Sunday 13 September 2009

Joseph Brodsky in Iceland

by Ólafur Gunnarsson

The door stood wide open to the sunshine on the veranda as he came walking up the steps and right into the parlor. He looked around and said, "I can see that there is some literature going on."

It was June 1978 and an English translator had come to Iceland to compile an anthology for which he had chosen one of my stories. We had translated the tale the day before and I was hammering it out on my Remington typewriter.

As often happens to Icelanders and Russians, and the occasional Englishman, we had shared the translator's bottle of duty free Cutty Sark, in one go, a week before, the very evening the translator came to the country. And, as the famous midnight sun had begun to rise on the horizon, without ever setting, in the course of the night the translator had announced at dawn, "I want to talk to Joseph."

So I had responded, "Well, call him up then."

Soon he had Joseph on the phone and was talking to him in fluent Russian. And then he gave the Russian a halt and said, "Joseph wants to come."

"Well then, tell Joseph to come over," was my response.

The translator conveyed the message and then looked at your correspondent again and said, "But he´s flat broke."

"Well that has never been a problem to us Icelanders," I said. "Tell him we will arrange for his ticket later in the day and he can pick it up at the New York office of Icelandair tomorrow."

When I had slept it off and woke up the next afternoon I wondered how it had come about that I had invited some Russian I had never heard of to fly over but it was a matter of pride not to go back on the invitation. So now, exactly a week later, he had arrived with his one bag of luggage.

Between his invitation and arrival I got, bit by bit, the high and low of Brodsky´s life. He had been a star poet in school. He had been the head of the intelligentsia in St. Petersburg. Later on he had been charged by the state with vagrancy. When he came before a judge, who asked him to state his occupation, he had replied, "I am a poet." And when asked to show some certification of his claim he replied, "I can't." And when the judge asked why not he had replied, "The ability to write poetry is a gift from God." This cost him some years in Siberia from which he finally got out through the persistent efforts of his colleague W.H. Auden.

Joseph Brodsky was a rather chubby fellow beginning to go bald. He had a good natured smile and a stomach bearing witness to his fondness for hamburgers. He was not at all keen on what he had seen of Iceland. He said, "When I landed out a Keflavik airport, I thought I was on the moon. When we got closer to the Reykjavik suburbs I was reminded of Riga in the USSR. And now, this looks like New York."

Joseph was suffering from jet lag so it was decided he would take a nap before partaking in a party in his honor later in the day.

I was at the time living in a large wooden house almost at the bottom of a street which, rather than New York City, brings San Francisco to mind. The house at the bottom of the street happened to be The State Monopoly of liquor and beverages. On a late Friday evening in June, when the sun was shining on the streets of Reykjavik, it was good to sit at the living room table with the parlor window open and watch the slow flowing stream of people and their popping heads coming down the hill to store up for the weekend. It was always a possibility that a friend would be among them, ready to drop in and share a bottle of red or white wine or, on occasion, strong liquor.

We had set the table for a late lunch when one of my friends and I went upstairs to wake Joseph. I knocked politely on the door and when he did not reply I opened the door ajar and there he was, struggling to sit up in bed and trying to get a pair of sleep eye shades, of some sort, off his head. I told him we were about to have lunch to which he replied, "Terrific!" and stretched out for his bag and drew forth two bottles of vodka. When he was putting on his pants he asked a question which surprised me. "Are there a lot of KGB men in Iceland?" he asked.

"What?" Was my startled response.

"KGB," Brodsky responded, "Are there a lot of them over here?"

"No, I don’t think so," I said. "But I can’t vouch for it. I´m not good at identifying them anyway."

"Leave that to me," said Joseph.

We went downstairs to the parlor. The flow of people coming down the street had intensified as The Monopoly was about to close. Suddenly I saw an acquaintance of mine, a failed actor, pass by the window with his large hat and sunglasses. His jaws were working vigorously on a piece of gum. He passed from view. A while later, having stocked up for the weekend, he rang the doorbell. When he saw Joseph Brodsky he asked, "Who is that?"

"A very famous Russian," I said. "And a great poet!"

Joseph was eyeing us both now, not quite knowing what to make of the situation.

"Well," said my friend, and sat down on a solitary chair by the wall. "I was once almost famous myself."

Joseph was all ears.

"It was in the city of Rome."

"Oh, yeah?" said Brodsky.

"Well it so happened," my friend said, pushing the sun glasses closer to his face with an index finger, "I was sitting in a night club in Rome when suddenly the famous Federico Felinni comes in. He notices me, walks up to my table and announces, 'You look like a movie star. I am a director and I am going to make you a star.'" My friend fell silent. When it became obvious that nothing more was forthcoming Joseph broke the silence and said, "So what happened next?"

"Nothing," my friend said after a pause. "I never saw the man again. I did not become a movie star."

"Well this was a sad story," said Brodsky and looked around. Then he took up a piece of dry fish, studied it intensely and announced, "Oh, I know what this is! It tastes like old shoe soles."

My friend, the actor, had been so struck by the naked details of his sad life, in the presence of real fame, that he had left the party to mourn in solitude.

"What´s his occupation these days? Joseph wanted to know.

"I don’t know," I said.

"My bet is the KGB," Brodsky said. "It´s written all over him."

"Have some herring, Joseph," said the translator, who wanted to change the subject.

Joseph lifted up a whole herring with his fork and inspected it. "It is called herring in English," he said. "Now as everyone knows, the letter 'H' comes out as 'G' when pronounced in Russian, which makes Hitler a Gitler. So this must be Goering. Herring, Goering, it even rhymes."

"How´s the KGB doing these days in Russia?" I asked.

"I can tell you a KGB story," said Brodsky. "Now listen. It was a while ago. I am not going to disclose the whereabouts of the factory because this is a true tale. Once upon a time it so happened, in a factory, that a large part of the production never made it to the stock room. This was a toy factory whose sole production was the manufacturing of iron ducks which, when a spring inside them was wound up, were able to walk a certain distance. Now, to solve this problem guards from KGB were stationed at the entrance of the factory. They thoroughly searched everybody but not so much as a single duck was discovered. But the ducks kept right on disappearing. At last it got so that some KGB brass was brought in from Moscow and after intense speculations he cracked the mystery. There was a drain in the floor and the pipe ended outside the factory in a ditch. Now, some worker had made a practice of lifting the lid, then he wound up a duck, put it in the pipe and then the duck took a promenade the length of the entire pipe and fell into the ditch where it could be picked up after work. But in the end the State decided, as no culprit could be found, that no charges could be brought as the ducks had left the factory by themselves."

When the table had been cleared and toasts were being made to various Russian writers of greatness the doorbell suddenly rang and a friend of mine and the head of the sect that still worships the old Norwegian gods Odin and Thor appeared with a crowd of people.

Joseph stared at the group. "This is right out of The Idiot," he said. “Rogozhin and his hundred thousand.”

When I had introduced Brodsky to the leader, the latter offered to lay Tarot cards for Joseph. He took up cards drawn by the magician Aleister Crowley. These are beautifully drawn cards, no matter what you may think of Crowley, and he spread them out on the table, right in front of the astounded Russian, in a ring-like formation. "At the center is the hanged man," he said. "That is bad news." He drew another card. "But here comes the sun. That means that in time the hanged man will turn and be crowned with more glory than he himself can imagine at the present time."

And then, just like in any Dostoevsky novel, the whole crowd took off for town. I soon lost track of Joseph who said the next morning that he had gotten tired of the party and had strolled along the coastline of Reykjavik just to witness the spectacle of the sun never setting and suddenly it had seemed to him that some supernatural being had stepped right out of its yellow disk. "I think I saw an angel," he said.

He gave a reading two days later and was much lionized when the intelligentsia of Reykjavik found out who had arrived. In the autumn I noticed on the calendar that the night following the day of his arrival had been the so called midsummer night, the very night you are supposed to see supernatural beings, if you are one of the chosen few. So I wrote him a note telling him what night it had been and received a letter some time later in which he expressed his intense joy.


Unknown said...

Dear David! Thank you for this excellent post from Ớlafur Gunnarson: so accurate and precise yet with soul, as Russians say.
I wonder if I may ask you for advice. Yesterday, I translated Brodsky's poem Fish in the Winter into Estonian language. - I was inspired :-) The poem is so stoic and Nordic! I lived in Estonia for some years and I do love that beautiful country undividely ... I had tried to find any Estonian translations of his poetry to compare them with mine but found none whatsoever. Are you aware of any?

Thank you again.
Igor Syrovatchenko,

David McDuff said...

Hi Igor,

Maybe the Estonian Institute would know of any translations -



Unknown said...

David, thank you SO much for your kindness.

and apologies about misprint in "undividedly" in the previous post. :-)

I am really looking forward to getting acquainted further with your blog as it does indeed look exciting!

Thank you again,