People are Not My Thing

4107110371 Mark Jay Mirsky reviews Lev Loseff's Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life, in Ha'aretz:

Brodsky, who was born in 1940, dropped out of high school at 15 and worked at a series of low-level jobs, including apprentice machinist and hospital attendant, but also joined geological expeditions to the Soviet Far East beginning in 1957, where he came in contact with a group associated with the Mining Academy. Brodsky would claim that he found his way as a poet when he stumbled on the work of Evgeny Baratynsky, a 19th-century elegist, in 1959, but he was already writing poetry in 1957 and 1958. He never attended university, though he did enroll in evening classes and audit university lectures. As an autodidact, he pumped his university-educated friends regularly for information, Loseff relates.

Brodsky was not part of the establishment; he didn't belong to the Writers' Union of the USSR and wasn't involved in academia. He did, however, enjoy a deep friendship with the doyenne of Russian poetry, Anna Akhmatova, who was also a victim of Soviet persecution. Though Brodsky was an outsider with no regular employment, his work began to enjoy significant popularity but he also rubbed a number of established poets the wrong way. “His performances … were the loudest and most emotional … [Brodsky] left early … without listening to the rest of the readings,” writes Loseff. Publishing in the underground Samizdat journal Sintakis, as well as participating in a hare-brained scheme to hijack a plane and jump the USSR border, also put him in ill odor with the KGB. His growing reputation as a poet attracted the attention of a malicious informer, who denounced him to the authorities.

Loseff gives us a chilling account of the young Brodsky's kangaroo trial, in 1964, in which he was convicted of “parasitism,” after a futile attempt to hide in a brutal Soviet mental institution. Despite the nightmare of the exile to which he was sentenced, he would write some of his best work in the remote Siberian village of Norenskaya, and after he left it, he recalled its landscape and denizens in verse.