No. 1


Bengt Jangfeldt 
Joseph Brodsky’s Rooms

Almost every summer from 1988 to 1994 Joseph Brodsky spent a few
weeks in Sweden, and many of his works – poetry, prose, plays – 
were written or finished here. The book about Venice, for instance 
(Watermark), he worked on in a corner room of the Hotel Reisen, 
with the Baltic sea and the sailing ship af Chapman before his eyes: 
hence the salmon that “leap out of the water to greet you”.

 The room at the Reisen was an ordinary hotel room, but rather big. 
Not too big, but on the borderline of what Brodsky would accept. Yet 
he could work here; perhaps  the suffocating abundance of space was 
compensated for by the view of the element he loved the most: water, 
this form of condensed time.

 Rooms, the size and shape of rooms, were constantly on Brodsky’s 
mind – since he was constantly in need of provisional spaces to be able
to work. He spent the summer in Europe, escaping the humid heat of 
New York, so perilous for somebody with a heart condition. Those of 
his friends who, year after year, did their best to try to satisfy the poet’s
need to work in peace – in London, Paris, Rome, or Stockholm – 
know how difficult it was. Even for someone who thought he knew 
something about Brodsky’s preferences it was impossible to foresee 
how he would react to the proposed square meters. Water, one would 
think, a smashing view, zinc-grey waves – in theory everything squared;
yet he would say no or could not make up his mind, and the project 
petered out in the sand.

 A couple of summers he stayed as long as he could, i.e., as long as he 
could afford – usually a few weeks – at the Mälardrottningen, a hotel 
boat anchored in the Old Town. The cabin was small, maybe a bit too 
small, but in this case the clucking proximity to water more than 
compensated for the obvious lack of space.

 Two summers in a row he stayed in different apartments around 
Karlaplan, a residential area in the centre of Stockholm. In one of 
them, he retired to the maid’s room, although the vacationing owners 
had put the whole apartment at his disposal. It felt better that way, and 
in addition the World Championship in football was in full swing and 
the TV set stood in that part of the flat. The other was a one-room 
apartment, and it nearly ended in disaster right at the threshold: the 
walls were painted an ascetic white and decorated with the sort of 
“modern” art that Brodsky despised: “This century’s stuff”, which has 
only one function, “to show what a cheap, self-assertive, ungenerous, 
one-dimensional lot we have become”. In spite of this, he stayed for 
over a month and wrote, among other things, the play “Democracy!”

 That he stayed so long was partly due to the fact that, with time, the 
interior began to fascinate him: in this cross between a mental institution
and a museum of modern art he found an explanation of the quiet 
Nordic lunacy he saw manifested in the films of Ingmar Bergman. But it
was also an expression of an important trait in Brodsky’s psyche: after 
some time, he domesticated all spaces where he lived, and moving out 
was always a painful process for him, especially if the work went well. 
In any case, it was not because of a lack of alternatives – after all, there
were always hotel rooms – or of delicacy: a person who has fled the 
palace of Fiat boss Agnelli has no problem abandoning a one-room 
apartment in Stockholm.

 One year there was a summerhouse at lake Vättern; but most of all he 
preferred Stockholm and its archipelago: the same waves and the same
clouds that had earlier visited his home realm, or vice versa; the same 
herring – if only sweeter – and the same vessel-widening – if only 
bitterer – vodka.*  In a house on the island Torö, with a mind-boggling 
view of the razor-blade-sharp horizon, the poem “Lecture for a 
Symposium” with its aesthetic-geographic credo was written in 1989:

But having loosened itself from the body, 
the eye prefers to settle somewhere 
in Italy, Holland, or Sweden.

 But, as said, it mustn’t be too big, the space where he was to live and 
work. If there was a smaller house on the property, he chose that. And in our flat Brodsky immediately pointed out his favourite space: a dark 
balcony facing the courtyard, about the size of the cabin at the 
Mälardrottningen, perhaps a bit smaller.

 In any case, smaller than ten square meters, the size of the space that 
had for all future defined Brodsky’s view of the ideal room. These ten 
square meters were his part of the “room and a half” which he had 
shared with his parents in a communal flat in central Leningrad and that
he has described in an essay – one of the best childhood accounts ever
in English or in Russian literature. Here he lived until he was exiled in 
1972, and here his parents died, in the absence of their son, some ten 
years later: Liteiny pospect 24, flat 28.

 “My half”, he wrote, “was connected to their room by two large, 
 nearly-ceiling-high arches which I constantly tried to fill with various
combinations of bookshelves and suitcases, in order to separate myself
from my parents, in order to obtain a degree of privacy. One can 
speak only about degrees, because the height and the width of those 
two arches, plus the Moorish configuration of their upper edge, ruled 
out any notion of complete success.”

The construction of barricades, initiated at the age of fifteen, intensified
as the books and the hormones made their demands. By reshaping a 
bookshelf – he removed the back but kept the doors – Brodsky 
created another entrance to his half: a visitor had to make his way 
through two doors and a curtain. And to conceal the nature of what 
was going on behind the barricade he used to play classical music on 
his record player. His parents learned to hate Bach, but the musical 
curtain fulfilled its mission and “a Marianne could bare more than just 
her breast”. When, with the time, the music was supplemented by the 
rattling sound of an “Underwood”, his parents’ attitude became more 

 “That was,” writes Brodsky. “my Lebensraum.” His mother cleaned 
it, his father passed through it on his way in and out of his darkroom, 
and sometimes one of his parents would seek refuge in his ragged 
armchair after some verbal battle. “Other than that, these ten square 
meters were mine, and they were the best ten square meters I’ve ever 

 Brodsky never again saw either his parents or this Lebensraum, which
he almost maniacally tried to re-create in other places throughout the 
rest of his life. He never again saw the room because he never returned
to his hometown; and he never returned to his hometown because his 
thinking – and acting – was linear. “A person moves only in one 
direction. And only from. From a place, from the thought that entered 
his head, from himself.” In short, because from the age of thirty-two he 
was a nomad – a Vergilian hero, doomed never to return home.

 Yet he was on his way many times, at least in his thoughts. When, after
the Nobel Prize and, especially, after the fall of the Tyranny, it became
possible to return, he was often asked why he didn’t. His arguments 
were manifold: he didn’t want to come back to his home country as a 
tourist. Or: he didn’t want to go on an invitation from official 
institutions. The last argument was: “The best part of me is already 
there: my poetry.”

Photo: © Bengt Jangfeldt

 Nevertheless, he came back. In January, 1991, a symposium about 
Brodsky was arranged in Leningrad. One afternoon we made an 
excursion to the house with the room and a half, and I took pictures 
that I planned to send him to New York. This will make him happy, I 
thought: pictures of his old friends before his Lebensraum. For almost
as strong as the poet’s nomad instinct was its opposite: nostalgia.

 Half of the roll had been shot in Stockholm, and I finished it in 
Leningrad. When it was developed, the pictures turned out to be 
double-exposed. And not one or two, as might easily have happened, 
but all of them.

 The photos taken in Stockholm show Joseph and his wife with my 
family, and these had been projected on the pictures from Leningrad. 
On one picture he stands before flat 28, on another he looks at the 
balcony of the room and a half, with the Cathedral of the Saviour in the 
background. In this way, Brodsky returned to his ideal space; if it 
happened by means of a technical mishap, it was perhaps because he 
was the son of a photographer.

 After spending some time trying to understand what had happened, I 
drew the only reasonable conclusion, i.e., that somewhere in the middle
the film had changed direction and returned, frame by frame, to the first
exposure – to the room and a half. In other words, the  film had made 
the movement that Brodsky himself was incapable of: back.

* Broskys’ favourite Swedish vodka was Bäska droppar (”Bitter drops”), made on wormwood.




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