Keith Gessen has a “Critic at Large” piece in last week’s New Yorker (May 23), “The Gift,” about Joseph Brodsky, and it’s fine popularized biography-cum-criticism. Gessen starts off with the dramatic break between the youthful Brodsky and his fellow poet Dmitry Bobyshev, hitherto the best of friends, after Bobyshev stole his girlfriend, the beautiful artist Marina Basmanova; the failure of his love affair was so devastating for Brodsky that he later said to Lyudmila Shtern, about the famous trial for parasitism that sent him into internal exile, “that was so much less important to me than the business with Marina” («Это было настолько менее важно, чем история с Мариной»), and he dedicated much of his best poetry over the coming years to Basmanova. Even before the exile, his greatness was apparent, as his friend and biographer Lev Loseff said:
Loseff describes the first time he heard Brodsky read. It was 1961. Some time before, a friend had given him a sheaf of Brodsky’s poems, but the type was faint (samizdat manuscripts were often typed three or four sheets at a time), and Loseff didn’t like the look of the lines, which, especially in Brodsky’s early poetry, stretched on and on. “I managed to get out of reading them somehow,” Loseff recalls. But now a group of friends had gathered in the communal apartment where Loseff and his wife lived, and there was no getting away from Brodsky. He started reading his long ballad “Hills,” and Loseff was amazed: “I realized that here at last were the poems I had always dreamed of, without even knowing it. . . . It was as if a door had opened into a wide-open space that we hadn’t known about or heard of. We simply had no idea that Russian poetry, that the Russian language, that Russian consciousness, could contain these spaces.”
But while Gessen treats Brodsky with appropriate seriousness, he also finds appropriate humor in the aging poet-in-exile’s imperious attitude, insisting on translating his own poetry (“Inevitably, Brodsky tried, and he wasn’t shy about it…. The results were not so much bad as badly uneven”) and becoming “more visible in his last years as an essayist and a propagandist for poetry than as an actual poet”:
His ideas about the moral importance of poetry—inherited from the poets of the Silver Age, including Mandelstam, who had died for his poetry—eventually hardened into dogma; his Nobel Prize address stressed that “aesthetics is the mother of ethics,” and so on.
I love that “and so on,” which reminded me of Pound-as-Propertius’s sly deflation of magniloquence in “Homage To Sextus Propertius – V:
Oh august Pierides! Now for a large-mouthed product.
“The Euphrates denies its protection to the Parthian and apologizes for Crassus,”
And “It is, I think, India which now gives necks to your triumph,”
And so forth, Augustus. “Virgin Arabia shakes in her inmost dwelling.”
Gessen’s essay, like Loseff’s book, “ends with Bobyshev, now in America, calling Brodsky in New York.” It was neither an angry confrontation nor a joyous reunion; it was just a businesslike chat in America, that “interesting place.”