Joseph Brodsky, on winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1987 had his status confirmed as one of those giant, monolithic figures on the literary scene. He certainly cut a romantic figure as the big, larger than life Russian exile who liked the ladies and a drink or two, had survived a childhood in the second world war and was touched with that faint odour of glamour that attaches to all emigrés. But this volume does nothing to enhance his reputation as a master of language. It’s like reading the bon mots of a provincial school master in the fifties, full of those tired old clichés – literature ennobles, poetry enriches the soul, writers are Men, the masses only like reading rubbish. I found myself constantly checking the date of each essay, only to be surprised that each one had been written in the eighties or nineties and not the sixties. Take this for example, written in 1990, from the essay Altra Ego: “Herein lies the ultimate distinction between the Beloved and the Muse: the latter doesn’t die. The same goes for the Muse and the Poet: when he’s gone, she finds herself another mouthpiece in the same generation. To put it another way, she always hangs around a language and doesn’t seem to mind being mistaken for a plain girl.” Oh dear, spare me the female muse, please.
In the essay How to read a book (written in 1988) he recommends the following poets: “If your mother tongue is English, I might recommend to you Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, W.B.Yeats, T.S.Eliot, W.H.Auden, Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop.” How predictable, safe and, surprise: they’re all dead. Even Craig Raine, a reactionary member of the establishment if ever there was one (who defended Eliot so vehemently against charges of anti-semitism), recently called Brodsky ‘mediocre’. It’s not bad, just ever so familiar from those days when literary criticism was a medium ruled by Leavisite principles. However dated, Brodsky can be charming, as in In Praise of Boredom where he grandly presents the thesis that Life is Boring, get used to it: “You’ll be bored with your work, your friends, your spouses, your lovers, the view from your window, the furniture or wallpaper in your room, your thoughts themselves.” He suggests thoroughly plunging into the boredom and coming out the other side. Good advice. Or rather touching as in Spoils of War about childhood in wartime Leningrad: corned beef tins, German artillery, purloined American films.
A useful book only if you are very into poetry as most of the essays are close readings of his favourites: Rainer Maria Rilke, Stephen Spender, Thomas Hardy, Robert Frost.
But whatever Brodsky’s ability as a poet he does not possess the same ability in prose. This volume, the second on politics, poetry and autobiography, makes interesting comparison with Seamus Heany’s “The Government of the Tongue”, a brilliant collection of essays on twentieth century poets like Lowell, Plath, Miroslav Holub and so on – another Nobel Prize winner, but reading his prose you can see why they gave him the prize
Reviewed by Laura McNeill