Friday, July 16, 2010

Russian Frost

A Jewish violinist from St. Petersburg with a profound understanding of Russian literary history, Solomon Volkov seems to have earned the respect of Russia's greatest exiles, including the Nobel prize winning poet, Joseph Brodsky. This book, Conversations with Joseph Brodsky, documents a long series of informal interviews he conducted with Brodsky over the course of several decades. Clearly, Brodsky did not suffer fools gladly. The fact that the supremely self-confident Brodsky earnestly and respectfully debates Volkov throughout these encounters, says a great deal about Volkov's own stature, intellectual judgement, and mastery of the Russian cultural cannon. In fact, this book would not be half what it turned out to be without Volkov's own commentary on art, music, dance, and poetry.

Volkov's book showcases Brodsky's opinions on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from poetic influences, the impact of a number of early biographical episodes from a famous life, the nature of Soviet despotism, important friendships, translation work, the creative process, the history of Russian and western poetry, music, dance, and life in exile from his native St. Petersburg. In each instance, Brodsky is articulate, erudite (notwithstanding his very limited formal education), and opinionated. For example, Brodsky adores Venice, Auden, Frost, Akhmatova, Tsevaeva, Walcott, Zoshchenko's prose, Platonov's prose, Mandelstam's anti-Stalin poem, Barynikov as dancer and intellectual, Cavafy, Tvardovsky, Zamyatin's essays, Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago poetry, Isaiah Berlin, Naipaul, Herzen as stylist (if not thinker), and Joyce, but Brodsky either actively dislikes or believes the following to be overrated: Yevtushenko, Mayakovsky, Blok, Nabokov's poetry, Gumilyov, Nabokov's Speak, Memory (and Russian equivalent), etc. Perhaps the only thing about which Brodsky maintains an ambivalent or indifferent attitude is ballet.

The poet is never more opinionated than when discussing poetry. Brodsky doesn't apologize for his unwavering belief that poetry remains the most difficult and important form of expression available to the human species. As a teacher as well as master craftsman, it's no surprise that Brodsky has a relatively fully formed aesthetic philosophy. He's a partisan of Frost and Auden as well as Mandelstam, Tsevateva, Pasternak, and his friend and mentor, Akhmatova. And he sees his poetic legacy and opinions as infinitely more interesting than any of the famous events of his life, although this life included work at a morgue, geological expeditions in search of uranium, a famous trial in the Soviet Union for "social parasitism", exile to Siberia, arbitrary imprisonment in a mental institution, friendship with the internationally acclaimed Anna Akhmatova and other Russian luminaries, exile to America, friendship with Baryshnikov and dozens of other famous artists, and a Nobel Prize.

Ultimately, this book can only lead one to the obvious conclusion that one needs to read Brodsky's poetry to see what the man is all about. Brodsky's appreciation for Akhmatova says volumes about his bias against confessional poetry. When, for example, Volkov brings up Akhmatova's son's famous critique of his mother, that her poetry would have benefitted from his death more than from his prolonged imprisonment in the gulag, Brodsky is unsympathetic. He thinks Akhmatova's role as a poet supercedes her role as a mother. Her job is to privilege the universal over the purely personal. As Brodsky knew, Akhmatova suffered profoundly from the destruction of two husbands and a son at the hands of runaway Stalinism. Even so, her voice was never associated with a wounded heart. She was a great poet, and nothing less. As Brodsky says elsewhere, he agrees with another poet's sentiment that a great poet (such as Ezra Pound) should be awarded a medal and only then be hanged for his crimes. And that just about captures my feelings with respect to Woody Allen, who remains a great artist more than a bad or even criminal father.

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