Posts Tagged ‘Lev Loseff’

Joseph Brodsky’s “Gorbunov and Gorchakov” onstage

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

Artur Smolyaninov as Gorchakov and Nikita Yefremov as Gorbunov. (Photo: Sovremennik Theater)

In the Moscow Times today, a review of Joseph Brodskys “Gorbunov and Gorchakov,” which Yevgeny Kamenkovich mounted on the small stage at the Sovremennik Theater – a play which the Nobel laureate never intended to be a play. Rather it’s a 14-part poem of 7,600 words, recalling his stints at the psychiatric hospitals Kanatchikov Dacha and Pryazhka over the Christmas holidays of 1963, while the 24-year-old was awaiting trial in the U.S.S.R. as a “social parasite.” His friends had hoped a diagnosis of mental instability might spare him a harsh prison sentence.  But instead he felt he was indeed losing his mind, and begged his friends to get him out.

The result, written in 1968, was “Gorbunov and Gorchakov,” a conversation between two inmates, which he apparently claimed to have overheard.

His friend Lev Loseff writes in Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life:  “As time went on, Brodsky grew more skeptical of the worth of much of his early work, but twenty years after writing ‘Gorbunov and Gorchakov,’ he still consider it an ‘especially solid piece.’ The years that produced the poem were perhaps the the most dramatic in all his life: police persecution, arrest, trial, exile, return; reconciliation with the love of his life, the birth of a son, a final break.”

Loseff adds that work on the poem “truly became part of the poet’s work on himself:  the next-to-last line of the third canto contains a prayer in which the author’s alter ego asks God-in-Heaven to grant him ‘victory over silence and suffocation.'”

Not much exists in English, alas.  But the poet’s early translator, George Kline, translated a few of its cantos.  An excerpt:

And silence is the future of all days
that roll toward speech; yes, silence is the presence
of farewells in our greetings as we touch.
Indeed, the future of our words is silence –
those words which have devoured the stuff of things
with hungry vowels, for things abhor sharp corners.
Silence: a wave that cloaks eternity.
Silence: the future fate of all our loving –
a space, not a dead barrier, but space
that robs the false voice in the blood-stream throbbing
of every echoed answer to its love.
And silence is the present fate of those who
have lived before us; it’s a matchmaker
that manages to bring all men together
into the speaking presence of today.
Life is but talk hurled in the face of silence.’

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

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

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.

Quarterly Conversation: “For Brodsky, poetry was a ticket out of this world.”

Monday, December 5th, 2011

A brilliant article in today’s Quarterly Conversation offers a fresh take on Lev Loseff‘s much-discussed Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life. Marbled with impressive insights, it represents the finest standards of literary journalism, and should establish a new highpoint for the rapidly disappearing genre … let me dissemble no further, dear reader, I myself wrote the review.

A hackneyed opening gambit, I know … So let’s cut to the chase with a little shameless plugging via an excerpt:

“For Brodsky, poetry was a ticket out of this world. And in Russia, the poet is godlike. To know both is to understand the context for this erudite and often wise book—a work more likely to find readers among current fans, rather than find new ones. Yet Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life is simultaneously enlightening, perplexing, and exasperating. The knowledgeable reader is left feeling rewarded and cheated at once, as if invited to a sumptuous banquet and offered only canapés. The protean figure remains beyond the range of these pages. The door remains at once half open and half closed to us.

You’ll read no secrets in Loseff’s volume. But neither will you get Brodsky’s bewildering, mesmerizing blend of hubris and humility, charm, and abrasiveness. Brodsky was a Catherine Wheel of metaphysical brilliance, scathing insults, and intellectual splendor.

Russia’s longing for pure poet-heroes held an incandescent grip on the Russian psyche, and the nation bleaches its bards to an unearned whiteness. Writers have always claimed special moral exemptions for themselves—wishing to be something grander than simply a guy who wields a ballpoint or stares at an empty computer screen. Brodsky upped the ante.

He told Loseff that the lesser cannot comment on the greater, the mice cannot review the cat. Was he exempting himself from criticism? Certainly. But Brodsky was also the first to bend his knee to those he saw above him on the ladder—from Ovid to Auden. The sense of hierarchy may rub against the egalitarian Brodsky who once wrote, ‘Evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another,’ but the contradiction can be chalked up to his complex humanity as easily as his self-blindness.”

Read the rest here.

Quarterly Conversation is run by Scott Esposito. It’s another valiant online effort to sustain serious literary criticism – and that’s no hyperbole.

It’s gotten some rave reviews, from The Nation, among others.  From Columbia University Press: “It would not be a stretch to say that The Quarterly Conversation has come to be one of the better places—online or in print—to turn to for literary and cultural criticism.”  According to Canongate Books’s “Meet at the Gate”: “If a website was able to drool, Meet At The Gate would be drooling over The Quarterly Conversation. It’s what online literary magazines are meant to be.”

The always insightful Patrick Kurp, by the way, reviews Denise Gigante‘s The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George in the same issue – it’s here (and the Book Haven Q&A with Denise is here).  An excerpt from Patrick’s review:

… despite Gigante’s standing as an academic in a major university English department, she is a writer, not a slinger of theory or political poseur. Out of primary documents she reanimates a major poet and his world, and crafts a transatlantic adventure story with a novelist’s gift for moving narrative along. In brief, Gigante convincingly demonstrates that George Keats, the poet’s junior by sixteen months, served as John’s “muse.” In an 1818 letter to Ann Wylie, John says: “My brother George has ever been more than a brother to me, he has been my greatest friend.”