Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Brodsky’

La Serenissima

5369757294_fbefe6e16dWatermark, Joseph Brodsky

A History of Venice, John Julius Norwich

Having read your entry of September 17th entitled “We are here” you have emboldened me to provide a similar two-for-one contribution. I must admit that I have not, until recently, been a great lover of fiction in its broadest sense. I tended to read for fact – and as there is so much of it that I do not know I was content on my course. Recently things have changed. I am now pursuing a business degree and I do nothing aside reading for fact. At times it feels as though I am a good way through Harvard Business School’s oeuvre, which is neither true nor entertaining for the most part. My summer break gave me some much needed time and space for escapism. A late summer started with The Master and Margarita, regressed to The Idiot and then brought me to A History of Venice. Why the curious final stop? There are many reasons but possibly the easiest to describe is that I have completely fallen in love with the city. At first sight I was besotted and, having been lucky enough to live in Italy for a year, my feelings have deepened in exponential proportion to my many visits more recently. I understand that this is rather tragic (colloquial). Anyway, as anything that I love, I tend to like to learn as much as I can about it/them so that I can make the most of the relationship.

A History of Venice is a (rather lengthy) history book detailing the very beginnings of La Serenissima, The Most Serene Republic of Venice, in the 8th century through, Doge by Doge, to its forced conclusion at the end of the 18th. Whilst I understand that this might not be the standard content discussed on your site I can only encourage friends and acquaintances to read a chapter or two the next time you are in a suitable bookshop.

As a clear lover of the City and its history Norwich charts a purposeful course through time. Reflections on the city, the character of the inhabitants, aggressors in the form of Spaniards, Milanese, Holy Armies, Genoese, Neapolitans, Florentines, Hungarians, Austrians, Ottomans and French are treated with utmost objectivity and as a result this book is an absolute pleasure. This history is no indulgence for its author, it is written with the reader’s education in mind at all times and as a result it achieves its aim with aplomb. Not only is this achieved but it is also written rather beautifully. Norwich writes in classic British prose whilst never being verbose. Nor does he allow himself lengthy digressions into architecture, art or beauty where accusations of pomposity would be easy to level. That being said he does allow flashes of humour, certainly enough to enliven the read at more academic moments. In response to the secret expedition to Alexandria in order to steal the remains of Mark The Evangelist, Norwich proposes that “history records no more shameless example of body-snatching; nor any – unless we include the events associated with the Resurrection – of greater long term significance”.

In fact this book is so well put together that by the time that you reach Part Four: Decline and Fall your spirits sink with the book and with the city. As she loses Cyprus and Crete as colonies you are resigned as a reader to the conclusion. Then at that conclusion, Norwich’s excellent description of Napoleon’s schadenfreude toward La Serenissima leads you to yearn for the end, you imagine that your feelings are closely aligned those of oligarchic states creaking under the weight of wealth, loose morality, laziness and corruption that it experienced in its dotage. The author asserts near to the end that Venice “like any great beauty, she was acutely conscious of the effect that that beauty had on others; and she used it to the full”, and through his skilled commentary that beauty continues to bewitch the reader. Or at least it did me.

Following Norwich’s tome, I took on the altogether easier challenge of reading Brodsky’s Watermark. This book is a collection of short stories, a poem or any other classification that one would care to make. At a length that would make Of Mice And Men look like a leviathan it contains brief thoughts, reflections and anecdotes from the author’s many winters spent in Venice. Similar to Norwich, but very much like me, he is a clear lover of the city although no historian. A good proportion of the focus, if not all of it, is on the city’s effect on the eye and the eye’s metaphysical significance in its role as conduit-in-chief to its beholder.


I allowed myself to read some criticism of Watermark. In fact I sought it out primarily as I have so many conflicting feelings about the book. To some, the historical and cultural errors of the date of the aforementioned body-snatching and references to churches as cathedrals is enough to denounce the content. Other readers take issue with the uninitiated attacks on Ezra Pound, his widow or indeed the fairer sex in general. That being said, the majority clearly support and appreciate these candid and at times beautiful tales of a great writer in the greatest city.

Watermark is the antithesis of A History of Venice. It is pure indulgence, unadulterated dogma, subjectivity and frequent portentousness: “My notion of Eden hinges on neither weather nor temperature. For that matter, I’d just as soon discard its dwellers and eternity as well. At risk of being charged with depravity, I must confess that this notion is purely visual, has more to do with Claude than the creed, and exists only in approximations. As these go, this city is the closest”.

I asked myself why I should bother reading another man’s thoughts on Venice. Well, Brodsky’s are certainly better articulated than mine even if he was writing in his second language! Whilst his arrogance (he suggests that Watermark’s publication might have profound impacts on Venice’s success as a tourist destination) is at times insufferable, there are enough splendid passages to keep the reader interested. There are a beautiful couple of pages where, beginning from the Book of Genesis, he deduces in mock-scientific logic a true quality of the city:

‘And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters’ to quote a famous author who visited here before. Then there was that next morning. It was Sunday, and all the bells were chiming…I always adhered to the idea that God is time. Or at least His spirit is. I always thought that if the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the water, the water was bound to reflect it…It is as though space, cognizant here more than anyplace else of its inferiority to time, answers it with the only property time doesn’t posses: with beauty. And that’s why this water takes an answer, twists it, wallops it and shreds it, but ultimately carries it by and large intact off into the Adriatic.

Whilst this rambling, at times repulsive, little book with its terribly abrupt conclusion may not exactly endear the author to its reader, it contains some of the wonderful thinking and writing that in conjunction with a visit to the city (preferably in Winter) is an essential companion. And if you find yourself disliking Brodsky too much, you can at least comfort yourself in the knowledge that he was no prophet. His strong assertions in the book about the financial health of Kodak and of the prospect of the Biennale and Venice as a center for modern art have proved to be embarrassingly incorrect.

 Matt Bradley

17. Why Read?

I read from a young age and hated fiction. Poetry was something dad read to bore us. As it happens he read Larkin: my sister and I would run into mum and dad’s bedroom on a weekend morning and Whitsun Weddings would come out. I don’t think we appreciated waking up in sunshine (it is sunny in that memory) only to be told our life was dreary, miserable and commonplacely depressing. Sadness is fine as long as it’s yours. This became a joke, then a running joke, then stopped altogether.

My sister would read Swallows and Amazons, but I really couldn’t see the point. She was the artsy child, and I was the engineer/scientist. I read, over and over again, ‘The Illustrated Highway Code’ – landscape format with a red cover and the Vauxhall logo on the front. My favourites were level crossings and how to pass a horse on a country lane. I also liked instruction books for Lego sets, and was a subscriber to ‘Truck and Driver’ magazine – a kind of hobby/lifestyle publication for long distance lorry drivers.

I couldn’t see why you would want to read something that was made up. It didn’t strike me as useful. I liked practical advice, step by step instructions, tips for living in the world. I used to be what is known as a ‘whittler’ – someone who worries excessively – often told to ‘stop whittlin’ on.’ What if I was called on to rope and sheet a flatbed, and didn’t know the techniques let alone the regulations and legal requirements regarding loose ends or wide loads?

Ageing, however, the racing mind needs more than what she can surround herself with. Everyone has imagination, but imagination isn’t actually a very advanced tool. All it really does is combine things it already knows in different ways. Medieval bestiaries illustrate how unimaginative imagination is: griffins, mermaids, centaurs, anthropophagi, all work with the same “something known, plus something known, with aspects of something else.” What you really need is something you have no idea about.

At 16 I did my first bit of reading, about 11 years after I first learnt to process words in an order. I haven’t read much since really, no one does. It was La Belle Dame Sans Merci, by Keats. I looked into him. I didn’t think he was lying, I believed he used to be a living person, which left one option: something had happened to him that was beyond my ken, but presumably it was equally possible that something like his experience could happen to me. Poetry is a record of something possible. Novels provide a whole wealth of possible trajectories.

“Time becomes human time to the extent that it is organised after the manner of narrative; narrative, in turn, is meaningful to the extent that it portrays the features of temporal experience.” That’s Paul Ricoeur, from his 3 volume masterwork Time and Narrative. That quote is from page 3, volume 1, and I trust it continues in a similar vein.  I absolutely believe him though. If you believe a fictional character’s life, or feel something in a line of verse, you do so because it portrays the features of temporal experience. It is something which is, for you, (probably) unexperienced (precisely that way), but possible.

To read, then, is to be addicted to the infinite of possible futures. Each thing read is a provisional manifesto – a statement of how the future might (or should) go. There are infinite variations, even from this point in this piece, as to how it all will go. I think this is why Joseph Brodsky could say: “there is no doubt in my mind that, had we been choosing our leaders on the basis of their reading experience and not their political programs, there would be much less grief on earth… If only because the lock and stock of literature is indeed human diversity and perversity, it turns out to be a reliable antidote for any attempt – whether familiar or yet to be invented – toward a total mass solution to the problems of human existence.” Tyranny is only reading one book.

He sounds like a bloody dreamer. Readers seem to be categorised as dreamers, like my sister reading Swallows and bloody Amazons and neglecting the practical, hard-headed school of fact that she’s going to need if she is ever driving behind a horse on a country lane. Every written thing strikes us as a dream. But the dream becomes as taut as a hypothesis, waiting in the background for the correct experiment to float into the present and prove it right or wrong.

There is, of course, another option – that you know exactly what the writer is talking about, that the experiment has already happened. This is normally about love, I think. The chances of biographies matching up is almost zero, but for all its excitement, buoyancy and boisterous falls love is experienced (it seems) the same way. As a topic it is boring and endless, as a feeling it is chaotic, with all the variables of two people interacting in the least programmatic but most predictable way. Reading about love is background research or peer review. Sometimes it explains better what we already know, gives it form and structure and reason. Gatsby ends up alone and rich, and then one fine morning… My current addiction to the sadness of old men winding down gives variously things to aim at and avoid.

Thinking of life like a narrative is dangerous, and fatal if caught too young; constructing the future is an addiction, and turns very sour in the moments when time decides to re-assert that you don’t write your life (it does). Remember this, however, and you are free to know what might happen. Reading strings time together. It creates a useful if illusory framework. The best books take ages to read, only because every line sends you staring into space, thinking how it jigsaws with everything else. Each thing is an opening.

Montale thought, and thought till the end, that “art is a form of life that doesn’t truly live: a compensation, or a surrogate”, he is right. But it doesn’t swamp the past, it structures a future that hasn’t truly had time to live, or codifies the loose end of a past. I couldn’t even begin to drive when I was 6. Maybe my reasons for reading haven’t changed.

Jack Castle