July 13, 2015

Mind Blowing

JOSEPH BRODSKY WAS JOSEPH BRODSKY The last times I had significant interactions with Joseph had to do with the publication of my book of Akhmatova translations- I don’t read Russian, but had worked with interlinear translations, and Serge Shishkoff, a native speaker teaching at the University, brilliant and kind. First of all, I asked Joseph if he would write a letter recommending me and the translations. by Lyn Coffin

'“Well,” said Joseph. “Let’s do this. Here—” and he signed his name at the bottom of two or three sheets of paper. “Write what you like,” he said.

'So I did.

'I wrote something brief about my translations “being poems in their own right and doing something like justice to the originals.” I added, “One can think of no higher praise than that.” I showed Joseph the three-sentence letter I had (literally) written in his (i.e., over his) name, and he said it was fine.

'By that time, Joseph was moving on, leaving Ann Arbor for NewYork, where he would live until he died. I had a contract from W.W. Norton in my hand for my Akhmatova translations, predicated on the book’s bearing an introduction by Joseph Brodsky.

'He had promised to write said introduction before he left, but had not done so. To say he was a procrastinator perhaps does not convey the full extent of the situation. Joseph promised a lot. He always, eventually, delivered. But sometimes later was so later it was no better than never.

'So- the book went into galleys. No introduction.

'I wrote and called. Joseph (offhandedly) promised and promised. Norton began making threatening noises. The book would be pulled unless Joseph delivered. I was desperate, so I did a wild and desperate thing.

'I went to the library and read all the introductions I could find in English that Joseph had previously written- paying special attention to what he said about Russian writers. Using his own words, and twisting them to fit Akhmatova, then weaving them into a more or less coherent Introduction, I wrote Brodsky’s Introduction for him. (I justified myself on the basis of Joseph’s having not been true to his word and b) those sheets of paper he had given me with his signature at the bottom. To be sure, a whole introduction was perhaps not what he had envisioned- But, then, neither had I.)

'Anyway, I wrote the Introduction and sent it out, then waited with bated breath for Norton’s response. (Maybe, I told myself, as I mused about the stressful situation- Maybe when Joseph finds out, he’ll think it’s funny or a good “up yours” to the academic establishment. I could not quite push myself into being sanguine about his reaction but, like Scarlet, I would think about that tomorrow, after the book was published. Maybe the “fake” introduction would become a classic, taught in classes of Russian literature.)

'Norton’s reaction came swiftly. They LOVED the Introduction. Their letter (written by someone who knew the lay of Brodsky land) said he and the other Norton people thought it was the best piece of prose Brodsky had ever written. (Inwardly, I complimented myself- It was, I noted, a truly loving tribute– condensed, vintage Brodsky.)

'And so the book went ahead, with not a word from Brodsky. And I kid you not- about one hour before I was going to go to the post office and send back the by now corrected and recorrected galleys of the whole book- a package arrived on my doorstep from Brodsky. It was his Introduction. The note read, “Sorry, I’m late with this” (or something to that effect.) It was signed, I remember, “Citizen Joe.”

'What to do? I immediately sent the new Introduction to Norton. Joseph, I said, had written another Introduction, and he wanted that to be used for the book. Norton read the new Introduction and objected. The first Introduction, they said, was by far the better.

'“I agree,” I told them, (I actually did) “but Joseph Brodsky is Joseph Brodsky. And he wants the second Introduction. He would be really unhappy if the first Introduction were used.” (Truer words were never spoken.)

'Finally, to my astonishment and immense relief, Norton agreed. The book was published with Joseph’s “real” Introduction.

'My last contact with Joseph was not a terribly happy one- A year or so after the book came out, guilt assailed me, and curiosity. (Those two so often come together.) I wondered what Joseph’s reaction to my masquerade would be.

'We weren’t really in the same circle any more. I didn’t hear from him. I was hurt. I thought I might get a (hopefully amused) reaction. I sent him the Introduction I had pastiched together. I don’t know whether he ever wrote me back or not. I don’t think so. I think I heard from a mutual acquaintance that Joseph was not amused.'

No comments: