Andrew Kahn, professor of Russian Literature at the University of Oxford, says that “Joseph Brodsky: Essay in literary biography” („Иосиф Бродский: Опыт литературной биографии“; published in Moscow by Молодая гвардия in the series Жизнь замечательных людей: Серия биографий in 2006) is the best single literary biography of the writer, in a review published in the Times [http://tls.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,25336-2641484,00. html]
#1 Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987, Joseph Brodsky was recognized in his lifetime as one of Russia’s great modern poets. But in the English-speaking world his reputation has languished since his early death in 1996. Lev Losev’s new study is the best single literary biography of the writer yet to have appeared in any language. A friend of the poet nearly from cradle to grave – and the splendid choice of photographs has him popping up at the poet’s side in Russia and Stockholm – he is a meticulous and objective chronicler. His account of Brodsky’s trial corrects legendary versions of the exchange between Brodsky and the State Prosecutor, and is just one example of Losev’s subtle tactics in setting the record straight. This is not a complete documentary biography, and treatment of Brodsky’s life from the mid-1980s is thinner than that given to earlier decades. But Losev gets us closer to his subject than any other account by integrating a reliable narrative of the facts (enhanced by useful chronologies at the back of the book) and a penetrating study of Brodsky’s poetry and prose. The publication of such a volume in a series of “Great Lives” founded by Maxim Gorky and generally known for its biographies of Soviet heroes and generals would have amused Losev’s subject, who was one of a famous generation of Soviet exiles that included the likes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the late Mstislav Rostropovich and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Brodsky was born in Leningrad in 1940 to educated but socially modest parents (the description of his childhood is a helpful supplement to his celebrated autobiographical essay “A Room and a Half”). Driven from an early age by a profound belief in individual self-determination that exposed Soviet conformity, Brodsky seems to have discovered poetry and his talent for it almost by chance. A strong-willed autodidact, he quickly developed his poetic gift and mastery of verse form, and learned enough English and Polish to work as a literary translator.
On the subject of Brodsky’s early development, Losev writes with an insider’s expert knowledge of the Soviet Union’s literary system. We are given a portrait of the budding poet in this milieu, surveying avant-garde circles and assessing his distant relationship to groups like the Philological Poets. Among the most important early influences on him was Evgenii Rein, whose mastery of poetic form and elegiac psychology had a lasting impact. Losev gives due credit to Anna Akhmatova’s authority, as felt more in Brodsky’s sense of poetic identity than in his poetic technique. Losev revisits the question of why the example of Boris Slutsky, ostensibly a highly “Soviet” poet, inspired Brodsky to try his hand at poetry.
Central to Brodsky’s life and poetry in the mid-1960s was Marina Basmanova. The daughter of a painter and herself an artist, Basmanova inspired many of his greatest lyric poems, including the cycle “New Stanzas to Augusta”, which are among the most self-revealing confessional lyrics in Russian poetry, some written during difficult moments in their relationship (candidly and uncensoriously described here). She continued to haunt his late poetry. Losev is particularly perceptive in identifying the impact of the Basmanovs on Brodsky’s use of colour symbolism, and especially on the significance of white, in his poetry.
After Brodsky’s arrest and trial on charges of “parasitism” in 1964, Akhmatova famously commented that “our redhead is making quite a biography for himself”. The remark was prescient. In a detailed treatment of the accusations, trial and sentence Losev argues persuasively that Brodsky, whose poetry had scarcely made it into official or even samizdat print, was a most unlikely target for persecution. In the backlash against Khrushchev’s short-lived thaw, as Losev explains, KGB lackeys were quick to exploit opportunities for advancement. Brodsky fell victim to the careerist ambitions of one lowly operative who orchestrated the charges that led to his conviction (after two harrowing incarcerations in psychiatric hospitals) and internal exile (after passage through two notorious prisons) to a tiny village in the Archangel region. Exile turned out to be the start of a formative creative period in which Brodsky countered isolation by steeping himself in English and American poets such as Hardy, Frost, Auden and Eliot: all masters of the first-person voice that Brodsky would soon make his own. Although Brodsky’s poetry always seemed to be evolving in new directions, Losev observes that the essays on Frost, Rilke, Tsvetaeva and Pasternak that Brodsky published from the 1980s on were based on work undertaken some thirty years earlier.
In some of the early interviews that he gave after being forced to leave the USSR in 1972, Brodsky speculated that he posed a threat to the authorities not because his poetry was political – in fact, he saw political poetry as something of a betrayal of artistic independence – but because, as he said, “a man who sets out to create his own independent world within himself is bound sooner or later to become a foreign body in society and then he becomes subject to all the physical laws of pressure, compression and extrusion” (quoted in Joseph Brodsky: Conversations, edited by Cynthia L. Haven, 2002, where readers can experience Brodsky in full flow, at times testy and at times modest, he comes across as incisive, thoughtful and even charming). Losev convincingly demolishes unfounded claims that Brodsky courted trouble in order to enjoy the limelight of a dissident. In fact, Brodsky comes across as an often bemused observer of the twists and turns of his life. Once his first collection Ostanovka v pustyne (“A Halt in the Desert”, 1970) was published in New York to acclaim by émigré readers, the Soviet authorities concluded that Brodsky was an embarrassment, to be solved by “allowing” him to emigrate to Israel along with thousands of other Soviet Jews. In the event, Brodsky landed in Austria, where he was met by his publisher and friend, the American scholar Carl Proffer, who drove Brodsky to meet W. H. Auden, one of his idols and the subject of one of his best-known pieces of literary criticism (“On ‘September 1, 1939’ by W. H. Auden”). Resettled in America, Brodsky embarked on a distinguished career as a university teacher, first in Michigan and finally at top liberal arts colleges in western Massachusetts. He quickly improved his rudimentary English and eventually became a bilingual writer, publishing several major collections of poetry in Russian and a large, often distinguished body of essays in both languages as well as translations of his own poetry.