Memories of Brodsky

Anatoly Naiman

When Joseph Brodsky died in January 1996, there was in Russia a strong tendency to oversimplify his life, to reduce it to an outline, and at the same time to mythologise it as Pushkin’s life has been mythologised. It wasn’t so much that a second Pushkin had died, but that people wanted Brodsky to conform to their idea of a poet, and their idea of a poet is Pushkin.

Thus Brodsky became the man who was arrested, was exiled to the North, and was then sent abroad, where he received the Nobel Prize. Even among better informed Russians, little more was or is known about him, and the few facts of his life have been rehashed so many times by so many different people – even by some thought to have been close to him – with a view to establishing the parallel with Pushkin, that it is almost impossible now to separate him from his own legend.

What Derzhavin was to Pushkin, Anna Akhmatova was to Brodsky: the mentor who anointed him as the next great Russian poet. When Brodsky died, the journal Zvezda printed Akhmatova’s quatrain ‘I don’t weep for myself now’, with a new dedication to Brodsky in brackets. This is what Akhmatova used to call ‘popular wish-fulfilment’ – in other words, plain forgery. Akhmatova never dedicated a poem to Brodsky and the only excuse for thinking that ‘I don’t weep ...’ might have been dedicated to him derives from the reference to ‘the golden stamp of failure’ – imagined by some to be a reference to his ginger hair.

Certainly, ‘we’ – by which I mean a group of four young Leningrad poets that included Joseph and me – found our way to Akhmatova in her last years, and her relations with Brodsky were on a higher level than her relations with the rest of us. She already knew what rank of poet he was in 1964, and we didn’t. A quarter of a century later, his biographer, Valentina Polukhina, interviewed me on a bus journey from Nottingham to Stratford. I was sitting by the window and the sun was broiling me, so that I associated the question, ‘When did you realise he was a great poet?’ (or even ‘genius’) with the various unpleasantnesses of the journey and snarled: ‘I still haven’t.’ Once I had cooled off, I decided that the question had been wrongly phrased. From our early twenties – or, to be more precise, starting when he was 19 and I was 22 – we had seen each other almost every day for years on end, but neither then nor later would it have been possible for me to say to myself: ‘That’s the great poet Joseph Brodsky!’ Akhmatova understood immediately that he was a great poet. Once, referring to her cat, Gluck – who exceeded the normal dimensions of his breed – by his nickname ‘Cat-and-a-Half’, she unexpectedly added: ‘Don’t you find that Joseph is a typical cat-and-a-half?’

When he died, I called Isaiah Berlin and said I’d like to talk to him about Joseph, and especially to hear what he was like when he first arrived in the West. Isaiah said that he, too, wanted to talk with me, not about that, but about what he was like ‘then, in the Akhmatova years, because everything was sown and came to fruition at that time, and the emigration years were merely the reaping of the harvest’.

Which was entirely right; Brodsky hadn’t changed over the years. Take the authoritarian manner that was so striking a feature of his conversation. In his youth he showed exactly the same desire to stand his ground, to crush all opposition, an even keener desire perhaps because in those days he still had to prove that what he was saying was true simply because he was saying it. For someone affectionately known as ‘Osya’ or even ‘Oska’, this was not easy, and in Akhmatova’s presence it was impossible.

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