Books: A family of poets
In this address, given last month to a group of readers, friends and fellow poets to mark the first anniversary of the death of Joseph Brodsky, Natasha Spender (below, in the 1960s) remembers the particular friendship and family feeling between herself and her husband Stephen Spender, and Joseph Brodsky. They met 25 years ago, when W H Auden brought the young Russian exile to supper, but their relationship had been forged long before, when the English poets' work had been `a lifeline' to Brodsky durin...
Sunday 23 February 1997
Stephen and I had heard about the 25-year-old poet in an Arctic labour camp from Anna Akhmatova in 1964, when she was in Britain to receive an honorary degree from Oxford. Eight years later, Wystan Auden brought him to stay with us in London, just a week or so after his deportation from Leningrad. My most vivid memories are of his first week in England in 1972, and then of our last visit to New York two years ago in late 1994, during Stephen's final months. Although they are 22 years apart, the two pictures are all of a piece. As with other great artists I've known as friends, Henry Moore or Stravinsky for instance, his inner spirit remained unchanged throughout his life, however much the pattern of artistic and moral life around him might swirl and recompose itself. Our first impression of Joseph - like Stravinsky, his fellow exile - was of a bristling creative energy bursting out of a too-confining body. Stravinsky, long settled in the West, used to dart upon ideas like a grasshopper; Joseph rose above that vulnerable moment of exile, and forcefully grasped his long-imagined Free World of ideas; there was nothing passive about his perceptions.
Naturally, on that first evening we were wondering how he could be feeling in this brutal uprooting from family, friends, accustomed daily life and even native language. What he calls the "retrospective machinery" in the exile's stream of consciousness must have been going full-tilt. Yet he impressed us with his poet's determination to be open to all experience. Sharing his passion for English poetry at supper with Wystan and Stephen, he was wonderfully ardent, ranging over poetry of all ages, not only his beloved John Donne. I was amazed at his memory in English. Wystan's verbal memory was very good, but Joseph's was better. Since we were to join John Betjeman some days later at a local bishop's dinner-party, they all three started quoting Betjeman. Joseph, surprisingly, reeled off whole poems and then joined Wystan to intone an exuberant duet:
Up the Butterfield aisle
Rich with Gothic enlacement
(Licenced now for embracement)
You and I, Pam, as the organ
Thunders over us all.
The mixture of Wystan's Americanised tones with Joseph's rich Russianised ones added to the fun.
He was unduly modest about his spoken English. He was a fluent speaker with occasional spurts, like walking on stepping-stones, his thoughts pushing against his diction and by their sheer force winning out. His extraordinary command, from the breadth of his reading, made momentary hold-ups barely noticeable. It is the poet's metier to reject the imprecise word. I used to think his saying "Woll" before any remark was his advance apology for a possible vagueness, judged by the exacting standards of a poet.
In this enthusiastic meeting of minds, we felt that poetry was also a reassuring terra firma for him in the impact of exile, though he never spoke of his previous life and of its hardships except by the odd cheerfully sardonic joke. Like Akhma- tova, he had a caustic sturdiness, not simply a contempt for the tyranny they'd been obliged to endure, but a refusal to admit their powerlessness. In 1964 she'd teased Stephen for his Anglicised attempts to say the word "Brezhnev". "Who?" "Brezhnev." "Who?" Then she said with confident irony: "You can't pronounce his name - and neither can I." In similar spirit, Joseph enjoyed remembering American tourists in Moscow accosting him to ask where they could get the best view of the Kremlin, and his gleeful reply: "From the cockpit of an American bomber."
Sometimes, his face had an expression of suppressed shock: I'm sure it was for those left behind rather than any apprehension of his future in the Midwest. The first time I saw him entirely free of it was after he had spent an afternoon at the Athenaeum having tea with Isaiah Berlin. Not only the luxury of speaking Russian for two hours, but also their instant rapport, gave him an air of contentment when he came down the steps afterwards. As he was to read at Poetry International that evening, I suggested we go directly to the Festival Hall, where he could rest. Instantly, he looked very alarmed, and clutching at his breast pocket said, "But my papers! I haven't got a passport, or any papers!" When I said they weren't necessary here for concert-halls and theatres, he looked incredulous, laughing uncertainly. "No, really? You're sure? - Oh woll!" Despite his bravura temperament and his exasperation with Soviet regulations, in those very early days he sometimes seemed amused at our casual, unorganised society, as being a little crazy, though enjoyably so.
The English poets of the Thirties had been a lifeline to him in prison . He had adopted Wystan and Stephen as paternal figures in poetry long before he met them. In his last letter to me , only a year ago, he wrote that he "always regarded Stephen as a creature of some superior order", and that he missed Stephen, Wystan and me "as a dog misses his master's voice". This tone of the novice will never chime with the impression we had of him then (or at any time). From the first we admired his strength and were unconscious of the difference in age - that he was 30 years younger than Stephen and only five years older than our son, Matthew, to whom he always felt particularly close. Given the cruel deprivation of close contact with his own family, particularly in his father's last days, his family-feeling with us, and his pleasure, later, that his beautiful young wife, Maria, shared in it, seemed to give some small, shadowy degree of solace. When he joined Matthew and Stephen on their bi-annual holiday starting from Venice, his enjoyment of a sort of family threesome with them was total. He didn't talk about his sadness for his own parents. I can't imagine greater generosity of spirit than that. Perhaps a clue to his grieving for them was in his last words of farewell over Stephen in the church just before the funeral service. "Thank you for everything! Say hello to Wystan and my parents."
His stoicism was all the more remarkable for being casual. Like Wystan, he often used to express his stern moral values rather playfully. He shared with both poets a passion for the truth and a refusal to engage in worldly tactics and polemics. Lunching with my daughter, Lizzie, the day after his Nobel Prize was announced, he laughed off the worldly accolade completely without vanity. His only concern was the serious responsibility he felt to use it for the good of other writers and his former compatriots. With his stoicism, like Stephen, he had a talent for happiness.
That first week,when the bishop's guest of honour turned out to be not the poet Betjeman but the unpoetic C P Snow, we foresaw a tiresome test of patience ahead for Joseph, who might not know of Snow's obsession with the corridors of power and relish for his official status. A few days earlier at a literary gathering, a civil servant had remarked to Stephen, "There's Lord Snow over there. He's equally welcome in Washington and Moscow. How do you explain that?" Stephen, amused, was silent, and the civil servant continued: "I'll tell you the answer: absolute integrity" - not quite the answer Stephen would have given.
As soon as the ladies had left the dining room, Lord Snow made a rather pompous overture to the modest young visitor from Moscow by praising Mikhail Sholokov as a truthful and very great novelist and a force for good. Snow's close friend Sholokov, was a yet greater friend of Khrushchev, though even more repressive. He was known for saying that long sentences served in Arctic labour camps were too lenient for dissidents like Sinyavsky and Daniel (and no doubt Joseph himself), that they should have been shot. Stephen said that Joseph's withering put-down of Snow, and of Sholokov's support for tyranny was masterful. I shall always regret not having heard it. But I did witness the punch-drunk, deflated Lord Snow and the admiration for Joseph of the other gentlemen. Small wonder that as we drove at midnight over Westminster Bridge, Stephen was still enjoying the joke, and the memory of Joseph's self-possessed moral authority among these establishment strangers.
We explained that the light under Big Ben meant that the House was sitting, and asked whether Joseph would like to drop in. He was amazed that we could stroll into the Mother of Parliaments (as if to the British-style Kremlin). Shown to our gallery seats by a policeman, we heard a debate, as I remember, on housing finance. Some members injected a little righteous protest into the debate while others discussed columns of sums. Suddenly I felt the whole row of otherwise empty seats shaking quite hard, and turned to see the cause: it was Joseph in delighted, help- less laughter. He whispered happily, "It's so boring," which I took as praise, meaning innocuous and civilised.
My later memory of Joseph's friendship, more than two decades later, is of our last New York visit in 1994, when Stephen was obliged to spend a month in the Lenox Hill Hospital. Just as in 1972 Joseph had felt "mothered", as he put it, by the Wystan-Stephen family, now we felt welcomed into an extended, rather bewildering Russian family of Joseph and some of his fellow immigrants. They would turn up at the hospital unexpectedly, bearing delicious piroshkis in great steaming parcels. Too shy or considerate to enter Stephen's room, these great-hearted Russian strangers would give me a huge bear-hug of sympathy in the corridor, ask for a precise bulletin and speedily depart, as if they had infiltrated through enemy lines to feed a wounded prisoner and must immediately report back to base. Indeed, within the hour there would be a call from Joseph with a precise list of questions I must ask the doctor, or insistent advice to consult the king of New York specialists, followed by a beguiling, relaxed talk with Stephen which left him laughing - about Joseph's version of the lovelife of W B Yeats, or whatever. Between them they ignored Stephen's infirmity. They both shared with Wystan a lofty disregard for the mechanics of their health or illness; it was no more important to their thought and conversation than the car having its 5000-mile service. And Joseph's loving care was of the utmost tenderness for Stephen, and an affectionate, helpful bossiness with Matthew and me.
One day, when all three Brodskys were visiting, Stephen suffered a severe cardiac crisis. He was rushed away to emergency surgery and intensive care, and the Brodskys waited some hours with Matthew and me. Maria and I managed to affect a little calm by playing with Anna; Joseph clearly responded to Matthew's feeling for his father and the need to master anxiety. With a moment's inspiration he started up one of his serious games - "Who are the six greatest 19th-century Russian novelists?" - and Matthew and Joseph plunged into it. Maria contributed some delicate dissensions and I some rather less informed queries. I only remember that Joseph gave first prize to Dostoevsky, while Tolstoy came sixth; there was some good- humoured haggling about the positions of Leskov and Goncharov in the pantheon. The order was shuffled around with zestful energy, and he managed with sheer determination to keep us somehow engrossed. When we were finally summoned for a minute or two with Stephen, we all seemed to share in the tremendous affirmation of life which had always characterised their long friendship. Joseph threw out some of his cheerful jokes and hugs and left the Spenders feeling in a blaze of confidence.
Though passionate for others, particularly his old friends and his beloved young family, I believe that for Joseph himself, death was no big deal; it might as well descend one day as another. Just as every minute of his life was crammed, so was his telephone call to me in his last week. Even at that moment of physical frailty, doctors' views were dismissed as if they were plumbers, and his avid talk was of Tuscany, of Mount Holyoke, of Bach fugues, of how to write about music, ideas spinning off him like a Catherine wheel. It is this image of his creative vitality, his devotion and generosity which will go on and on living in our memory.
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