Once in a while you read a really great book and you can say just that: "I read a really great book." Then you come across one such as Less Than None, written by a guy with a mammoth intellect and an enchanting style. You don't know how to describe it. It deserves more than a great.
It was published nearly 25 years ago. Brodsky, born in the same year as I was, died, sad to say, in 1996. Also sad to say: I wouldn't have been smart enough to appreciate his intelligence 25 years ago.
And how much less, for instance, I'd have appreciated his essay "Flight from Byzantium" without having first read Orhan Pamuk's Instanbul: Memories and the City, which would not be published until some twenty years after Less Than None? Considering this, my ploddy slowness, my round-aboutness, does not disappoint me.
Sometimes Brodsky is puzzling, profound, and funny all at once. Regretting the absence of footnotes in a translation of poems by Italy's Montale, Brodsky writes, "After all, a footnote is where civilization survives."
Later in the book one encounters an essay entitled "Footnote to a Poem" -- a 75-page explication of Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva's homage to Rilke, "Novogodnee". Much civilization does survive therein!
Brodsky was politcally astute too. From the essay "On Tyranny": "Today, every new sociopolitical set-up, be it a democracy or an authoritarian regime, is a further departure from the spirit of individualism toward the stampede of the masses. The idea of one's existential uniqueness gets replaced by that of one's anonymity. An individual perishes not so much by the sword as by the penis, and, however small a country is, it requires, or becomes subjected to, central planning. This sort of thing easily breeds various forms of autocracy, where tyrants themselves can be regarded as obsolete versions of computers .... But if they were only the obsolete version of computers it wouldn't be so bad. The problem is that a tyrant is capable of purchasing new, state-of-the-art computers and aspires to man them. Examples of obsolete forms of hardware running advanced forms are the Fuhrer resorting to the loudspeaker, or Stalin using the telephone monitoring system to eliminate his opponents in the Politburo."
Of the near-east, mid-east, and far-east, he noted in "Flight from Byzantium" what the Soviet leaders and then the American leaders seem incapable of realizing: "... no matter what extreme of idealization of the East we may entertain, we'll never be able to ascribe to it the least semblance of democracy."
I think it'd be hard to find a mean bone in Brodsky but he did pen the following passage: "There is nothing more appalling to me than to think about the family album of the average Japanese: smiling and stocky, he/she/both against a backdrop of everything vertical the world contains -- statues, fountains, cathedrals, towers, mosques, ancient temples, etc. Least of all, I presume, Buddhas and pagodas."
On art, from the essay "The Child of Civilization": "A work of art is always meant to outlast its maker. Paraphrasing the philosopher, one could say that writing poetry, too, is an exercise in dying. But apart from pure linguistic necessity, what makes one write is not so much a concern for one's perishable flesh as the urge to spare certain things of one's world -- of one's personal civilization -- one's own non-semantic continuum. Art is not a better, but an alternative existence; it is not an attempt to escape reality, but the opposite, an attempt to animate it. It is a spirit seeking flesh but finding words."
I'm gobsmacked by Brodsky.
P.S. A movie titled "A Room and a Half" -- "a heady fictionalized biography of the exiled Russian poet Joseph Brodsky," according to New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden -- has just been released.