I have never had to suffer a Commencement Address, so don't know in what state of mind they're heard; torpor is my default setting for similar occasions, but presumably bushy-tailed expectation is the ideal. Either way, the students at Williams College in 1984 may have been a little discomfited by Joseph Brodsky's opening words: "No matter how daring or cautious you may choose to be, in the course of your life you are bound to come into direct physical contact with what's known as Evil." Well, I would have sat up sharply at that point; and would certainly have still been awake by the end, when he is arguing for a very careful reading indeed of the biblical exhortation to turn the other cheek: "In post-Tolstoy Russia, ethics based on this misquoted verse undermined a great deal of the nation's resolve in confronting the police state. What has followed is known all too well: six decades of turning the other cheek transformed the face of the nation into one big bruise, so that the state today, weary of its violence, simply spits at that face."
Well, as I have said more than once in this column and elsewhere, if you want good prose, ask a poet to write it, and that Brodsky wasn't even writing (or speaking) in his native language makes this even better somehow. He certainly has a gift for the striking phrase – and if you want some explanation of why poets write good prose, read "A Poet and Prose", in this collection.
Brodsky was a poet first, Anna Akhmatova's personally anointed successor at a very young age; shortly afterwards, he was denounced as a social parasite ("in velveteen trousers", if I recall the specifics of the denunciation correctly) and sent off to shovel manure in Archangel for a few years. This didn't stop him, and he was still reading Auden when it was certainly not profitable to do so. He made it over to America in his 30s, stopping off en route to see Auden himself, in the last months of his life. His account of their time and conversations together, in "To Please a Shadow", are generous and humble (in turn, he warmly endorses Auden's own humility, in his verse; but there must have been some personally, too. He sees, in Oxford: "In the dining hall the members of the faculty jostled him away from the food board").
These essays, collected and published in 1986, won the National Book Critics' award for criticism; and a year later he became the then youngest ever Nobel literary laureate. One hesitates to say that this collection actually won him that prize; but it certainly didn't hurt.
So, if there's an essential essay collection (actually, I think there are plenty), it's this one. Brodsky's prose zips along, even when you are reading about Mandelstam or Tsvetaeva or those other names which in this country are, I suspect, vague abstractions rather than representatives of well-known bodies of work. Brodsky seems to write as if conscious that he is addressing an audience which needs to be brought up to speed from a standing start, yet without insulting their intelligence. Exhibit A in this book would be his piece on Auden's most celebrated poem, and I'll let Seamus Heaney do the talking here: "There will be no greater paean to poetry as the breath and finer spirit of all human knowledge than Brodsky's line-by-line commentary on 'September 1, 1939', if commentary is a word applicable to writing so exultant, so grateful and so bracingly ex cathedra." (I have some reservations about Auden, and that poem, and wonder whether it isn't confused or self-contradictory; Brodsky is man enough to face up to these questions.)
His evocations of life in Soviet Russia should be compulsory reading. He evokes not so much horrors as the quotidian, grinding strictures: the shared bathroom arrangements among families (you could tell who was in the toilet from the volume of their farts; and what they'd had for dinner), and what it's like when it gets to -25 degrees in St Petersburg, and the glass is still dropping.
Less Than OneBy Joseph Brodsky First published in 1987.
Russian literature is the big kahuna, and anyone wanting to tackle it has a lot of reading to do. So I will suggest something subversive. (Subversion, after all, is very Russian.) Cut corners.
Jump to 1987, the year Joseph Brodsky won a Nobel Prize for his collection of literary and autobiographical essays "Less Than One." From there work backwards, through one man's exile from Russia and his awareness that he will never again see his parents. Walk through a family's cramped communal apartment, and though so many remembered fragments that never entirely amass to what is stored in a memory. Imagine the countless others who lived in such apartments, grasping at fragments of memories.
To do so is to understand life in Soviet-era Leningrad, and perhaps life anywhere one is not entirely free.
A person is, in Brodsky's title essay, less than one: He is never the sum of his experiences, since he is always in dialogue with, and beholden to, his past and future selves. He is never entirely a child, who wants to be an adult, nor an adult, who yearns for childhood. It is an allegory for the state of the writer, too, since language fails to communicate everything. It is also an image for the status of the individual living under tyranny, and even for the decrepit state that claims such "less than" individuals as citizens.
Brodsky toys with the twisted geometry of the regime, discussing architecture and its uses - the prison and the factory are identical; the baroque facade of a home belies the poverty inside. How to make much from little, and why is standing straight more attractive than slouching when the world is so heavy?
The final essay, "In a Room and a Half," is a meditation on growing up in a converted bourgeois apartment shared by several families. Under the regulations he and his parents received "half a room" per person - 9 square meters, or xx square feet, each - so the total was a room and a half. He renders every anecdote with a tenderness that never degrades into nostalgia or self-indulgence.Continue reading the main story