After three-quarters of a century of repression (and stone-like, disheartened Depression), is there still such a thing as "the Russian soul"? Without a doubt, Joseph Brodsky would testify--and its kernel continues to be what it always was: gorgeous ambivalence. "A certain advantage of totalitarianism is that it suggests to an individual a kind of vertical hierarchy of his own, with consciousness at the top. So we oversee what's going on inside ourselves; we almost report to our consciousness on our instincts. And then we punish ourselves." This wobbling, self-lacerating germ ushered in the sudden thing that was classic Russian literature and it may also--if you accept Brodsky's dour but specific analysis of the contemporary scene--have ushered it out. No national literary culture has ever been more prepared than the Russian to see itself vanish.
From Pushkin through Nikolai Gogol through Dostoevsky through Osip Mandelstam, Russian writers have taken great care to record metamorphosis and entropy--the forces through which the shaggy yet exquisite achievement of Russian writing might utterly disappear at any moment.
In this artfully self-conscious, cross-grained collection of literary/philosophical/geographical essays, Brodsky makes his own characteristically Russian--which is to say, gorgeously ambivalent--contribution to the preservation. Talent has already provided him with the pedigree for the task: He was the sweet singer of Leningrad, cherished by writers Anna Akhmatova and Nadezhda Mandelstam; he was also the Jewish poet lyrically dangerous enough to be singled out by the Soviet state, declared a non-person, and ultimately shown the door. And now, like his great predecessors, he has found a suitably ambivalent metaphor to effect the rescue: He writes in English, in the language of his exile.
"Civilization," Brodsky states in an essay about his book's chief presiding spirit, Osip Mandelstam (no poet ever wrote more magisterial prose), "is the sum total of different cultures animated by a common spiritual numerator, and its main vehicle--speaking both metaphorically and literally--is translation. The wandering of a Greek portico into the latitude of the tundra is a translation."
Of course, living in America, wanting an audience, Brodsky has little choice: Civilization-as-translation must be his emblem; the alternative would be a sort of half-silence, a shouting against the sea-roar of our incomprehension of the Russian language. But there are other factors to the decision.
English for Brodsky is also a way to distance himself from the horror of Soviet history; it is a vehicle of private will. In the most moving and intimate of the pieces here, a memoir of Brodsky's mother and father, the old parents his expulsion left stranded for the last 12 years of their life, Brodsky writes: "I write this in English because I want to grant them a margin of freedom . . . I want Maria Volpert and Alexander Brodsky to acquire reality under 'a foreign code of conscience,' I want English verbs of motion to describe their movements . . . To write about them in Russian would be only to further their captivity, their reduction to insignificance, resulting in mechanical annihilation."
Translation automatically includes, incorporates it, seeks to overcome pain. In the essays here on poets (Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Eugenio Montale, Constantine Cavafy, W.H. Auden--a pantheon of the dead), the most striking aphorisms suggest poetry's healingly transcendental or "translating" power. Poetry can turn sheer sound into meaning: "The effect of (Tsvetaeva's) instrumentation upon her theme was akin to that of somebody used to being put against the wall being suddenly put against the horizon."
Brodsky's pledge to classical poetry's mysterious trinity--rhyme, meter, meaning--is so iron and intense that the two least satisfying essays here (they are also the longest) completely analyze the juice out of two poems--one by Tsvetaeva, the other by Auden; the microscopic focus is repetitious to the point of near-hysteria. The strain Brodsky feels when writing for an English-speaking audience about the sonic equivalences and intricate metrics in the great Russian modern poets is one a reader will sometimes share. However muscular and brilliant the appreciation, it is understood that an English-speaker is simply if miserably going to have to take this all on faith.