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


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.

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