t exist just for his own sake. There’s always the “what for.” I understand that here, in the West, I won’t find the answer. Because when I look around, I don’t understand what people live for. My impression is that they live for the sake of shopping. That human life exists for the sake of shopping. The only solution is to stay on the margins, to not get too involved—in shopping, I mean. If I had grown up here, I don’t know what I would have become. This is a very disorienting feeling. I just don’t understand what it’s all for. It must be a very Russian, very totalitarian idea that something so good must come only as a reward, not as a given.

Read the rest here. In her memoir, Markstein notes: “Brodsky continued his flight to London. I never expected letters from him. At the end of 1972, we received a postcard from Venice with greetings for us and the girls for Christmas and the New Year. ‘Imagine: All washed up on these shores. Because there is no place in the world for me.’ I translate intentionally literally, because only then is the pain audible. Still, Venice soon became Brodsky’s favorite city – and where he, it so happened, wanted to be buried, on the Island San Michele. Years later Brodsky was again in Vienna, but didn’t call on us. What does that mean? It confirms for me once more that poets definitely must be egocentric.”

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The Proffers with Brodsky in San Francisco, 1972 (Photo courtesy Casa Dana)

The book that’s rocking Russia: Ellendea Proffer’s Brodsky Among Us is a bestseller

Monday, April 20th, 2015
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Carl Proffer snapped a photo of Joseph Brodsky with Ellendea outside Leningrad’s Transfiguration Cathedral in 1970. (Photo copyright: Casa Dana)

Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky, exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972, has inspired a number of memoirs since his death. One big one was missing, until a few weeks ago.

Ellendea Proffer Teasley‘s Brodsky Among Us is now in its third printing, although it was released only last month in Russia by Corpus, one of the largest publishers in Russia. Reviews have been laudatory – and the book quickly shot to the top ten at the main Moscow bookstore, Moskva. The author is now on her triumphant tour of Russia, giving talks, media interviews, book signings, press lunches, and photo ops. With her late husband, Carl Proffer, she co-founded the avant-garde, U.S.-based Russian publishing house Ardis during the Cold War. Together, they brought Brodsky to America.

brodskyamongusThe literary acclaim has caught Ellendea off-guard. Russians generally like their poets stainless, and her memoir is as candid as it is affectionate. Her Brodsky is brilliant, reckless, and deeply human. “I did not expect the response I’m getting,” she wrote to me. “It is so moving to me. They understood exactly what I was doing, and they are grateful that it’s not more myth-making.”

While I have been encouraging her to write a memoir for years, I had not seen enough of her writing to anticipate what such a work would look like. Frankly, I did not expect anything of this caliber – an engaging, compulsively readable text that is bodacious, graceful, seamless. Perhaps I should not have been surprised: five years after Carl’s untimely death in 1984, she received a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in her own right. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, she has kept a low profile; this book marks her powerful comeback as a major figure in Russian literature.

The Proffers befriended Brodsky (1940-1996) in Leningrad. When the U.S.S.R. gave him the heave-ho, the couple miraculously secured an appointment for the unknown foreigner as poet-in-residence at the University of Michigan, which launched his career in the West. In Brodsky Among Us, she writes of the first encounter in the present tense, as if it were still replaying in her head, over and over:

“The most remarkable thing about Joseph Brodsky is his determination to live as if he were free in the eleven time zone prison that is the Soviet Union. In revolt against the culture of ‘we,’ he will be nothing if not an individual. His code of behavior is based on his experience under totalitarian rule: a man who does not think for himself, a man who goes along with the group, is part of the evil structure itself.

Joseph is voluble and vulnerable. He brings up his Jewish accent almost immediately; when he was a child his mother took him to speech therapy to get rid of it, he says, but he refused to go back after one lesson. He is constantly qualifying whatever he has just said, scanning your reactions, seeking areas of agreement. He talks about John Donne and Baratynsky (both poets of thought) then says da​? to see if you agree. (Later he would use Yah? this way in English.) This is part of his social courtship pattern. Of course there is another Joseph, the one who doesn’t like you, and that Joseph – whom we rarely see, but are often told about – is insolent, arrogant and boorish. I am reminded of what Mayakovsky‘s friends said about him – that he had no skin.”

She explains the combativeness later, “He needed his enemies; resisting them – and the state – had formed his identity.” Hence also his careerism, his relentless (and astonishingly successful) social climbing among the New York City literati: “If you had fame, you had the power to affect a culture; if you had fame you were showing the Soviets what they had lost,” she wrote.

Much of the current Russian attention is not just on Brodsky, but on the Cold War legacy of Ardis itself, given that censorship levels in Russia are returning the nation to the 1970s. Journalist Nikolai Uskov, who has visited the Ardis archives at the University of Michigan, is working on a big book about the courageous publishing house that operated out of an Ann Arbor basement.

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On Russian TV with Ksenia Sobchak (Photo: Casa Dana)

I met Ellendea back at the University of Michigan in the 1970s and visited her and Carl at the former country club that had become the Proffer family home and base of operations. Together, the Proffers published the best Russian literature at a time when the U.S.S.R. wasn’t. As I wrote a dozen years ago:

The competition was admittedly limited: Soviet publishers were hamstrung in what they could print; they weren’t publishing much that was new, let alone groundbreaking. The emigre YMCA press in Paris (which published Solzhenitsyn, among others) and Possev in Germany had a religious or political bent, a bias that often alienated younger writers. Samizdat was one alternative: haphazard, handwritten or mimeographed, and highly perishable.

Then there was Ardis. With its related venture, the innovative Russian Literature Triquarterly, Ardis brought Western readers to Russian writers. Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, Velimir Khlebnikov, Mikhail Bulgakov, even Anna Akhmatova were relatively little known in the era before Ardis set up shop; their works were suppressed, their names and reputations were inevitably jumbled with a plethora of lesser, officially approved writers.

Her memoir is likely to cement the Ardis legacy in the best possible way. Brodsky Among Us is compelling, polished, pitch-perfect. She captures his restless self-reinvention, the bluster, the belligerence, the boorishness – while never losing sight of his tenderness and generosity, the reason so many, including Susan Sontag as well as the author, forgave him everything. This is, above all, a loving memoir.

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Signing books at the Dostoevsky Library (Photo: Casa Dana)

Brodsky Among Us is about as flawless a book as one could expect. I wished it wouldn’t end. I found myself marking passages I wanted to return to, sentences I wanted to remember. It’s short, but it’s not a bad idea to leave the reader wanting more. I suspect she leaves out all the right things. While some Russian readers have noted the book’s understatements and omissions, I know that she was anxious, first and foremost, that the poet’s oeuvre not be overshadowed by the anecdotes.

Recently, Russian government has attempted to appropriate its rejected poet. Brodsky’s words were featured in the closing ceremonies of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, a startling move to reclaim the writer who would not have survived had he stayed, and may not have thrived under today’s Russian regime, either. Brodsky never returned to his beloved Petersburg. Why? In part, Proffer writes, because he didn’t believe anything had really changed. She writes: “Joseph had many stated reasons for not going back. He said different things, depending on his time and mood, so all one can really trust are his actions. He did not return to his native country when he could have. I know a few of his reasons: one was the iron conviction that return would be a form of forgiveness … Exile was so difficult that it was hard to believe one could just go back as if it had not cost you anything. As Americans descended from immigrants, we are familiar with this phenomenon: sometimes you love your country but it doesn’t love you back. This loss becomes a part of your new identity.”

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Ellendea on air at Radio Echo Moscow (Photo: Casa Dana)

The back cover of Brodsky Among Us has an attention-grabbing quote, but out of context one that sounds misleadingly harsh. Here are the paragraphs that goes around that quotation, which addresses the poet’s posthumous revision:

“There is a Brodsky stamp in America, and there is an Aeroflot plane named after him. I don’t want there to be a museum for Joseph, I don’t want to see him on a stamp, or his name on the side of a plane – these things mean that he is dead dead dead dead and no one was ever more alive.

I protest: a magnetic and difficult man of flesh is in the process of being devoured by a monument, a monstrous development considering just how human Joseph was.

Joseph Brodsky was the best of men and the worst of men. He was no monument to justice or tolerance. He could be so lovable that you would miss him after a day; he could be so arrogant and offensive that you would wish the sewers would open up under his feet and suck him down. He was a personality.

The poet’s destiny was to rise, like his autumn hawk, into that upper atmosphere even if it was going to cost him everything.”

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Eminent translator Viktor Golyshev, Ellendea Proffer Teasley, and critic Anton Dolin at standing-room only event. (Photo: Casa Dana)

When Proffer, who had relocated to southern California, sold Ardis to Overlook Press in 2002, I wrote about the transition in the TLS, and the Los Angeles Times Book Review was so eager to republish the piece they tracked me down to a secluded beach in Ocho Rios to get my permission to reprint tout de suite. Those were the days when newspapers still had cutting-edge book review sections willing to take a risk, the LATBR foremost among them. In 2015, publishers are looking at markets, not enduring legacies, and book editors don’t take too much interest in what happens beyond their shores. C’est dommage.

Here’s why this story is important here, now: most of his poetic career was in the U.S., not Russia. Previously published memoirs by Lev Loseff (I wrote about it for Quarterly Conversation here) and Ludmila Shtern (I wrote about it in the Kenyon Review here) are greatly illuminating, but shortchange his American life. The American story is one the Russians didn’t know, and the one that we haven’t told, spotlighting the auto-didact’s wondrous, rough-and-tumble self-reinvention, admittedly marred by the ambitious, ill-advised self-translations that would have torpedoed a lesser genius. He became the first foreign-born U.S. Poet Laureate. He taught generations of American students – including this one. Those of us who knew him will never forget him – those who didn’t, especially, need this book. Although the champagne corks are popping in Russia, most of Brodsky Among Us takes place on this side of the world – it’s an American story, about an American career. He is one of us.

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Brodsky Among Them: The Proffers & the poet at Mark Hopkins Hotel, San Francisco, 1972. (Photo copyright: Casa Dana)

 

Back in the U.S.S.R.: Carl Proffer, Ardis, and an “eleven time zone prison”

Sunday, October 20th, 2013
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The basketball player who bootlegged books … with Brodsky and Ellendea

Last month, the University of Michigan commemorated two of the most remarkable people to cross the campus threshhold: the late Prof. Carl Proffer and his wife Ellendea Proffer Teasley, founders of the exuberant and trailblazing Ardis Publishers, which published the best Russian literature at a time when the Soviet government wouldn’t.  I’ve written about them here and here and here and here, as well as many other places over the last few decades, ever since the time I met them in the erstwhile Ann Arbor country club they had turned into a publishing house (as well as a family home with four kids).  I wasn’t at the September symposium, except perhaps in spirit.  Fortunately, the event left a welter of videos in its wake.  In one of them, Ellendea described, in 27 minutes, the intrepid  venture that was Ardis.

The young Carl Proffer was a longshot for a Slavic scholar, she recalled – a teenage basketball player who was more likely to become a lawyer rather than scholar, someone who never ventured beyond the required reading list. He discovered Russia through a casual interest in Cyrillic, which led him to a mentor – a distinguished Byzantine historian émigré who had been tethered to teaching a first-year Russian language course for the university.  “Then this man, meant for other things, this basketball player with a fancy prose style, fell in love with the literature,” said Ellendea.  That was sophomore year – junior year gave him the Scottish enlightenment and the gifts of persuasion.  He attended St. Andrew’s in Scotland, which runs on a tutorial system, and discovered philosopher David Hume.  “This was an amazing awakening. The basketball player became an intellectual, but not a normal one.”

“He was a person of high risk – captain of the team. … He was afraid of nothing. He could control his temper and his indignation. The rest of us could not; we were very young,” she recalled.  “Everyone he came into contact with went into Russian, too, because he spread the word. His philosophy was spreading the word … He was the first PhD candidate from Michigan. They built the program around him. He became the youngest full professor in 1972.”

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Carl and Ellendea at Ardis

Perhaps the biggest chance he took was with a pretty girl in a miniskirt. “It was easy not to take me seriously if you didn’t know me well,” said Ellendea, who was six years younger.  “He not only took me seriously and married me, but he made me a full partner.”  Every decision was made jointly, and she continued Ardis after his 1984 death until 2002, when Overlook Press acquired Ardis.  She received a MacArthur “genius” award in 1989.

“Carl could type 110 words a minute – that was important. Ardis was built on our bodies.  We used up our energy, and his energy was phenomenal.”  The venture was a dangerous one, and bootlegging manuscripts risked arrest and worse. They faced other dangers in the U.S.:  “We got no money from anyone. We lived on a knife edge – mortgaging our house every year.”

“We walked a razor’s edge, and he was cool,” with an important exception – “and this is where we get to the ‘why’ of Ardis,” she said.

The plight of their friends, the literary heart of Russia, left Carl in “absolute cold, angry outrage – destructive outrage.” She continued, “Our people, they wanted one book, they were writing a monograph and wanted one book on Toulouse Lautrec, they wanted one book on Shakespeare. … They knew so much, so many languages but never left this damn country, which was really an eleven time zone prison … We saw people like us, behind bars, and sometimes they were having to kiss their own chains and say, ‘It’s nothing. It’s great.’ It was no kind of life.  … This was our mood when we come back. We were enraged at what has happened to these remarkable people. Nadezhda Mandelstam with four locks on her door. It’s 1969, but she’s still afraid.  She said, ‘Don’t bring young people to me because they are the worst. They are the informers.'”

She described Soviet-era Russia as “a thin crust over a big volcano of peasant emotion, under the control of the gun and the whip. And that thin crust was a deep, rich, powerful culture to us.  Not just literature – music, art, dance.”

The Proffers dressed up to meet their Russian contacts, but they choose to dress as Americans, not to emulate the proletariat or the Russian intelligentsia, since they were neither.  “We would be American, because the Russians were starting to think, ‘Oh, the whole world is like this.’ Visually, we would contradict that idea.  Because it’s easy to go into despair when you’re in jail for 70 years.”

“I want you to consider the daring, the nerve of him. He had daring, but he never said, ‘Now I’m going to jump from the high dive’ –  he just did it.  We were people of action, that is certainly true. … We were moving very fast because Carl, like [Joseph] Brodsky, did not think he had a long life ahead of him.”

I was there in spirit, and you can be, too – videos of the event are here.

Carl Proffer honored in Ann Arbor. So far, no statue in the former U.S.S.R.

Thursday, April 18th, 2013
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Joseph Brodsky with Carl and Ellendea Proffer

To my best knowledge, I am the only person to have dedicated a book to Carl Proffer – that would be Joseph Brodsky: Conversations.

At the University of Michigan, my path crossed all too briefly with the heroic Carl and Ellendea Proffer, the founders of Ardis Books, the small publishing house that during the 70s and 80s was the largest and finest publisher of Russian literature in the West.  The Proffers produced about 40-60 books and journals a year from their Ann Arbor basement … well, I told that story here (“Joseph Brodsky and the courageous couple who brought him to America – Carl and Ellendea Proffer”) and here (“Joseph Brodsky: How the 15-year-old dropout became a university professor”).  It’s unlikely that the Russian Nobel laureate would have emigrated to America if Carl had not intercepted him in Vienna, after he was kicked out of the U.S.S.R. in 1972.  So it seemed fitting to dedicate my book to the memory of Carl, who died at 46 of a particularly brutal and fast cancer.

Now the University of Michigan is honoring the Proffers’ extraordinary legacy with a symposium September 20 and 21 – read about it here. From the website:

brodsky2The symposium will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the birth of U-M Professor Carl R. Proffer (1938-84), an outstanding scholar renowned for his books on Gogol and Nabokov. In his brief 46 years Carl Proffer not only contributed tremendously to the field of Russian literature as an author, translator, editor, and publisher, but also put Ann Arbor on the map of Russian literature in perpetuity. In 1971 with his wife Ellendea, also a scholar, author, and translator, he co-founded Ardis which became the foremost Western publisher of Russian and Soviet literature, including reprints and translations of classics as well as works banned by the Soviet authorities. Symposium presenters will explore Ardis Publishers’ consequential role as a citadel of Russian literature and U-M’s rich legacy as a center for the study of dissent in the Soviet Union and as a refuge for Soviet writers, artists, and political dissidents (including Joseph Brodsky, poet-in-residence at U-M, 1972-81).

Carl’s New York Times obituary is here.  You are welcome to add your facts, citations, stories, anecdotes, whatever to the new wikipedia entry for Carl here (and the Ardis entry is here).  From the wikipedia site:

Ann Arbor became a stop on the Russian literary underground railway, as a stream of prominent writers came to visit Ardis or teach at the university. Proffer mentored numerous émigré writers, arranging for them to go into academia. Proffer made yearly trips to the Soviet Union until 1979, when the publication of the politically controversial anthology Metropol caused him to be banned from the Soviet Union. Diagnosed with cancer in 1982, he would never see Russia again; he died in 1984, at the age of forty-six. He is survived by his wife and four children—Andrew, Christopher, Ian and Arabella.

I didn’t know, however, that Carl’s struggle had been filmed by CBS.  The segment is below.  And below that, a video on Ardis for any Russian-speakers among the Book Haven readers – Ellendea is featured beginning about 4.45 minutes in.

Someone once said that there oughtta be a statue for the Proffers in Russia – no statue to date, but Ellendea was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 1989.

Joseph Brodsky: How the 15-year-old dropout became a university professor

Sunday, May 27th, 2012
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1972: The poet and the Proffers

Curious synchronicity:  On 19 March, drama critic John Freedman, writing in the Moscow Times, remembered Carl and Ellendea Proffer, the critical link in bringing Joseph Brodsky to the U.S.  I discussed this connection in my post a few days ago here.  It’s not like they show up in ink that much nowadays.

Freedman begins with a panegyric:

One of the most inspirational people in my life was a scholar and publisher whom I never met. His name was Carl R. Proffer and I can’t imagine living the life I have without him.

Along with his wife Ellendea C. Proffer, he founded Ardis Publishers in the early 1970s. This was a case of someone taking the idea of a publishing “house” quite literally. The Proffers began printing unpublishable Soviet and Russian literature at home and selling it by mail. Here you could read the latest stories, novels and poems by contemporary writers Joseph Brodsky,  Vasily Aksyonov and Andrei Bitov, to say nothing of banned works by Osip Mandelstam, Mikhail Bulgakov, Nikolai Erdman and many others from the early Soviet period. By the late 1970s I was unloading as much of my meager paychecks on books from Ardis as I was on records by Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and the Kinks.

One of my greatest joys in those years was receiving the latest edition of the Proffer-edited almanac Russian Literature Triquarterly in the mail. This was a scholarly journal like no other, past or present. There wasn’t a stuffy word in it. Each issue was jam-packed with incredible new translations, fascinating essays, groundbreaking memoirs and eye-opening scholarship. Each deliciously fat issue was also accompanied by oodles of rare, historical photographs and fabulous drawings and caricatures. RLT was an unsurpassed treasure trove of Russian letters.

Vintage republished Ardis edition (with commentary by Ellendea Proffer)

I followed one of the journalist’s hyperlinks and found a 1996 article by Benjamin Stolz and Michael Makin, and tells how Carl Proffer diverted the Russian poet to Ann Arbor:

He happened to be in Leningrad visiting Brodsky in May, 1972, when the poet received notification from the authorities that he was being issued an exit visa for emigration to Israel.  After responding that he was not interested in leaving his native land and culture, Brodsky was warned that the coming winter would be very cold — a threat that was not lost on a man who had been convicted of “social parasitism” for living on his poetry and had served a stretch in exile working on a collective farm in the Russian far north.  He decided to discuss the matter with his American friend, and Proffer, in his optimistic way, told Brodsky that he could come and teach in Ann Arbor.  Brodsky accepted the idea, and Proffer contacted Benjamin Stolz, who at the time chaired the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures.  After receiving authorization to hire Brodsky, Stolz obtained an immigration visa personally approved by William Rogers, Secretary of State, and flew to Chicago to get a federal work permit.

Brodsky began teaching for the first time in his life in September, 1972 — a daunting assignment for anyone, but especially for a young man who had dropped out of high school at fifteen, even if he was accustomed to declaiming his poetry to large groups of admirers.  He asked Stolz how he should teach his courses, one of which was a course in Russian titled “Russian Poetry” and other, in English, titled “World Poetry.”  Stolz replied, “Joseph, they’re your courses, teach them the way you want to, you’re the expert, ” — a piece of advice that Brodsky didn’t need but never forgot.  Brodsky was an inspiring and unorthodox teacher, who combined significant demands on his students — he insisted that a person who was serious about poetry must know at least 1,000 lines by heart — with  a sense of the absurd.   He was known, upon listening intently to a long theoretical exposition from a graduate student, to respond with a concise “meow.”  His presence at the University offered the chance, in the words of a former student, to experience the dynamics of the poet’s perspective and his relationship to language.

Freedman recounts a recent visit to my old stomping grounds in the University of Michigan’s Modern Languages Building, to the office of the  Nobel poet:

Ugly building, gorgeous literature

Invited in by Professor Shevoroshkin, I spent a few moments in Brodsky’s former office. It is now entirely the domain of a linguist, but a few items have been left as they were the last time Brodsky stepped out into the corridor in 1980. A random gallery of postcards and pictures that Brodsky scotch-taped to the inside of the door still hang there helter-skelter. They include photos of an old Soviet china plate, the Venice canals, a view of St. Petersburg, and several simple designs that surely had little meaning for anyone but the poet.

Shevoroshkin explained that numerous items have fallen off the door over the years but that he hasn’t gotten around to taping them back up. “I’ve got to do that sometime,” he said with a smile suggesting he may never get around to it.

Important as his service to Brodsky was, bringing the poet to Ann Arbor was only one of Proffer’s many significant contributions in bringing Russian literature to America. I well remember that when Vasily Aksyonov was deported from the Soviet Union in 1980, his first stop was Ann Arbor. By that time, for those of us following events, it was the natural, the only, destination Aksyonov could have had in America. Not New York, not Los Angeles, but Ann Arbor, Michigan. Where Carl and Ellendea Proffer were located.

A year earlier I met the poet Bulat Okudzhava and the novelist Sasha Sokolov in California. Both had been published by the Proffers at Ardis.

I interviewed Sokolov for the Michigan Daily, in the Proffers’ basement, where Ardis was situation, shortly after he emigrated. Ardis was publishing his School for Fools at that time.

I also remember those postcards in the Modern Languages Building office.  As for his claim, “There isn’t that much of substance about the Proffers on the Internet, and that is an injustice” – well, this is a start.

Joseph Brodsky and the courageous couple who brought him to America – Carl and Ellendea Proffer

Thursday, May 24th, 2012
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The Russian Brodsky

I met Michael Scammell years and years ago in London.  He was the vigorous, larger-than-life (or so he seemed to me) founding editor of the fledgling journal Index on Censorship, documenting censorship and freedom of expression around the world.

I was an acolyte performing insignificant editorial work in the cramped offices somewhere near Covent Garden – at least that’s where I recall the headquarters, though it must have moved several times since then.  Scammell, a critic and translator, was said to be working on something about Alexander Solzhenitsyn – the biography was published in 1985.

In 2002,  I republished his 1972 interview with the poet in Joseph Brodsky: Conversations – I remember his pleasant note  giving permission after I reintroduced myself.

So I read with interest his insightful “Pride and Poetry”, in the current issue of The New Republic, which considers Lev Loseff‘s Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life.  (I reviewed the same book for Quarterly Conversation here.)

Scammell draws many of the same conclusions I did, including this one, as he weighs whether “Loseff was perhaps right to put so much emphasis on Brodsky’s Russian life, Russian sensibility, Russian language, and Russian poems”:

In his best readings he offers the reader intimations of Brodsky’s genius, and captures crucial features of the poet’s achievement by obeying Brodsky’s injunctions to follow the twists of his language and write a biography of his verses. This is not, I fear, the sort of poet’s biography that Brodsky himself would have wanted to read. Judging by the vividness of his memoiristic essays, and also by what I remember of him, he would have demanded more flesh on the bones, more human interest, more drama, and—despite himself—more scandal. It probably will not happen very soon, but the world will see such a biography eventually. And so it should, for this astounding man deserves it.

Noting the serious biographical omissions in the book, Scammell comments:

A perhaps more weighty explanation is hinted at in Loseff’s eccentric statement that he is not qualified to write a biography of Brodsky “because Joseph was a close friend of mine for more than thirty years.” What would Boswell have made of such a statement? It appears to be an indirect way of alluding to Brodsky’s strenuous strictures against a proper biography. “A writer’s biography is in his twists of language,” he wrote in his great essay “Less than One,” and to a would-be biographer he protested that “A poet is not a man of action…. If you are of a mind to write a biography of a poet, you have to write a biography of his verses.” To his will Brodsky appended the following injunction: “The estate will authorize no biographies or publication of letters or diaries [after my death] … My friends and relatives are asked not to cooperate with unauthorized publication of biographies, biographical investigations, diaries, or letters.” Shelley, Byron, Hardy, James, Auden, and any number of illustrious predecessors would have agreed with him, but Loseff gets in a small dig by way of muffled revenge: in his lifetime Brodsky loved to read—what else?—biographies of famous poets.

This fits.  Though he disparaged biographies of poets, when he introduced C.P. Cavafy to our University of Michigan class, he began by … explaining the Alexandrian poet’s life.  How else?

But I need to offer one correction:  Scammell writes of the 1972 exile, when Brodsky was booted from Leningrad, “He was met in Vienna by George Kline, a longtime admirer and translator of his poetry…” No, the poet was met by Carl Proffer, who flew out to Austria to meet him and lure him to the University of Michigan.  That’s why, as he writes, “From London Brodsky set off for Michigan, where he had a job waiting for him and where he settled in surprisingly quickly.”  Carl took him to meet W.H. Auden the next day, in the village of Kirchstetten.

Scammell notes that Loseff “lived in America at the same time as Brodsky.”  There’s a reason for that.  Loseff writes: “Meanwhile, I had emigrated to the United States in the summer of 1976 and on Brodsky’s recommendation had been offered a job at Ardis…” The poet, as I recall the story from Ellendea Proffer, didn’t merely recommend Loseff – he pretty much offered him a job.  And the husband-and-wife publishing team graciously accommodated, though they hadn’t yet met the newest émigré.

The legacy of the Proffers is too often overlooked.  Loseff recalls Carl this way:

In 1972, Proffer was a rising star in American academe. At thirty-four, when most Ph.D.’s in the humanities were still slogging away as humble assistant professors struggling to write their first scholarly book, Proffer had already written two and had been appointed full professor at the prestigious University of Michigan. The son of a factory foreman, the first child in his family to attend college, he chose literature over basketball. … Annoyed at the slowness and conservatism of American publishers and publications in the field of Russian art and literature, tired of the lack of publishers in general, Carl and his wife, Ellendea, decided to start their own publishing house. They called it Ardis, the name for the house in Nabokov’s Ada. Nabokov himself, who was very particular about his editors, publishers, and interviewers, had come to trust Proffer and had given him the copyright for all his Russian works. Ardis published these and many other hard-to-find twentieth century authors in facsimile editions: poetry collections by Akhmatova, Gumilyov, Zabolotsky, Mandelstam, Pasternak, Khodasevich, Tsvetaeva, and a host of other Silver Age poets…

Joseph Brodsky’s words were even stronger: “In terms of Russian literature, Carl Proffer might be compared to Gutenberg. … he changed the very climate of Russian literature. Writers whose works had been rejected or banned now felt themselves freer because they knew that for better or for worse, they could send a piece to Ardis.”

I wrote about the Ardis venture for the Times Literary Supplement in 2002; a shorter version was published by the Los Angeles Times here. (And an even earlier version around 1976 or 1977 in the Michigan Daily.)  Carl died tragically young of cancer at 46, in 1984.  Ellendea carried on alone, eventually earning a MacArthur “Genius” award.

Someone said that a monument should be built to them in Mother Russia, whose literature they published against great odds, sometimes bootlegging banned works out of the U.S.S.R.  Pending a monument, I did what I could by dedicating Joseph Brodsky: Conversations to Carl Proffer’s memory – “who in the words of Joseph Brodsky, ‘was simply an incarnation of all the best things that humanity and being American represent.'”

Postscript:  Frank Wilson at Books Inq reminds me that today Joseph would have been 72. This quote from him pretty much summarizes my attitude this election year:

I do not believe in political movements. I believe in personal movement, that movement of the soul when a man who looks at himself is so ashamed that he tries to make some sort of change — within himself, not on the outside.

“This is Egypt, Joseph, the old school of the soul.”

Friday, January 28th, 2011
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"It is strange to think of surviving..."

A few days ago, I wrote a belated birthday card for Joseph Brodsky, who would have been 70 last year.  Today, Patrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence commemorates a different anniversary:  Joseph died fifteen years ago today.

Patrick opens with Joseph’s line from “Lullaby of Cape Cod”:  “It is strange to think of surviving, but that’s what happened.”  Odd way to open a post commemorating a death …  Patrick’s reaction to his 1996 death was, “How unfair,” but the death was by all accounts somewhat self-inflicted.

In the introduction to Joseph Brodsky: Conversations, I wrote:

Friends and colleagues remember his chain-smoking, even as he took capsules of nitroglycerine.  … ‘I saw him five days before he died, and he was the color of ashes,’ said Ardis publisher Ellendea Proffer, whose efforts with her husband, the late Professor Carl Proffer, brought Brodsky to the United States.  ‘But I’d seen him that way before and he had lived.’ For Brodsky, smoking and writing were tragically linked.  Proffer told me he insisted, after his many heart surgeries, ‘If I can’t smoke, I can’t write.’ His choice was staggeringly characteristic, arguably heroic, ultimately fatal.

Patrick adds, “By all accounts, Brodsky was a charming, deeply civilized man. …” Well, count me out on that one.  When he meant to, he could be extraordinarily charming.  On other occasions, he could be aggressively abrasive.  John Woodford at the University of Michigan told me,  “Sure he could be arrogant and swaggering. … When someone asked about the sensual impact of various languages on his ear and mind, and included Spanish in the question: ‘Spanish?!’ he said. “I don’t believe I consider it a language.’

Richard Wilbur, ever the gentleman, put it wisely:  he said that the Nobel poet could be “harshly downright at times,” but added that “a little scorn can be a precious thing in a slack age.”

Patrick, in his tribute, cites Anthony Hecht:

“In Millions of Strange Shadows (1977), Hecht dedicated “Exile” to Brodsky. The poem blurs the Russian with his biblical namesake, and generously welcomes him to his adopted land. Here are the final lines:

You will recognize the rank smell of a stable
And the soft patience in a donkey’s eyes,
Telling you you are welcome and at home.”

I went back and looked up Hecht’s poem – surely Hecht couldn’t have confused the patriarch Joseph with the New Testament one – but in this remarkable poem, the two Josephs segue into each other, and end with the Russian one.

But the line that caught my eye was the one just before Patrick’s excerpt, after Hecht warns:  “These are the faces that everywhere surround you;/They have all the emptiness of gravel pits”:

Out of Egypt...

“This is Egypt, Joseph, the old school of the soul.”

Hecht’s book was published in 1977, and the poem was probably published at least a year or two earlier than that.

I remember about that time, in an elevator in the University of Michigan’s ugly Modern Language Building, Joseph saying apropos of nothing: “We are dying, Egypt, dying.”

From Act IV of Antony and Cleopatra.  But perhaps he was echoing an American Anthony, who had just written a poem for him about other Josephs, in other Egypts, and about his new terra deserta.

Melancholy thoughts on an evening when Alexandria and Cairo are swept in flames.