Posts Tagged ‘“joseph brodsky”’

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

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

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)

 

Slavic scholar and translator George Kline (1921-2014): memorial reading in NYC on Saturday

Thursday, January 15th, 2015
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In 1974...

In 1974…

His death was as quiet and unassuming as his life. I learned within a few days that preeminent Slavic scholar George Kline of Bryn Mawr died on October 21 in Anderson, South Carolina, but was hesitant to say anything, not wanting to be the one to break the news to common friends and colleagues, and wishing to defer to the family to make the first announcement. Perhaps everyone else felt the same, for the news seemed to spread very slowly. I sensed, perhaps mistakenly, that he wouldn’t have wanted to make a fuss.

I had known of George for many years – his translation of Joseph Brodsky‘s Selected Poems, with its distinctively artsy purple-and-green portrait on Penguin’s “Modern European Poets” cover, was the book that made the Russian poet’s reputation in English. George was among those early champions who had smuggled his poems out of the U.S.S.R., and helped bring the future Nobel prizewinner to the West after the Soviet Union booted the poet out in 1972.

I met George sometime during my work on Joseph Brodsky: Conversations. George was ruthlessly meticulous and ceaselessly patient and helpful. And when my book came out, I received congratulations, praise, and a precise list of minor errors and typos in the final volume, for correction in a second edition. I learned that anyone who wrote about Joseph Brodsky anywhere in the world could expect a such a letter. It was George’s trademark, and I don’t recall a time when he wasn’t right.

brodskybookI spoke with him a few weeks before his death, and suspected he hadn’t long to live – his beloved wife Ginny had died in April, and he seemed unenthusiastic about the task of living without her. We had some work to finish together, but both of us had other pressing deadlines – after his death, I learned how extensive his commitments, at 93, were. I knew him primarily in his work as translator, but he is, perhaps, better known as the patriarch of Russian philosophy scholarship in the U.S., and widely published on Spinoza and Hegel as well. He continued his encyclopedia entries, his revisions, his collaborations, his articles, his mentoring. Many speak of his generosity, kindness, and fundamental decency – I had a chance to experience all firsthand.

He had frequently mentioned Irina Mashinski as a colleague and friend. After his death I was pleased to find her on Facebook, and she told me of the welter of projects they were working on together that, like mine, would be interrupted by his passing. Everyone seems to have a similar story – he was working tirelessly until the last few weeks. What will we do without him?

brodsky7Anyway, here’s one show that will go on, thanks to Irina and others: at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 17, the fourth annual Compass Award Ceremony, as well as the launch of the Volume 4 of the Cardinal Points Journal, will take place at the the Elizabeth Kray Hall of Poets’ House in New York City (10 River Terrace in New York City – fond memories of the Zbigniew Herbert evening there four years ago).  The evening will be dedicated to to the memory of George and also poet Nina Cassian (1924-2014), both “esteemed Cardinal Points friends and authors.” George is still listed on the panel of judges for the Compass Translation Award website here.

StoSvet Literary Project, MadHat Press and Russian-American Cultural Center are sponsoring the evening, which will be hosted by Irina, as well as Alexander Veytsman and Alex Cigale. The readings will include Polina Barskova, Alexander Cigale, Sibelan Forrester, Andrey Gritsman, Betsy Hulick, Slava Polishchuk, Larissa Shmailo, Alla Steinber, Alexei Tsvetkov, and Alexander Veytsman.

cardinalThe winners of the 4th Competition – the last competition in which George was a judge – include Laurence Bogoslaw (Minnesota, 1st Prize); Igor Mazin (Virginia, 3rd Prize); and Eugene Serebryany (Cambridge, Massachusetts) and Misha Semenov (Princeton, New Jersey), sharing honorable mention.

Before the degrees from Columbia, the years at Bryn Mawr, before the hundreds of articles and reviews, George served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II as a navigator and bombardier in B-24s, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross. Below is the photo of the young couple, looking forward to their lives together after the war – George sent it to me a few weeks after Ginny’s death. The wartime hero was one aspect of George’s otherwise scholarly life that fascinated Joseph Brodsky, who had been an infant during the terrible Siege of Leningrad. So he asked George about his wartime experiences and liked to wear his air corps hat, for fun. …

Even now I wonder, what would George think of what I am writing right here, at this moment? Part of me will wait for the letter that will never come, the prompt correspondence in the tight, cramped handwriting, offering thanks, praise, and errata.

Klines

 

Poet Melissa Green: Virgil would still be proud

Sunday, November 16th, 2014
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Father, I’m drowsy in April’s humming sun and think
A girl the color of autumn kneels at the Squanicook’s bank,
Who is the river’s daughter, dressed in driven skins,
Who knows a cedar wind at Nissequassick brings
The school of alewife, herring, yellow perch ashore.

– from the Squanicook Eclogues

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Then…

In 1991, Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky was asked what American poets he admired. Of the two or three he shortlisted, he mentioned Melissa Green for “tremendous intensity and tremendous intelligence.” He continued: “In the case of Ms. Green, I think it’s a tremendous facility. She’s a tremendous rhymer. There’s a collection of hers called Squanicook Eclogues, wonderful eclogues, I think. Virgil would be proud of those. Tremendous rhyming, tremendous texture.”

Then she disappeared. Her 1987 Squanicook Eclogues, which received awards from the Poetry Society of America and the Academy of American Poets, looked to be a solo product of a brilliant woman. Then, a decade later, a memoir of mental illness, Color Is the Suffering of Light, then, a decade after that, another collection of poems, Fifty-Two (try finding it anywhere, just try), and now, the next installment of her memoirs, The Linen Way, excerpted in the current Parnassus.

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… and now.

For my money, my favorite passage is a description of her Boston University class with Nobel poet Derek Walcott, which, in fact, brings back memories of his Russian friend’s classes. Walcott made his students memorize “Lycidas” – a suggestion that was met with “tittering and mumbled derision – most of the students seemed to resent having to memorize such a long, boring poem.” Here’s a sample of Walcott’s classroom style:

“His first class was held at 236 Bay State Road, in a shabby second-floor room with an unvarnished floor, empty bookshelves, and a dozen wooden armchairs crowded into it. Though bleak, this was also the room where Robert Lowell had taught Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and George Starbuck. Walcott walked in wearing a casual sport coat, without books or papers, and sat down. Cordially, he spoke about how the workshop was going to be run. He wanted us to read a lot, and we would look at our own poems only part of the time. He then gave us five minutes to write down the names of ten of our favorite poems. I quickly made a list: the Iliad, the Odyssey, ‘The Seafarer,’ DanteInferno [why not the Purgatorio? or Paradiso? – ED.], Paradise Lost, all of Shakespeare‘s sonnets, all of Donne, Herbert, Keats, John Clare, and Robert Browning. Finally, I added ‘The Schooner Flight.’”

linenway“When I lifted my head, the other students were looking puzzled, chewing the ends of their pens in some combination of aggravation and disbelief. Walcott went around the room and asked us to read our lists aloud. Most of the students said nothing – it seemed they couldn’t call to mind a single poem. When Walcott came to me, my heart sank into my shoes. By naming ‘The Schooner Flight’ among my favorite poems, I would look like the biggest kiss-up ever born. I read my list, and when I looked up I saw that a line had been drawn in the sand between me and the other students.

“On the occasion of our first student-teacher conference, Walcott sat behind a large, empty desk. When I entered the room he looked me up and down with an exaggerated leer, which seemed more of a friendly joke than an insult. I sat and handed him my poems, my heart thumping so loudly I thought he could surely hear it. He set the poems aside and smiled at me, his sea-green eyes bright and congenial.

‘What can I do for you?’ he asked.

I cleared my throat and blurted out, surprising myself, ‘I want you to teach me everything you know.’

His eyes widened, and he grinned. ‘You’re hungry, aren’t you, Emily?” he said. “Or should I call you Sylvia?’”

squanicook“Illness married me,” she later wrote. Soon after the publication of her first collection – “I could say ‘my head spun,’ but the world also spun around me; my sense of self became frangible, and I felt my mind and body crumble. I spent the next eleven months in the locked ward of a psychiatric hospital, shattered and suicidal. I remember the sound of the long key chains the staff all wore, clinking and turning locks.”

Her memories of her friendship with Joseph Brodsky, who befriended her during the difficult years, shows a more tender, caring side of the exiled poet: “As a lifelong insomniac, I am often awake in the middle of the night, and Joseph sometimes called at an ungodly hour to read an English-language poem he’d just written. … At other times, he called just to talk. He would ask what I was doing or reading or working on, and I would find myself sitting on the kitchen floor, twisting the telephone cord, chain-smoking, and talking into the wee hours. He never said goodbye, but rather, ‘Tender kisses on both your cheeks.’ I’d sign off just as Jimmy Durante did, but substituting the name of Joseph’s lovely cat for Mrs. Calabash: ‘Good night, Mississippi, wherever you are!’”

An interview with her at Rosa Mira Books here. Hear her read her poems at the Ottoman Estate here. And about twenty of her poems over at Agni here.

I’ve already ordered a copy of Squanicook Eclogues. And if anyone knows where I can find a copy of Fifty-Two, please drop a line. Meanwhile, I’ve a sudden urge to memorize “Lycidas.” All of it.

Writ on water: Regina Derieva in this week’s Times Literary Supplement

Thursday, October 9th, 2014
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derieva4I’ve written about the Russian poet Regina Derieva since her death last Decemberhere and here.  According to our mutual friend, the prominent Swedish author Bengt Jangfeldt, she was a poet “who in her best poems achieved that true metaphysical quality which, according to T.S. Eliot, is the alloy of thought and poetry at a very high temperature.” I have been fascinated by this utterly unique and uncompromising poetic voice since I learned of the poet’s existence, a few days after her death, from her husband. Now I am thrilled to announce that her papers have come to Stanford. I tell the story in this week’s Times Literary Supplement:

The Russian poet Regina Derieva was born on the Black Sea in Odessa, and enjoyed the shifting rhythms of the sea: “Water is the ideal apparel. However many times you get into it, it’s the same”. Her passion for water was shared by her epistolary friend, Joseph Brodsky, who grew up alongside St Petersburg’s canals and spent as much time as he could in Venice, where he is buried on the cemetery island of San Michele. Derieva, whom Brodsky called “a great poet”, viewed a very different landscape, however: from the age of six, she lived obscurely in Karaganda, Kazakhstan, “perhaps the most dismal corner of the former Soviet Union – once the centre of a vast prison camp universe, later just a gloomy industrial city”, according to the distinguished Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova. For him, Derieva’s precise, epigrammatic poems limn “the concentration camp zone, where space is turned into emptiness, and time turned into disappearance”.

A few days after Derieva’s sudden death last December at the age of sixty-four, I received a letter from her husband, Alexander Deriev, and our ensuing correspondence eventually led to the Stanford Libraries’ acquisition of this astonishing poet’s archive. A single cardboard box postmarked Märsta, Sweden, is all that remains of a long and productive literary life, augmented by a few files of unpublished manuscripts, photographs, letters and drawings Deriev brought with him to California in his backpack.

There is a reason for the paucity of papers in a lifetime that should have left a mountain of them. Derieva’s life encompassed the upheavals of the past century, but she added an idiosyncratic twist: at each fork in the road, this outcast among outcasts made a choice – and that choice, or as often necessity, took her even farther from the pack.

I’ll have more about her in future posts – but meanwhile, please read the rest of the story in the TLS here.

Requiescat in pace, Ramūnas Katilius, 1935-2014

Monday, October 6th, 2014
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(Photo R.R. Katilius)

Normally, I don’t hang with many award-winning physicists, but the distinguished Lithuanian scientist Ramūnas Katilius was an exception, in that as well as many other things. Our association began with our mutual friend, the poet Tomas Venclova, who suggested – rather, insisted – that I meet the Katilius family during my 2011 swing through Vilnius, one of my favorite cities. It ended yesterday, when he died in his sleep in Vilnius. He would have been 80 next year.

Romas and his wife Elė were generous and hospitable during that 2011 visit – they laid out a splendid brunch for me and their son, the photographer, Ramūnas Jr., and the father gracefully insisted I allow his son to squire me about Lithuania. With  Justina Juozėnaitė of the Venclova Museum, the three of us toured the hidden corners of Lithuania associated with the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, finally ending at the poet’s birthplace in Šeteniai (we also had a long stopover in Kaunas – I wrote about that here). A day or too later, the three of us took an enchanting moonlight stroll through the Old Town. I wondered why the physicist and his wife didn’t join us on any of our adventures. I don’t know how I was able to overlook that my host was seriously disabled, thanks to a childhood bout with polio. In retrospect, I think he didn’t want me to notice, thinking it might dampen the pleasure of our meeting. He was magnanimous that way.

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Liejyklos street. (Photo: Moi)

Certainly the unforgettable moments of those magic days included the afternoon when Romas (père) brought out his collection of Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky‘s manuscripts, doodles, translations, notebooks, photos, sketches, letters, postcards, and more from their decades-long friendship, and placed it on my lap. I never thought I’d see the treasure again – but when Romas later made it clear he was looking for a permanent home for it, I recommended it to the Stanford Libraries. Now it is within a mile of my home. Well, I tell that story here, but also here and here and here.

Romas tells his own story about his long friendship with the Russian poet here.  Brodsky was having personal troubles in Petersburg after his rocky return from internal exile in Archangelsk. He called his friend Andrey Sergeyev daily to complain, using expressions like  “end of the world” or “it’s a total mess” – „конец света“,  „полный завал“).

“Let him come over here. We are all in a good mood here,” said the big-hearted Romas. So began a visit and a friendship, which featured a walk much like the one I had taken:

“Joseph stayed with us for about a week. What did we do in our, so to say, spare time, apart from listening to his poetry? We took long walks in the Old Town, in daytime and at night, often accompanied by some of our friends – Juozas Tumelis, Pranas Morkus, Virgilijus Čepaitis, Ina Vapšinskaitė, as well as my brother Audronis. Joseph made friends with them very quickly.

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Ramūnas and Elė Katilius (Photo: Arūno Baltėno)

“The Liejyklos Street, where we lived, follows the ancient line of the city wall, so it only takes a leisurely stroll of 15 or 20 minutes to reach almost any place in the Old Town. And we did take advantage of our location. The nearest route started right around the corner and continued along St. Ignatius (Šv. Ignoto) Street, leading to the Dominican monastery, closed a long time ago. The monastery has an inner courtyard that can be reached only through the second floor of the building. The building was inhabited by ordinary people, and Joseph suddenly decided to try and rent a room there for a longer period, and even called at one of the flats. Someone opened the door, but, fortunately, there were no rooms for rent, and Joseph calmed down. Obviously, there was no way he could afford it.

“I also remember our walk along the same St. Ignatius Street one late evening. At the end of that street, turning to the courtyards opposite to the Dominican monastery, one could get on the roof of a corps de garde, a ward-house – a small building with columns, pertaining to a large palace ensemble, the architectural style of which is somewhat alien to the Old Town; it was built in the times of Russian Empire as a residence for the Governor-General (today the palace is used as the President’s office).”

I love Vilnius, and Romas tells a charming and insightful story with the city as its backdrop – I really shouldn’t attempt to excerpt it, especially since it replicates his somewhat uneven English; it’s easier to catch the rhythms of it when you read more than a couple paragraphs.

I remembered the warmth of our meetings, but not the limitations of Romas’s English (which is still far, far better than my Lithuanian) – so it was always a surprise when I telephoned him as his health was failing, and I would suddenly remember that our conversation would be a bit hampered without a translator to mediate. But a few phrases were clear as a bell. In particular, I remember the last phone call, which ended after I told him how I wished to return to Vilnius, and soon. “We will wait for you!” he promised.

***

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Ramūnas & Elė Katilius with son Ramūnas Jr. and Tomas Venclova in 1977. (Photo: M. Milchik)

Postscript: I didn’t realize that Romas and I had other mutual friends until I posted this on Facebook. Ilya Levin wrote: “I first met Romas and Elia in early 2008 when posted to the U.S. embassy and then was fortunate to enjoy their hospitality on many occasions during my subsequent visits to Vilnius. RIP.“ Anna Halberstadt recalled “he and Tomas were romantic figures for us in grade school – good-looking young dissidents.” Anna Verschik added, “I visited them every time I was in Vilnius. It was always a pleasure.”  This from Mikhail Iossel, Founding Director of the Summer Literary Seminars in Vilnius (and, incidentally, a former Stanford Stegner Fellow):

“This is sad news. He was a remarkably interesting and generous man. Uncommonly young at heart, as the saying would have it.

“I met him for the first time in the summer of 2009 (if memory serves me), via Ilya Levin. Along with Ilya and Anna Verschik, I went one evening to his and his joyfully hospitable wife’s small apartment on the outskirts of Vilnius, where the two of them, Ramunas and his wife, Elia, over the extended dinner and for several hours thereafter, proceeded to reminisce about the many years of his close friendship with Brodsky, begun with Tomas Venclova’s participation in late-1950s Leningrad and resulting (among other fortuitous developments) in the KGB-besieged, officialdom-hounded young Leningrad poet’s subsequent frequent trips and lengthy stays in Vilnius, at Ramunas’s old place on Liejyklos Street (where, in 1971, none too incidentally, the famous “Lithuanian Divertissement” was written). Numerous old, Soviet-style, heavy-duty folders were produced by the hosts, full of painstakingly collected and carefully preserved Brodsky’s handwritten notes and drafts of poems, quick pencil sketches and rather elaborate ink drawings. The love the man felt for his famous friend was brightly intense. [This collection is now at Stanford – ED]

“After our next meeting, in the Old Town apartment of a friend of mine, I asked Ramunas to visit our inaugural SLS-Lithuania program and tell our participants about the meaning of Lithuania in Brodsky’s life. He accepted the invitation on the spot, with much eagerness, the considerable difficulty with which he already walked by then notwithstanding.

“His talk was thorough and detailed and informed of the same genuine feeling of deep devotion to Brodsky’s memory. His polite, soft-spoken, English-speaking son served as the interpreter.

“A very good man indeed, noble of spirit and honest of heart and keen of mind. A true mensch.”

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Katilius, Brodsky, and Venclova: Together in Ushkova, near Leningrad, in 1972.

Italo Calvino answers the question: “Are novelists liars?”

Monday, September 22nd, 2014
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“a matter of mental mechanisms…”

Someone said the Paris Review interviews are more addictive than crack. I’m not sure I disagree. Here’s a case in point: the eminent journal published a collage of interviews with Italo Calvino posthumously, in 1992. We wrote about Calvino a few days ago here, but I couldn’t resist publishing a few highlights from the Paris Review. (Read the whole thing here.)

One question that always gets asked in the Paris Review concerns the writer’s method of work, in this case, the physical act of writing. I think these responses always appeal to writers, though I always wonder if these queries aren’t a crashing bore to people who are insurance actuaries or window-washers. I don’t suppose they read the Paris Review anyway, but the line of questioning may be a deterrent. Well, I’m going to chase the actuaries away, too. Here’s how Calvino responded:

“I write by hand, making many, many corrections. I would say I cross out more than I write. I have to hunt for words when I speak, and I have the same difficulty when writing. Then I make a number of additions, interpolations, that I write in a very tiny hand. There comes a moment when I myself can’t read my handwriting, so I use a magnifying glass to figure out what I’ve written. I have two different handwritings. One is large with fairly big letters—the os and as have a big hole in the center. This is the hand I use when I’m copying or when I’m rather sure of what I’m writing. My other hand corresponds to a less confident mental state and is very small—the os are like dots. This is very hard to decipher, even for me.

“My pages are always covered with canceling lines and revisions. There was a time when I made a number of handwritten drafts. Now, after the first draft, written by hand and completely scrawled over, I start typing it out, deciphering as I go. When I finally reread the typescript, I discover an entirely different text that I often revise further. Then I make more corrections. On each page I try first to make my corrections with a typewriter; I then correct some more by hand. Often the page becomes so unreadable that I type it over a second time. I envy those writers who can proceed without correcting.”

calvino-spidersIn the postwar years, Calvino began to work on his first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders: “Then I began to write novels. It is a matter of mental mechanisms. If one gets used to translating into a novel one’s experiences, one’s ideas, what one has to say becomes a novel; one is left with no raw materials for another form of literary expression. My way of writing prose is rather closer to the way a poet composes a poem. I am not a novelist who writes long novels. I concentrate an idea or an experience into a short synthetic text that goes side by side with other texts to form a series. I pay particular attention to expressions and words both with regard to their rhythms, their sounds, and the images they evoke.”

Joseph Brodsky once said that the only thing poetry and politics have in common are the letters “p” and “o”. For a long time, Calvino didn’t agree, but he came around in his own time, in his own way: “The idea of putting literature in second place, after politics, is an enormous mistake, because politics almost never achieves its ideals. Literature, on the other hand, in its own field can achieve something and in the very long run can also have some practical effect. By now I have come to believe that important things are achieved only through very slow processes.”

calvino-wintersI was rather charmed by a short transcript included in the collage, Calvino’s “Thoughts Before an Interview” – perhaps because, as a journalist, I’m usually on the other side of the microphone. Calvino again: “this afternoon . . . the interviewers . . . I do not know if I will have the time to prepare. I could try to improvise but I believe an interview needs to be prepared ahead of time to sound spontaneous. Rarely does an interviewer ask questions you did not expect. I have given a lot of interviews and I have concluded that the questions always look alike. I could always give the same answers. But I believe I have to change my answers because with each interview something has changed either inside myself or in the world. An answer that was right the first time may not be right again the second. This could be the basis of a book. I am given a list of questions, always the same; every chapter would contain the answers I would give at different times. The changes would contain the answers I would give at different times. The changes would then become the itinerary, the story that the protagonist lives. Perhaps in this way I could discover some truths about myself.”

And yet… and yet… I can’t believe Calvino was asked this before: “Are novelists liars? And if they are not, what kind of truth do they tell?” Calvino’s answer:

Novelists tell that piece of truth hidden at the bottom of every lie. To a psychoanalyst it is not so important whether you tell the truth or a lie because lies are as interesting, eloquent, and revealing as any claimed truth.

I feel suspicious about writers who claim to tell the whole truth about themselves, about life, or about the world. I prefer to stay with the truths I find in writers who present themselves as the most bold-faced liars. My goal in writing If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, a novel entirely based on fantasy, was to find in this way a truth that I would have not been able to find otherwise.

Joseph Brodsky on “the spirit of tolerance, the spirit of intolerance”

Saturday, August 23rd, 2014
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We liked the “merciless honesty” of the Avedon photo, too.

NEWS FLASH! Newly discovered 11-year-old review says great things about Joseph Brodsky: Conversations! Bless you, Theo, whoever you are! Much to our surprise, we just learned that long ago, on September 23, 2003, we got a nice write-up in a blog called Private Intellectual, which still exists today (though Theo seems to have disappeared from it) – this is not something to be taken for granted in the blogosphere, which has much deadwood floating in it. We ran across the review when we were looking for an article on Madame de Staël, of all things.

Theo lamented that the book was not published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, he wished it had been reviewed by Michiko Kakutani, he decried the lack of public notice (well, we got a little notice, in the Times Literary Supplement, among others…) What can we say? We love him.

Here‘s what he wrote, way back when, a year after the book was published:

The role Edward Teller played in freeing Joseph Brodsky, is told rather briefly in the single most rewarding tome of what the darkening Atlantic skies over Providence, Rhode Island, tell me has already been my summer reading.

In San Francisco two months ago, I picked up Joseph Brodsky. Conversations, at City Lights Bookstore (Ferlinghetti was winding down, in the background, from preaching in the Beatnik mode: a Jeremiad against this country in the name of this country – the classic exemplum being Ginsberg‘s “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing. /America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956. (…)/America when will we end the human war?/ Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb /(…) America when will you be angelic?” ).

The book is a compilation of interviews with the poet recorded throughout Brodsky’s short life, collected from wide and far by Cynthia L. Haven. Because many of the pieces are from small literary magazines and many of the questions are outright stupid – no literary publisher – not even JB’s own Roger Strauss (not a publisher, more like my living room, JB said), seems to have wanted to bring them out. Not even the merciless honesty of the cover photo by Richard Avedon caught the eye of Manhattan’s literati. One wonders whether if this book would have been brought out by FSG, it would have been hailed by Michiko Kakutani as “monumental, of the essence, the poet continues to speak from beyond the grave”, etc. but since it comes from the Mississippi State University Press [No – the University Press of Mississippi's "Literary Conversations" series – ED.]  it has been utterly neglected – a decadent snobbery of the worst kind; for I daresay this is a posthumous collection of perhaps the greatest poet who lived on earth when we did (born as we were, after Auden and Celan‘s deaths).

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Mississippi (Photo: Bengt Jangfeldt)

At the end of the day, Brodsky being a blues singer of sorts (one of his rare poems in English is even titled Blues – “Eighteen years I’ve spent in Manhattan,” it starts), it’s just as well that the little book’s from Mississippi. [We might also note JB's beloved cat was named "Mississippi" – ED]

Ask a stupid question, as the saying wrongly goes, get a stupid answer. Brodsky answers some of the most embarrassing and awful questions (an interviewer asking about his internment for manual labor in the polar circle as if it was a trip to Disneyland), in ways only he could. They are mostly unedited, and brilliant. I give one little excerpt, since no one anywhere seems to have discussed a book that deserved much more attention. I am struck by the following, from as far back as the pivotal year 1989:

InterviewerAndre Malraux said that the twenty-first century will be either spiritual or it will not be at all.

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He said lots.

Brodsky It may be … Well, Malraux said so many things.The French are very fond of making up reasons, ever since La Rochefoucauld, and presumably before, I don’t know. Milosz thinks that we are entering, the world is entering an entirely nihilistic stage. I am not so sure of that, although on the face of it, reality doesn’t conform to any ethical standards, as we see it. It’s getting rather paganistic. I think what may emerge – and this is on of my greatest apprehensions – what may emerge is a tremendous religious strife, not exactly religious, between the Moslem world and the world that is vaguely Christian. The latter won’t be able to defend itself, the former will be terribly assertive. It’s simply for the numerical reasons, for pure demographic reasons, that I perceive the possibility for such a strife. I am not a sage, I am not a prophet, I can’t presume to say what the twenty-first century is going to be like. To say the least, I am not going to be there, for one thing, so why would I bother … And it was easier for Malraux, it was clear that he wouldn’t be there, so it was easy to fantasize … The foreseeable future, that is, foreseeable by me, which again can be terribly erroneous, is precisely the conflict of the spirit of tolerance with the spirit of intolerance, and there are all sorts of attempts to resolve that conflict now. The pragmatists try to suggest that there is some equivalence between these principles. I don’t believe that for a minute. I think that the Moslem notion of universal order should be squashed and put out of existence. We are, after all, six centuries older than the Moslems spiritually. So, I think we have a right to say what’s right and what’s wrong …

Perhaps Michiko would like to review the Italian edition, which my publisher tells me will be coming out next year with Adelphi.

Humble Moi in Russia’s Zvezda!

Friday, June 13th, 2014
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I made my TV debut in Russia here; I made my print debut in Russia here; now, finally, my first article and in Russia’s leading literary journal Zvezda.  See the page above? That’s me, on the lefthand side. Синтия Хэвен. My article on how my friendship with Lithuanian physicist Ramūnas  Katilias in Vilnius led to the Stanford Libraries’ acquisition of an important cache of Joseph Brodsky‘s manuscripts, sketches, letters, postcards, and more. The piece is a shortened version of my earlier article, and appeared in Zvezda‘s “Letters” column.

brodsky2I had the privilege of visiting the Zvezda offices in St. Petersburg in the winter of 1998-99. It was always my fate to head into Russia in the wintertime; I even visited Siberia in February – another story for another time. The offices were literally around the corner from the Nobel poet’s former home on Liteiny Prospect. I described them at the time as “several rooms on the third floor of a dilapidated St. Petersburg mansion with a large defunct fireplace of burgundy marble, carved wooden doors, and ornate moulding on the ceiling.” Perhaps what was left of a grand apartment in an earlier era. In these rooms, I chatted with the Russian poet’s good friend, and Zvezda editor, Yakov Gordin, along with a few of the others on the editorial staff.

The article I wrote eventually wound up in the Michigan Alumnus. Here’s the only quote from the good editor: “Russian poetry has its own specialty line of existentialism. It is difficult to find even one Russian poet who departs from this kind of poetry. The difference is only in style. The specialty of this poetry is the question of life and death.” Well, if you want to, you can read the whole 1999 article here.

We’re grateful that Yakov Gordin is still at his desk, fifteen years later – and hope it won’t be our final appearance in his pages.

“The air of an enfant terrible”: remembering Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky on his 74th birthday

Saturday, May 24th, 2014
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birthday cakeToday would have been the Joseph Brodsky‘s 74th birthday. We laid the ground for the celebrations a few days ago with a post about the Nobel poet’s metaphysical experiences. Here are a few memories from two important friends.

Author Sven Birkerts of The Gutenberg Elegies, was managing a secondhand and rare bookstore in Ann Arbor when the poet befriended him. His mini-memoir matches my own recollections. Here’s what he wrote over Post Road Magazine:

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A friend in cold climates

At this time, back in the mid-1970s, Brodsky still had the air of an enfant terrible. Impatient, aggressive, chain-smoking cigarettes, he liked creating dispute for its own sake. Suggest white and he would insist black. Admit an admiration—unless it was for one of his idols—like Auden or Lowell or Milosz—and he would overturn the opinion. “Minor,” he would say of some eminence I mentioned. Or: “The man is an idiot.” At first I did not understand the workings of this compulsion, and as we talked, drinking cup after cup of black coffee, I grew despondent. Here was my chance to meet the poet I had admired for so long, and I could say nothing right. Yet for all that, he seemed in no hurry to leave.

I would like to say that by the end of that long afternoon we had become friends, intimates, but that would not be true. I was, I think, too young and callow; I did not offer enough ground for real exchange. Instead, Brodsky assumed a fond, almost paternal role with me, teasing, chiding, offering suggestions about books. A limit was set. I did not feel that I was getting close to the turbulent soul that wrote the poems.

birkerts5From that time on, though, we did stay in contact. Brodsky would suddenly show up in the bookstore, searching for some book of poems. On several occasions, too, he handed me the typescript of some essay he was working on for the New York Review of Books, asking if I would check over his English. The task would invariably keep me at my desk for hours, for the fact is that brilliant and inflammatory as his insights were, the prose at this stage was a bramble patch—English deployed as if it were an inflected language.

Once, I remember, I stayed up much of the night, recasting sentence by sentence his discussion of the Greek poet Cavafy, finally typing the whole thing over afresh. When I handed the piece to him the next day, he quickly glanced down the page, smiled his wicked sultan smile, and put the whole bundle in an envelope to mail. I never found out what he thought of my deeply deliberated interventions.

Read the rest here.

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She liked his smile.

Over on a Russian site, Yuri Lepsky interviewed the Slavic scholar Faith Wigzell, who offered her first comments ever on the poet she met in the 1960s in Leningrad in “Loving, Leaving and Living.” She is the dedicatee of several poems, including “A Song to No Music” and “On Washerwoman Bridge.” According to Lepsky, “In the fifteen years since the poet’s death, she has published nothing about her friendship with him nor has she given any interviews on the subject nor published their correspondence. She has also refrained from commenting on the poems he dedicated to her.”

An excerpt:

– How did you meet Brodsky? What kind of first impression did he make on you?

– I believe it was March 1968. I had come to Leningrad for a six-week research visit, connected with my PhD at London University. … I arrived in Leningrad and straight away phoned my old friends Romas and Elia Katilius. Back in 1963-64 I was studying in Leningrad and it was then that I met the Katiliuses and Diana Abaeva, later to become Diana Myers and to work with me at London University. But that would come later.

It was back then, in the early 1960s, that we met and became friends. They were wonderful people – kind, engaging, loving poetry and art, and saw the Soviet government for what it was worth. They were scientists: Romas was a theoretical physicist at the semiconductor institute. Diana, on the other hand, was in the humanities’ field.

So, in short, I called the Katiliuses; they were very pleased and invited me over that evening. I went of course to their enormous room in a communal apartment on Tchaikovsky Street… But apart from my friends I there found a young man whom I had not previously met. He immediately attracted my attention.

reading-russian-fortunes-faith-wigzell-paperback-cover-art– Why?

– Firstly, he had this very unusual smile.

– What do you mean by unusual?

– How can I put it? It was a shy or, more precisely, a timid smile. Yes, yes, timid. And his voice…

– His voice?

– Well, it was something special… Never since then have I encountered such a voice. When he read his poetry his voice made an astonishing impression …

– And that was Brodsky?

– And that was Brodsky. It turned out that he had been friendly with the Katiliuses for a long time, and with Diana as well. The Katiliuses had a young child, so guests could not overstay their welcome. Late in the evening Joseph and I went out on Tchaikovsky Street, and he walked me back to the hotel. And so that’s how it all began.

– And you spoke about literature, of course?

– Not only, not only… (Faith laughs) As it turns out Joseph and I had another friend in common – Tolya Naiman. When I found out, I decided to give them both a present. I had brought with me from London a large bottle, a litre I think, of whisky. At that time in Russia whisky wasn’t to be found in ordinary shops. They were more than delighted to accept, but what happened next seemed to me downright horrible: the two of them proceeded to drink the entire bottle in the course of the evening. I was absolutely stunned. I asked: why did you drink the whole bottle? They just shrugged.

* * *

wigzell5When her six weeks in Leningrad had come to an end and she had to go home, to London, it turned out that in addition to new impressions, research material and attractive souvenirs, she had packed something much more serious: an offer of heart and hand from the poet Joseph Brodsky.

She returned to London and four years later married an American who lived in England. In 1972, when Brodsky was expelled from the USSR, he flew to London together with the great W.H. Auden for an international poetry festival. Faith was expecting her first child. Seeing her pregnant was a shock for Brodsky. She subsequently tried to keep their meetings to a minimum, so as not to cause him any distress.

* * *

– How do you relate to the poems which he dedicated to you: are the just Brodsky’s poems or are they poetic letters to Faith Wigzell?

– I cannot see them as simply Brodsky’s poems. I read them for myself.

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Slavic scholar

– Above all else, I like the poems he wrote in Russia, in Leningrad and in Norenskaya. The period when he began to translate John Donne.

– Which of his essays do you like?

– What he wrote in Venice. Watermark.

– Have you seen his grave on the isle San Michele of Venice?

– No, I haven’t. Actually, I have only been to his beloved Venice once, when I was young.

– I once happened to visit San Michele when Venice was besieged by a snowstorm and Brodsky’s gravestone was covered by a big pile of snow, just like back in his beloved Leningrad…

– Yes, yes, he loved snow very much, big snowdrifts in particular…

Read the whole thing here.

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Ann Arbor days… happy birthday, Joseph.

 

“Well, next thing will happen to me is I’ll be locked up.” Joseph Brodsky on his private revelations

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014
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brodsky2It’s a busy day, or rather I’m still trying to make it one as I labor over a rough draft. In the course of my work, I ran across this remarkable passage in a 1988 Threepenny Review interview with Joseph Brodsky. Since it’s his birthday in a few days, it seemed an appropriate way to begin the celebrations and make a quick post at the same time. The interview is with Missy Daniel, in my Joseph Brodsky: Conversations. As a journalist, I admire the deft way the interviewer takes a line of conversation that’s about to shut down, and cleverly reopens it with a slantwise question:

Daniel: You’ve said that you have been given two or three revelations in your life.

Brodsky: Yeah, well, two or three, yeah. Well, it’s actually a private matter, obviously. Fancy me talking about revelations. The reason I never told about them to anyone is simply because I thought, “Well, next thing will happen to me is I’ll be locked up.” Also, they took place when I was rather young, well, I was 22, 23. And I thought, “Well, if I’m going to mention that, well, some Jeanne d’Arc deal will …”

Daniel: This is certainly an age that doesn’t put too much stock in people who claim to have revelations.

Brodsky: Stupid of them, of the age.

Daniel: What does one know after a revelation that one doesn’t know before?

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He knew already.

Brodsky: Ah. Sensible question. One gets certain that one is doing right. Because affirmation comes from so far away, it’s almost like – how shall I put it? – it’s simply that somebody cares to instruct you from the bowels of the universe. You sense that somebody bothered about you out there in that great infinity. Actually, both times that I had those moments which I regard as revelations, I had some sort of astronomical illumination, yeah? And I guess I’m actually rather distressed that they cease to, that nothing of the sort has happened in quite a while. But I guess the reason for that, that they haven’t happened in quite a while, is in a sense the profession or the occupation in which I am engaged, because, one way or another, I’m deliberately fishing there, yeah? Had I not been fishing there, or poaching or whatever it is, maybe I would be issued something, yeah? That’s all I can say about it. Well, I guess up there it’s arbitrary. Or maybe there are too many of us, and now it’s someone else’s turn. … I think simply when it happens you hear it. You can’t really deny it. You try to be as rational as you can be, but, well, it doesn’t work. In fact, I think one of the prerequisites for that is – well, it normally arrives when you are indeed at the end of your rope.

There was a great Russian philosopher, Lev Shestov. He was just the cat’s pajamas, I think, in that field. He maintained there are three methods of cognition. One, by analysis, another by synthesis – that is, intuitive synthesis, so to speak, which is not parallel, for instance, to analysis, but is the one that absorbs analysis, and then adds something on top of that – and the third one is the method, if you will, that was available to the biblical prophets, that of revelation. That’s a form of cognition. And according to him a revelation normally occurs when reason fails.