Tuesday, June 2, 2015

J.B.’s Jubilee

Brodsky on his balcony at Muruzi House (date unknown) / Image courtesy of brodskymuseum.com

If Joseph Brodsky were still alive, he would have turned seventy-five on Sunday, May 24th, so the web has been awash with Brodskiana. Everybody and his brother, it seems, have got something to say about the man. Me too: I wanted to post something in his honor on the jubilant day itself, but at the time—unfortunately yet quite appropriately—I was hard at work on my Brodsky contribution to a new volume entitled American Writers in Exile. (To learn how he fits into that category, read my essay when the book comes out.)

First off, in the biggest news, it looks as though the Brodsky apartment museum in Saint Petersburg is finally opening after years of fundraising, bureaucratic hoop-jumping, negotiations, and logistical troubles (including a battle against 32 types of mold). This is the space that Brodsky wrote about in his essay “In a Room and a Half,” located in the Muruzi House at the intersection of Liteyny Prospect and Pestel Street, where he lived with his parents for almost two decades. Tatyana Voltskaya notes that the famous room and a half was open last month, fittingly, for a day and a half: several hours for journalists on May 22, plus a full day for the birthday festivities on May 24. Now it’s closed again, with plans to reopen for good after renovations wrap up sometime this winter. The museum doesn’t have much of a web presence yet, especially in English, but when the apartment finally opens and stays open, it should obviously land at the top of the must-do list for all Brodsky enthusiasts. I certainly plan to visit the next time I’m in Petersburg.

Back in April, another domicile-museum opened in the village of Norinskaya (or Norenskaya), in the Arkhangelsk region, where Brodsky served out his internal exile in 1964 and 1965 for “social parasitism”—that is, freeloading (тунеядство). During his time there, he wrote and translated poems, published occasionally in the local paper («Призыв»), and worked on a collective farm. Ironically, Brodsky later called it one of the happiest times of his life. The museum is situated inside a peasant house formerly owned by the Pesterev family, with whom Brodsky stayed during his sentence. According to Lenta.ru, the exhibit includes “things that Brodsky used: a chair, a table, a couch, a kerosene lamp, a tank for developing photographs, and the plywood cover from a package sent to Brodsky by his father in Leningrad, which was found during the restoration of the house.”

Interestingly, both new museums have met with opposition from a certain hyperpatriotic element in the Russian crowd, despite the poet’s growing popularity of late. (Just last month, in fact, Alexander Genis and Solomon Volkov were discussing Brodsky’s transformation from “esoteric” to “popular” poet in Russia.) In Norinskaya, a group of locals balked at the five-million ruble price tag and filed a suit demanding that the museum be closed and the regional governor be punished for supporting it:

[Brodsky] was exiled to our region for social parasitism. But instead of thanking the leadership of the USSR for his early release, he emigrated to the U.S., took a passport there under the name ‘Joseph Brodsky’ [spelled Джозеф Бродски, as opposed to Иосиф Бродский], and began to slander the Soviet people.

The suit also asks for a hundred thousand rubles in compensation for the “moral harm” the plaintiffs experienced. This whole episode reminds me of an article I posted about a few years ago, when another Norinskaya resident and loyal communist said the following:

And just who is Brodsky? A parasite, a freeloader! … How could they have given him the Lenin Prize, that lazy good-for-nothing?! … He was a smart bastard. But Russia is a fool! Gave him a prize… America, America! He’s a leech, and they put up a fucking plaque for him!

The two gentlemen quoted above are indeed different people, but they’re clearly kindred spirits.