Random Quote: Brodsky.

One of the things I left behind in my epic move to the land of freedom and hamburgers was a five-volume complete collection of Brodsky’s writings. I have since acquired enough of him in Russian, but lately I started reading things he wrote in English. A nice collection of essays called Less Than One is a real delight, I think. Here’s a random quote:

I have always envied those nineteenth-century characters who were able to look back and distinguish the landmarks of their lives, of their development.  Some event would mark a point of transition, a different stage.  I am talking about writers; but what I really have in mind is the capacity of certain types of people to rationalize their lives, to see things separately, if not clearly.  And I understand that this phenomenon should not be limited to the nineteenth century.  Yet in my life it has been represented mostly by literature.  Either because of some basic flow of my mind or because of the fluid, amorphous nature of life itself, I have never been capable for distinguishing any landmark, let alone a buoy.  If there is anything like a landmark, it is that I won’t be able to acknowledge myself – i.e., death.


Certain this is partly an outgrowth of your profession.  If you are in banking or if you fly an aircraft, you know that after you gain a substantial amount of expertise you are more or less guaranteed a profit or a safe landing.  Whereas in the business of writing what one accumulates is not expertise but uncertainties.  Which is but another name for craft.  In this field, where expertise invites doom, the notions of adolescence and maturity get mixed up, and panic is the most frequent state of mind.  So I would be lying if I resorted to chronology or to anything that suggests a linear process.  A school is a factory is a poem is a prison is academia is boredom, with flashes of panic.

(Joseph Brodsky, Less Than One: Selected Essays, 16, 17)

2 thoughts on “Random Quote: Brodsky.

  1. I’ve just requested this book from the library. It’s clear that Brodsky was a skilled craftsman in English. I wonder how long it took to achieve this mastery, whether he thought in English, whether he felt that he still saw the world from a Russian perspective, etc. Here’s something from Nabokov’s postscript to Lolita:

    “None of my American friends have read my Russian books and thus every appraisal on the strength of my English ones is bound to be out of focus. My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses — the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions — which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.”


    • I think he started reading English in 1964 or so, when he was convicted for being a vagrant and exiled in the North. I’m reading a book by Lev Losev on Brodsky, he says that Brodsky was reading John Donne, T.S. Eliot, Auden and the like with a dictionary back then. He learned English like many other Soviet people did – none of the speaking skills, but a large vocabulary of memorized words. I still approach any language the same way – check out a grammar book from the library, all that Rosetta Stone immersion is bullshit as far as I’m concerned – it takes a couple of years to learn the basics and then you can talk (but here in America people want quick results, you know? They want to be able to order their burrito at Chipotle with their broken Spanish – why? Everyone knows they suck at it?)

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