Saturday, 24 May 2008

Less Than One by Joseph Brodsky (winner 1987)

My choice of a book of essays by Mr. Brodsky, a poet, was dictated not so much by genre preference as by the fact that it was the only work this esteemed library had by him in English. So apologies if this isn't exactly representative of his oeuvre.

I began Less Than One with enthusiasm - the opening essay in the collection is a memoir of his Peterburgian youth - exactly the sort of subject matter which appeals to me, and well-written to boot. Brodsky seemed to have quite a conversational style, which somehow manifested itself in my head in a measured, American voice - perhaps because he was in fact writing in English, having moved to the States at some point in the 70s I believe.

Sadly, from there Brodsky lost me somewhat. Most of the following essays were paeans to poets I've never read, and in at least one case, never even heard of. It is disctinctly tedious to read criticism of something you've never read (with apologies to Mum & Dad for proofing my thesis...) I must admit my heart sank in particular with the opening line of 'On "September 1, 1939" by W.H. Auden': 'The poem in front of you has ninety-nine lines, and time permitting, we'll be going over each one of them.' (This was originally a university lecture.) As the collection wore on, I fell prey to the temptation of skimming the poetical essays, but I did read most of the collection.

Sadly, within 30 or so pages of the end, Brodsky infuriated me beyond belief with his description of the walls of his childhood apartment as being 'of a light-brown, cocoa-cum-milk shade'. I can't express how much this phrase annoys me. 'Cocoa-cum-milk'???? What the frick is that supposed to be? Is Brodsky too good to say 'milk chocolate' or something of the like? 'Cocoa-cum-milk', give me strength. I know etymologically 'cum' means with, but that's not how it's used at all! If I said Tom Cruise was an 'actor-cum-nutjob' I wouldn't mean he was an actor accompanied by a nutjob, but that he was both actor and nutjob à la fois. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

Anyway, nobody probably shares the anger this phrase has generated in me, but suffice to say I was disgruntled for the rest of the book.

Now, if my readers will permit a slight digression from the subject of Noble Prize winners, I also have a rant to get off my chest on the subject of Thursday's episode of Criminal Minds, mostly for my Dad's benefit, because I know he likes to make fun of said show. I still watch it though... Anyway, the show revolved around a serial killer in Mexico. The profilers figure out, eventually, that this serial killer must have started out raping women before he moved on to killing. He's been killing for about 2 years, and has racked up a number of victims, all elderly women. One woman who was raped comes forward, and she tracks down half a dozen more. The cops take all their details, and deduce that four of the women worked at the same factory. They go to the factory and identify a suspect, but can't physically locate him. So far, so reasonable, right? With about 5 minutes to go, one of the Mexican cops-cum-lackeys-for-the-American-overlords (see what I did there?) wheels out a big whiteboard with the names of the rape victims and the murdered women on it. Dios mio, what do we see but that the middle names of the rape victims correspond to the surnames of the murdered women!! That's right - he's been killing the mothers of the rape victims! Anyone else see the small flaw in this scenario? That's right, the rape victims all gave information about themselves including the factory they worked in, but none of them thought the fact that their mother had recently been murdered could be at all germane to the investigation. Who writes this stuff? Oh, and although we're told that the killer is striking in the poorest area of whatever Mexican town this was supposed to be, they all speak adequate English to be interviewed by American cops with no problem. Even though the American cops have a Spanish speaker along with them, they prefer to respond to questions at this stressful time in English. But of course. Arrrggh.

Since the last commentator has questioned whether any of the Nobel winners are worth a read (and I'm beginning to wonder myself) I will briefly re-state that you should all rush out immediately and read The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, and 'The Gentleman from San Francisco' by Ivan Bunin.

I have now read 21 Nobel winners, more than double my original tally. (Although as us statisticians know, a large percentage increase from a small base may be more-or-less meaningless. Something I wish mater would bear in mind when forwarding my the latest health scare...) So that means only 83 to go (*sigh*)


Madman said...

Very good to hear that you watch quality TV as an antidote-cum-relaxant to reading utter drivel. I a rapidly coming to the conclusion that the only Nobel prize winner worth reading is William Shake thingy. But wait he didn't win it did he. Why not - is the world going mad? Or is it just me aaaaarrrgh!!

Madman said...

I looked on wikipedophile to see why william didn't win the Nobel prize. Apparently its because he invented dynamite before Nobel who got horribly jealous and vowed to blow up Shakey's grave and when he couldn't find it blew off his own generals (or was that genitals)?

Anonymous said...

Here's a suggestion - plough your way through a reading list while perhaps not as illustrious, a bit more accessible? Yes - the Booker Prize.

Gwan said...

I am currently ploughing my way (avec plaisir) through Young Stalin, by Simon Sebag Montefiore, in which the Nobel family play a bit-part as Black Sea oil barons. Small world, eh?
But I WILL return to the Nobels. There's no pride in saying I've read everyone who's ever won a Booker, and equally no guarantee I'd like 'em!