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.