Bengt Jangfeldt’s introduction:
For ten years, from 1986 to 1995, I often met Joseph Brodsky - especially in Sweden, where he would spend the summer. It was an overwhelming experience to find oneself in the immediate vicinity of one of the Russian language’s most finely-tuned instruments. When that instrument fell silent for good in 1996, the import of Nina Berberova’s reflection on the death of Alexander Blok in 1921 was brought home with painful clarity: “It was not only Blok who had died, … it was the end of an epoch …".
The “Brodsky epoch" was marked by a unique body of poems, which apart from anything else drew a line under the previous epoch in Russian poetry. Brodsky was the first worthy heir to the so-called Russian “silver age", with names like Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva and Boris Pasternak. After his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1972 Brodsky also became an active participant in public debate. His voice was authoritative, his views controversial, he often met with opposition but left no-one unmoved. He had a definite charisma which provoked both positive and negative feelings. One of his most striking personality traits was that he was a friend to his friends, endlessly thoughtful and generous towards those he was fond of. But he was a complex human being who never attempted to hide his antipathies or those sides of his personality which many found distinctly unattractive. The myths that built up around him are therefore at least as comprehensive as the serious analyses of his work.
This book is about Brodsky the poet but it will also throw light on Brodsky the man and the complexity of his character, which I feel I got a good view of during those years when we knew each other. While working on the book I read and re-read not only Brodsky’s works but also masses of interviews with him, as well as memoirs and other texts. I have also talked to and corresponded with several of his closest friends. I gradually became convinced that Brodsky’s life was to a large extent dictated by his nerves, and, during the last decades, by the inescapable realisation that he would soon die. If there is a connecting thread in these notes, it is this.
The book is divided into three fair-sized chapters. The first, La bolshie vita, consists of biographical notices of Brodsky’s life in Bolshevikia, i.e. the Soviet Union: the trials, the expulsions, the detentions in mental hospitals. The second, Language is God, contains essays on his aesthetics, his relationship with W.H. Auden and the English language, his position on political and religious issues, his view of Sweden as “an ecological niche" which came to replace the homeland he would never see again. The third chapter, Thoughts and memories, is shorter reflections on Brodsky’s life and work, frequently from the starting-point of conversations we had.