Stories of Venice: Joseph Brodsky’s ‘Watermark’
According to legend, on the 25th of March 421, Venice was founded. Its founding is identified with the dedication of the first church San Giacomo at the islet of Rialto. Nevertheless, it has been hard to place it within historical context, as the church had not been mentioned in any form of document until 1152. Whatever the truth, Venice has successively spread onto 118 islands, formed by 177 canals. Amongst the numbers crucial in creating the city’s unique atmosphere one can add: 409 – the number of bridges, 119 – the number of churches, and 50,000 – the average number of tourists visiting Venice each day, including numerous artists, writers and poets. In fact, Venice, often referred to as ‘the living museum’, has become one of the most inspirational urban muses of all time. It is mostly down to the richness of historical and cultural echoes reverberating with each step taken on the city’s charming pathways. Evelyn Waugh once said: “If every museum in the New World were emptied, if every famous building in the Old World were destroyed and only Venice saved, there would be enough there to fill a full lifetime with delight. Venice, with all its complexity and variety, is in itself the greatest surviving work of art in the world.” (Evelyn Waugh, A Little Order: Selected Journalism).
In an article entitled ‘Ten of the best visits to Venice in literature’ (The Guardian, Saturday 23 January 2010), John Mullan lists such literary classics as Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Laurence, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage by Lord Byron, Candide by Voltaire, or Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, but also Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier, Dead Lagoon by Michael Dibdin, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer, The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan, and The Aspern Papers by Henry James. The only title missing from the list is probably one of the most poetic accounts of Venice’s floating existence described by Joseph Brodsky in his Watermark (1992).
Brodsky’s enchantment with Venice was most likely ignited by his childhood and youth memories of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) and its numerous canals. Born in 1940, he started writing and translating poetry at the age of fifteen, to be soon denounced by a Leningrad newspaper as “pornographic and anti-Soviet”. “He was interrogated, his papers were seized, and he was twice put in a mental institution. Finally he was arrested and brought to trial. Unable to fault him on his poetry’s content, the authorities indicated him in 1964 on a charge of “parasitism.” They called him “a pseudo-poet in velveteen trousers” who failed to fulfil his “constitutional duty to work honestly for the good of the motherland.””(Robert D. McFadden, Joseph Brodsky, Exiled Poet Who Won Nobel, Dies at 55, The New York Times, January 29, 1996). Tried for his alleged ‘subversiveness’, he was then sentenced to five years in an Arctic labour camp, of which he served only one and a half, calling it later the best time of his life. In 1972, he was eventually expelled from the Soviet Union. With the help of W. H. Auden, he settled in America, where he continued his writing career, crowned in 1987 with the Nobel Prize in Literature “for an all-embracing authorship, imbued with clarity of thought and poetic intensity.” (The Nobel Prize in Literature 1987).
Watermark is as poetic as prose could ever be, proving Brodsky’s unique talent for observation of not only bare reality but its multilayered transcendental subtexts. He loved Venice and kept returning to it over and over again. In total, he paid seventeen visits to the city –all of which happened in winter time. Hence, the sense of melancholy is present throughout the whole book. Brodsky describes Venice in a sort of phenomenological way: we can smell it, see its foggy colours, and hear its rhythmical heartbeats, syncopated by footsteps of tourists and bells of the city’s numerous churches. In time, we become carried away by the waving of the water, by its reflective capacity; we see the city slowly submerge in the water – the only true witness to the passing of time and the city’s dreamy, yet floatingly stable history.
“The eye in this city acquires an autonomy similar to that of a tear. The only difference is that it doesn’t sever itself from the body but subordinates it totally. After a while – on the third or fourth day here – the body starts to regard itself as merely the eye’s carrier, as a kind of submarine to its now dilating, now squinting periscope. Of course, for all its targets, its explosions are invariably self-inflicted: it’s your own heart, or else your mind, that sinks; the eye pops up to the surface. This of course owes to the local topography, to the streets – narrow, meandering like eels – that finally bring you to a flounder of a campo with a cathedral in the middle of it, barnacled with saints and flaunting its Medusa-like cupolas. No matter what you set out for as you leave the house, you are bound to get lost in these long, coiling lanes and passageways that beguile you to see them through, to follow them to their elusive end, which usually hits water, so that you can’t even call it a cul-de-sac. On the map this city looks like two grilled fish sharing plate, or perhaps like two nearly overlapping lobster claws (Pasternak compared it to a swollen croissant); but it has no north, south, east, or west; the only direction it has is sideways. It surrounds you like frozen seaweed, and the more you dart and dash about trying to get your bearings, the more you get lost. The yellow arrow signs at intersections are not much help either, for they, too, curve. In fact, they don’t so much help you as kelp you. And in the fluently flapping hand of the native whom you stop to ask for directions, the eye, oblivious to his sputtering A destra, a sinistra, dritto, dritto, readily discerns a fish.” (Joseph Brodsky, Watermark).