09 November 2010

Joseph Brodsky

I'm too much of a cheapskate to part with my hard-earned English pounds, but I'm fairly sure I don't want to spend any currency on a review that starts off this way:

"Joseph Brodsky’s new selection, To Urania, gets off to a troubled start with a 20-line poem that contains at least one grammatical slip and a sentence of baffling absurdity. The slip occurs in line four, where we meet the construction ‘dined with the-devil-knows-whom’ – an accusative that seems to me justified by neither the rule-book nor colloquial usage. The absurd sentence follows two lines later. ‘Twice have drowned,’ we read (the first person being understood), ‘thrice let knives rake my nitty-gritty.’ Eh? ‘Twice have drowned, thrice let knives rake my nitty-gritty.’ I see."

Maybe Christopher Reid gets more intelligent as his review gets underway, or maybe his first paragraph is merely a rhetorical ploy ("you thought this was what I meant but actually this is not what I meant"), but in any case, I will never find out, since I will not subscribe to the London Review of Books just to read what I fear may be yet another case of someone misunderstanding why writers in a second language deliberately subvert the grammar of that language.  Being ungrammatical, as long as one does it knowingly, is a way to attack the center.  The simplest example is the way Australian postcolonial writers do not capitalize the word english to refer to the language; in this way, they dissociate the language from the British, who always capitalize the word.

The Google entry on the article quotes  some of Reid's words:   "writes in his second language and then translates it back into his own?"  Reid inadvertently discovered the strength, rather than the weakness, of a second-language writer:  s/he writes in the mother tongue, using words from the second language.  Nobel laureate Brodsky, of course, thought and wrote in Russian but later thought in Russian but wrote in English.  That was one of the best things that ever happened to the English language.

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