Joseph Brodsky, the Incredible Star: An Interview with Ellendea Proffer Teasley

Laura Maylene Walter
September 11, 2017
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Joseph Brodsky and Ellendea Proffer, 1970

Let’s be honest: as writers, we sometimes fantasize about writing a bestseller. We daydream that the book we worked so hard to craft goes on to receive national press and effusive reviews. We imagine facing our fans at book signings, making the media circuit, and most of all, earning the satisfaction that comes from knowing our words connected with a sea of readers.

Now let’s change that fantasy a little. Imagine that you manage to achieve all of this—just not in your own country or in your native language. This is essentially what Ellendea Proffer Teasley experienced when her memoir, Brodsky Among Us, was published to great acclaim in Russia in 2015. Originally written in English, the manuscript was translated into Russian almost at once and released not in Proffer Teasley’s US homeland but in Russia, where it found its place among scores of Russian readers eager for insight into Brodsky’s life and work.

Those readers turned to the right book. Proffer Teasley and her late husband, Carl Proffer, deepened their existing friendship with Joseph Brodsky after the poet was expelled from the Soviet Union and emigrated to the United States in 1972. The memoir reveals how Brodsky escaped to America; how he overcame culture shock and became the first Russian-born Poet Laureate of the United States; and how he went on to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. But Brodsky Among Us is not a recounting of Brodsky’s biography so much as it is a memoir of the author’s intimate and honest knowledge of this celebrated poet.

Despite its critical and commercial success in Russia, Brodsky Among Us was not available in English until this year. I learned of the book’s recent US release through my work at Cleveland Public Library, where Proffer Teasley is scheduled to speak on October 2nd at 6:00 pm. In advance of this event, I asked Proffer Teasley about the process of writing and publishing Brodsky Among Us.

Did you write Brodsky Among Us with the intention of publishing it in Russia, here in the United States, or both? How would you describe the memoir’s publishing evolution?

A series of little and big events led to me writing this book. I was in the middle of a big project and trying to avoid working on it when I read a quote about a poet who was a poet twenty-four hours a day, and I thought of Joseph. I had seen that he was becoming an idol in Russia, and that there were very few people left who knew him both in his Russian and American lives, and that a lot of them were giving a false picture of his character. Sometimes memoirists attacked him brutally, but more often they made him a mythical figure. I understood that I was not always going to remember the details, so I decided, almost against my will, to write about what my then-husband Carl and I had seen during our lifelong friendship with him. I was very aware that many people did not want me to give a realistic picture of this great poet and fascinating man, not to mention that Joseph himself would not have wanted me to write a memoir. So it was a difficult process, full of doubt. I had no thought of where I would publish and certainly no idea that Russian publishers would translate the manuscript.

The Russian publication of Brodsky Among Us has been described as a “sensation.” Can you describe the book’s reception in Russia and how that reception aligned with your expectations? More generally, how would you compare the Russian and American publishing experiences?

In Russia, I am a somewhat famous figure due to the books published by Ardis Publishers from 1971-2002, when the company ceased to exist. [Proffer Teasley and her late husband founded Ardis together in 1971 to publish the “lost library” of the Russian twentieth century, books that were erased from history by the Soviets and physically destroyed.] As I was writing the Brodsky memoir, a glossy Moscow magazine sent someone to interview me in California. They asked what I was working on now, and I told them it was a memoir about Brodsky. Immediately upon publication of that interview I got calls and emails from Russian publishers. Luckily Corpus Publishers wanted the book and offered to have a famous translator do it, Viktor Golyshev, who happened to be an old friend of Brodsky’s. They translated and published this book incredibly quickly, and it became a bestseller even before I went for a PR tour in 2015. I expected nothing because Russian audiences are not usually interested in what an American might say about their most famous poet, but it was standing room only at the events. I had a brilliant PR team and a wonderful publisher, so all of that was a wonderful surprise. The surprise for the Russian audiences was that despite the fact that I have no Russian background, I spoke in Russian. . .

The American story was very different. Since the memoir is short, deeply personal, and not meant as a biography, this presented marketing problems. Many well-known literary people read it in manuscript and told me they stayed up all night reading it, but I did not find a publisher until 2016, and the book came out this year with Academic Studies Press. Some of the problem is that I am as not as well-known here now, and certainly Brodsky is not the incredible star here he is in Russia.

Cynthia Haven’s review in The Nation claims that the Brodsky depicted in your memoir “is both darker and brighter than the one we thought we knew.” Can you elaborate on that interpretation? How do you think this book might change some readers’ perceptions of Brodsky?

The phrase “darker and brighter” in the Nation review is, I think, about what the main value of this work is: Carl Proffer and I loved Joseph like a brother, helped him get to America, found him work, became his publishers, and we saw both the best and the worst of his character. Like most creative people, he could be wonderful, and he could be unbearable. As I said to Russian audiences, how is it an accomplishment if an angel writes great poetry? Isn’t it a greater achievement if a flawed human being like all the rest of us manages to write poems that go deep into a culture? Those who have read the book, especially those who knew Joseph as Cynthia Haven did, said they got a much deeper understanding of him and the world he came from.

In addition to sharing your own insight and memories surrounding Brodsky, this book includes some sections written by your late husband, Carl Proffer. Can you describe this process—why you included these excerpts, and how you went about weaving them into the larger narrative?

A Carl Proffer was dying of cancer at age 46, he wrote a book called The Widows of Russia (now available on Amazon as an ebook). Originally that book was to contain his notes for a memoir of Joseph based on our diaries and notes we took during very dangerous moments in Leningrad as Joseph was deciding to leave. Joseph forbade me to publish this section. These notes were not really written. They were not edited (Carl was in the last months of his life), but they contained very valuable details, and where I felt they contributed to a truthful account, I included them. We were witnesses to many things that later were turned into myths that bore no relation to reality. It seemed important to include these things. I did not know that the Russians would also translate The Widows of Russia and include the Brodsky section. . .

What was the most challenging part of writing Brodsky Among Us? What part of the process did you find most enjoyable or affirming?

I cannot say that I enjoyed writing this book, it was torn out of me. What I enjoyed were the Russian audiences in 2015 and in April of this year. They waited in long lines to get their books signed and thanked me for existing. This was all deeply moving, especially since the audiences tended to be young. Besides being their favorite poet, Brodsky is a model of how to withstand oppression, among many other things, I think.

You and your late husband founded Ardis Publishers in 1971 to publish Russian literature. How did that experience inform your later writing and publishing ventures?

In order to write this book I had to live a life split between Russian and America, so without Ardis many things would be unthinkable. That I became friends with Nadezhda Mandelstam, Nabokov, Aksyonov, Brodsky, and many others was the gift of this work. I am the last person alive who had dinner with Borges, Nabokov, and Brodsky. This seems amazing to me.

What advice would you offer other writers who might be working on memoirs in a similar vein to Brodsky Among Us?

I have no advice for those writing memoirs; everyone enters through their own door.

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