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Joseph Brodsky

Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life

Translated by Jane Ann Miller
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Joseph Brodsky
    Book Description:

    The work of Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996), one of Russia's great modern poets, has been the subject of much study and debate. His life, too, is the stuff of legend, from his survival of the siege of Leningrad in early childhood to his expulsion from the Soviet Union and his achievements as a Nobel Prize winner and America's poet laureate.

    In this penetrating biography, Brodsky's life and work are illuminated by his great friend, the late poet and literary scholar Lev Loseff. Drawing on a wide range of source materials, some previously unpublished, and extensive interviews with writers and critics, Loseff carefully reconstructs Brodsky's personal history while offering deft and sensitive commentary on the philosophical, religious, and mythological sources that influenced the poet's work. Published to great acclaim in Russia and now available in English for the first time, this is literary biography of the first order, and sets the groundwork for any books on Brodsky that might follow.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16302-5
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    (pp. 1-24)

    IOSIF ALEKSANDROVICH BRODSKY was born on May 24, 1940, in Leningrad, at Professor Tur’s clinic on the Vyborg Side.¹ This is a saint’s day in the Russian Orthodox calendar, the holy day of Cyril and Methodius, creators of the Cyrillic alphabet—a fact that the poet, who grew up in an assimilated Jewish family, learned only as an adult, long after he had bound his fate to “sweet Cyrillic.” While in his poems he would occasionally note that he’d been born under the sign of Gemini (which, according to astrologers, presages an inborn tendency to “profound dualism and harmonious ambiguity”),...

    (pp. 25-48)

    BRODSKY’S APPLICATION to the submarine school of the Second Baltic Naval Academy was rejected, and he always assumed that he’d been turned down because he was Jewish. When he dropped out of school just short of sixteen years of age, he first found work as an apprentice machinist at Factory No. 671, better known in the city by its older and more revealing name, the Arsenal. He worked there for roughly six months.

    And so it went for several years, as Brodsky traded one job for another, each lasting just a few months—morgue assistant, bathhouse stoker, lighthouse keeper, porter....

    (pp. 49-66)

    BY THE AGE OF TWENTY-TWO, when his more privileged peers were just barely graduating from university and embarking on adult life, Brodsky had already traveled the country, lived among ordinary people, and survived political persecution. He had learned to separate fact from fantasy and to cast a critical eye on his fellows.

    He had also learned how to write poetry.

    Thanks to his native energy and imagination, there are good lines to be found even in the work he wrote at age eighteen or nineteen. But these poems are mainly youthful stabs at writing “deathless verse.” Like others his age,...

    (pp. 67-94)

    THE FALL AND WINTER of 1963 and the first six weeks of 1964 were extremely hard for Brodsky, but not for the political reasons that those writing about him in hindsight assume. His relationship with Marina Basmanova was coming to a disastrous end; he was thinking of nothing else. But as it happened, at this most vulnerable moment, he became a convenient target for three different interest groups: he fell victim to Nikita Khrushchev’s ideological policy, to the zeal and ambition of the Leningrad police and reactionaries within the Leningrad Writers’ Union, and to the machinations of one Yakov Lerner...

    (pp. 95-117)

    IN MID-APRIL Brodsky was released from the transit prison in Arkhangelsk to his place of exile in Konosha district, Arkhangelsk region. The transit prison with its abusive guards was a genuine ordeal; life in exile turned out to be less hard. Meanwhile, Western journalists describing Brodsky’s lot talked of the “Gulag” and “Arctic labor camps”—which in the minds of readers foggy on Russian geography and the realities of Soviet life called up visions of permanent winter and ragged convicts in shackles.¹

    And so the 2003 Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee, in his autobiographical novel,Youth,describes how a young...

    (pp. 118-138)

    IN THE SEVEN YEARS between Brodsky’s return from internal exile and his departure from the USSR, his position in Soviet society was a rather odd one. His predicament was much like Bulgakov’s or Pasternak’s in a more frightening time, the late 1930s; he was free to make a living by writing, but as a poet he did not officially exist.

    Overt harassment and persecution by the KGB had ended, but the agency was still keeping an eye on the young man. Meanwhile, his notorious arrest and trial had led to a shake-up in the Leningrad Writers’ Union, and a new...

    (pp. 139-167)

    THE POEMS COLLECTED INA Halt in the DesertandThe End of a Beautiful Erapresent a world created by an already mature poet. That is, whatever the next quarter-century might bring, from this point on, Brodsky himself would not change. He would simply become more accomplished in his own idiom; the language in which he spoke of his own universe would become increasingly more precise and sophisticated. This maturity manifested itself in the clarity with which he spoke of the world, of faith, of people, of society. This was true even of his seemingly contradictory views on Christianity...

    (pp. 168-209)

    IN THE 1970S, leaving the Soviet Union was always tinged with tragedy for both those leaving and those left behind. Both sides assumed that they were saying good-bye forever, and farewell gatherings felt like wakes. Those leaving, especially those who had never set foot outside the USSR, had a painful sense that they were about to step past some point of no return; their native land policed them ferociously as they approached that point. Customs agents at Pulkovo Airport, in search of who knows what, mercilessly combed through Brodsky’s meager baggage and even took apart his little manual typewriter.


    (pp. 210-237)

    BRODSKY’S LIFE in Russia could hardly be called easy. At eighteen months of age he was evacuated from Leningrad under enemy fire. When he was fifteen, he left school. At eighteen he was already becoming notorious; at twenty-one he was arrested and indicted. By twenty-three he had spent time in jail and in a mental hospital and was soon to become both victim and hero of a show trial heard round the world. At thirty-two he was shipped into exile.

    The short version of Brodsky’s life in the West looks very different; it seems to be one success after another....

    (pp. 238-262)

    WHEN BRODSKY LEFT RUSSIA in 1972, he had no idea whether he would ever see his homeland again. At that time, emigration from the USSR was a one-way street, and whatever the United Nations might proclaim about the right to freedom of movement, the Soviet Union was having none of it. On rare occasions emigrants who could not adjust to life in the West might be granted a permit to come back home, but only if they publicly repented of their decision to leave, humbly acknowledged their mistakes, and agreed to tell the press how awful life was in capitalist...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 263-304)
    (pp. 305-312)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 313-333)