[Review of Brodsky Abroad: Empire, Tourism, Nostalgia, by Sanna Turoma (Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 2010). This piece first appeared in Studies in Travel Writing.]
For some, exile is imprisonment, for others a liberation. The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky had both experiences, having been in the first instance sent into restrictive internal exile, with hard labour, and in the second released from the USSR altogether and thereby rendered free to travel the world. After the question of whether leaving the homeland was chosen (James Joyce) or forced (Ovid, Alexander Solzhenitsyn), the principal factor in how a writer copes with exile is language. There are degrees of exile, and one of the determining factors—as anyone who has lived in a ‘foreign’ culture knows—is whether you can easily have a conversation with the native speaker: exile to a place which speaks your own language is much less of a displacement than to be lost in the babble of an alien tongue. Exiled writers may stick to their own language as a means of clinging to their own culture and customs (Solzhenitsyn) and go on writing in it and developing it beyond the confines of everyday use (Joyce), or they could develop a fluency in the language of their place of exile and start writing in it as well as in their own (Samuel Beckett).
Once Joseph Brodsky had turned himself into what some reviewers were able to refer to as an American poet—by translating his Russian work into English and beginning to write directly in what can, at best, be called an idiosyncratic version of English—he effectively neutralised his expulsion from his homeland. Yet isn’t being a poet itself a kind of exile? When Rimbaud said Je est un autre, he was referring to his poetic persona. When we write or read out our poetry, as distinct from our prose (even prose fiction), we are ventriloquizing an alien voice, even if it is enacting a version of ourselves. That is why it is quite wrong to think of poetry as the most personal of the literary modes. Even when at his most reflective, Brodsky looked outward, as if from a peak in Darien.
In 1964 he was sent into internal exile in the Archangelsk region, sentenced to forced labour for his ‘social parasitism’. While there, he spent his evenings reading English and American poetry from an anthology he had taken with him. The sentence was commuted in 1965, but the parasitism continued to irritate the authorities until 1972, when he was expelled from the USSR. Put on a plane, he was completely unaware of where he was being sent. Only after landing in Vienna did he find out. One logical eventual destination might have been Israel; but the logic of his cultural interests—and the past trajectory of his master, W.H. Auden—led him to the United States, where he lived for the remaining twenty-five years of his life. He died in New York in 1996, aged only 55, but was buried in Venice.
There is a restlessness in Brodsky’s work that has something to do with the ambition to make major works. Even in his celebrated ‘Elegy for John Donne’ of 1963, which begins in the stillness of the inanimate objects around the poet’s death bed, Brodsky cannot resist drawing his focus back to take in the whole house, then the snow-filled streets around it, then the whole cityscape of London, then the island itself—all shrouded in silence—and, beyond it, the immensity of Donne’s importance and the consequentiality of his loss: ‘there are no more sounds in all the world’. By thus claiming universal significance on Donne’s behalf—especially when one considers that Brodsky had read virtually no Donne at the time of writing, apart from ‘No man is an island’, which he thought was from a poem—Brodsky incidentally does the same for his own reputation. A good deal of ambitious purpose is on show in the geographical mobility of his work, easily contrasted with the trivial, touristic postcard-poems that have become such a common feature of recent verse.
The date of his forced emigration from the USSR looms large, as a psychological border-crossing, in all the narratives of Brodsky’s life except his own: for he always played down the extent of the change, referring to the move to the USA as a spatial continuity. Yet in order to make this case, he had to downplay the clear fact that he had yearned for escape from the country of his birth to an extreme extent. This is evidenced by the fact that he and a friend planned to hijack a plane out of there, and they even bought tickets for the flight before Brodsky got moral cold feet.
Sanna Turoma says Brodsky was ‘not a travel writer, but he was a traveling writer’ (p.6). He did not set out accurately to record what he saw on his journeys for the sake of readers who did not know the places or peoples he was visiting. Instead, he allowed travel to set off whatever reflections occurred to him. No objective observer, he used the world he observed to make him think. And he was, of course, a poet. There is an argument—and it is worth according at least some respectful attention—that a poem can never be about a ‘real’ place. The transformative properties of verse—or, at least, those of verse that is intensively wrought and therefore manifestly not designed to do the job of prose—may leave behind the reporting function, the mimesis, of prosaic realism. Whereas the conventional travel writer may be attempting a reliable record of journeys taken, the poet will use those journeys as mere starting points.
There was a lot of intra-Soviet travel in Brodsky’s early verse, much of his reporting of it influenced by his reading of Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and T.S. Eliot. Clearly, within his own mind, he was already lighting out for the territories and going West. It seems he already wanted to be an American writer. Valentina Polukhina has pointed out that ‘the image of a man in exile’ appeared in his verse ‘long before his exile’ (p.38). Displacement preoccupied him from the start. This is, in part, a matter of Modernist association with the solitary (male) individual who is never at home; partly a sense of himself as a Jew, ever the outsider, nomadic in intelligence even when not so in person.
In line with Modernist tradition he regarded exile as ‘a metaphysical condition’ (p.21), not a political one. Unlike Solzhenitsyn, he was happy to have escaped the USSR and thereby gave himself the luxury of ostentatiously ignoring the situation there. For Ovid, exile was a terrible cultural deprivation. Solzhenitsyn was like a baby torn from his mother’s breast. But, as I have said, for Brodsky enforced exile opened up a wealth of voluntary opportunities. As Turoma puts it: ‘The freedom to travel and to exploit non-native territories for literary purposes was granted to Brodsky by the coercion of exile, and it is the experience of exile and tourism—two major forms of displacement, often perceived as conflicting human conditions—that creates the crux of much of Brodsky’s post-1972 writing’ (p.10).
Although he lived in New York City for many years, he wrote hardly anything about it. Yet he was very much an urban writer, in both his verse and his prose. Turoma concentrates a large part of her study on Brodsky’s essays on Istanbul (‘Flight from Byzantium,’ 1985) and Venice (Watermark, 1992), triangulating his exilic consciousness between those cities and his birthplace, Leningrad, rather than with anywhere in the United States. Each of the three cities is a liminal site, perched on the edge of a culture and looking away from it while yet deriving power from its very marginality. Comparisons can be made between the re-namings (St. Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad, St. Petersburg; Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul), the topographical situation in such close contact with water and waterways (the Neva and the Gulf of Finland; the Bosporus and the Golden Horn; the Grand Canal, the lagoon and the Adriatic). They are cities in which the permanence of art is set up as if in defiance of the manifest impermanence of water; and yet, as any artist or architect who sought to create permanence out of such a location was aware, the restlessness of the seascape would ultimately prevail. Brodsky certainly knew this, acutely aware of the ephemerality of his assaults on eternity.
From a Western viewpoint, the USSR was eastern even at its westernmost and most Western point, Leningrad; yet to a native of that city, Leningrad was more Western, more European, more modern, than Moscow. Brodsky’s version of the USSR was a challenge to Edward Said’s Occident/Orient dichotomy, or complicated it at least. He was a fully signed-up Westerniser, by contrast with Slavophiles like Solzhenitsyn. When he wrote about Istanbul he seemed wholeheartedly to subscribe to Orientalist mythologies of the sort identified by Said. Although he knew the whole of the USSR was oriental to western Europeans, with whom he identified culturally, he still saw Turkey as more oriental than the distant outposts of Soviet-influenced Mongolia. For all that he was an exiled dissident, he subscribed to the values of ‘Leningradian Eurocentrism’ (p.143) when responding to voices in the east of the USSR asserting their cultural validity. Turoma attributes this awkward position to ‘a nostalgic attitude towards Russia’s and Europe’s common cultural heritage of imperial myths’ (p.228).
Turoma is good at associating Brodsky’s Venice within a context of Russian literary representations going back to Pushkin, as well as English ones going back to Shakespeare—and in her reading of Brodsky she rightly associates Pushkin’s ethnic marginality with Othello’s. But, although he anchored his work in European traditions, in the end he felt more at home in the history-light archipelago of American universities. It is no coincidence that one can sometimes hear, in his work in English, something of the tone of Vladimir Nabokov. Even so, Brodsky never stopped seeing the world in European terms. Indeed, in effect, Europe was his world because it had Europe’s cultural history. The New World was just that—new—so in Rio de Janeiro he dismissed his host city, and by implication all of Brazil, as being without history. He was loftily dismissive of the post-colonial leftism he encountered in Mexico. He seems not to have had the same problem, or not to have had it to the same extent, with the places he visited or lived in in the USA. Above all, he regarded movement and displacement as a condition of human existence. I am reminded of Zbigniew Herbert’s notion of ‘a true journey’ being one ‘from which you do not return’—the universal instance being the journey of life itself.