NEW YORK -- Already poets and readers across Russia are calling one another to celebrate Joseph Brodsky's Nobel Prize as if it were their own. "I'm celebrating, too," the poet said in London yesterday. "I'm going out to get smashed."
And Soviet officials will celebrate the fact that after decades of repressing and, perhaps more cruelly, not publishing the greatest living poet of the Russian language, they are permitting the official journal Novy Mir to print some of Brodsky's work in December. "About that, I will not celebrate too much," Brodsky says.
Only those Russians who have read his books in underground editions or attended Brodsky's legendary readings in the communal apartments of Leningrad before the government exiled him 15 years ago know the unique pitch of his voice and his turn of mind, his "Elegy for John Donne" and "Lullaby of Cape Cod."
And yet, in a long interview at his home in New York before he left for England, Brodsky expressed only a bitter disinterest, a profound sort of boredom: glasnost, Gorbachev, once-forbidden art exhibits and movie screenings -- all the new "this and that, I'm not interested."
"Poems, novels -- these things belong to the nation, to the culture and the people. They've been stolen from the people and now the stolen things are being returned to their owners, but I don't think their owners should be grateful to receive them," Brodsky says. He sits in the back-yard garden of his building in the West Village. His cat Mississippi springs on and off his lap. "How do I feel? Robert Frost once said, in a similar context, in one of his poems, that to be social is to be forgiving. But I'm not terribly social."
Brodsky speaks with the weary darkness of a dying man. Part of his bearing, the rolling eyes and condescending, stagy sighs, derives from a lifelong sense of drama and performance, but it is authentic, too. Literary and personal suppression, an 18-month term in a work camp, exile, the lack of serious readers -- all of it wears on him. You can even see it in his face. Brodsky is 47 but looks 10, 15 years older. His health is bad as well. He has undergone two bypass operations and last spring doctors cleared a clogged artery with a surgical wire.
When he talks of old age Brodsky says, "That's not a subject I worry over." He has not quit smoking. "I just can't seem to do it." He goes through pack after pack of cigarettes with the dumb I'll-live-forever abandon of a teen-ager. Friends worry if he has surrendered, if there is something even suicidal in his behavior. He greets a photographer at the door with, "Do you have cigarettes? I'm dying for cigarettes." He is a man who knows his sentences.
Brodsky has learned to abandon certain hopes. As he was leaving the Soviet Union in 1972 -- leaving behind a son, parents, friends, readers, his cherished city of Leningrad -- Brodsky wrote a letter to the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev: "Dear Leonid Ilich . . . A language is a much more ancient and inevitable thing than a state. I belong to the Russian language. As to the state, from my point of view, the measure of a writer's patriotism is not oaths from a high platform, but how he writes in the language of the people among whom he lives . . . Although I am losing my Soviet citizenship, I do not cease to be a Russian poet. I believe that I will return. Poets always return in flesh or on paper."
It seems now that Brodsky will return only on paper. Physical return is a hope abandoned. For years he lobbied the Soviet government to let his parents visit him. His appeals were ignored, and now even those disembodied voices from Leningrad are denied him -- Alexander and Maria Brodsky are dead. Brodsky would still like to see a few friends from home, but "quite frankly I'd rather they came here to see me."
"My poems getting published in Russia doesn't make me feel in any fashion, to tell you the truth. I'm not trying to be coy, but it doesn't tickle my ego. If anything, I feel a little bit fastidious toward all this. I'm used to my condition, being on my own, totally autonomous. I don't want to dive into that mud slide, which is what I consider the literary process.
"I don't believe in that country any longer. I'm not interested. I'm writing in the language, and I like the language. I really don't know how to explain it to you. Country is . . . it's people, basically. And I'm one of them. And I'm more or less enough for myself. What's happening in Russia now is devoid of autobiographical interest for me. Maybe it's egocentric. Whatever it is, feel free to use it. When Thomas Mann arrived in California from Germany, they asked him about German literature. And he said, 'German literature is where I am.' It's really a bit grand, but if a German can afford it, I can afford it.
"Now I am quite prepared to die here. It doesn't matter at all. I don't know better places, or perhaps if I do I am not prepared to make a move."
Once upon a time there was a little boy. He lived in the most unjust country in the world. Which was ruled by creatures who by all human accounts should be considered degenerates. Which never happened . . .
Early in the morning when the sky was still full of stars, the little boy would rise and, after having a cup of tea and an egg, accompanied by a radio announcement of a new record in smelted steel, followed by the army choir singing a hymn to the Leader, whose picture was pinned to the wall over the little boy's still warm bed, he would run along the snow-covered granite embankment to school.
. . . It is a big room with three rows of desks, a portrait of the Leader on the wall behind the teacher's chair, a map with two hemispheres, one of which is legal. The little boy takes his seat, opens his briefcase, puts his pen and notebook on the desk, and prepares himself to hear drivel.
-- from Brodsky's essay "Less Than One"
The little boy, Brodsky, was the son of middle-class Jewish parents. His father was discharged from the navy, Brodsky says, "in accordance with some seraphic ruling that Jews should not hold substantial military rank." The family got by mainly on the earnings of Brodsky's mother Maria, and the three of them lived in a communal apartment, a space described in Proustian detail in the essay, "In a Room and a Half."
Brodsky was precocious both in literature and political disgust. Mornings he would sit in school and try to avoid the gaze of Lenin, whose portrait was on every classroom wall, in every textbook, on postage stamps and ruble notes. It wasn't so much ideology as the numbing images that grated on the boy: "There was baby Lenin, looking like a cherub in his blond curls. Then Lenin in his twenties and thirties, bald and uptight, with that meaningless expression on his face which could be mistaken for anything, preferably a sense of purpose. This face in some way haunts every Russian and suggests some sort of standard for human appearance because it is utterly lacking in character." Trying to ignore those images, Brodsky writes, "was my first attempt at estrangement."
One winter morning when he was 15, he could stand it no longer, not the monotonous teaching, not the gaze of the Leader. He walked out of class and never returned. It was time to begin an education: literary and sentimental. Reading the classics of Russian and English when he could -- Dostoevsky, Platonov, Frost and Auden among his favorites -- Brodsky began to work.
"I got caught up in the proletariat the way Marx describes it." He worked as a stoker, a photographer, a sailor, as a geologist's assistant traveling to the Tien Shan Mountains and Central Asia. He worked with the dead. "I had this fantasy of becoming a neurosurgeon. You know, the normal Jewish boy fantasy, but I wanted to be a neurosurgeon for some reason. So I started in this unpleasant way. I was an assistant to the coroner, opening up corpses, taking the innards out, opening skulls, taking the brains out."
At around the same time as he began his physical labor, he started his literary work, learning English to translate John Donne, learning Polish in order to translate the poems of Czeslaw Milosz -- an eventual Nobel Prize winner who would one day nominate Brodsky. And he began to write his own poems, too, publishing a few of them in a fringe publication, Sintaksis. Some of those early efforts won the approval of Anna Akhmatova, a fellow Leningrader and one of the century's great poets.
In his early twenties Brodsky was already considered an original. The mark of his poetry has always been an extraordinary command of rhythm and sound; scholars have written of Brodsky's poems as musical scores. He is a technical genius. Of Brodsky, poet and critic Robert Hass writes, "In America, a metrical poem is likely to conjure up the idea of the sort of poet who wears ties and lunches at the faculty club. In Russia it suggests the moral force of an art practiced against the greatest personal odds, as a discipline, solitary and intense."
Brodsky's sensibility, too, is stubbornly individual, cosmopolitan -- something that annoys some of his countrymen, who would prefer he hail Pushkin a bit more than Frost, the motherland more than Cape Cod. From the start, Brodsky's politics were the politics of the individual mind at play. His music was his own.
"I knew Joseph from the old days when we were young," says Lev Loseff, an e'migre' now teaching literature at Dartmouth College. "Old St. Petersburg was the seat of opposition and artistic refinement, but during Stalin's time the city was downgraded to a provincial place and there was not much to distinguish it culturally. Then there appeared, as if from nowhere, a young man who looked like he'd completely missed the dreariness of socialist realism. He was the incarnation of the city's noble, refined poetic tradition of Pushkin. Suddenly poetry was alive again in Joseph Brodsky."
Clearly, Brodsky was a poet of consequence, for by 1963 a Leningrad paper was denouncing the 23-year-old as "a drone of literature," a "semiliterary parasite whose pornographic and anti-Soviet poetry" was corrupting the young. The paper said that the young man affected "velvet trousers" and had once tried to steal an airplane and fly to the West. He was harassed by the police and twice thrown into a mental hospital. To avoid the authorities, he slept in the home of a different friend every night. By 1964, Brodsky's KGB file was getting fat.
"Every life has a file, if you will," he says now. "The moment you get a little bit well known, they open a file on you. The file begins to get filled up with this and that, and if you write your file grows in size all the faster. It's a sort of Neanderthal form of computerization. Gradually, your file occupies too much space on the shelf and simply a man walks into the office and says, 'This is a big file. Let's get him.' "
They got him.
Judge: "What is your profession?"
Brodsky: "Translator and poet."
Judge: "Who has recognized you as a poet? Who has enrolled you in the ranks of poets?"
Brodsky: "No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of human beings?"
Judge: "Did you study for it?"
Judge: "To be a poet. Didn't you try to take courses in school where one prepares for life, where one learns?"
Brodsky: "I didn't believe it was a matter of education."
Judge: "How is that?"
Brodsky: "I thought that it came from God."
-- from a smuggled transcript of Brodsky's 1964 trial
For the crime of "parasitism," a Soviet judge, one Mrs. Saleleva, sentenced Brodsky to five years at a state farm near Arkhangelsk on the White Sea. The origins of the charge are still not known precisely, but it is likely that many of the party-line writers of Leningrad at the time wanted no part of such an independent, talented figure.
During the day Brodsky crushed stones, chopped wood and shoveled manure. At night he read Louis Untermeyer's anthology of American and British verse. From the book's tiny photographs of his heroes -- Frost, Auden, Hardy -- he tried to imagine what sort of men they were. As an exercise in language and imagination, he would read the first and last stanzas of their poems and "try to imagine what would come between."
"I was quite happy in Arkhangelsk," he says, "because, well, you see, I used to live in communal apartments all the time. I'm not trying to be ridiculous or funny, but it was rather pleasant to find yourself in isolation, in solitary. Subsequently, I was sent to a village. I liked it in its own way because it sounded to me very much like the tradition of a hired man in any world-class poem. That's what I was, a hired man. I was working for a collective farm. The hired man's duties were my duties. I was doing all sorts of agricultural work, and it felt, in a rough way, pastoral.
"It's rather an exhilarating feeling. It's 6 or 7 when you get up and go out into the fields wearing your Wellingtons or high boots. You know that at this very hour half the nation does the same thing, which gives you, with the benefit of hindsight, a satisfaction in doing those things, too, a knowledge, a sense of the nation. I was a city boy until then. If they had wanted to punish me, they should have kept me in a communal apartment. Then I would have become a wreck."
After 18 months of protests from artists inside the country and abroad, Soviet officials let Brodsky come home to Leningrad. The harassments, though, continued and he was denied permission to publish or travel abroad.
Finally, in 1971, Brodsky received two invitations to emigrate to Israel. Though Jewish by birth, Brodsky has never been observant or a refusenik. He has distanced himself from Western Jewish groups and he never saw Jerusalem as his home. "I'm 100 percent Jewish by blood, but by education I'm nothing. By affiliation I'm nothing. I'm neither Catholic not Protestant. Protestant sounds good but I don't think I am.
"It turned out that I'm a bad Jew," he says. "I'm a bad Jew, a bad Russian, a bad everything."
When the Ministry of the Interior asked Brodsky why he did not accept the invitations to Israel -- by now they were eager to be rid of him -- the poet said he had no desire to leave the Soviet Union. He was then told that if he valued his life, he would go. On June 4, 1972, Brodsky was given a visa, relieved of a stack of manuscripts and put on a plane to Vienna. There he was met by the late Carl Proffer, founder of Ardis Publishers and professor of Russian literature at the University of Michigan. Proffer acted as Brodsky's Virgil, arranging for a meeting with W.H. Auden near Vienna and for a job in Ann Arbor as the university's poet-in-residence.
The next year, Harper & Row published Brodsky's "Selected Poems," translated by George L. Kline. Auden wrote the introduction, praising Brodsky as an artist "with an extraordinary capacity to envision material objects as sacramental signs, messengers from the unseen."
Auden's blessing was as powerful in the West as Akhmatova's had been in the Soviet Union. Unlike Solzhenitsyn, who resists learning the language and life of his new country, and unlike many e'migre's who are frustrated by the small audience for their work in the West, Brodsky has thrived here, first in Ann Arbor and now in New York. Farrar, Straus & Giroux has published translations of "A Part of Speech" and will soon issue "To Urania."
"I wondered whether I would understand the people," Brodsky says. "In Russia, the moment a person opens his mouth you know where he's from. There's the uniformity of experience of an individual in Russia. When you're about 7 years old you get into school and you get put in this factory or this bureaucracy or whatever. The options are computable. Here it's tremendously diverse."
He is famous in New York not only as a poet, but as a romancer and a literary celebrity not quite in spite of himself. He can be helpful to his e'migre' friends -- he has helped boost the reputation of such novelists as the author of "Kangaroo," Yuz Aleshkovsky. But he can play tough, too, recommending that a publisher not bother with Vassily Aksyonov's novel, "The Burn."
Brodsky has no idea how lucky he is. A spoiled darling of fate, he fails to appreciate it and sometimes mopes. It is time that he understood that a man who walks the streets, the key to his own door in his pocket, has been well and truly let at liberty.
-- from Nadezhda Mandelstam's "Hope Abandoned"
Nadezhda Mandelstam was not alone in her impatience with Brodsky. People would rather see him more humble, more active in this society and that cause. He insists, however, that the way he lives his life revolves around writing. He gets up early and tries to work. "If I can get somewhere, I'm all right. If not, I'm miserable."
In the exile tradition of Dante or Ovid, Brodsky, as he writes in a poem, "survives like a fish in the sand: crawls off into the bush, and getting up on crooked legs,/ walks away (his tracks like a line of writing)/ into the heart of the continent." His strange condition, his "apartness," suits him.
"You see, I didn't want to be either the cre`me de la cre`me or a martyr. I'd rather be a novelty, especially in a democracy that doesn't understand the language I write in. I'm an ultimate novelty and I think that's the most appropriate position for a poet in society. In order to say or comprehend any truth about existence you have to get yourself out of the fray. You have to more or less listen to yourself.
"A man should know about himself two or three things: whether he is a coward; whether he is an honest man or given to lies; whether he is an ambitious man. One should define oneself first of all in those terms, and only then in terms of culture, race, creed."
Politics, to him, is a kind of noise. Sometimes the noise registers and becomes part of the poetic material, but more often Brodsky's material is deep within himself. His poems "begin with a kind of hum," with the sort of pleasure a bird feels when he sings for the sake of singing. The ferment in the Soviet Union feels too distant, too vulgar to dominate song.
"See, I grew up in the sort of cultural milieu that always regarded conversations about the political discourse as tremendously low-brow. The government, the state, they're just objects of jokes rather than serious consideration. I can't possibly take them seriously." As a poet, Brodsky says, "I don't have principles. I have nerves."
"In general, in this country, every discourse in literature in 15 minutes degenerates into a conversation about ethics, morality and this and that. The Holocaust and the consequences of it. Well, I find it terribly boring, predictable and unimportant, because what matters about literature is esthetic achievement."
Brodsky's pessimism embraces not just Moscow, but the planet entire:
"I think the day will come when everything will be published. Because I think in no time the Soviets are going to realize that it really matters very little what's published and not published. They are bound to realize what the West realized long ago, that there are far worse fates for books than not being published or burned. It's that books are not being read.
"In the West you have every opportunity for civilization to triumph. But what do you do with the opportunities? This is a large issue. The species goofed long ago. One has a choice, either to learn or not to learn. And invariably the bulk of human beings choose not to learn. It's as simple as that.
"It's partly the fault of the institutions of education. But it's partly the decision to be relieved of responsibility. Literature is simply the most focused form of the demands on the evolution of the species. It imposes a certain responsibility, moral, ethical and esthetic responsibility, and the species simply doesn't want to oblige.
"Literature sort of makes your daily operation, your daily conduct, the management of your affairs in the society a bit more complex. And it puts what you do in perspective, and people don't like to see themselves or their activities in perspective. They don't feel quite comfortable with that. Nobody wants to acknowledge the insignificance of his life, and that is very often the net result of reading a poem."
Brodsky's English is good enough for complicated conversation and elegant prose, but he writes his most ambitious and best verse in Russian. Often the translations are muddy. Even poems that mostly work in English end up with wretched lines such as "Therefore, sleep well. Sweet dreams. Knit up that sleeve./ Sleep as those only do who have gone pee-pee." Reading some of the translations in the collection "A Part of Speech," Robert Hass writes, "is like wandering through the ruins of a noble building."
Such clumsiness hurts. Language is the house that Brodsky lives in. The table in his back yard is cluttered with an old Russian typewriter, pencils, pens, yellow manuscript pages. He is writing a long love poem and wants to be rid of his guests and get back to it.
"What really motivates me is specifically my sense of the Russian language. It lives its own life within me and sometimes just sort of pops up to the surface, yeah?" By writing his poems, he ensures that no oppressor, no heart attack, even the last one, can defeat him in the end. "What gets left of a man amounts/ to a part. To a part of speech."
He says goodbye to his guests and then walks to the corner candy store for a few packs of cigarettes.