Joseph Brodsky. 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. Every traveler knows this fix: this mixture of fatigue and apprehension.
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Joseph Brodsky. 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. Every traveler knows this fix: this mixture of fatigue and apprehension. It's the time of staring down clock faces and timetables, of scrutinizing varicose marble under your feet, of inhaling ammonia and that dull smell elicited on cold winter nights by locomotives' cast iron.
I did all this. Save for the yawning bartender and immobile Buddha-like [matrona] at the cash register, there was no one in sight. However, we were of no use to each other: my sole currency in their language, the term "espresso," was already spent; I'd used it twice. I'd also bought from them my first pack ever of what in years to come was to stand for "[Merde Statale]," "[Movimento Sociale]," and "[Morte Sicura]": my first pack of MS.
So I lifted my bags and stepped outside. In the unlikely event that someone's eye followed my white London Fog and dark brown Borsalino, they should have cut a familiar silhouette. The night itself, to be sure, would have had no difficulty absorbing it. Winter thus was my season; the only thing I lacked, I thought, to look like a local rake or [carbonaro] was a scarf.
Other than that, I felt inconspicuous and fit to merge into the background or fill the frame of a low-budget whodunit or, more likely, melodrama. It was a windy night, and before my retina registered anything, I was smitten by a feeling of utter happiness: my nostrils were hit by what to me has always been its synonym, the smell of freezing seaweed.
For some people, it's freshly cut grass or hay; for others, Christmas scents of conifer needles and tangerines. For me, it's freezing seaweedpartly because of onomatopoeic aspects of the very conjunction in Russian, seaweed is a wonderful [vodorosli] , partly due to a slight incongruity and a hidden underwater drama in this notion. One recognizes oneself in certain elements; by the time I was taking this smell in on the steps of the [stazione], hidden dramas and incongruities long since had become my forte.
No doubt the attraction toward that smell should have been attributed to a childhood spent by the Baltic, the home of that meandering siren from the Montale poem. And yet I had my doubts about this attribution. For one thing, that childhood wasn't all that happy a childhood seldom is, being, rather, a school of self-disgust and insecurity ; and as for the Baltic, you had indeed to be an eel to escape my part of it.
At any rate, as a subject for nostalgia this childhood hardly qualified. The source of that attraction, I'd always felt, lay elsewhere, beyond the confines of biography, beyond one's genetic makeupsomewhere in one's hypothalamus, which stores our chordate ancestors' impressions of their native realm offor examplethe very ichthus that caused this civilization.
Whether that ichthus was a happy one is another matter. A smell is, after all, a violation of oxygen balance, an invasion into it of other elementsmethane? Depending on that invasion's intensity, you get a scent, a smell, a stench. It is a molecular affair, and happiness, I suppose, is the moment of spotting the elements of your own composition being free.
There were quite a number of them out there, in a state of total freedom, and I felt I'd stepped into my own self-portrait in the cold air. The backdrop was all in dark silhouettes of church cupolas and rooftops; a bridge arching over a body of water's black curve, both ends of which were clipped off by infinity. At night, infinity in foreign realms arrives with the last lamppost, and here it was twenty meters away.
It was very quiet. A few dimly lit boats now and then prowled about, disturbing with their propellers the reflection of a large neon CINZANO trying to settle on the black oilcloth of the water's surface. Long before it succeeded, the silence would be restored. It all felt like arriving in the provinces, in some unknown, insignificant spotpossibly one's own birthplaceafter years of absence.
In no small degree did this sensation owe to my own anonymity, to the incongruity of a lone figure on the steps of the [stazione]: an easy target for oblivion. Also, it was a winter night. And I remembered the opening line of one of Umberto Saba's poems that I'd translated long before, in a previous incarnation, into Russian: "In the depths of the wild Adriatic Yet I didn't.
The sky was full of winter stars, the way it often is in the provinces. At any point, it seemed, a dog could bark in the distance, or else you might hear a rooster. With my eyes shut I beheld a tuft of freezing seaweed splayed against a wet, perhaps ice-glazed rock somewhere in the universe, oblivious to its location.
I was that rock, and my left palm was that splayed tuft of seaweed. Presently a large, flat boat, something of a cross between a sardine can and a sandwich, emerged out of nowhere and with a thud nudged the [stazione]'s landing. A handful of people pushed ashore and raced past me up the stairs into the terminal.
Then I saw the only person I knew in that city; the sight was fabulous. I had seen it for the first time several years before, in that same previous incarnation: in Russia. The sight had come there in the guise of a Slavicist, a Mayakovsky scholar, to be precise.
That nearly disqualified the sight as a subject of interest in the eyes of the coterie to which I belonged. That it didn't was the measure of her visual properties. Five foot ten, fine-boned, long-legged, narrow-faced, with chestnut hair and hazel, almond-shaped eyes, with passable Russian on those wonderfully shaped lips and a blinding smile on the same, superbly dressed in paper-light suede and matching silks, redolent of mesmerizing, unknown to us, perfume, the sight was easily the most elegant female ever to set a mind-boggling foot in our midst.
She was the kind that keeps married men's dreams wet. Besides, she was a Veneziana. So we gave short shrift to her membership in the Italian CP and her attendant sentiment toward our avant-garde simpletons of the thirties, attributing both to Western frivolity. Had she been even an avowed Fascist, I think we would have lusted after her no less. She was positively stunning, and when subsequently she'd fallen for the worst possible dimwit on the periphery of our circle, some highly paid dolt of Armenian extraction, the common response was amazement and anger rather than jealousy or manly regret.
Of course, come to think of it, one shouldn't get angry over a piece of fine lace soiled by some strong ethnic juices. Yet we did. For it was more than a letdown: it was a betrayal of the fabric. In those days we associated style with substance, beauty with intelligence. After all, we were a bookish crowd, and at a certain age, if you believe in literature, you think everyone shares or should share your conviction and taste.
So if one looks elegant, one is one of us. Innocent of the world outside, of the West in particular, we didn't know yet that style could be purchased wholesale, that beauty could be just a commodity. So we regarded the sight as the physical extension and embodiment of our ideals and principles, and what she wore, transparent things included, belonged to civilization. So strong was that association, and so pretty was the sight, that even now, years later, belonging to a different age and, as it were, to a different country, I began to slip unwittingly into the old mode.
The first thing I asked her as I stood pressed to her nutria coat on the deck of the overcrowded vaporetto was her opinion of Montale's [Motets], recently published. The familiar flash of her pearls, thirty-two strong, echoed by the sparkle on the rim of her hazel pupil and promoted to the scattered silver of the Milky Way overhead, was all I got in response, but that was a lot. To ask, in the heart of civilization, about its latest was perhaps a tautology.
Perhaps I was simply being impolite, as the author wasn't a local. The boat's slow progress through the night was like the passage of a coherent thought through the subconscious. On both sides, knee-deep in pitch-black water, stood the enormous carved chests of dark palazzi filled with unfathomable treasuresmost likely gold, judging from the low-intensity yellow electric glow emerging now and then from cracks in the shutters. The nutria-clad sight next to me began explaining in a somewhat hushed voice that she was taking me to my hotel, where she had reserved a room, that perhaps we'd meet tomorrow or the day after, that she'd like to introduce me to her husband and her sister.
I liked the hush in her voice, though it fit the night more than the message, and replied in the same conspiratorial tones that it's always a pleasure to meet potential relatives. That was a bit strong for the moment, but she laughed, in the same muffled way, putting a hand in a brown leather glove to her lips. The passengers around us, mostly dark-haired, whose number was responsible for our proximity, were immobile and equally subdued in their occasional remarks to one another, as though the content of their exchanges was also of an intimate nature.
Then the sky was momentarily obscured by the huge marble parenthesis of a bridge, and suddenly everything was flooded with light. There is something primordial about traveling on water, even for short distances. You are informed that you are not supposed to be there not so much by your eyes, ears, nose, palate, or palm as by your feet, which feel odd acting as an organ of sense.
Water unsettles the principle of horizontally, especially at night, when its surface resembles pavement. No matter how solid its substitutethe deckunder your feet, on water you are somewhat more alert than ashore, your faculties are more poised. On water, for instance, you never get absentminded the way you do in the street: your legs keep you and your wits in constant check, as if you were some kind of compass.
Well, perhaps what sharpens your wits while traveling on water is indeed a distant, roundabout echo of the good old chordates. At any rate, your sense of the other on water gets keener, as though heightened by a common as well as a mutual danger. The loss of direction is a psychological category as much as it is a navigational one. Be that as it may, for the next ten minutes, although we were moving in the same direction, I saw the arrow of the only person I knew in that city and mine diverge by at least 45 degrees.
Most likely because this part of the Canal Grande was better lit. We disembarked at the Accademia landing, prey to firm topography and the corresponding moral code. After a short meander through narrow lanes, I was deposited in the lobby of a somewhat cloistered [pensione], kissed on the cheekmore in the capacity of the Minotaur, I felt, than the valiant heroand wished good night.
Then my Ariadne vanished, leaving behind a fragrant thread of her expensive was it Shalimar? I stared for a while at the furniture. Then I hit the sack. That's how I found myself for the first time in this city. As it turned out, there was nothing particularly auspicious or ominous about this arrival of mine.
If that night portended anything at all, it was that I'd never possess this city; but then I never had any such aspiration. As a beginning, I think this episode will do, although as far as the-only-person-I-knew-in-this-city was concerned, it rather marked the end of our acquaintance.
I saw her two or three times subsequently during that stay in Venice; and indeed I was introduced to her sister and to her husband. The former turned out to be a lovely woman: as tall and slender as my Ariadne and perhaps even brighter, but more melancholy and, for all I could tell, even more married.
The latter, whose appearance completely escapes my memory for reasons of redundancy, was a scumbag of an architect, of that ghastly postwar persuasion that has done more harm to the European skyline than any Luftwaffe. In Venice, he defiled a couple of wonderful [campi] with his edifices, one of which was naturally a bank, since this sort of human animal loves a bank with absolutely narcissistic fervor, with the longing of an effect for its cause.
Joseph Brodsky: no stranger to watery cities. The hoped-for affaire did not materialise. However, Brodsky did fall in love. Watermark is his love letter to Venice. Brodsky was no stranger to watery cities. He was born in Leningrad in just before it was besieged by the German army. To survive those days was a miracle, but his childhood left him with visceral memories.
In praise of older books: Watermark by Joseph Brodsky (1992)
Watermark: An Essay on Venice by Joseph Brodsky – review