ON GRIEF AND REASON: Essays by Joseph Brodsky


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In the best of these recent essays, Nobelist Brodsky achieves a unique synthesis of philosophical acumen and literary craftsmanship: considering the exigencies of exile together with those of poetry, reflecting on ethics and aesthetics. Like Less Than One (1986), Brodsky's previous collection of prose, this volume opens with a collage of memories from the author's youth in Leningrad. The theme this time, however, is intimations of America: radio transmissions, lovingly preserved lend-lease remnants (Brodsky focuses on the cult of empty meat tins), and exotic imports like the RCA records, with their famous dog-at-the-gramophone label, that Brodsky's father owned. The mode of reverie that Brodsky employs in this piece serves him well elsewhere in the volume. It reappears in a pastiche of travel dreams and in impassioned reflections on a Soviet stamp honoring British double agent Kim Philby. Too often, however, Brodsky takes on an expository tone that clashes with the essentially elliptical quality of his best insights. Two commencement addresses find him at his best and worst. Whereas Brodsky offers Dartmouth graduates wise words on the unlikely topic of boredom's importance, an audience at Ann Arbor, Mich., receives a hodgepodge of bromides like ""try not to set too much store by politicians."" Other low points include an aimless account of a decadent writer's junket to Rio and a sententious open letter to Vclav Havel. But a sterling appreciation of Thomas Hardy's subtle poetry more than compensates. Much of Brodsky's best commentary on modern poetry and politics comes indirectly, in imaginative essays devoted to classical figures: Clio, the Muse of history; Horace, the Roman man of letters; and Marcus Aurelius, philosopher and emperor. Brodsky repeatedly cites Frost's line: ""The best way out is always through."" At his most successful, however, he seems to be following another adage: Emily Dickinson's advice to ""tell all the Truth but tell it slant.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0374525099
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: "Farrar, Straus & Giroux"