Watermark: An Essay on Venice by Joseph Brodsky

Venice is a city which inspires extreme reactions; Georg Simmel, in his book I reviewed here, claimed that “Venice possess the ambiguous beauty of adventure, floating rootlessly through life, like a torn flower borne on the sea.” Russian poet Joseph Brodsky is equally entranced, as I’ll discuss in this post. However, I’m following that read with a counter-voice which comes from French intellectual and activist Regis Debray – more of that in a future post. Certainly, it’s a city that’s unique…

Very pretty and festooned with post-its….

Brodsky’s book was first published in 1992, and the lovely Penguin Modern Classic edition caught my eye during my recent Waterstones Wobble. I already own a collection of Brodsky’s essays, also in the Penguin, but a quick flick convinced me this would be interesting. Brodsky himself was a fascinating character; born in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was known at the time) in 1940, he and his family survived the siege, although it had a lasting effect on his health. Because of their Jewish background, the Brodskys were often on the receiving end pf anti-Semitism, causing Joseph to feel like a dissident from an early age. He began writing poetry from an early age and eventually was mentored by no less than Akhmatova. However, he fell foul of the Soviet authorities, eventually being expelled in 1972 and after a little wandering, ended up in the United States where he lived and taught until his death in 1996. That sense of dislocation, of being peripatetic, certainly comes through in this essay, which I found quite mesmerising. And what’s not to love about a book that opens with these words:

Many moons ago the dollar was 870 lire and I was thirty-two. The globe, too, was lighter by two billion souls, and the bar at the Stazione where I’d arrived on that cold December night was empty. I was standing there waiting for the only person I knew in that city to meet me. She was quite late.

“Watermark” is subtitled an essay, but that’s perhaps a little misleading as it certainly isn’t structured in a traditional way. Instead, Brodsky ranges very far and wide, taking in his memories, his experiences of Venice, his reactions to its climate, its architecture, its very soul. The result is a wonderfully impressionistic sketch of a city which in many ways defies definition. He discusses books set in Venice that were pivotal in his reading life; and objects from his past which drew him to the place. An encounter with Ezra Pound’s mistress, Olga Rudge, is entertaining and yet disturbing. One piece which resonated was his description of the flooding of Venice, an event that takes place on a regular basis; I recall my last boss telling me of her visit to Venice when the city was overtaken by water, and her experience of walking around in waders and the stench…

But crucially there are musings on beauty, where it exists and how our eye finds it. That element of vision, and the visual, is crucial to Brodsky’s reading of Venice; it’s a place of reflections, both from multiple mirrors and the water itself, and the book is bursting with aquatic and seafaring language and imagery. Of course, Brodsky’s language is beautiful (as befits a poet) if sometimes a little oblique, and full of allusion – I’m guessing that some of its unique quality perhaps comes from the fact it’s written in English which was not Brodsky’s first tongue, and certainly there’s almost an air of Nabokov in there at times. As you can see from the sheaf of post-its in the picture above, I could have pulled out all manner of quotes but in the end I think you need to read the whole work in one go.

In “Watermark” Venice comes across as very much a mixture of decay and artifice, a city which attracts some and repels others. It’s a place with canals instead of roads, all glitter and surface, full of facades and although the falsity can be off-putting for some, Brodsky is seduced. Venice cast its spell so strongly over him that he returned annually over a period of 17 years; I wondered if perhaps something about the city was more appealing to an exile, a city suited to someone transient, an observer. Additionally, the constant recurrence of the aquatic motifs left me thinking that Brodsky might have been drawn to the place because of its similarity to Petersburg, another city constructed on land reclaimed from the sea.

In the end, Brodsky’s take on Venice is a very individual one, more of a prose poem than an essay, an extended meditation that is as much about his life, his loves and his thoughts as it is about Venice. It’s a fascinating and absorbing piece which creates a haunting effect which lingers in the mind; and it does seem that Venice left a watermark on Joseph Brodsky’s soul.