Undated photograph of Joseph Brodsky by Katarina E. Rothfjell / Image courtesy of the Beinecke Library
Somewhere in the middle of last week’s episode of the American hour on Radio Svoboda, I heard this fascinating exchange between program host Alexander Genis and Solomon Volkov—the well-known musicologist, expert interviewer, and culture critic—about the poet Joseph Brodsky, whom Volkov had interviewed over a fourteen-year period for his book Conversations with Joseph Brodsky (Диалоги с Иосифом Бродским):
Alexander Genis: Who was the most difficult person for you to interview? And who was the most interesting?
Solomon Volkov: My most difficult interviewee was, of course, Brodsky. Because he was the most difficult person to speak with—the most complicated. You had to, as they say, meet him on his level, or attempt to do so.
Alexander Genis: To tell you the truth, whenever I’d talk with Brodsky, I would always sweat. I just felt so uncomfortable. Due to the exertion of thought, my forehead was wet the whole time.
Solomon Volkov: Dovlatov and I once talked about this very same thing.
Alexander Genis: By the way, Dovlatov would sweat when he talked with Brodsky too.
Solomon Volkov: I told him that after a conversation with Brodsky I would sometimes get a nosebleed. He said with relief, “And here I thought I was the only one who was such a weakling.”
Alexander Genis: And who was the most interesting person to interview?
Solomon Volkov: The most interesting was probably Brodsky too. Because he reasoned with such focus, he would approach the conversation with a great sense of responsibility. In the course of the conversation he would sometimes say what none of my other interviewees would ever say. Specifically, he’d say, “Hold on, Solomon, let me talk it through again. I want to say it in another way, more concise, better, and so forth.” That is, he approached these sessions very responsibly, and to a certain degree, I think, he was worn out by them just as much as I was.
Poor Dovlatov! Poor Genis and Volkov! You know you’ve encountered a great one when you’re sweating and bleeding.
Speaking of Sergei Dovlatov, his 1983 novel Pushkin Hills (Заповедник) has just been published by Counterpoint Press in a translation by Katherine Dovlatov, the author’s daughter, and earlier this month, The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog posted James Wood’s afterword to the book. Counterpoint also reprinted Antonina Bouis’s translation of Dovlatov’s 1986 story collection The Suitcase (Чемодан) just a few years back.
Long live émigré lit!