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From Russian with Love

Joseph Brodsky in English: Pages from a Journal 1996-97

Daniel Weissbort

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Series: Poetica
Imprint: Anvil Press Poetry
Publisher: Carcanet Press
Available as:
Paperback (256 pages)
(Pub. Sep 2004)
£12.95 £11.65
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    Joseph Brodsky died, in New York, on 28 January 1996. Asked by the editor of a Russian newspaper if I would write something about him, I continued writing, almost on a daily basis, mostly in my office at the University of Iowa. This lasted for a year or so. At first the writing was an attempt to comfort myself for the loss; then it turned into a kind of posthumous discussion with Joseph, in which I also examined our friendship, dating from the time of his expulsion from the Soviet Union. This friendship owed its existence, in the first place, to my interest in contemporary Russian poetry, as a translator, anthologist and editor, although we became closer, as the years in America went by.
          The journal is also a kind of meditation on the poetics of translation, particularly of course of translation from Russian, with which I have been preoccupied since the mid-sixties. I concentrated on one particular poem, “May 24, 1980”; 1980 was an important year for me, as it was for Joseph. I returned to the poem repeatedly, not least because Joseph himself had commended it to me.
          Excerpts from this hotchpotch, which was not in the first instance intended for publication, are presented here. In its original form it includes a number of exhaustive analyses of translations, as well as a great deal of self-interrogation and speculation. I am indebted to Tatiana Schenk for helping me to extract from this mass of verbiage what I hope is a readable text.

    Daniel Weissbort
    London, March 2003



    It's the day after Joseph’s death, 29 January, 1996. Jill, my ex-wife, phones from London. She has just heard and is desolate. “He was family”, she almost wails. Yes, he visited us quite often, the red-brick Victorian mansion in West Hampstead (it must have been the early seventies). Anyway, the children were little at the time. I can summon up an image of Joseph and Véronique Schiltz standing in the garden. The words are gone, but I still see them there and I can imagine him smiling, almost apologetically, and chuckling or chortling, that sharp intake of breath, like a sob, or as if he were choking. Is he gazing at our white cat Osgood (a female, incidentally, inherited along with her name from a neighbour)?
          Joseph talked to cats. The dust-jacket of his second essay collection On Grief and Reason shows him holding what looks like a grey and white cat, a fairly ordinary sort of cat really, except that no cat is ordinary. (No doubt the cat is Mississippi, who survived his master.) His hand rests tenderly, protectively on its ruff, while its paw rests proprietorially on his sleeve, as it peers myopically at the ground, over the ledge of his cradling arm. Joseph, for his part, is looking stolidly, almost defiantly at the camera, barely smiling, if he’s smiling at all. There is a family resemblance between Joseph and the cat, their expression being alike …
         If he suspected or feared that he had caused offence or hurt, Joseph would sometimes draw his fingernails down your arm and actually meow. There is a sketch by him, dating from the 1960s, of a cat perched on what looks like an old-fashioned music stool, extending one paw towards a samovar that stands on the table. The paw again! Jill reminds me that Joseph sometimes ended his letters with a drawing of a cat, a sort of postscript. I have no memory of this and almost all the letters from Joseph that survived are in my archives in King’s College London, while at this time of writing I am in the United States. But, in any case, I dare say that those very early letters did not survive.
          How he took, for instance, to my friend Lucas Myers’s fat old cat, Perdita. Joseph never failed to ask after her, even when Lucas had left New York City and moved to the West coast. The more “ordinary” the cat, the more he liked it, it seemed. But, then, I’ve already said, I think, that no cat is ordinary. So, was Osgood there with us? I think she must have been. Osgood was certainly not ordinary, but Joseph – I am convinced of this, although I still cannot actually picture him doing it – talked to her.
          A mutual friend told me that, after Joseph’s death, she was walking around in Venice, when a large ginger cat approached her and began to rub itself against her leg. She looked down and it looked up. She felt that it wanted to tell her something and recognized Joseph!
          And here’s a passage I just came across in Watermark, Joseph’s essay about himself and/in Venice, a city to which he returned regularly at Christmas:

    I walked a quarter of a mile along the Fondamente Nuove, a small moving dot in that gigantic watercolour, and then turned right by the hospital of Giovanni e Paolo. The day was warm, sunny, the sky blue, all lovely. And with my back to the Fondamente and San Michele, hugging the wall of the hospital, almost rubbing it with my left shoulder and squinting at the sun, I suddenly felt: I am a cat. A cat that has just had fish. Had anyone addressed me at that moment, I would have meowed. I was absolutely, animally happy. Twelve hours later, of course, having landed in New York, I hit the worst possible mess in my life – or the one that appeared that way at the time. Yet the cat in me lingered; had it not been for that cat, I’d be climbing the walls now in some expensive institution.

    The cat in me lingered. As mentioned, he did meow, especially if he surmised that he had caused offence.

    For many years Daniel Weissbort was associated with the late Russian emigré poet Joseph Brodsky. From Russian with Love offers an account of their relations, in which the author is both translator and confidant to the great poet. In addition to being a fascinating biographical (and autobigraphical) study, Weissbort’s detailed discussions of the problems of translating Brodsky’s poems constitute a telling contribution to translation studies, and an essay on the nature of language itself.

    Daniel Weissbort was born in 1935. He read History at Cambridge and did postgraduate work in the politics of literature during the post-Stalin period. He has translated many modern Russian poets, including Nikolai Zabolotsky and Yunna Morits. He edited Ted Hughes: Selected Translations (2006). He is Emeritus Professor of English and ... read more
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