Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Joseph Brodsky’s Less Than One is a collection of essays, most of which were written in English. That in itself would be unremarkable, save that they were written by a major Russian poet, one who won the 1987 Nobel Prize in Literature, who, while continuing to write verse in his native language, switched to prose in a tongue he had learned only as an adult. Brodsky was well established as a poet by the time he took up prose. His work was eagerly read in the Soviet Union despite the fact that practically none of it had been published there. It had, however, been published in the United States and translated into a number of languages. It was and is considered “difficult” by some: full of classical allusion side by side with contemporary slang and adroit rhyme and inventive metrics that push at the boundaries of the traditional forms.

The reason for Brodsky’s switch was in part geographical, which in modern terms has come to mean political as well; in 1972, he found himself exiled from his homeland, apparently forever. Moreover, he found himself in the United States and thus bound to earn a living in an English-speaking world. Yet the reasons Brodsky himself gives are less flatly pragmatic: It was not out of necessity, as for Joseph Conrad, ambition, as for Vladimir Nabokov, or a wish for estrangement, as for Samuel Beckett, that he took to composing in a foreign language but out of the desire to bring himself closer to W.H. Auden—whom he considers “the finest mind of the twentieth century.” That is quite a claim both for Auden and his admirer, but it is typical of Brodsky—a combination of private modesty and intellectual audacity. Any imitation is a stage long since past, however, and what these essays show is an original and independent mind at work—at work on his fellow poets, on Russian literature and European culture, on his own past and his city’s.

The pieces in Less Than One are arranged in the order of their writing, though they need not be read that way. Some were written as speeches or class lectures, such as “A Commencement Address” or “On ‘September 1, 1939,’ by W.H....

(The entire section is 880 words.)