A World Fiercely Observed

RV-AB233A_BRODS_DV_20110114171846 Leon Aron review's Lev Loseff's Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life in the Wall Street Journal:

The euphony of Brodsky's verse is irresistible in its ease and naturalness, and one finds oneself remembering lines and stanzas after no more than a couple of readings. “From the very beginning, as soon as it starts,” Isaiah Berlin wrote of Brodsky's poetry, “you are in the presence of genius. And that is a unique sort of feeling—being in the presence of genius.”

Alas, a reader without Russian has to take Berlin's word for it: Not even Brodsky himself managed to endow the English translations of his verses with the beauty and power of the originals (although he tried again and again, and the reader's indulgence of my translations above is begged). Without a fixed word order, auxiliary verbs such as “is” or “are” or articles, Russian offers little to impede the lyrical poet, and Brodsky rejoiced in this paradigmatically inflected language. Rich shades of emotions and meanings are conveyed by prefixes and suffixes. Myriad rhymes are generated almost spontaneously as the mostly polysyllabic nouns, verbs, adjectives and participles conjugate (that is, change their endings) in accordance with six cases and three genders. English, with its rigid order, shorter words and precious little change in word endings, is hardly a happy counterpart. “There is nothing odder,” Brodsky admitted, “than to apply an analytical device to a synthetic phenomenon; for instance, to write in English about a Russian poet.” The largely correct but hardly sparkling translation of Loseff's book and the Brodsky poems in translation that Loseff cites in his text prove this assertion right—yet again.

So non-Russian readers must settle for the next best thing: Brodsky's prose. The “English essayist” wrote widely about literature (Dante, Dostoevsky, Hardy, Horace, Mandelstam, Akhmatova). He meditated on exile and boredom; Rio and Venice; the muse and the beloved; memory as the closest substitute for love—among dozens of other matters. He managed to speak about all of this without a scintilla of pontification or superiority. Reading Brodsky's essays is like a conversation with an immensely erudite, hugely entertaining and witty (and often very funny) interlocutor. (“In the country where I spent thirty-two years, adultery and moviegoing are the only forms of free enterprise.”) Paradoxes are tossed out with a Wilde-like elegance along with allusions, similes and metaphors galore—many stunningly unexpected and all completely and satisfyingly accurate. One constantly reaches for a pencil to mark particularly fetching sentences…