Wahlström & Widstrand, 2010. ISBN: 9789146219606
Reviewed by Peter Graves in SBR 2011:1
There are few people better qualified to write about the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky than Bengt Jangfeldt. Not only is he a professor of Slavonic Studies, he is a translator who has translated Brodsky and other Russian poets and prose-writers into Swedish. He was also a close friend of the poet for the last ten years of his life, spending a good deal of time with him both in the United States and during the poet’s frequent visits to Sweden. Jangfeldt, moreover, can write: his life of Axel Munthe won the Swedish Academy prize for biography and his biography of Vladimir Mayakovsky took the August Prize, as did his earlier book Svenska vägar till S:t Petersburg. Now, almost a decade and a half after Brodsky’s death in 1996 at the early age of 55 and more than two decades after he became the youngest ever Nobel Prize winner, it is interesting to consider where Brodsky’s reputation stands. The names of men with whom he was frequently linked –Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott, also Nobel Prize winning poets– are, of course, still writing so their status and profile do not offer a valid comparison. My feeling is that Brodsky is not doing too well. I asked a class of half a dozen postgraduate literature students and only one had heard of him. Pushed a little further about twentieth-century Russian poets, most of them could come up with Mayakovsky, Yevteshenko and Akhmatova - but no Brodsky. Russia, however, is recovering, or rediscovering him. Towards the end of his book Jangfeldt writes of the process of rehabilitation of Brodsky in the Russia from which he was exiled to the United States at the age of 32, and he goes as far as to call it ‘canonisation’. With some disapproval. No sign of that happening here and I suspect there is little chance of it happening in Sweden. Can Jangfeldt’s book perhaps suggest why? Unfortunately, not really. Språket är Gud falls into three parts. The first part, a biography of Brodsky in the Soviet Union up until his move to the United States in 1972, is the most interesting section and here Jangfeldt’s qualities as a biographer shine through, making one wish he had gone for a full-scale biography. As well as dealing with Brodsky’s life and development as a poet, this section reminds us how unbelievably petty-minded (as well as brutal, of course) the Soviet Union was in its harassment of those considered to be dissidents. The second section, which is actually subtitled ‘Språket är Gud’, consists of six short essays or articles on topics that range from Brodsky’s views on language (not very interesting since they tend to be grand statements of faith rather than meaningful ideas) to his great admiration for W. H. Auden and his struggles with the English language. The third and longest section by far is subtitled ‘Fragments’ and is made up of 38 short pieces of no more than a page or so in length: incidents, anecdotes, vignettes, memories – often memories that Jangfeldt shared with Brodsky. He writes with affection and, indeed, humour, not avoiding the fact that Brodsky was not infrequently cantankerous and arrogant as well as controversial. Some of these pieces come rather close to being contributions to the canonisation that Jangfeldt deplores elsewhere. One problem is that however beautifully written it may be – and it is – the book does not cohere; it remains a short biography, followed by a collection of articles and a sort of vänbok (notes in remembrance). Jangfeldt himself seems aware of the problem quite early on when, at the end of the short biography (page 83) he writes: ‘In a way Joseph Brodsky’s biography finishes here, in Ann Arbor, in the autumn of 1972. With his arrival in the United States he begins to lead the ordinary life of a writer in the west’. The other problem is that even after reading it I’m still not sure if or why those postgraduates should read Brodsky.