Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life

4687513_569341t Carol Rumens reviews Lev Loseff's new biography, in The Independent:

Joseph Brodsky's observation that what he liked about life in the US was “being left alone to do what I can do” is faintly reminiscent of Philip Larkin's commendation of Hull as “a town that lets you write.” In fact, the free-range Russian exile and the travel-shy Englishman share several affinities, including jazz. Lev Loseff records Brodsky's early poetic attempts at creating an effect of improvisation: “I'm a son of the outskirts, the outskirts, the outskirts,/ in a wire cradle, dank hallways, are my door and my address,/ streetcars clanking, rattle bang ring, stone sidewalks, soles,/ girls lined against painted wood fences,/ grassy banks, oil spot/ factory lights” (“Russian Gothic”).

Brodsky (unlike Larkin) was cavalier about “the toad, work”. He dropped out of school at 15, and hopped from menial job to job before being charged with “parasitism” and despatched to a labour camp near Archangelsk. His real crime, Loseff notes, was that he had broken the rigid rules of initiation into Soviet society. His sentence was commuted after international pressure, and an exit-visa to Israel provided (he changed course at Vienna).

His attachment to a vast range of European literature and his deep individualism seem inevitably to have pointed him west. His youthful poems were published not only in samizdat, but in tamizdat (“over there”). But what mattered to Brodsky far more than ethnicity or country was the Russian language: his only nation-state.