In December, 1972, shortly after his expulsion from the Soviet Union, Joseph Brodsky visited Venice for the first time. Every year since then — “With one or two exceptions, due to heart attacks and related emergencies, mine or someone else’s” — he has revisited the city around Christmastime. In WATERMARK, he uses his memories of those sojourns in Venice as a point of departure for reflections on an astonishing variety of subjects.
Brodsky himself supplies the key to WATERMARK quite explicitly in the text. He recalls that in 1966, a friend loaned him three novels by Henri de Regnier, translated from French by the Russian poet Mikhail Kuzmin. One of the books in particular made a strong impression on Brodsky. Set in a wintry Venice, the novel consisted of very brief chapters, no more than a page or a page-and-a-half in length: a device Brodsky employs in WATERMARK. From Regnier’s book, Brodsky tells us, he learned “the most crucial lesson in composition; namely, that what makes a narrative good is not the story itself but what follows what. Unwittingly I came to associate this principle with Venice. If the reader now suffers, that’s why.”
It’s difficult to imagine a reader who would suffer from this display of Brodsky’s agile intelligence — though it’s equally difficult to imagine a reader finishing the book without having been exasperated ten or twelve times by Brodsky’s peremptory judgments, his provocations, his patented aphorisms (“Given the nature of human reality, the interpretation of dreams is a tautology and at best could be justified only by daylight’s ratio to darkness”).
Labyrinths, Dante, Ezra Pound, lions and Christianity, Muslims and the veil — these and a dazzling array of other topics are interwoven in this Venetian suite. “No one knows how much poetry loses when a poet turns to prose,” Brodsky wrote in LESS THAN ONE, in an essay on Marina Tsvetaeva; “it is quite certain, though, that prose profits from it greatly.” When the poet is Joseph Brodsky, say amen.