Joseph Brodsky is considered by many contemporary critics to be not only the finest poet currently writing in Russian but also one of the preeminent living poets. A Soviet Jewish exile since 1972, Brodsky has been poet-in-residence at several American universities, notably the University of Michigan and Columbia University. Less Than One is a generous collection of his essays on such Russian poets as Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Osip Mandelstam; the Russian prose writers Fyodor Dostoevski and Andrey Platonov; the Western poets W. H. Auden, Constantine Cavafy, Dante, Eugenio Montale, and Derek Walcott; the cities of Constantinople, Alexandria, and Saint Petersburg/Leningrad; and two largely autobiographical memoirs serving as opening and concluding chapters: “Less Than One” and “In a Room and a Half.”
In “Less Than One,” Brodsky introduces two themes that he will weave through most of his work: his conviction that poetry is man’s supreme achievement (even a writer’s “biography is in his twists of language”), and his personal sense of estrangement, isolation, solitude (“the rest of my life can be viewed as a nonstop avoidance of its most importunate aspects”). His tone is candidly intimate, self-confident, sometimes astringent, but never self-pitying. His prose is energetic, incisive, often eloquent, occasionally grandiose.
Brodsky’s parents lived in a cramped apartment, termed “a room and a half,” in Saint Petersburg (he abhors the city’s Soviet name, Leningrad); the poverty, vigor, and cleanliness of his parents constitute his first memories. His father was a journalist and photographer who became a naval officer during World War II, then served as curator of the photography department in Saint Petersburg’s Navy Museum, which the boy would visit admiringly. The son recalls frequent walks home with his father from what he regarded as the city’s most magnificent edifice. He yearns for the splendor of Russia’s naval history, poor in victories but rich in “nobility of spirit”:
To this day, I think that the country would do a hell of a lot better if it had for its national banner not that foul double-headed imperial fowl or the vaguely masonic hammer-and-sickle, but the flag of the Russian Navy: our glorious, incomparably beautiful flag of St. Andrew: the diagonal blue cross against a virgin-white background.
In 1950, the poet’s father was demobilized because of a Stalinist decree that no Jew could rise higher than a commander’s rank in the navy. At the age of forty-seven, he began a new, unstable career as an itinerant free-lance photographer, while the mother earned an equally meager living as a council clerk. Joseph left his schooling at fifteen to contribute to the family’s income by working in a factory. After a year as a milling-machine operator, he became a hospital morgue attendant and began writing poems. When he applied for admission to a submarine academy, he was rejected because he was Jewish.
Brodsky’s reminiscences are vague about his subsequent imprisonment. All that is known is that he had already made a reputation as a talented poet when Soviet authorities summoned him before a Leningrad court in 1964 to answer to the charge of “social parasitism”: he was sentenced to three years’ servitude in a kolkhoz near the Arctic Circle. By 1972, the Soviets had decided that they had had enough of this rebellious individualist and exiled him to Vienna. From there, Carl Proffer, a professor of Russian literature at the University of Michigan, took Brodsky to W. H. Auden’s summer house in the Austrian village of Kirchstetten. Auden gave him shelter and friendship.
In a glowing essay, “To Please a Shadow,” Brodsky anoints Auden as “the greatest mind of the twentieth century” and states that in 1977, after only five years’ residence in the United States, he undertook to write in English to please the shadow of the Anglo-American poet who had died in 1973. Brodsky had been reading Auden’s work in “limp and listless” Russian translations since the early 1960’s; while hauling manure in Siberia he was confronted by Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”: Auden’s poetry, and photographs of his deeply lined face, kept him company during the difficult years before his ejection from his homeland. In the summer and fall of 1972, during what turned out to be Auden’s last year, the older poet became Brodsky’s mentor and sometime companion, even though Brodsky did not share Auden’s homosexual proclivities. The Russian’s last memory of Auden is of seeing him perched atop two volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary while dining at a high table: “I thought then that I was seeing the only man who had the right to use those volumes as his seat.”
Brodsky is the only Russian poet who has successfully achieved bilingual status after having been uprooted. Vladimir Nabokov’s is the only other remotely parallel history, but the latter spoke English since his childhood, and for him, as a writer of fiction, the challenge of adaptation was far easier. The first volume of Brodsky’s poems to appear in English was Elegy to John Donne and Other Poems (1967), translated by Nicolas Bethell, followed by Selected Poems (1973), translated by George L. Kline, and A Part of Speech (1980), which...