Tag Archives: Joseph Brodsky

Andrei Platonov plaque, Voronezh

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Voronezh has done well by Andrei Platonov. When I was there last year I photographed three locations where the city mothers and fathers have commemorated the fact that this hometown boy did good. (There is a fourth that I did not get to.) Today I present the plaque honoring Platonov’s work as a young journalist in the Voronezh Commune newspaper from 1919 to 1925. It was unveiled in October 1987 and was the first of the plaques and monuments that would appear over the next few decades. The paper’s editorial offices were located in this building at 39 Revolution Prospekt, the town’s main drag. The paper, incidentally, has a rich history. It was founded in 1917, coming out under several different names until 1919, when the moniker of Voronezh Commune stuck for almost a decade. The city name was dropped in 1928 and the paper began appearing under the name of Commune, which it continues to do to this day.
Platonov (which is a pseudonym – his real last name was Klimentov) used numerous aliases when writing for the local press early in his life. Aside from Platonov, these assumed names included A. Firsov, Yelpidifor Baklazhanov, Iogann Pupkov and Foma Chelovekov. Excellent names, all of them! He published short fictions as well as journalistic articles, all while working on local construction projects involving the railroad, electric stations and other major objects. He gave up writing (more or less) for awhile in 1921 when Russia was hit particularly hard by a drought and ensuing famine. He is quoted as saying at the time, “How boring merely to write about the suffering millions, when you can take action and feed them.” Be that as it may, he published his first collection of poetry, The Blue Depth, in Krasnodar in 1922. (I’m grateful to the online Encyclopedia of Voronezh Life for many of the tidbits offered here.)
At this very same time Platonov married Maria Sheremetyeva, from the famous line of nobles, and remained with her until his death in 1951. Maria – as well as the couple’s first son Platon, and later their daughter Maria –  was later instrumental in saving and protecting Platonov’s large archive of unpublished stories, novels and plays. (Here I cannot pass over the fact that Platonov died from tuberculosis that was brought back to him from the labor camps by his son Platon, who, most likely, was arrested for the sin of being his father’s son.) Stories like this, of brave people preserving priceless archives in the Soviet years, are legion. And far be it from me to say that one archive was more important than another! How are you going to put numerical values on archives left behind, say, by Osip Mandelstam, Vsevolod Meyerhold, or Andrei Platonov? Nonsense. And yet. And yet. In recent decades, in the estimation of many esteemed and knowledgeable individuals, Platonov has emerged as the greatest writer of the Soviet era. I worked for a couple of years with British director Tim Supple and Ukrainian playwright Maksym Kurochkin on a doomed – alas! – project that was intended to engage full-on the excruciating 20th century in the Soviet Union, and Platonov’s name came up time after time, as a model, a paradigm for excellence, resistance, and insight during that benighted period. The novelist Viktor Yerofeev wrote in the Times Literary Supplement, “In Russia it is Platonov who is increasingly described as the best writer of the post-revolutionary epoch.” None less than Joseph Brodsky said the following: “I squint back on our century and I see six writers I think it will be remembered for. They are Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, William Faulkner, Andrei Platonov and Samuel Beckett… They are summits in the literary landscape of our century… What’s more, they don’t lose an inch of their status when compared  to the giants of fiction from the previous century.”

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These last two quotes are offered as testimonials on the back cover of a book you cannot have seen yet. It is Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays, edited by Robert Chandler, in the new Russian Library series published by Columbia University Press. An uncorrected proof of the book, planned for publication on December 6, 2016, found its way into my hands a week or so ago, thus reminding me that I had not yet shared my photos of the plaque honoring Platonov’s time as a writer for Voronezh Commune. This volume seems a fitting way to launch this important series that, I presume is intended not only to bring us new versions of writings that we already love, but to acquaint us with writers we may not yet know. Platonov, therefore, is at the head of the juggernaut which the Russian Library promises to be.
Chandler is a well-known translator of Russian literature with Platonov, Pushkin, Nikolai Leskov, Vasily Grossman and many others under his belt. He offers up a 23-page introduction to the book, and I offer up here a brief excerpt from it:
“…There are still aspects of his [Platonov’s] work that have hardly been explored at all. His six film scripts are almost unknown; his eight finished and two unfinished plays plays are still seldom staged, even in Russia. At least two of these plays, however, are masterpieces. The Hurdy-Gurdy (1930) and Fourteen Little Red Huts (1933) anticipate the work of Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. They are as bold in their political satire as Bertolt Brecht at his most biting. And they are also important as documents of historical witness. Along with the short novel The Foundation Pit, they constitute Platonov’s most impassioned, and penetrating, response to Stalin’s assault on the Soviet peasantry – the catastrophes of the collectivization of agriculture (1930) and the ensuing Terror Famine (1932-1933).”
That was all to come afterwards. It began right here, on this street, in this building in the center of Voronezh.

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Joseph Brodsky commencement speech, Hanover, NH

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I am not an expert on Joseph Brodsky. I’m not even the greatest admirer, I must admit, although an admirer I am – my first gift to my future wife Oksana Mysina was a set of two collections of Brodsky’s poems published by Ardis – Parts of Speech and The End of a Beautiful Era. (The latter of which was not exactly the perfect gift for one wooing a future life partner, but, then, Oksana and I rarely do things by the book.) Oksana later met Brodsky; it’s a pretty good story that I’ll have to tell in its own time. Anyway, all of this means nothing, really, it’s just tidbits I bring up before admitting I may not have all the information I should have for this short entry about the place where Brodsky delivered a commencement address to the graduating class of 1989 at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH.
As best as I can tell, Brodsky delivered three commencement addresses – Williams College in 1984, University of Michigan in Winter 1988 and Dartmouth in 1989. The latter two came on the heels of the poet receiving the Nobel Prize in literature in 1987, thus giving Williams bragging rights for prescience.
Brodsky made an effort to be clever in his choice of topics for commencement speeches. At Williams he spoke on the qualities of evil and on the dubious nature of turning the other cheek when evil is done to you. The following year at UMI he bucked up his listeners with advice for the future, even providing a numbered list of his primary advice that included an exhortation to be precise in one’s use of language, a call to be kind to parents, and a suggestion not to put much store in politicians. At Dartmouth he spoke “In Praise of Boredom,” which we’ll get to in a moment. First, however, I want to warn readers to be careful about the various commencement texts floating around on the net. You can get wrong dates (a few places put the Dartmouth speech in 1995, I assume, because they confuse it with the date it was published in book form). You can also get wrong texts. I’ve seen two versions of the UMI speech that are quite different – not in substance, perhaps, but in wording. That’s unfortunate for the work of a poet who was as careful with words as any, to say nothing of a speaker who actually preached the necessity of being precise in one’s use of language. A presumably reliable version of the Williams address was published in the New York Review of Books. I am assuming that a text on a UMI host reliably reflects what Brodsky said at December 1988 ceremonies at that institution. One can find the Dartmouth speech, as published in the collection On Grief and Reason – Essays, on the Relambramentos blog site. It has a few typos, but otherwise appears to be a replication of the published version.

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I mentioned this speech not long ago in an entry on the Russian emigre poet Lev Loseff, who taught Russian and Russian literature at Dartmouth for 30 years, and who would have been instrumental in inviting Brodsky to do the graduation honors. In the last photo below you can see Brodsky (left) and Loseff, both spiffed up for the occasion. The photo rests on a shelf in the Russian Dept. at Dartmouth and was pointed out to me by the current Dept. Chair John Kopper, who was kind enough to chat with me and walk me around the department recently.
I presume that Brodsky spoke in June, although I cannot confirm that. One source indicated it was in July – but a July graduation? I think not. In any case, all Dartmouth graduations over the last six years have taken place in mid-June. If you want to get a feel for what it might have looked like the day Brodsky spoke, you can watch this time lapse film of the 2014 ceremonies. While spending three weeks at Dartmouth this summer, I asked several people where Brodsky would have stood while speaking, and all of them – admitting they knew nothing about the 1980s – suggested it surely would have been in the niche before the clock tower at Baker Hall and between Webster Hall on our right, and Sanborn Hall on our left. You can see Baker and Webster in the two photos immediately below.
During my short stay at Dartmouth I walked past this place on the green anywhere between two to six times a day. Not once did I walk past it without looking over towards Baker and thinking about Brodsky up there speaking. His presence for me was real. Oksana wanted her photo taken before the tower, and when Russian director Boris Yukhananov came to visit, I felt compelled to point out that Brodsky had once spoken there. It seemed like something I had to tell a Russian of culture.
As for what Brodsky said that day, you can read the entire speech yourself by going to the link above. But I can’t help but insert a few nice excerpts here. Speaking specifically of “art’s saving grace,” Brodsky said:

“Not being lucrative, it [art’s saving grace] falls victim to demography rather reluctantly. For if, as we’ve said, repetition is boredom’s mother, demography (which is to play in your lives a far greater role than any discipline you’ve mastered here) is its other parent. This may sound misanthropic to you, but I am more than twice your age, and I have lived to see the population of our globe double. By the time you’re my age, it will have quadrupled, and not exactly in the fashion you expect. For instance, by the year 2000 there is going to be such cultural and ethnic rearrangement as to challenge your notion of your own humanity.”

He goes on to add:

“But even in a more monochromatic world, the other trouble with originality and inventiveness is precisely that they literally pay off. Provided that you are capable of either, you will become well off rather fast. Desirable as that may be, most of you know firsthand that nobody is as bored as the rich, for money buys time, and time is repetitive. Assuming that you are not heading for poverty – for otherwise you wouldn’t have entered college – one expects you to be hit by boredom as soon as the first tools of self-gratification become available to you.”

Later suggesting, in what is surely the gist of his entire talk:

“When hit by boredom, go for it. Let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is, the sooner you hit bottom, the faster you surface. The idea here, to paraphrase another great poet of the English language, is to exact full look at the worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor.
In a manner of speaking, boredom is your window on time, on those properties of it one tends to ignore to the likely peril of one’s mental equilibrium. In short, it is your window on time’s infinity, which is to say, on your insignificance in it. That’s what accounts, perhaps, for one’s dread of lonely, torpid evenings, for the fascination with which one watches sometimes a fleck  of dust aswirl  in a sunbeam, and somewhere a clock tick-tocks, the day is hot, and your willpower is at zero.”

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Lev Loseff home, Hanover, New Hampshire

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Lev Loseff, known in Russia, of course, as Lev Losev, is one of those people who found himself, and created himself, in a chosen country (the U.S.), not the country where he was born (the U.S.S.R., Russia). Losev, who was actually Lev Livshits, took the pseudonym of Losev when he became a young adult in order to distance himself from his father Vladimir Lifshits, a well-known writer, poet and playwright.  Born in Leningrad in 1937, Lev was educated to be a journalist and began by working as an editor for the Kostyor (Campfire) children’s magazine in Leningrad. He wrote some plays for puppet theaters and he wrote some children’s verse. He abandoned “serious” poetry early in his life, considering that his work wasn’t good enough. However, he began writing poetry again in the mid-to-late 1970s and, over the course of the rest of his life, he published some dozen collections of verse. (The numbers vary according to the source, but the maximum number I have seen is twelve.) Losev emigrated to the United States in 1976, surely with the aid of Carl Proffer at the University of Michigan. It was at this time that he took the name Loseff for his legal name in English (his books and poetry in Russia were published under the name of Losev). He was employed as a copy editor at the great Ardis Russian literature publishing house, and he eventually graduated from UMI Ann Arbor with a PhD around 1978, to the best of my ability to ascertain. He was hired to teach Russian literature in the Russian Department at Dartmouth College in 1979, and he remained there until his death in 2009, spending many of those years as the Department Chair. In addition to his poetry, he wrote numerous books of a scholarly, historical and personal nature. They include On the Beneficence of Censorship: Aesopian Language in Modern Russian Literature (his PhD dissertation), Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life (2006 in Russian, 2011 in English), Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky as Neighbors (in Russian 2010), Brodsky’s Poetics (in Russian 1986), Meander (a memoir in Russian 2010), and others. If you’re interested in his books, visit his page on Amazon.com. IMG_8028.jpg2 IMG_8024.jpg2 IMG_8022.jpg2

At least in his later years, Loseff lived in a modest house just south of Hanover, New Hampshire, in which city Dartmouth is located. I walked from the Russian Department to his house in about 30 to 40 minutes. It is a straight jaunt down Main Street, Hanover, into the woods that take over Hanover almost instantly at the end of the tiny downton commercial district. You pass by several homes hiding behind trees, cross over a gorgeous pond, and go past the Pine Knoll Cemetery to Mourlyn Road on your left. It is a short cul-de-sac that climbs up a fairly steep, but short hill, and Loseff lived in the second house on the left, house number 4. There are only five residences on the small street altogether. You can see the view back down Mourlyn Road from in front of the Loseff house in the photo immediately below. The last photo below shows Mink Brook, part of which, at least, would have been visible from Loseff’s back yard. I happened to run into John Kopper, the current Russian Chair while I was snooping around the Russian Dept. last week. I explained what I was up to and he told me he had once published an article in the Russian Znamya thick journal, in which he related a brief story of Joseph Brodsky delivering the commencement address at Dartmouth in 1989. (We’ll come back to that at a later date.) According to Kopper, Brodsky, apparently feeling a bit frisky after finishing his speech, whipped his mitre cap off his head and sent it sailing through the air as if it were a frisbee. It made its way directly toward Loseff, hitting him smack in the bridge of the nose, breaking his glasses in two as it did. There are a couple of volumes available for those interested in Loseff’s poetry in English translation. Henry W. Pickford translated and edited Selected Early Poems of Lev Loseff, while Gerald Smith put together a Russian-English version of his work called As I Said/Как я сказал in 2012. Tomas Venclova, himself an emigre Soviet (Lithuanian) poet and scholar of note, who has taught most his adult life at Yale University, called Loseff “one of the chief representatives of Russian exilic poetry, a great master of ironic postmodern verse.” IMG_8030.jpg2 IMG_8036.jpg2

Joseph Brodsky Monument, Moscow (+)

IMG_3425.jpg2The Joseph Brodsky monument in Moscow, located more or less across from the Fyodor Chaliapin house and the old U.S. embassy on Sadovaya-Kudrinskaya Street, seemed to me to come out of nowhere. I just happened to be walking along the street one day and there it was. Voice of Russia tells me it was unveiled in May 2011.  I find it to be one of the most interesting sculptural complexes in Moscow, what with its added people in the background playing off the main character of Brodsky in the foreground.

IMG_3421.jpg2 IMG_3424.jpg2Somebody might say that Brodsky here is something of a snob, with his nose in the air in regards to the smaller, faceless people around him, and that person might be right. Brodsky wasn’t one to suffer anyone he considered a fool and sculptor Georgy Frangulyan surely had that in mind when creating this ensemble. But one turns one’s head skyward for more than one reason, and I don’t doubt that the lonely figure of Brodsky looking to the heavens has other meanings as well.  I saw Brodsky read his poetry at the Boston Public Library in the early 1980s. Frankly, it was a bit of a chore. In my opinion, his heavily metered, chanting performance voice turned all his spectacular words into a monotone mush. I could not take my eyes off of his face, however. That was an extraordinary sight. Many years later I spent a few days at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and I trekked over to the Slavic Department where Brodsky taught for some time after his emigration to the U.S. I wrote a bit about how Brodsky ended up there thanks to Carl Proffer, in a Moscow Times blog, which you can jump to if you’re so inclined. For the record I also post two photos of the building that houses the Slavic Department at UMI, one on the outside, the other from the inside.

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