Obituary: Joseph Brodsky

Lachlan Mackinnon
Tuesday 30 January 1996 01:02
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In 1987 Joseph Brodsky, then 47, became the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. It had been widely expected, honouring a poet who, born in one culture, had become a master of another.

Brodsky was an only child, born in Leningrad in 1940. His father, Alexander Brodsky, was serving as a naval officer - he only met him once before the age of eight: his mother, Maria Volpert, worked as a secretary, well below her intellectual capacity. In 1949, Brodsky's father was dismissed from the navy during a wave of anti-Semitism, and could only eke out a piecemeal career as a photojournalist. Brodsky would write about the "forty square metres" in which the family lived in the essay "In a Room and a Half", recalling the cramped conditions (though generous by Soviet standards) which helped to make him inward, bookish, solitary.

At 15, Brodsky left school, at about which time he began to write poetry. He worked variously as a labourer, a mill operative and a mortuary assistant among other jobs, while his complex love-life came to centre on Marina Basmanova and their son Andrei: these difficult ties were the subject of some of his most moving early work. Brodsky began publishing when he was 18, and rapidly made a considerable reputation. In 1960 he met Anna Akhmatova, the longest-lived of the great generation of herself, Boris Pasternak, Marian Tsvetayeva and Osip Mandelstam. She admired his work but dreaded seeing "The golden stamp of failure / On this yet untroubled brow".

Her fears were justified. Brodsky's success, and the enthusiasm provoked by his readings, alarmed the authorities. Accounts of what happened between December 1963 and January 1964 vary - some have Brodsky on the run, some confined to a psychiatric hospital. At all events, this period ended with Brodsky being put on trial. The charge was "social parasitism".

The judge, Savelyeva, asked Brodsky who had given him authorisation to be a poet, and he replied, "No one. Who was it who decided I was a member of the human race?" It was for this prickly independence of spirit, rather than anything specifically political, that the poet was punished. At a second hearing, he was exiled for five years to the village of Norinskaya in the Archangel region.

The Brodsky trial was a turning-point for the developing dissident movement: it was also an international scandal, and Brodsky was released early, in September 1965. In exile, he had read W.H. Auden's "In Memory of W.B. Yeats", and its dictum that time "Worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives" had set his ethical compass. "If time worships language, it means that language is greater, or older, than time, which is, in its turn, older and greater than space," Brodsky wrote; a poem was now "a game language plays to restructure time".

Though released, Brodsky continued to be persecuted, and was forbidden to accept the foreign invitations his reputation had earned. Finally, on 4 June 1972, he was expelled from the Soviet Union and sent to Vienna. He was met by the American scholar Carl Proffer, who two days later took him to Auden's house in Kirchstetten (Auden was already writing an introduction for Brodsky's Selected Poems, his first appearance in English). During the next three weeks, Auden took charge of Brodsky's affairs, seeing to it that he met useful people and received money from the Academy of American Poets.

Brodsky soon joined Carl Proffer as his colleague at the University of Michigan, the beginning of his career in American academia. Other institutions he was associated with include Columbia, New York University, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College and, in England, Cambridge. Brodsky received many academic and public honours, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Foundation award, an honorary doctorate from Yale, the Nobel Prize and, in 1991, appointment to the one-year post of Poet Laureate of the United States.

In 1990 Brodsky married Maria Sozzani: they had one child. He had undergone three heart operations by the time he was 40, but continued to smoke heavily. He never returned to the Soviet Union, partly perhaps for medical reasons, partly perhaps because he had been away for too much of his life when Soviet Communism collapsed.

Brodsky became a familiar figure on the international reading circuit. Together with Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney and Les Murray, he belonged to the most esteemed group of living poets, although he also formed part of the Eastern emigre cluster including Czeslaw Milosz and Tomas Venclova.

His reputation as a writer in the West was enhanced by three collections published in English, Selected Poems (1973), A Part of Speech (1979) and To Urania (1988). He was also an exceptional critic and memoirist, as shown by Less than One: selected essays (1988), and he published two plays, Marbles (1985) and Democracy (1990). His essay on Venice, Watermark (1992), is the kind of book travel-writing exists to produce.

Poets usually fear exile because it cuts them off from the language on which they depend. Brodsky told me that this had not been a problem for him, given the ease with which he could always drive north into Canada and listen to Russian radio. Nonetheless, he began to write some poems in English, as well as increasingly translating himself. The results met with mixed responses. Sometimes Brodsky's vocabulary seems a little aside of what he means, as in the line "thrice let knives rake my nitty-gritty", which is an odd way of expressing heart-surgery. Those who complained about apparent technical deficiencies too easily forgot, though, that Brodsky was engaged in creating a new idiolect, precisely the half-English of a deracinated man. From his mentor Auden he learn to rummage in the more arcane areas of English vocabulary, and the resulting style is, while sometimes disconcerting, usually self- consistent and achieved.

Joseph Brodsky's poems are allusive, difficult, learned pieces, influenced by the intellectual concision of John Donne as well as the sudden transitions of Osip Mandelstam. Indeed, though Akhmatova admired him, she was puzzled by his attendance on her. The difficulty she found in his work was very far from her own clarity, and we should probably see Brodsky as Mandelstam's heir. Through him, the culture of pre- revolutionary St Petersburg found a continuing voice. Exploring the relation of man and art to time, expressing a great love for the created world and an open attitude to faith (his own position was variable), Joseph Brodsky belonged to a high humanist tradition, and the endless excitement of his darting perceptions kept alive the values of the European civilisation that shaped him.

He wrote that "until brown clay has been crammed down my larynx, / only gratitude will be gushing from it"; now, it is ours to be grateful. His early death is a catastrophic loss for Russian and American letters.

Joseph Alexandrovich Brodsky, poet: born Leningrad 24 May 1940; Nobel Prize for Literature 1987; married 1990 Maria Sozzani (one child); died New York 28 January 1996.

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