Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life

Leningrad, January 1964. The young poet Joseph Brodsky was writing at his desk, taking advantage of the rare moment of quiet in the communal apartment where he lived with his parents. 

The 23-year-old had already been arrested, interrogated, and jailed. In the previous month alone, KGB agents had wrestled him into the back of a car, authorities had labeled him a social parasite, and his journals and papers had been seized. Solitude was undoubtedly welcome.

It was also, however, short-lived. The Soviet police burst in to tell the poet that if he didn’t find a job in three days, he’d be sorry. “I choked out some sort of response, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking that I had to finish this poem,” he told his lifelong friend Lev Loseff, author of Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life.

Brodsky’s insouciance was no gesture of contempt—or at least not only. He believed he held a distinct evolutionary edge—and went on to prove it by winning international acclaim and a Nobel, becoming a Russian poet, an English essayist, and, of course, an American citizen. In his opinion, poets were not only the forefront of civilization, but nothing less than the cutting edge of the human race itself.

Loseff boiled down Brodsky’s 1987 Nobel lecture to this syllogism: “Art is the means by which a social animal became an individual ‘I,’ and therefore aesthetics is superior to ethics. The highest form of aesthetic activity is poetry, and therefore the creation of poetry is the ultimate goal, the evolutionary goal, of the species.”

This, perhaps, provides the basis for what Loseff calls in those early days “a conscious moral stance, a struggle for inner freedom.” Brodsky’s p.o.v. was already providing a protective armor in 1964.

He would need it: a month after the unpleasantness in the Leningrad apartment, he endured the petty thuggery of a fixed courtroom trial, which Loseff describes with fresh insight. For Brodsky, however, the entire affair was almost beneath his notice. Don’t give your enemies your attention, he would later say, it only prolongs their life.

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.

While the worst within us may salivate for sordid details and evidence that our hero is no better than us, we look to be inspired and transported, too—many of us read memoirs and biographies for precisely that reason.

Recalling the frequent appearance of a star as “a sacred constant in Brodsky’s poetry,” Loseff writes: “But the star was always the point at which suffering and divine love were joined.” But that’s the very point of contact he erases, for the most part, in this literary life.

What’s to hide? For one, Brodsky’s life was messy, and the simple truth is that he was not a “nice” man—sometimes he could be a downright cruel one. A spate of unkind memoirs in recent years has uncovered a substratum of Russian resentment, but the boil has yet to be lanced in America. Those who didn’t know him remained transfixed by his perceived martyrdom—but Brodsky, to put it mildly, was not the martyr type.

A martyr is not necessarily a saint, in any case, and those who knew him didn’t turn to him for saintliness. He was spellbinding, an electrical jolt for the psyche. An encounter with him, as a colleague or as a mentor, could be life-changing and endlessly rewarding. Warts and all, the real man carries far more interest than the photoshopped one Loseff gives us. The portrait that emerges on these pages has lost its sizzle. One does not taste a single spoonful of borscht, or feel the nip of a single Russian snowfall.

So Loseff made a safe bet when he wrote Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life. He cautiously adopted Brodsky’s own position that the writing is the life, and bypassed any resistance from the gatekeepers.

Yet a real biography cannot come too soon for this curiously vaporizing presence in American letters. Many of Brodsky’s poems have not appeared in English at all, and many could be more effectively translated. Many of his letters are literary, not personal, and would find a grateful audience. A major American poet is disappearing from bookstores, from bookshelves, from our literary conversations.

Loseff’s microscope is focused on the early years—an instructive lens for an American audience. For example, we begin to see that the 1964-65 internal exile in the Archangelsk region really was, as Brodsky had insisted, one of the best times of his life—he was not being defiant, merely precise. After the trial, he had found quiet, at last—a straw pallet, a desk made of boards, and Oscar Williams’s New Pocket Anthology of English Verse. He taught himself English and discovered Auden under a kerosene lamp. It was the solitude and study he had longed for in Leningrad.

With his 1972 expulsion, Brodsky lost the psychological fixtures of his life, its few stable points—he also lost his poverty of spirit. Shocked and blinded by the loudness and bright colors in this otherworld, he wrote to Loseff: “Abundance is just as hard to take as poverty, maybe harder. The latter’s preferable because the soul is engaged. I personally can’t take anything in—everything seems to bounce around, I’ve got spots before my eyes.”

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