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From Books > From Non-fiction > In a Room and a Half
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"In a Room and a Half" from Less Than One, Selected Essays by Joseph Brodsky. Excerpt.
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To L.K.

The room and a half (if such a space unit makes any sense in English) in which the three of us lived had a parquet floor, and my mother strongly objected to the men in her family, me in particular, walking around with our socks on. She insisted on us wearing shoes or slippers at all times. Admonishing me about this matter, she would evoke an old Russian superstition; it is an ill omen, she would say, it may bode a death in the family.

Of course, it might be that she simply regarded this habit as uncivilized, as plain bad manners. Men's feet smell, and that was the pre-deodorant era. Yet I thought that, indeed, one could easily slip and fall on a polished parquet, especially if one wore woolen socks. And that if one were old and frail, the consequences could be disastrous. The parquet's affinity with wood, earth, etc., thus extended in my mind to any ground under the feet of our close and distant relatives who lived in the same town. No matter what the distance, it was the same ground. Even living on the other side of the river, where I would subsequently rent an apartment or a room of my own, didn't constitute an excuse, for there were too many rivers and canals in that town. And although some of them were deep enough for the passage of seagoing ships, death, I thought, would find them shallow, or else, in its standard underground fashion, it could creep across under their bottoms.

Now my mother and my father are dead. I stand on the Atlantic seaboard: there is a great deal of water separating me from two surviving aunts and my cousins: a real chasm, big enough to confuse even death. Now I can walk around in my socks to my heart's content, for I have no relatives on this continent. The only death in the family I can now incur is presumably my own, although that would mean mixing up transmitter with receiver. The odds of that merger are small, and that is what distinguishes electronics from superstition. Still, if I don't tread these broad Canadian-maple floorboards in my socks, it's neither because of this certitude nor out of an instinct for self-preservation, but because my mother wouldn't approve of it. I suppose I want to keep things the way they were in our family, now that I am what's left of it.

There were three of us in that room and a half of ours: my father, my mother, and I. A family, a typical Russian family of the time. The time was after the war, and very few people could afford more than one child. Some of them couldn't even afford to have the father alive or present: great terror and war took their toll in big cities, in my hometown especially. So we should have considered ourselves lucky, especially since we were Jews. All three of us survived the war (and I say "all three" because I, too, was born before it, in 1940); my parents, however, survived the thirties also.


They took everything as a matter of course: the system, their powerlessness, their poverty, their wayward son. They simply tried to make the best of everything: to keep food on the table—and whatever that food was, to turn it into morsels; to make ends meet—and although we always lived from payday to payday, to stash away a few rubles for the kid's movies, museum trips, books, dainties. What dishes, utensils, clothes, linen we had were always clean, polished, ironed, patched, starched. The tablecloth was always spotless and crisp, the lampshade above it dusted, the parquet shining and swept.


Our room and a half was part of a huge enfilade, one third of a block in length, on the northern side of a six-story building that faced three streets and a square at the same time. The building was one of those tremendous cakes in so-called Moorish style that in northern Europe marked the turn of the century. Erected in 1903, the year of my father's birth, it was the architectural sensation of the St. Petersburg of that period, and Akhmatova once told me that her parents took her in a carriage to see this wonder. On its western side, facing one of the most famous avenues of Russian literature, Liteiny Prospect, Alexander Blok had an apartment at one time. As for our enfilade, it was occupied by the couple that dominated the pre-revolutionary Russian literary scene as well as the intellectual climate of Russian emigration in Paris later on, in the twenties and the thirties: by Dmitry Merezhkovsky and Zinaida Gippius. And it was from our room and a half's balcony that the larva-like Zinka shouted abuse to the revolutionary sailors.

After the Revolution, in accordance with the policy of "densing up" the bourgeoisie, the enfilade was cut up into pieces, with one family per room. Walls were erected between the rooms—at first of plywood. Subsequently, over the years, boards, brick, and stucco would promote these partitions to the status of architectural norm. If there is an infinite aspect of space, it is not its expansion but its reduction. If only because the reduction of space, oddly enough, is always more coherent. It's better structured and has more names: a cell, a closet, a grave. Expanses have only a broad gesture.

In the U.S.S.R., the living quarters' minimum per person is 9 square meters. We should have considered ourselves lucky, because due to the oddity of our portion of the enfilade, the three of us wound up with a total of 40 meters. That excess had to do also with the fact that we had obtained this place as the result of my parents' giving up the two separate rooms in different parts of town in which they had lived before they got married. This concept of exchange—or, better still, swap (because of the finality of this exchange)—is something there is no way to convey to an outsider, to a foreigner. Property laws are arcane everywhere, but some of them are more arcane than others, especially when your landlord is the state. Money has nothing to do with it, for instance, since in a totalitarian state income brackets are of no great variety—in other words, every person is as poor as the next. You don't buy your living quarters: at best, you are entitled to the square equivalent of what you had before. If there are two of you, and you decide to live together, you are therefore entitled to an equivalent of the square sum total of your previous residences. And it is the clerks in the borough property office who decide what you are going to get. Bribery is of no use, since the hierarchy of those clerks is, in its turn, terribly arcane, and their initial impulse is to give you less. The swaps take years, and your only ally is fatigue; i.e., you may hope to wear them down by refusing to move into something quantitatively inferior to what you previously had. Apart from pure arithmetic, what goes into their decision is a vast variety of assumptions never articulated in law, about your age, nationality, race, occupation, the age and sex of your child, social and territorial origins, not to mention the personal impression you make, etc. Only the clerks know what is available, only they judge the equivalence and can give or take a few square meters here and there. And what a difference those few square meters make! They can accommodate a bookshelf or, better yet, a desk.

Apart from an excess of thirteen square meters, we were terribly lucky because the communal apartment we had moved into was very small. That is, the part of the enfilade that constituted it contained six rooms partitioned in such a way that they gave a home to only four families. Including ourselves, only eleven people lived there. As communal apartments go, the dwellers can easily amount to a hundred. The average, though, is somewhere between twenty-five and fifty. Ours was almost tiny.

Of course, we all shared one toilet, one bathroom, and one kitchen. But the kitchen was fairly spacious, the toilet very decent and cozy. As for the bathroom, Russian hygienic habits are such that eleven people would seldom overlap when either taking a bath or doing their basic laundry. The latter hung in the two corridors that connected the rooms to the kitchen, and one knew the underwear of one's neighbors by heart.

The neighbors were good neighbors, both as individuals and because all of them were working and thus absent for the better part of the day. Save one, they didn't inform to the police; that was a good percentage for a communal apartment. But even she, a squat, waistless woman, a surgeon in the nearby polyclinic, would occasionally give you medical advice, take your place in the queue for some scarce food item, keep an eye on your boiling soup. How does that line in Frost's "The Star-Splitter" go? "For to be social is to be forgiving"?

For all the despicable aspects of this mode of existence, a communal apartment has perhaps its redeeming side as well. It bares life to its basics: it strips off any illusions about human nature. By the volume of the fart, you can tell who occupies the toilet, you know what he/she had for supper as well as for breakfast. You know the sounds they make in bed and when the women have their periods. It's often you to whom your neighbor confides his or her grief, and it is he or she who calls for an ambulance should you have an angina attack or something worse. It is he or she who one day may find you dead in a chair, if you live alone, or vice versa.

What barbs or medical and culinary advice, what tips about goods suddenly available in this or that store are traded in the communal kitchen in the evening when the wives cook their meals! This is where one learns life's essentials, by the rim of one's ear, with the corner of one's eye. What silent dramas unfurl there when somebody is all of a suddenly not on speaking terms with someone else! What a school of mimics it is! What depth of emotion can be conveyed by a stiff, resentful vertebra or by a frozen profile! What smells, aromas, and odors float in the air around a hundred-watt yellow tear hanging on a plaitlike tangled electric cord. There is something tribal about this dimly lit cave, something primordial—evolutionary, if you will; and the pots and pans hang over the gas stoves like would-be tom-toms.


My half was connected to their room by two large, nearly-ceiling-high arches which I constantly tried to fill with various combinations of bookshelves and suitcases, in order to separate myself from my parents, in order to obtain a degree of privacy. One can speak only about degrees, because the height and the width of those two arches, plus the Moorish configuration of their upper edge, ruled out any notion of complete success. Unless, of course, one could fill them up with bricks or cover them with wooden boards. But that was against the law, for it would result in our having two rooms instead of the one and a half that the borough housing order stated we were entitled to. Short of the fairly frequent inspections by our building's super, the neighbors, no matter how nice the terms we were on with them, would report us to the appropriate authorities in no time.

One had to design a palliative, and that was what I was busy at from the age of fifteen on. I went through all sorts of mind-boggling arrangements, and at one time even contemplated building-in a twelve-foot-high aquarium, which would have in the middle of it a door connecting my half with the room. Needless to say, that architectural feat was beyond my ken. The solution, then, was more and more bookshelves on my side, more and thicker layers of drapery on my parents'. Needless to say, they liked neither the solution nor the nature of the problem itself.

Girls and friends, however, grew in quantity more slowly than did the books; besides, the latter were there to stay. We had two armoires with full-length mirrors built into their doors and otherwise undistinguished. But they were rather tall, and they did half the job. Around and above them I built the shelves, leaving a narrow opening through which my parents could squeeze into my half, and vice versa. My father resented the arrangement, particularly since at the farthest end of my half he had built himself a darkroom where he was doing his developing and printing, i.e., where the large part of our livelihood came from.

There was a door in that end of my half. When my father wasn't working in his darkroom, I would use that door for getting in and out. "So that I won't disturb you," I told my parents, but actually it was in order to avoid their scrutiny and the necessity of introducing my guests to them, or the other way around. To obfuscate the nature of those visits, I kept an electric gramophone, and my parents gradually grew to hate J.S.Bach.

Still later, when books and the need for privacy increased dramatically, I partitioned my half further by repositioning those armoires in such a way that they separated my bed and my desk from the darkroom. Between them, I squeezed a third one that was idling in the corridor. I tore its back wall out, leaving its door intact. The result was that a guest would have to enter my Lebensraum through two doors and one curtain. The first door was the one that led into the corridor; then you'd would find yourself standing in my father's darkroom and removing a curtain; the next thing was to open the door of the former armoire. Atop the armoires, I piled all the suitcases we had. They were many; still, they failed to reach the ceiling. The net effect was that of a barricade; behind it, though, the gamin felt safe, and a Marianne could bare more than just her breast.


Two mirrored armoires and the passage between them on one side; the tall draped window with the windowsill just two feet above my rather spacious brown cushionless couch on the other; the arch, filled up to its Moorish rim with bookshelves behind; the niche-filling bookcase and my desk with the Royal Underwood in front of my nose—that was my Lebensraum. My mother would clean it, my father would cross it on his way back and forth to his darkroom; occasionally he or she would come for refuge in my worn-out but deep armchair after yet another verbal skirmish. Other than that, these ten square meters were mine, and they were the best ten square meters I've ever known. If space has a mind of its own and generates its own distribution, there is a chance some of these square meters, too, many remember me fondly. Now especially, under a different foot.

[Excerpt from "In a Room and a Half" from Less Than One, Selected Essays by Joseph Brodsky. Copyright © 1986 by Joseph Brodsky. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.]

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This essay (with numerous, though small, textual differences) was also published in Volume 33, Number 3 of The New York Review of Books (February 27, 1986).