Less Than One : Selected Essays
by Joseph Brodsky
Release Date: 01 May, 1987
Primarily known as a poet this volume shows that Joseph Brodsky was also a splendid essayist and his interests varied and his attention to detail deep and probing. Dealing with the trauma of exile his remembrance of things past is like the educational adventure of a long furlough from love and his country submerged in totalitarianism with his mentors either imprisoned, declawed or dead is still the theme upon which he is emotionally impaled.
He seems disgusted by America and in love with his disgust, the social utility of hypocrisy, the halo polishing in the upper echelons and the fawning sycophants chirruping inanely are recognizable figures on both sides of the cold war.
His paeans to poets as diverse as Mandelbaum and W.H AUDEN are astounding in their compassion , knowledge and unlike other critics never infected by logorrhea.
He can't cure what is lost in translation but he makes us aware that a poem is a form of aggression in its purest and most humane form. Brooding, dark and often pessimistic Brodsky is still an illuminating writer because he chooses to create rather than mourn and seems to say that sorrow observed is compensatory idealism but when your love cannot create you are in love with death. And he saw too much to sentimentalize sacrifice and the grim reaper.
When Joseph Brodsky emigrated to the United States in 1972 as an involuntary exile from the Soviet Union, he probably believed that he'd see his parents again, that political circumstances would inevitably change. Moreover, it is only natural to believe that a forced "political" separation from one's parents could not last for long. His parents spent their final years hoping against hope that they'd see their beloved son one more time-a death wish before dying. But that faithful dream never materialized. "I know," writes Brodsky, "that one shouldn't equate the state with language but it was in Russian that two old people, shuffling through numerous state chancelleries and ministries in the hope of obtaining a permit to go abroad for a visit to see their only son before they died, were told repeatedly, for twelve years in a row, that the state considers such a visit 'unpurposeful'..." Letters were mostly forbidden, but Brodsky was allowed to call his parents every week. Phone calls were monitored. Brodsky tells us that they learned how to speak "euphemistically."
"In a Room and a Half" is Brodsky's last attempt to join his parents. Brodsky's father was a professional photographer and journalist. Something of the art of photography must have been passed on to his son. This beautiful narrative was as close as Brodsky could come to presenting a family album of photographic "takes" or "frames" which emerge in the poet's memory from his childhood days. There are forty-five photos that make up "In a Room and a Half."
You cannot possibly stand outside of this memoir as a "detached witness" once you begin to read it. It is as if you were sitting late into the night with Brodsky-the last log is burning out and he begins to tell you about something that is, under ordinary circumstances, a private and solitary affair of the heart. In this sense, we feel privileged, and we want him to go on-to keep turning the pages of his lost youth, to share whatever sacred memories he has left to share about his life with his parents. It is indeed an act of defiance that is anything but sentimental. And yet, who can read this eulogy without feeling their heart drop to the floor?
We listen, and, through Brodsky's genius, enter into these forty-five narrative photographs. We can see and touch the China that his mother saved for his wedding. We hear the sounds of a faucet, the odors from the kitchen. We see the quiet, grey light of this tiny space where father, mother and son lived out their daily activities. We walk around the room with Brodsky as he tells us about the story of his parents' cherished bed. We see a feeble table with a white, luminous tablecloth under the care of his mother's hands. We see the deep blue of his father's uniform and we reach out to touch those bright yellow buttons that remind the boy of an illuminated avenue. It is all so vividly real.
Joseph Brodsky is dead now-and there is nothing that can ever separate this family again.