Brodsky offers touchingly quirky look at Venice



Joseph Brodsky.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

135 pages. $15.

Falling in love with certain books can be like falling in love with certain human beings. At first, there may be indifference, incomprehension and even dislike. Then -- gradually or suddenly -- the bandages of misunderstanding unwrap themselves to reveal one's touchable fate: the luminous doom of recognizing the almost intolerably high value of something or someone outside of oneself.

At this point, I am no more than half in love with "Watermark," Joseph Brodsky's abrasively lyrical book on Venice. But that is appropriate, for Mr. Brodsky's Venice is as full of half-light, harsh light and divided feeling as is his artistic consciousness. And why not? Being in love is as much about division as it is about wholeness.

If anyone has the right to feel divided, it's Joseph Brodsky. Born to Russian-Jewish parents 52 years ago in what is now once again St. Petersburg, Mr. Brodsky belongs to a generation of Russian writers for whom literature was a guaranteed private paradise invulnerable to the hideousness of the Stalin/Hitler years. Books were not only more real than the lethal reality around them, they were life itself. Culture, for them, was anything but elitist -- its truth and beauty were the only antidote to political poison.

Mr. Brodsky says that, far from being a lost generation, his was the first generation of 20th century Russians to find itself. He and his friends lost their belief in the godhead of Stalin, but they gained an absolute belief in the Russian language, so spiritually rich in a world of poverty. Words have been, almost literally, their daily bread -- sometimes their only daily bread.

Joseph Brodsky found himself by losing himself. A hugely learned and world-famous poet and essayist, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1987, friend of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Mr. Brodsky started his excruciatingly free career by leaving school at the age of 15. In a way, this was the beginning of exile. He worked at many low-paying jobs, including at a factory and a morgue. He periodically roamed Russia with geologists. He got to know the police well, who hounded him for having an unauthorized lifestyle. He also got to know a few of the great writers who survived Russia's holocausts, especially the poet Anna Akhmatova.

Once incredibly beautiful and now ill and aged, she gave him her blessing and showed him the alternative universe of poetry, a realm where feeling, intellect and truth are fused. Akhmatova and Mr. Brodsky saw in each other the past and future of Russian literature. They could celebrate in each other the keening, high-strung integrity of a true poet's violin voice, whose wise fragile music proves to be more durable than barbarism.

Mr. Brodsky was arrested for "parasitism," sentenced to shovel NTC manure in the provinces, and eventually exiled to an ironic but successful academic career in the United States, where he became a citizen in 1977. He now writes in both Russian and English. But when one hears Mr. Brodsky read poetry in his native tongue, the harmonious howl of his fat vowels and the sobbing of his sanity tell you he will always be a Russian -- and an exile.

Like other permanent exiles, Mr. Brodsky has always craved Venice. As soon as he got his first American paycheck, he headed there. Venice, built on water, has always been a kind of heaven on Earth for artists and writers. They venerate the sturdy miracle of its fairy-tale architecture, the combination of geometry and dream, color and water, history and gaiety. Here is where the medieval East and West met, and ruthless commerce was metamorphosed into beauty that has long outlasted the money that made it possible.

Like others before him, Mr. Brodsky rejoices in all this. But his little travel book -- a quirky mix of memoir, description and rumination -- is both cutting and slippery, like the sea debris he loves. For one thing, he visits Venice only in winter, when it is often gray and foggy and its beauty is as tricky as Mr. Brodsky's own mind. Unlike others, he does not worship Venice for its artificiality --but because it is like a sea organism itself in its shapes and colors. Or it is like music that arises naturally out of the sea, its very architecture resembling musical notes.

It is a labyrinth of total beauty that allows the weary wary writer to escape from himself, to become "a dot in a watercolor." At one point, Mr. Brodsky experiences so much "animal happiness" amid this greatest of human art objects that he "meows." For him, high culture does not destroy our good animality, our creatureliness. Indeed, he describes himself as a "cardiac cripple," sadly enough a phrase meant literally. But, in Venice, bad dreams and deathly fear are a rarity. No phony "Death in Venice" for Mr. Brodsky.

But he is tricky because he is truthful. And this touchingly quirky, defiantly aphoristic book cuts both ways, like truth and beauty. For one thing, Venice may be an available heaven on Earth; but Venice may also be defined as precisely what you can't have. Venice is the opposite of lethal politics, of zombified Russia (though Mr. Brodsky gives a cruelly just portrait of Olga Rudge, Pound's widow, defending her fascist husband).

But Venice is so beautiful that it reminds you simultaneously of both the eternity and the brevity of beauty. Mr. Brodsky describes the human eye flopping like a joyous fish in the welter of Venetian beauty. He celebrates the waters of Venice because water flows and changes like time, and Venice's reflection in water beautifies time itself. But the human eye can't retain beauty. The eye eventually must leave Venice. Or Venice, perishing, must leave the eye.

So Mr. Brodsky celebrates the nobility of human tears as much as human eyes. "The tear is an attempt to remain, to stay behind, to merge with the city." Just as the richness of the Russian language proved to Brodsky that there might be something better than Stalinism, so our tears on leaving Venice prove that beauty is, perhaps, bigger than mortality, though it reminds us of mortality ". . . one's love, too, is greater than oneself."

Mr. Margulies is a poet and a curator at the Bayly Art Museum of the University of Virginia.

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