BOOK REVIEW / A Nobel traveller from an antique land: Joseph Brodsky: The Creation of Exile - David M Bethea: Princeton, pounds 30

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JOSEPH BRODSKY has become a powerful presence in two literatures, Russian and American. Born in 1940, exiled for political reasons in 1972, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987 (the youngest person to be so honoured), he has also served as Poet Laureate of the United States. He is best known for his poetry, but he has also published plays, essays, and a long prose meditation on Venice, Watermark.

Venice attracts him particularly as a subject partly because of its equivocal half-marine nature, and partly because of its position on the boundary between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Although not consistently a Christian writer, Brodsky has always been alert to the importance of Christendom as an idea. His range of literary reference is in itself a rebuke to writers more comfortably educated: Brodsky left school at the age of 15.

However, he is important not because he is learned, but because he is a poet. One of the virtues of David M Bethea's study is that it makes poems written in Russian intelligible to the Anglophone reader. Criticism in one language of writing in another is notoriously difficult to do well, and for that alone this book could be valuable.

But Professor Bethea also invites us to consider what it means for a writer to be an exile. Brodsky has carefully resisted any politicisation of his status, seeing the exiled writer as simply another foreign-born worker in his new land. A writer's biography may be subject to politics, he implies, but his work must not be. Professor Bethea tells us more of Brodsky's biography than has been widely available, but does so in the awareness that this information is properly secondary.

In chapters which compare Brodsky with Donne, Eliot, Auden, Mandelstam, Pasternak, Marina Tsvetayeva and Nabokov, Bethea sensibly draws us away from too narrow a focus on his relationship with the older poet Anna Akhmatova, by whom he was encouraged in his youth. He reminds us how instinctively cosmopolitan was Brodsky's vision while still in the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn has returned home, but Brodsky has shown no interest in doing so. It would be easy to say that in the former we see the 19th-century Slavophile reborn, while in Brodsky we see the West-minded moderniser, but what Brodsky really represents is the culture of St Petersburg / Leningrad at its liberal best. The city itself was built to embody an opening to the West, as its writers have never forgotten.

Brodsky's poetry, even in his own sometimes rather awkward English, is widely available and needs no further praise here. Its tone is consistently elegiac, though, as is the tone of Professor Bethea's study. As George Steiner has insisted, Marxism was inherently bookish, with habits of textual citation which were positively rabbinical in their detail. Communist populations have maintained a close relationship with print long gone elsewhere.

Joseph Brodsky may be the last Russian poet to have shaped himself in the expectation that his audience would be well-read. He has made something new of a frequent predicament for 20th-century writers, that of living at a remove from native speakers of his language, and from the sights which evoke childhood memory, by showing that the drive for linguistic novelty can be pursued anywhere.

What he now faces is the dilemma of a home that has changed irreversibly, and the mass indifference of Western capitalist culture. If his career does mark the end of a tradition, and there are strong reasons for fearing that it may, he has shown how powerful that tradition was and how much there is to regret in its passing.