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.

On one occasion, some of our fellow poets in Leningrad invited us to watch an international soccer match on television, and to stay on at the end of the game for the customary drinking. They spent most of the time making fun of one another and joking, and they expected us to do the same. Brodsky wasn’t up to it, felt unhappy about playing their game and said he was leaving when the match was barely over. They tried to persuade him to stay, but he wouldn’t give in. Our host saw him out, then stood dramatically in the doorway and declared solemnly: ‘A great poet has gone from among us!’ (It was the sort of thing which in those days someone might have said at an official funeral.)

It was the same when he was reciting, or more often roaring out his poems: he wanted first and foremost to overwhelm whoever was listening, to carry people away. The pressure of the sound was intended to rob them of their will. Sound for Brodsky was primary. Melody in the poems was not a device, but a goal. A single line or perhaps a whole poem necessarily passes through a sound-only phase, which remains even when the line or the poem is written down. Brodsky devoted himself to bringing this sound to his audience. The stories of how he did this have become legendary. Once, in our youth, he phoned my future wife and told her he had written a new poem and wanted to read it to her. It was a long poem and in the middle of the recitation they were cut off. He discovered this only when he got to the end and heard no reply from her. He called back, found out where he’d been interrupted, told her he’d start again from that point and checked after each stanza to make sure she’d heard it. The volume grew from stanza to stanza, but in between he managed to say ‘Yes?’ in a normal voice, hear her ‘Yes,’ then begin again as resonantly as before.

Akhmatova recognised that with his gift and his ambitions Brodsky might well suffer the fate of the world-famous poet: that he might be perverted or enfeebled by temptation. Fame had come easily to her, at no cost, but she had observed the literary politics of Gumilev, her husband and fellow poet, at close quarters and saw what it had cost him. She forgave Brodsky – but no one else – his occasional irresponsibility. Once, for example, he was supposed to meet her elderly sister-in-law from Riga at the station, and he either forgot or over-slept. When, about two hours later, we all got back to Akhmatova’s, I was the only one who seemed agitated: neither of the women nor Brodsky himself appeared to think anything worth talking about had taken place. ‘These things happen,’ Akhmatova said to me later, with a smile.

She spoke her mind sharply, however, when, soon after finishing his ‘Isaac and Abraham’, he embarked on something else with a Biblical theme. The Bible, she said, was not a source of themes for poetry and if you come across something personal in it, that is an exclusively private matter. Again, when his love life, the course of which we were familiar with not only thanks to his verse but also from first-hand observation, to say nothing of our enforced participation in it, shifted almost entirely from poetry to mundane reality, she said: ‘When all’s said and done, it’s good for a poet to be able to tell the difference between his muse and his whore.’

When I showed her the poem that he wrote in exile (‘My people, not bowing down their heads’), in response to an appeal from the authorities that he write something patriotic, she said: ‘Either it’s brilliant or I don’t understand anything about poetry.’ This most probably had to do with the fact that Brodsky had done brilliantly what the Soviet Government had demanded of her in her time, and which in her case was not only a complete failure, but came out almost as a jeer – so forced and hopeless is her cycle, ‘In Praise of Peace’. When she records this episode in her diary she goes on to talk about her imprisoned son, on whose account that cycle was undertaken. In other words, one could interpret her comment as meaning: ‘I, as you know, understand poetry – therefore, I emphasise that a poet must know how to do everything in his poems, even on demand.’

It was at dinner at Akhmatova’s in Komarovo that Brodsky took the elderly scholar Zhirmunsky to task, three minutes after meeting him for the first time, for his liking of the German Romantics and his ‘philistine’ approach to literature. Everyone had been drinking heavily and Akhmatova, fearing even worse, signalled to an old friend of hers, who quickly dragged Brodsky off ‘to look for mushrooms’. After Zhirmunsky’s death, Brodsky said something to the effect that he was the last real academic, that from now on there would only be trash. I also remember going with Brodsky in winter to Akhmatova’s grave and seeing an enormous new metal cross over it, in the style then cultivated by Yunost and by young people’s cafés. A crudely moulded dove, made out of cheap zinc, was attached to one of the arms of the cross. Nearby lay the plain wooden cross which had stood at the head of the grave since the day she was buried. We found this offensive and set about uprooting the new cross so that we could put back the old one. The earth was frozen, and we couldn’t get it out. We left the cemetery for Zhirmunsky’s dacha, and told him what we’d tried to do. He stood up, crossed himself and said solemnly: ‘What luck! Two Jews digging up an Orthodox cross from a grave – do you understand what this means?’

Another time, Akhmatova, now living on Lenin Street, asked us either to drop off or pick up a book at the home of her neighbour, a university professor who lived just along the block. There, we were invited to have some watermelon. We began to eat it and to make polite conversation. That is, our host conversed politely and we agreed politely. This began to annoy Brodsky, who before long announced that Blok was a worthless poet, but that Baratynsky was brilliant, more brilliant indeed than Pushkin. This had been an idée fixe with Brodsky for many years: he said it now because he knew that our host was a famous Blok scholar. The professor smiled placatingly and remarked that not long ago it had been suggested that Baratynsky was the Salieri to Pushkin’s Mozart. Brodsky fired back, ‘Anyone who thinks that is a complete cretin,’ at which there was a faint shriek from the hallway and the sound of something falling, maybe a second watermelon, or maybe the professor’s wife.

It can’t be said that Brodsky ever protested against the role and status that were thrust on him as Akhmatova’s favourite disciple, though he certainly didn’t welcome it. He put Tsvetaeva first, ahead of Akhmatova, both as a ‘paradise-less poet’ – that is, one who treads the very brink of despair – and because she had a greater influence on him. He often spoke of Tsvetaeva specifically as a counterweight to Akhmatova. But there was a further consideration. He wasn’t against being her ‘favourite’, but he objected to ‘disciple’. In point of fact, neither he nor any of the four of us, who were known sentimentally as ‘Akhmatova’s orphans’, were her disciples, though she was our teacher in the usual, literary meaning of the word. She taught us and we learned from her, but not how to write poetry; or, to put it more accurately, how to write poetry last of all. And then you can’t become ‘Brodsky’ fully if you are still ‘Akhmatova’s favourite disciple’. That would be like a post you held for life, as I know from personal experience. ‘Sort of, well, Akhmatova’s literary secretary’ is how a certain editor introduced me not long ago to his friends, hoping, apparently, to please me. Times do change, though, and I felt a gloomy satisfaction when I read in the newspaper that ‘Akhmatova’s orphans’ – there followed two arbitrarily chosen names – ‘arrived by taxi’ at the funeral home where Brodsky’s body lay.

It’s possible that Joseph, who needed always to be first, was a little jealous of my own relationship with Akhmatova, which was more intimate than his. Once, he even committed an act of low treachery. The three of us were getting into an elevator and he suddenly said to me, with an innocent look: ‘Oh, Tolya, show how Anna Andreevna gets into the elevator.’ How she did it was by first looking fixedly ahead at the floor, then taking a heavy step inside and – having already pursed her lips a little and raised her chin – immediately lifting her eyes to the mirror. I must at least once have imitated her doing this. She was horribly offended, and for several days hardly spoke to me.

A little before this, in the middle of the summer, I fell ill in Moscow with a bad throat. She was in Leningrad, and had something pressing she wanted to discuss with me on the phone. Something in our conversation, or maybe in my voice, worried her. Three or four hours later, there was a knock at my door: Joseph had arrived by plane; he had been at her place and she had given him the money for the ticket. He brought with him a note from her and her new poem, the now celebrated ‘Thirteen Lines’, which he had taken down and got her to sign. There turned out to be only 12 lines – he had missed one out. (It would be a unique autograph, had it survived.) Having ascertained that I wasn’t dying, and having brought me something from the store, he was off about his own business. When I returned to Leningrad, Akhmatova met me like Tatiana met Onegin, with ‘cosmic coldness’. After a few minutes, it emerged that on his return Joseph had said to her: ‘It’s nothing serious, he’s committing adultery, and he’s suffering.’ I was actually going through a bad patch at the time, which I didn’t intend to share with her, or with him. ‘Adultery’ was not a word we used but Brodsky chose it specially, in order to make it all sound more important: here you are worrying about him, and he’s behaving like a madman, like Vronsky and Karenina, and without even giving you a thought.

About ten days before Joseph died, we spoke on the phone. He was feeling terrible. At the end of our conversation, as we were saying goodbye, I said: ‘We’ve been remiss about praying for you, to make up for it we’re trying to take it up regularly.’ The ‘we’ was the plural form he himself liked to use when he found ‘I’ awkward. He answered without hesitating: ‘Next time send my regards.’

When I think about Brodsky one particular white night often swims to the surface. It was overcast, and we were walking after two in the morning past the Kuibyshev Hospital; the railing there forms a half-circle and inside it there are benches. Someone on one of the benches tripped Joseph up; he stumbled and fell forward, but not all the way. Instead, he had to run a few bent-over steps and support himself with his hand on the asphalt; there was loud laughter from the bench. We turned and immediately the laughter turned into a threatening growl – some toughs were sitting there, gold teeth glinting, drunk, just as you might expect. Brodsky turned away, and so did I, and we adopted an air somewhere between ‘these things happen’ and ‘nothing happened’ and went on our way.