Book Review: Joseph Brodsky’s Watermark (a Memoir on Venice)

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.

The above quote is how Joseph Brodsky describes the city of Venice in his brilliant collection of essays titled Watermark. I needed to take a fictional break recently, and I wanted to read something short, and Watermark turned out to be a wonderful (actually: an incredible) selection. The book is only one hundred thirty pages, comprised of forty-eight chapters, each recalling a specific episode from Joseph Brodsky’s many visits to this ephemeral city. But what this book lacked in length, it more than made up for in poignancy and enchantment. Watermark is a beautiful, confessional meditation on the relation between water and land, between light and dark, between past and present, between the living and the inanimate, dreams and achievements.

It’s hard to compare Watermark to other books, because I think it should stand as a classic on its own. But if I had to make a connection: it is the lyricism of The Great Gatsby, the mystique of Invisible Cities, and the confessional of the Notes from the Underground.

In the passages I highlight below, pay special attention to the adjectives and the vigor of the punctuation (the comma, the semicolon, and especially the em dash). If you’re short on time, the parts that I bold are especially worth reading.

Notable Quotes and Passages

The brilliant first sentence of Watermark. It entices you in:

Many moons ago the dollar was 870 lire and I was thirty-two.

Brodsky’s description of travel:

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.

On arriving to Venice:

It all felt like arriving in the provinces, in some unknown, insignificant spot—possibly one’s own birthplace—after 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.

I liked this paragraph about finding an interest in someone based on their reading tastes:

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.

Brodsky makes some compelling, deep analogies (this is a remarkable passage):

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 treasures—most likely gold, judging from the low-intensity yellow electric glow emerging now and then from cracks in the shutters. The overall feeling was mythological, cyclopic, to be precise: I’d entered that infinity I beheld on the steps of the stazione and now was moving among its inhabitants, along the bevy of dormant cyclopses reclining in black water, now and then raising and lowering an eyelid.

Brodsky mentions that when one is one water, he feels more alert:

Water unsettles the principle of horizontality, especially at night, when its surface resembles pavement. No matter how solid its substitute—the deck—under 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.

There are a number of passages where Brodsky is openly critical and mocking, such as this description of an architect:

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.

I found this confessional paragraph reminiscent of the introduction in Notes from the Underground by the unnamed narrator:

I say this here and now to save the reader disillusionment. I am not a moral man (though I try to keep my conscience in balance) or a sage; I am neither an aesthete nor a philosopher. I am but a nervous man, by circumstance and by my own deeds; but I am observant…I have no principles; all I’ve got is nerves. What follows, therefore, has to do with the eye rather than with convictions, including those as to how to run a narrative. One’s eye precedes one’s pen, and I resolve not to let my pen lie about its position.

Brodsky made numerous comparisons to art in Watermark:

Scanning this city’s face for seventeen winters, I should by now be capable of pulling a credible Poussin-like job: of painting this place’s likeness, if not at four seasons, then at four times of day.

Reflecting on the narcissism of Venice:

A reflection cannot possibly care for a reflection. [Editor’s note: there are multiple reflections to which Brodsky is referring to]. The city is narcissistc enough to turn your mind into an amalgam, unburdening it of its depths. With their similar effect on your purse, hotels and pensiones therefore feel very congenial. After a two-week stay—even at off-season rates—you become both broke and selfless, like a Buddhist monk.

Brodsky explains why gifts sell so well in Venice (I won’t disagree, as I spent hundreds of dollars in gift shops around the city when I visited in 2006). This is a brilliant explanation:

No, bipeds go ape about shopping and dressing-up in Venice for reasons not exactly practical; they do so because the city, as it were, challenges them. We all harbor all sorts of misgivings about the flaws in our appearance, anatomy, about the imperfection of our very features. What one sees in this city at every steep, turn, perspective, and dead end worsens one’s complexes and insecurities. That’s why one—a woman especially, but a man also—hits the stores as soon as one arrives here, and with a vengeance. The surrounding beauty is such that one instantly conceives of an incoherent animal desire to match it, to be on par. This has nothing to do with vanity or with the natural surplus of mirrors here, the main one being the very water. It is simply that the city offers bipeds a notion of visual superiority absent in their natural lairs, in their habitual surroundings. That’s why furs fly here, as do suede, silk, linen, wool, and every other kind of fabric.

Continuing the paragraph above, what happens when these tourists return home? I particularly like the use of scandalized here:

Upon returning home, folks stare in wonderment at what they’ve acquired, knowing full well that there is no place in their native realm to flaunt these acquisitions without scandalizing the natives.

This description gave me goosebumps. Absolutely stunning (and perhaps my favorite in all of Watermark):

You fling the window open and the room is instantly flooded with this outer, pearl-laden haze, which is part damp oxygen, part coffee and prayers.

On manipulating dreams (and sleep):

There are better ways, no doubt, to manipulate dreams, and no doubt a good case can be made for it being best done gastronomically.

On visual texture in Venice:

In any case, whichever comes first—reality or dream—one’s notion of afterlife in this city appears to be well taken care of by its clearly paradisaical visual texture. Sickness alone, no matter how grave it may be, won’t avail you here of an infernal vision. You’d need an extraordinary neurosis, or a comparable accumulation of sins, or both, to fall prey to nightmares on these premises.

Brodsky explains his trade, his passion:

By profession, or rather by the cumulative effect of what I’ve been doing over the years, I am a writer; by trade, however, I am an academic, a teacher. The winter break at my school is five weeks long, and that’s what in part explains the timing of my pilgrimages here—but only in part. What Paradise and vacation have in common is that you have to pay for both, and the coin is your previous life. Fittingly then, my romance with this city—with this city in this particular season—started long ago: long before I developed marketable skills, long before I could afford my passion…

Brodsky offers advice on composition:

[W]hat makes a narrative good is not the story itself but what follows what. Unwittingly, I came to associate this principle with Venice…

A beautiful description of water:

It is as though space, cognizant here more than anyplace else of its inferiority to time, answers it with the only property time doesn’t possess: with beauty. And that’s why water takes this answer, twists it, wallops and shreds it, but ultimately carries it by and large intact off into the Adriatic.

A sublime description of the fog in Venice (and the city’s transformation):

But once is enough, especially in winter, when the local fog, the famous nebbia, renders this place more extemporal than any palace’s inner sanctum, by obliterating not only reflections but everything that has a shape: buildings, people, collonades, bridges, statues. Boat services are canceled, airplanes neither arrive nor take off for weeks, stores are closed, and mail ceases to litter one’s threshold. The effect is as though some raw hand had turned all those enfilades inside out and wrapped the lining around the city. Left, right, up, and down swap places, and you can find your way around only if you are a native or given a cicerone. The fog is thick, blinding, immobile…In short, a time for self-oblivion, induced by a city that has ceased to be seen. Unwittingly, you take your cue from it, especially if, like it, you’ve got no company. Having failed to be born here, you at least can take some pride in sharing its invisibility.

I loved this mathematical anecdote about Brodsky’s knowledge of Italian:

My Italian, wildly oscillating around its firm zero, also remained a deterrent. It always got better after a month or so, but then I’d be boarding the plance that would remove me from the opportunity to use it for another yet.

What the winter light in Venice does to the eye:

The winter light in this city! It has the extraordinary property of enhancing your eye’s power of resolution to the point of microscopic precision—the pupil, especially when it is of the gray or mustard-and-honey variety, humbles any Hasselblad lens and develops your subsequent memories to a National Geographic sharpness.

A description of a sunset in Venice:

Reliefs become suppler, columns more rotund, capitals curlier, cornices more resolute, spires starker, niches deeper, disciples more draped, angels airborne.

The weirdest confession in Watermark:

And with my back to Fondamente and San Michele, hugging the wall of the hospital, almost rubbing it with my left shoulder and squinting at the sun, I suddenly felt: I am a cat. A cat that has just had fish. Had anyone addressed me at that moment, I would have meowed. I was absolutely, animally happy.

In another instance, Brodsky reminisces on the eye:

Eyesight is the instrument of adjustment to an environment which remains hostile no matter how well you have adjusted to it. The hostility of the environment grows proportionately to the length of your presence in it, and I am speaking not of old age only. In short, the eye is looking for safety. That explains the eye’s predilection for art in general and Venetian art in particular. That explains the eye’s appetite for beauty, as well as beauty’s own existence. For beauty is solace, since beauty is safe. It doesn’t threaten you with murder or make you sick…When the eye fails to find beauty—alias solace—it commands the body to create it, or, failing that, adjusts itself to perceive virtue in ugliness. In the first instance it relies on human genius; in the second, it draws on one’s reservoir of humility.

Some trivia about Venice:

There are no doges anymore, and the 80,000 dwellers of these 118 islands [of Venice] are guided not by the granduer of some particular vision but by their immediate, often nearsighted concerns, by their desire to make ends meet.

I absolutely loved this reference to Italo Calvino (side note: if you haven’t read Invisible Cities, I highly, highly recommend it; it’s one of my favorite books) in describing Venice:

[T]he only thing that could beat this city of water would be a city built in the air. That was a Calvinoesque idea, and who knows, as an upshot of space travel, that may yet come to pass.

On riding gondolas in Venice (I have to agree with the exorbitant price: something like fifty euros for twenty minutes of leisure!). Brodsky’s insight into who the gondolas should appeal to (the young) is spot-on:

The one thing the locals never do is ride gondolas. To begin with, a gondola ride is pricey. Only foreign tourists, and well-off ones at that, can afford it. That’s what explains the median age of gondola passengers: a septuagenarian can shell out one-tenth of a schoolteacher’s salary without wincing. The sight of these decrepit Romeos and their rickety Juliets is invariably sad and embarrassing, not to say ghastly. For the young, i.e., for those who this sort of thing would be appropriate, a gondola is as far out of reach as a five-star hotel. Economy, of course, reflects demography; yet that is doubly sad, because beauty, instead of promising the world, gets reduced to being its reward.

Above all else, Venice is a city on and of water. This last passage that I quote describes the timelessness, the ubiquity, and the connection of Venice with its other half:

For water, too, is choral in more ways than one. It is the same water that carried the Crusaders, the merchants, St. Mark’s relics, Turks, every kind of cargo, military, or pleasure vessel; above all, it reflected everybody who ever lived, not to mention stayed, in this city, everybody who ever strolled or waded its streets in the way you do now. Small wonder that it looks muddy green in the daytime and pitch black at night, rivaling the firmament. A miracle that, rubbed the right and the wrong way for over a millenium, it doesnt have holes in it, that it is still H2O, though you would never drink it; that it still rises. It really does look like musical sheets, frayed at the edges, constantly played, coming to you in tidal scores, in bars of canals with innumerable obbligati of bridges, mullioned windows, or curved crownings of Cuducci cathedrals, not to mention the violin necks of gondolas. In fact, the whole city, especially at night, resembles a gigantic orchestra, with dimly lit music strands of palazzi, with a restless chorus of waves, with the falsetto of a star in the winter sky. The music is, of course, greater than the band, and no hand can turn the page.

Absolutely riveting. If that passage alone isn’t enough to convince you to read Watermark, I don’t know what is.*

On Joseph Brodsky

I’m willing to bet that most who are reading this post have never heard of Watermark, and perhaps have never heard of Joseph Brodsky. But he’s one of Russia’s most famous authors.Born in 1940 in Leningrad, he began writing poetry at the age of eighteen.

In 1963 (when he was just 23), Brodsky was arrested and a year later charged with social parasitism by the Soviet authorities. What follows is one of the most famous trial testimonies in the Soviet era (recoreded in shorthand by journalist Friega Vigdorova):

Judge: And what is your profession in general?

Brodsky: Poet translator.

Judge: Who recognized you as a poet? Who enrolled you in the ranks of poets?

Brodsky: No one. And who enrolled me in the ranks of humanity?

Judge: Did you study this?

Brodsky: This?

Judge: To become a poet. You did not try to finish high school where they prepare, where they teach?

Brodsky: I didn’t think you could get this from school.

Judge: How then?

Brodsky: I think that it . . . comes from God.

For his “crimes,” Brodsky was sentenced to five years of internal exile with obligation for physical work; he served 18 months in the Archangelsk region. His sentence was commuted in 1965. Brodsky emigrated to the United States in 1972 as an involuntary exile from the Soviet Union.

Brodsky has been Poet-in-Residence and Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan, Queens College, Smith College, Columbia University, and Cambridge University in England. He currently is Five College Professor of Literature at Mount Holyoke College. In 1978, Brodsky was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters at Yale University, and on May 23, 1979, he was inducted as a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1981, Brodsky was a recipient of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s award for his works of “genius”.

In 1987, Joseph Brodsky was awarded The Nobel Prize in Literature “for an all-embracing authorship, imbued with clarity of thought and poetic intensity.” If you’ve read the passages from Watermark above, this is a fitting description.

Joseph Brodsky died in New York City on January 28, 1996. For Brodsky, as Watermark attests, Venice was where his heart was forged, and where Brodsky’s spirit endures: he was buried at Isola di San Michele cemetery in Venice.


Note: *as of this writing, there are only two (!) copies of Watermark available on I hope that their stock replenishes soon… If you enjoyed this review, please consider purchasing the book via this Amazon affiliate link.

Reference: Remembering Joseph Brodsky at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Joseph Brodsky’s Watermark (a Memoir on Venice)

  1. Thank you for posting this, you are right: i am one of those who has never heard about this book and his author. But I was amazed by the way he managed to describe my beautiful city! Thank you for sharing with us!!!

  2. I can’t actually know the way I finished upward in this article, on the other hand assumed this particular blog post was very good. I can’t acknowledge whom that you are on the other hand absolutely you will definitely a well-known writer if you ever are certainly not already. Regards!

  3. Thank you for this post. I’ve just returned from my third trip to Venice and am going to order a copy of this book right now. Some of the passages you quote brought tears to my eyes.

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