Review: Peter Salmonon Vladimir Mayakovsky

An Insatiable Thief in his Soul: Mayakovsky A Biography by Bengt Jangfeldt

On 24 November 1935, five years after the death of Vladimir Mayakovsky, Lili Brik – for twenty years his muse, lover, mistress and confidante – wrote a long letter to Josef Stalin. ‘Almost six years have passed since Mayakovsky died’, she wrote.

[H]e has no successor, but was and remains the greatest poet of our Revolution… No one is thinking of preserving his memory for future generations. I am not able myself to overcome the lack of interest and the opposition on the part of officialdom, and so after six years I am turning to you, as I see no other possible way of ensuring the Mayakovsky’s enormous revolutionary legacy is taken care of.

As Bengt Jangfeldt writes in Mayakovsky: A Biography, newly translated into English from the Swedish, ‘few letters have played such a decisive role in deciding a poet’s posthumous fate than this one.’ Stalin – not the only dictator to have a past as an amateur poet – scrawled his response in red pen diagonally across the letter. ‘Mayakovsky was and remains the best, most gifted poet of our Soviet epoch. Indifference to his memory and his work is a crime’.

Two days later Pravda printed Stalin’s decree. A month later Victory Square in Moscow was renamed Mayakovsky Square, and a statue – for Mayakovsky always a symbol of ossification – erected, the first of many. He was, notes Jangfeldt, ‘no longer a living poet but a monument’. Generations of Soviet children were forced to memorise his work. Mayakovsky was, as Boris Pasternak wrote, being ‘forcibly introduced, like the potato under Catherine the Great’. The poet, whose relationship to the Revolution and the USSR had been as tumultuous as any of his innumerable love affairs, was to be its Poet.  It was, added Pasternak ‘his second death, and for this one he bore no blame.’

Twenty years earlier, Lili Brik – already a darling and muse of the Russian avant-garde, beautiful, unconventional, promiscuous – and her husband Osip, who had studied as a lawyer and was now making a name for himself as a literary critic of the avant-garde, allowed the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky to attend one of their St Petersburg soirées, a meeting place for new generation of Russian writers, film makers and painters.

Mayakovsky was there at the behest of Lili’s sister, Elsa, who had fallen for the poet. She had already introduced him to her sister and brother-in-law, but their reactions had been hostile. ‘I didn’t like him’, Lili later recalled.

I didn’t like the fact that he was so big that people turned to look at him in the street, I didn’t like the fact that he listened to his own voice, I didn’t even like his name – Mayakovsky – so noisy and so like a pseudonym.

And of his poetry, ‘I know one is supposed to praise writers, but Voldya’s impudence annoyed me’.

Mayakovsky was not easy to like. Six foot three, he dressed badly, smoked constantly, was a compulsive  gambler, and had terrible teeth. Already something of a celebrity, he had toured Russia with a group of Futurist poets who wore radishes in their buttonholes and had pictures of dogs, planes and cabalistic symbols painted on their faces. Jailed three times in his teens for his political activity, he was subject to constant mood shifts, and was, as Pasternak later wrote, ‘phenomenally suspicious [and] prone to gratuitous gloom’. Osip and Lili sat down reluctantly to hear him read his poem, ‘A Cloud in Trousers’.

The effect was electric. ‘Mayakovsky did not change his pose once,’ Lili remembered. ‘He did not look at anyone. He complained, raged, mocked, demanded, became hysterical…’ Lili was dumbfounded, Elsa triumphant. Osip declared that even if Mayakovsky never wrote another line he would be regarded as a great poet, and on the spot offered to publish the work. ‘The Briks were mad about the poem and fell in love with it once and for all’, recalled Elsa, and Mayakovsky ‘fell in love once and for all with Lili’.

‘We all knew “A Cloud” by heart, recalled Lili, and ‘anticipated the proofs like a lover’s meeting’. One hundred years later, the poem retains its power, and introduces the – very Russian – themes that were to obsess Mayakovsky throughout his short life: madness, suicide, and the struggle with a God who may or may not exist. Maxim Gorky wrote that ‘he had only read such a conversation with God in the Book of Job’. Osip kept his promise, and the poem was published in September 1915 under the imprint OMB (Osip’s initials), with a dedication that would become standard for Mayakovsky, ‘To You, Lilya’.

Mayakovsky and Lili Brik in 1926.

It was to be the start of a tumultuous relationship between the Briks and Mayakovsky, and their ménage-à-trois – or ‘marriage cartel’ as Jungfeldt memorably names it – was to remain central to Russia’s artistic and cultural life before, during and after the Revolution. It would encompass a series of romantic and artistic alliances and misalliances. They lived together, wrote together, made films together, and periodically broke with each other. Into (and out of) their circle came a dizzying array of artists, writers, politicians, secret agents, Chekists (the future KGB), anti-Chekists, film directors, actors and actresses. Throughout, Osip was to remain Lili’s first and true love, and Lili was to remain Mayakovsky’s. The 1923 Alexander Rodchenko portrait of her that adorns the cover of Mayakovsky’s monograph About This – a poem itself about his love for her – is itself a classic of the Russian avant-garde.

In this, the first post-Soviet biography of Mayakovsky, Jangfeldt brilliantly captures not just the character of the poet himself, but the character of his milieu and of the times which were, for Mayakovsky the source and subject matter of his poetry. Read in concert with the groundbreaking new collection, Voldya: Selected Works (Enitharmon Press), which brings together eighty years of Mayakovsky in translation (including poetry, lectures, artworks, and his little known children’s stories – popular in Russia but almost unheard of outside his homeland), Jangfeldt’s biography performs the necessary service of bringing Mayakovsky back to the frontlines of art and poetry.

The original subtitle of this biography in Sweden was ‘Mayakovsky and His Circle’, and this is truer to the spirit of the enterprise than ‘A Biography’. With unprecedented access to the letters and journals of the protagonists, Jangfeldt paints a picture of a time when the word ‘revolution’ referred not only to a re-evaluation of politics and economics, but to the entire life of art, of culture. This was to be the ‘third revolution’: first economics, second politics, third the spirit.

The Briks and Mayakovsky stood at the forefront of this. While their ‘marriage cartel’ was unusual, it was not unique in the literary and artistic circles of the time. As Jangfedlt notes, Osip Mandelstam lived with his wife and his lover, the poet Mariya Petrovykh. Maxim Gorky was married but lived openly with another woman. The poet Anna Akhmatova, her lover the art scholar Nikolay Punin, and Punin’s ex-wife often dined together.

In 1918, marriage became a civil rather than a church affair. Divorce became easier – if one party wished to leave that was sufficient. Illegitimate children gained equal status to legitimate children and abortion was legalized. A society liberated from bourgeois moral principles ought – according to what was known as the water-glass theory – to be able to satisfy its members’ sexual needs as easily as drinking a glass of water, and this applied to women as much as men. To think otherwise was reactionary.

If Lili Brik was literally the poster girl for the Futurists, she was metaphorically the poster girl for this new sense of liberation, for good and bad. Born into a conventional bourgeois family, she had begun to have affairs early. She had an abortion at fourteen, attempted suicide shortly afterwards, and then fell  in with various artists and writers. These included Osip Brik, with whom she fell madly in love, and who fell likewise for her. In concert with the spirit of the age he was writing his thesis on the sociological and legal status of prostitutes, helping many of them in their dealings with the police and law courts. The pair, both Jewish, married at home. Lili saw no need to rein in her promiscuity – nor did Osip, for whom sex seems to have been inessential, request she do so. The change in personal relationships proposed by the Revolution had already been embraced in the Brik household.

In 1917 art, too, was tasked with throwing off bourgeois moral principles. For a heady moment post-Revolution, the avant-garde became the vanguard. The proletariat was the ‘most advanced class’, and Futurism ‘the most advanced aesthetic’, and thus the only one worthy of proletarian concern. There could, as the Futurists themselves had been arguing, be no revolutionary content without revolutionary form. For Mayakovsky and his circle the Revolution was a gift. ‘We have won!’ he wrote in his poem ‘Revolution’, ‘Long live us! Lo-o-ong li-i-ive us!’.

Mayakovsky was not, of course, the first poet or the last to desire a revolution of the spirit, a re-evaluation of all values. For all that he believed that he believed in Communism, it is not hard to imagine Mayakovsky in the clothes of one of the Romantics, or of the Fascists, or of the Beats, replacing the word Soviet with Love or Fatherland or Peace. The difficulty for Mayakovsky, however, was that his desired revolution had happened, the State for which he had cheered actually emerged. And any State that seeks absolute power must, sooner rather than later, expel the poets – unless it can co-opt them.

Mayakovsky’s various love affairs tended to follow the same pattern: an intense initial period of passion; a reading (usually the next day) to his new beloved of his poetry, after which – given an appropriate response – a first kiss would be exchanged; a passionate series of carnal encounters; a simultaneous bout of extreme jealousy and possessiveness; a final needy period; and then boredom and transgression.

It is a pattern that recurs in his relationship with the Revolution, although in this case he was in no position to break it off. Where writers such as Maxim Gorky (‘the Bolshevik’s propaganda awakens the darkest instincts of the masses’), Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova – whatever their future relationship to the Revolution – expressed their ambivalence toward it, or actively resisted, Mayakovsky reacted with unabashed enthusiasm and – at the first opportunity – he began to read it his poetry. As he wrote in his 1925 poem ‘Back Home’ (all poems drawn from the translations that appear in Jangfeldt’s book):

from poetry’s skies,
plunge into Communism

without it
I feel no love.

Mayakovsky needed the Revolution to need him as much as he needed it. When Lili herself wrote that,

countless numbers of people were fond of him, but that was just a drop in the ocean for someone with an ‘insatiable thief’ in his soul, who wanted everyone who didn’t read him to read him, all those to come who didn’t come, and that the one he thought didn’t love him should love him,

she might have been speaking of his relationship with the USSR.

It didn’t take long for the Revolution to begin to cool on its commitment to the art of the avant-garde. When Petrograd was decorated with Cubist art on the first anniversary of the Revolution, Lenin himself accused the artists of using the property of the peasants and workers for ‘their own private tricks’, producing ‘the most absurd doodles’. Attitudes toward the avant-garde were beginning to harden across the spectrum. In early 1919, Grigory Zinovyev, the Petrograd party boss warned:

In a time like this neutrality is impossible … literature cannot be neutral. Comrades, there is no choice. And I would advise you to side with the working class.

In 1920, Pravda ran a front page with the headline ‘Enough of Mayakovskery’. By 1922, Russia was expelling intellectuals. Soon afterwards it would be killing them.

One does not, however, become a Lothario without being a bit of a charmer. Mayakovsky’s brushes with authority were sporadic, and the role of seducer and seduced flexible. In a sense, Mayakovsky, who in Jangfeldt’s words was, ‘artless as a child and immoderate in everything he undertook,’ was too mercurial for the Party to take on. And, unlike many writers, he never spoke openly against either the Party or the Revolution. After reading his scathing 1922 satire against bureaucracy, ‘Re Conferences’, Lenin comes across as an indulgent parent, proud of his boy:

Yesterday by chance I read Mayakovsky’s poem on a political theme in Izvestiya … I am not one of those who admire his poetic talents, although I will willingly confess my lack of expertise in this field. But it is a long time since I last felt such enjoyment from a political and administrative viewpoint … I can’t comment on the poetry, but as far as the politics is concerned, I can guarantee he is absolutely correct.

If Mayakovsky, by sheer dint of personality, was proving himself adroit, Osip Brik was proving himself more so. In 1920 he joined Cheka, the precursor to the KGB. While this was not the KGB, and it did not directly contradict Osip’s left-wing tendencies, many were rankled by the move. Roman Jakobson wrote that Brik had admitted to losing his sentimentality while working for them and ‘began to relate to me several bloody episodes. This was the first time he made a rather repulsive impression on me’. Pasternak, as ever, was blunt, later describing the Briks’ apartment as ‘a branch of the Moscow police’.

The rewards for such accommodation were high – while occasionally denied visas, the marriage cartel enjoyed remarkable freedoms throughout the 1920s. Individually or in pairs they visited Paris, Berlin, London. In 1925 Mayakovsky visited Mexico, Cuba and the United States. (On this trip he fathered a child; his daughter, Patricia J Thompson, also known as Yelena Vladimirovna Mayakovskaya, is a professor of women’s studies at Lehman College, New York.) He arrived in Paris with 25,000 roubles, a year’s salary for a teacher, which he nonetheless managed to lose or gamble away. Whenever he went abroad, Lili gave him a wish-list of things to bring back, culminating in an order for ‘a little Renault’, which he duly supplied.

But if the rewards were high, so were the costs, though not necessarily for the cartel itself. Mayakovsky was in Berlin during the first deportation of intellectuals, and remained silent, despite the fact that many of them were being ‘repatriated’ precisely there. It is a short step from remaining silent about such things to open collusion. In March 1928 53 Russian and three German mining experts were accused of attempted sabotage at a mine in Shahkty in the Donets Basin, Ukraine. It was a show trial, and eleven of the men were sentenced to death, commuted to hard labour for those who had given evidence against their colleagues. While Pasternak and Mandlestam wrote to denounce the evolving police state, Mayakovsky wrote a poem – ‘The Saboteurs’ – denouncing those standing trial.

Then, in 1929, two writers, Boris Pilnyak and Yevgeny Zamyatin – both under suspicion of being ‘fellow travellers’ – were brought to trial for having their work published abroad. Having been removed from their posts, the state exhorted ‘all writers organisations and individual writers to make clear their attitude to the actions of Zamyatin and Pilnyak’. Mayakovsky responded immediately with a manifesto called ‘Our Attitude’, fully supporting the actions of the state. As Jangfeldt notes, Mayakovsky had now entered ‘dangerously far into a territory which no writer ought to tread’. He had gone, via a series of gentle accommodations, from defending writers against the state to defending the state against writers.

But if the practical costs of accommodation were suffered by others, there was at least one personal cost that Mayakovsky had to bear himself – that to his poetry. The tension that runs throughout Mayakovsky’s verse, and that which makes him great, is the battle between the epic and the lyric, the public and the personal. But to write of the personal became seen, increasingly, as a bourgeois affectation (or worse).

Matters came to a head in 1923 with the publication of ‘About This’. The poem – dedicated ‘to her and me’ – is Mayakovsky’s direct confrontation with a period of separation from Lili. Exhausted by him, and tired of his jealousy and his attempts to impinge upon her ‘erotic freedom’, Lili had ordered Mayakovsky to stay away from her for two months – a divorce, as they called it. Mayakovsky was devastated and, despite promising not to write except in an emergency, sent her endless despairing letters and spent hours gazing up at her window.

‘About This’ is not just Mayakovsky at his most raw, it is one of the rawest and greatest of all love poems. From its opening section, entitled ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol (borrowed from Oscar Wilde) to the final section, ‘Love’, Mayakovsky produces a masterpiece of erotic agony and obsession. Losing his love, he seeks redemption; finding none, he still cannot get her:

The pains in my heart don’t die away
but forge link after link.
Just so
came Raskolnikov
after murdering
to ring the bell again.

As Lili put it ‘Volodya has written a poem of genius!’

Official reactions, and those of Mayakovsky’s beloved workers, were, however, less than glowing. The journal Lef (the Left Front of the Arts) described it as ‘a sentimental romance … grammar schoolgirls weep buckets over it’. To the workers, it was simply ‘incomprehensible’. ‘About This’ was a paean to the individual, and therefore a repudiation of the collective. If this was what Futurism had to offer the working classes, the working classes were not interested.

As was so often the case, Mayakovsky’s need to be loved overcame his need for integrity. He spent the rest of the year writing ‘utilitarian poetry’ becoming, in Jangfeldt’s words, ‘a kind of poetic journalist’. Like George Orwell’s protagonist in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Gordon Comstock, he discovered an aptitude for writing advertising slogans. While outwardly life remained good throughout most of the 1920s, as Mayakovsky himself wrote, in order to accommodate himself to the prevailing literary ideology, he had to set ‘my heel/on the throat/of my own song’.

The Revolution was drifting away from Mayakovsky. It too had become tired of him.

In 1930 the Soviet Encyclopaedia declared that ‘Mayakovsky’s rebelliousness, anarchistic and individualistic, is essentially petit bourgeois’, and that even after the Revolution Mayakovsky had been ‘opposed to the worldview of the proletariat’. The denunciation could not have come at a worse time, although that it did was no coincidence. The problem with being a chameleon is that you can be coloured by outside forces.

His latest play, The Bathhouse, had been unanimously judged a ‘fiasco’ by the press. His retrospective exhibition 20 Years’ Work was a disaster. None of the invited dignitaries, and only a few of the invited authors, bothered to turn up. Meanwhile, the circle also seemed to be closing in on the Briks, with a news article headlined ‘Married Couple Travel at the Expense of the State’ appearing in early 1930. While they were exonerated, the sense that they were beginning to find themselves on the wrong side of history was overwhelming.

In addition, Mayakovsky’s private life was in turmoil. In Paris he had met and fallen in love with a 22-year old Russian emigrée, Tatyana Yakovleva. ‘…[T]he heart’s/stalled engine/has been/started up again,’ he wrote of their affair in the poem ‘Letter to Comrade Kostrov from Paris about the Nature of Love’. It was the first poem that he had not dedicated to Lili, which in turn provoked her first display of jealousy. He spent several months trying to convince Tatyana to return to Moscow with him. In October he was devastated when he found out that she was to be married to ‘a French viscount’.

Meanwhile, in what Jangfeldt refers to as  ‘a piece of ‘emotional double-entry book-keeping’, Mayakovsky had begun seeing the actress Veronika ‘Nora’ Polonskya, and was at the height of his obsessive phase. Nora was, however, married, and was not planning to leave her husband. He had also found out about his child in America, and was aware he was unlikely to ever see her. ‘I never thought one could have such strong feelings for a child’, he told a friend. ‘I think about her all the time’.

Mayakovsky, with his desperate need to love and be loved, was increasingly alone.

Suicide had been a theme in Mayakovsky’s poetry from the beginning. On 14 April 1930 it became a fact. Jangfeldt brilliantly evokes the last few days of Mayakovsky’s life, eliminating step-by-step the various conspiracy theories surrounding the suicide. For all that suicide exists in the literary imagination as a grand gesture, the reality is often a tawdry, sordid affair. The death of Mayakovsky involved too little sleep, too much booze, and a final love scene. When
Nora, whom he had sent out of the room moments before, rushed back in at the sound of a pistol shot, he was already dead.

For the authorities, however, the suicide of Mayakovsky was embarrassing. While no longer the darling of the Revolution, he was still the poet most associated with it, and as Jangfeldt points out, his choice of suicide during the first Five Year Plan made things difficult. After waiting to gauge the mood of the people, Pravda reported that the ‘suicide was motivated by purely personal considerations’, preceded by a ‘long-term illness’.  Over the next five years his work was gradually allowed to slip from the public consciousness. By the time Lili wrote her letter to Stalin, he was barely in print.

If Stalin’s diktat was Mayakovsky’s second death, then the fall of Communism represented his third. Regarded by both Russia and the West as the Soviet poet, his reputation has spent thirty years in decline. All those generations of Russian school children forcefed Mayakovsky were able to lose that particular chain. Jangfeldt’s book is not so much a re-evaluation as a re-assertion. Here remains a poet of genius – the robust, exuberant poet who opened ‘A Cloud in Trousers’ with

No grey hairs streak my soul,
No grandfatherly fondness there!
I shake the world with the might of my voice,
and walk – handsome,

Lili Brik also committed suicide, in 1978, at the age of 87. Osip had died of a heart attack in 1945, shortly before the need of the war. In her suicide note, Lili wrote ‘blame no one’. Forty eight years previously, Vladimir Mayakovsky had written exactly the same thing.

Works Cited

Roman Jakobson, My Futurist Years (Marsilio Publishers, 1997).