Monday, June 16, 2008

From Vienna to Budapest

Happy Bloomsday. I thought I might conclude with Vienna before going on to Budapest, where I am writing this. Another connection of Vienna to English-language poetry is the fact that, when expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972, it was assumed that Joseph Brodsky would go, like other exiled Russian Jews, to Israel. But the U.S.S.R. had no direct flights to Israel, so the usual method was to transport Jews first to Vienna, where they could change plans and go on to Tel Aviv. But Brodsky lingered in Vienna and met the Slavicist professor Carl Proffer, who proposed that he come to teach at the University of Michigan. Brodsky accepted the offer, and that’s how he ended up living in the U.S.A. At some point that year he also met Auden, who was a sort of paragon for him. I’m not sure whether it was in Austria or not. But Auden tried to be as helpful as possible, and one result is that Brodsky always revered him both as a man and as a poet.

I met Brodsky briefly when he taught in the Writing Division of the School of the Arts at Columbia. (It was the glory period of that program, when writers of the stature of Brodsky, Walcott, and Elizabeth Hardwick taught there, invited by Daniel Halpern, who was the director.) Then, on the tenth anniversary of Auden’s death, Brodsky worked with the Academy of American Poets to stage an Auden celebration, the invitees including Stephen Spender, Anthony Hecht, Marilyn Hacker and someone too immodest to mention his own name. Several years passed, and by chance a friend took me along with him to Brodsky’s fiftieth birthday party, at his place on Morton Street. Joseph and I had a stimulating talk and arranged to meet shortly after at an espresso house on MacDougal, either the Reggio or the CaffĂ© Dante, I’ve forgotten. That’s the last time I spoke to him; and at a shockingly early age, he died, always refusing to give up drinking and tobacco, even after two bypass operations.

The story has a coda: in August of 2006, I went to St. Petersburg, a trip I’d wanted for decades to make. It was only my second venture out of Western Europe (the first being a brilliant trip to Prague in 1995, one result of which was the long poetic sequence “A Musical Sacrifice”). Russian literature had been one of my touchstones, and the prospect of visiting the city of Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Biely, Mandelshtam, Akhmatova, Nabokov, and of course Joseph, charged me up. I’d been in London that summer and had got to know Valentina Polukhina, who has been married to the English poet and translator Daniel Weissbort for many years now. Valentina is a Brodsky scholar and, when I mentioned my acquaintance with Joseph, insisted I meet with his daughter-in-law Rimma Basmanova, and his grandchildren. Rimma was divorced from Joseph’s son Andrei Basmanov, whose mother Marina Basmanova never took Joseph’s name or gave it to their son Andrei after Joseph was exiled. I met them at my hotel near the end of the stay, and one of Joseph’s granddaughters (she was named Pasha) served as translator since Rimma’s English was unsteady. A touching moment, and I’ve never forgotten it.

I should back up a bit and explain, since I’m now in Eastern Europe, how the fascination began. In the early 1970s, Edmund White introduced me to the distinguished Slavicist Simon Karlinsky, who wrote the first critical book in English about Marina Tsvetaeva. I used a phrase from Tsvetaeva’s poem “Molitva” as the title for my first book All Roads at Once. Then, in the late 70s, Simon introduced me to Nina Berberova, who at that time taught in the Slavic Department at Princeton. There was a picture of Nina in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, accompanying a commentary of a book about a group of artists and intellectuals who were expelled by Lenin not long after the Bolshevik regime was established. She, like many other Russians, left the country once she realized the danger. She first lived in Paris (and practically starved) and then came to the United States in the late 40s.

I never met a more charming and—is there a word besides “noble” that conveys what I mean? Nina served us tea and when asked spoke of the literary scene in St. Petersburg in the teens of the last century. She had married the poet Khodasevich, from who she was later estranged, and she knew all the major figures of that day. She presented me with a copy of the English translation of her memoir The Italics Are Mine, a detailed portrait of the pre-Revolutionary era, the early days of the new regime, and then her later exile. About a decade after we met, some of her stories were translated into French and then English, and she became famous worldwide, in a way that she had never been earlier in her life. By then she was pretty much housebound, inevitable at her age, but I gather she was alert enough to be pleased at what had happened. Some stories have happy endings.

As said, I’m in Budapest, some fifty-two years after the Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union was brutally put down. Again, I feel the charm that seems to be the rule in the eastern part of the European Community. The Hungarian version is de-accelerated, no fuss, no bother, gently humorous. More to follow.


flotsam said...

Thank you very much. It is frustrating you don't write in the blog more often recently.

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