Less Than One by Joseph Brodsky (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $25; 500 pp.)

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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.

Thus, the reader who seeks a genial guide to the artistic-moral phenomenon of Russian literature should be looking elsewhere. Brodsky is not that. His most combative essay--on Russian prose--all but sings that tradition’s funeral dirge. Making exceptions for Dostoevsky, Andrei Platonov, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Alexander Solzhhenitsyn (to a lesser degree), and an occasional contemporary, Brodsky charges most Russian prose--even, heretically, Tolstoy’s--with stale realism, or a retreat into shallow if flashy modernism, or “narcissistic self-pity because of having curbed one’s own metaphysical ability.”

It is “metaphysical ability” that in the end seems to matter most in art and life for Brodsky. He growls, he sulks; he reads like prophet and pedant made one; he cups the fragile flame of Russian culture against the gale of ruin--personal, spiritual, historical. And in a long, mosaical piece about Istanbul, “Flight From Byzantium,” he offers a metaphysical lead as interesting as any in contemporary writing.

“The linear,” Brodsky calls it. And whether it’s found individually in Virgil (“His hero never returns; he always departs”) or generally in all art (“Whether one likes it or not, art is a linear process. To prevent itself from recoiling, art has the concept of cliche”); whether in the spatial implications of the Constantine cross or in the difference between the uniqueness of Western ornament as opposed to pattern in the Orient (one aims at the singular, the other at the many, the collective effects), the linear turns out to be a concept basic to the West--which the West now seems hell-bent to ignore about itself or lose altogether.

Brodsky finds this ominous. By falling in swoon to the idea of the circular, the ever-repeating, the un individual (think of today’s deconstructionists), Western culture may be mortgaging its greatest idea--the singular, the temporal, the individual--to an Eastern sensibility that knows only to gorge collectively before suicide.

Which, in part, is why Brodsky must keep telling and retelling us that a poet’s sole home is language--and language’s sole home, memory. What you lose, you do not necessarily regain--a truth Brodsky has been specially positioned by history and circumstance to appreciate. Instead, you transpose and translate. Something will be lost but something else saved: a way--as in these unsentimental, valuable essays--for art and place and ideas to interchange, to nourish one another with the proper ambivalence. “Uncertainty, you see, is the mother of beauty, one of whose definitions is that it’s something which isn’t yours.”