The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (2016)
Chapter 22. Joseph Brodsky’s prize
Autumn 1987, a sunny day. My wife and I are having lunch in a Chinese restaurant in Hampstead. Our one guest is Joseph Brodsky: Russian exile, former Soviet political prisoner, poet and to his many admirers the very soul of Russia. We have known Joseph off and on over a few years, but to be truthful we’re not quite sure why we’ve been recruited to entertain him today.
‘Whatever you do, don’t on any account let him drink or smoke,’ his London hostess, a lady of wide cultural connection, had warned. Despite recurrent heart problems, he was liable to do both. I said I would do my best but that, from the little I knew of Joseph, he would do whatever he wanted.
Joseph was not always an easy conversation partner, but over lunch he was unusually bonny, thanks not least to several large Black Label whiskies, consumed over my wife’s gentle protests, and several cigarettes, washed down with bird-like sips of chicken noodle soup.
Literary people seldom, in my experience, have much to say to one another beyond grousing about agents, publishers and readers - or certainly not to me - and it’s hard for me in retrospect to imagine what we talked about, since the gap between us could scarcely have been wider. I had read his poems, but felt I needed the handbook. I had delighted in his essays - particularly the one on Leningrad, where he was imprisoned - and was moved by his adoration of the late Akhmatova. But if I had to guess, I would say he hadn’t read a word I had written, and that he felt no obligation to.
Yet somehow we were having a jolly time until Joseph’s hostess, a tall, elegant woman, appeared in the doorway looking severe. My first thought was that, having run an eye over the bottles on our table and the clouds of cigarette smoke hanging over it, she was about to rebuke us for allowing Joseph to break loose. I quickly realized that she was trying to contain her excitement.
‘Joseph,’ she said breathlessly. ‘You have won the prize.’
Long silence while Joseph draws on his cigarette and scowls into the smoke.
‘What prize?’ he growls.
‘Joseph, you have won the Nobel Prize for Literature.’
Joseph’s hand closes quickly over his mouth as if to suppress something shocking it’s about to say. He appeals to me with his eyes as if for help: as well he might, because neither my wife nor I had the smallest notion that he was in the running for the Nobel, let alone that today was the day of the announcement.
I ask his hostess the obvious question:
‘How do you know?’
‘Because we have Scandinavian journalists on the doorstep now, Joseph, and they wish to congratulate you, and interview you. Joseph!’
Joseph’s pained eyes are still appealing to me. Do something, they seem to be saying. Get me out of this. I turn again to his hostess:
‘Maybe the Scandinavian journalists are interviewing everybody on the shortlist. Not just the winner. All of them.’
There is a public telephone in the corridor. His hostess knows that Joseph’s American publisher, Roger Straus, has flown to London to be on hand for this moment. A woman of decision, she promptly rings his hotel and asks for him. When she rings off, she is smiling.
‘You must come home now, Joseph,’ she says gently, and touches his arm.
Joseph takes a last loving pull of his Scotch and with painful slowness rises to his feet. He embraces his hostess and receives her congratulations. My wife and I add ours. The four of us stand on the sunny pavement. Joseph and I are face to face. For a moment I feel I am the prisoner’s friend before he is taken down to the cells of Leningrad. With Russian impetuosity, he throws his arms round me, then with his hands on my shoulders, shoves me back and lets me see the tears forming in his eyes.
‘Now for a year of being glib,’ he declares, then obediently allows himself to be taken off to face his interrogators.