26 September 2008

Joseph Brodsky

Many of us who adore Venice know by heart the work of writer Joseph Brodsky, a Russian dissident and involuntary exile who became a Nobel Prize winner and a U.S. Poet Laureate. He was a brilliant man who loved Venice deeply. Watermark, his collected memories of seventeen winters spent here, captures the soul and spirit of the city in a most personal way, yet speaks to anyone who has come to know and love La Serenissima. I cannot possibly oversell the book if you have any feeling at all for the lady. (I bet you will be stunned to see your own secret Venetian emotions described so accurately, just as I was.)

It’s amazing that I managed to write this blog all year without mentioning Brodsky. I had to be careful: I might easily have hit you over the head with his words again and again. Looking back over my posts, there is hardly a handful in which I couldn’t have included some Brodsky quote. Consider these, my subjects, and his commentary on same…

What I do is me – “If I get sidetracked, it is because being sidetracked is literally a matter of course here and echoes water. What lies ahead, in other words, may amount not to a story but to a flow of muddy water… The reason I am engaged in straining it is that it contains reflections, among them my own.”

(Brodsky strained out everyone from Olga Rudge and Igor Stravinsky to “the umpteenth” and “King Fog.” Me, I'm still working on my own reflection, but I’ve had only one winter.)

Shutters – “When they are opened, shutters resemble the wings of angels prying into someone’s sordid affairs… shutters bar not so much daylight or noise (which is minimal here) as what may emanate from inside... No sooner do you cross the threshold of your own apartment, especially in winter, than you fall prey to every conceivable surmise, fantasy, rumor.”

(I only wish my own behind-shutters affairs had been a bit more sordid and worthy of gossip.)

La Gondola – “…a septuagenarian can shell out one-tenth of a schoolteacher’s salary without wincing. The sight of these decrepit Romeos and their rickety Juliets is invariably sad and embarrassing. For the young, i.e., for those for whom this sort of thing would be appropriate, a gondola is as far out of reach as a five-star hotel.”

(Still, he felt the same way I do - this simply would not be Venice without these "seahorses.")

Mirror, mirror – “The surrounding beauty is such that one instantly conceives of an incoherent animal desire to match it… This has nothing to do with vanity or with the natural surplus of mirrors here, the main one being the very water. It is simply that the city offers bipeds a notion of visual superiority absent in their natural lairs, in their habitual surroundings.”

(Many of us who frequently visit La Serenissima admit to purchasing our garments with a secret agenda in mind: “How would this look in Venice?” or “This is a bit much, but it would be fantastic in Venice” or the like.)

Sogni & incubi – “Nights here are low on nightmares… You’d need an extraordinary neurosis, or a comparable accumulation of sins, or both, to fall prey to nightmares on these premises.”

(Oh dear! – which of those problems evoked my Frankenstein-like vision?)

Fog – “The fog is thick, blinding, immobile…This is a time for reading, for burning electricity all day long, for going easy on self-deprecating thoughts or coffee…for going to bed early.”

(That’s right, especially that “self-deprecating thoughts” part. If you’ve ever suffered "the cold shoulder” from a lover, then you know what Venetian fog is like. It can make you doubt yourself deeply.)

Rialto Bridge – “Then the sky was momentarily obscured by the huge marble parenthesis of a bridge, and suddenly everything was flooded with light. “Rialto,” she said, in her normal voice.”

(Notice that his friend returned to her normal voice only after the vaporetto had passed under the bridge.)

Any of my lions – “…the lion itself got lionized, which is to say humanized. On every cornice, over nearly every entrance you see either its muzzle, with a human look, or a human head with leonine features… In winter, they brighten one’s dusk.”

(Did you know there are far more images of lions here than of the Madonna and the Redeemer combined? Another hint of how Venice viewed herself with regard to the Vatican.)

La Serenissima takes very few outsiders to her heart, but she granted her faithful admirer Joseph Brodksy his last wish – to be buried in a permanent grave on San Michele. I can think of no one more deserving of the honor.