Loseff’s book is, as its subtitle insists, a strictly literary biography. The outlines of Brodsky’s life are sketched, but private experiences are related only when they directly inspired his poetry. Thus Loseff tells, in brief and general terms, the story of Brodsky’s long, tumultuous love affair with a woman named Marina Basmanova, which drove him to a suicide attempt, produced a son, and inspired some major poems. On the other hand, Brodsky’s marriage, late in life, is dispatched in a single sentence, and there is little about other friendships or relationships.
Where Loseff excels is in sketching the Russian literary and cultural context for Brodsky’s work—the poets he knew and admired, the “schools” that dominated Leningrad poetry in his youth. This kind of analysis is a reminder of how little Brodsky can be understood through an American prism. Likewise, the excerpts from his early Russian poems, translated (along with the whole book) by Jane Ann Miller, show how much we would benefit from a comprehensive new translation of Brodsky’s poetry. Miller’s excellent work is only seemingly slighted by the odd way that each of her verse translations is followed by the word “non-poetic”: This is to show that the translation is not by Brodsky, but in fact, her lucid and convincing versions are often more effectively poetic than the poet’s own.
And I’m glad Kirsch is willing to come right out and say “Brodsky in English remains, all too often, wrenched, unidiomatic, and unmusical.” Incidentally, Loseff was himself a fine poet; I quoted one of his poems in this post. (Thanks, Paul!)