Speaking for Language

On Grief and Reason: Essays

by Joseph Brodsky
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 412 pp., $24.00

Joseph Brodsky
Joseph Brodsky; drawing by David Levine

In 1986 Joseph Brodsky published Less than One, a book of essays. Some of the essays were translated from the Russian; others he wrote directly in English, showing that his command of the language was growing to be near-native.

In two cases, writing in English had a symbolic importance to Brodsky: in a heartfelt homage to W. H. Auden, who greatly helped him after he was forced to leave Russia in 1972, and whom he regards as the greatest poet in English of the century; and in a memoir of his parents, whom he had to leave behind in Leningrad, and who, despite repeated petitions to the authorities, were never granted permission to visit him. He chose English, he says, to honor them in a language of freedom.

Less than One is a powerful book in its own right, worthy to stand beside Brodsky’s principal collections of verse: A Part of Speech (1980) and To Urania (1988). It includes magisterial essays on Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, and Marina Tsvetaeva, the poets of the generation before Brodsky to whom he feels closest, as well as two brief masterpieces of autobiographical recreation: the memoir of his parents, and the title essay, on growing up amid the stupefying boredom of Leningrad in the 1950s. There are also travel essays: a trip to Istanbul, for instance, gives rise to thoughts on the Second and Third Romes, Constantinople/Byzantium, and Moscow, and hence on the meaning of the West to Westernizing Russians like himself. Finally, there are two virtuoso literary-critical essays in which he explicates (“unpacks”) individual poems that are particularly dear to him.

Now, nine years later, we have On Grief and Reason, which collects twenty-one essays, all but one written since 1986. Of these, some are without question on a par with the best of the earlier work. In “Spoils of War,” for instance—an essay classical in form, light in touch—Brodsky continues the amusing and sometimes poignant story of his youth, using those traces of the West—corned-beef cans and shortwave radios as well as movies and jazz—that found their way through the Iron Curtain to explore the meaning of the West to Russians. Given the imaginative intensity with which they pored over these artifacts, Brodsky suggests, Russians of his generation were “the real Westerners, perhaps the only ones.”

In his autobiographical journey, Brodsky has yet to arrive at the 1960s, the time of his notorious trial on charges of social parasitism and his sentencing to corrective labor in the Russian Far North. Perhaps he never will: a refusal to exhibit his wounds has always been one of his more admirable traits (“At all costs try to avoid granting yourself the status of the victim,” he advises an audience of students).

Other essays also continue where Less than One left off. The dialogue with Auden begun in “To Please a Shadow” is carried on in “Letter…

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