Larger Than Life


translated and edited by Herbert Marshall
Hill & Wang, 432 pp., $10.00

Vladimir Mayakovsky
Vladimir Mayakovsky; drawing by David Levine

Mayakovsky entered Russian literature in 1912. He left it eighteen years later, on the 14th day of April 1930 when at 10:15 in the morning he shot himself through the heart. Had he lived another three months, he would have been, on the 7th of July, thirty-seven years old. His death was shocking; it roused all kinds of rumors. And yet it might have been, though it was not, foreseen. Only in retrospect did it seem consistent with his tragic, willful life. For though the theme of suicide kept recurring in his poems, it was too grotesquely treated to be taken seriously. And had he not, on other occasions, played Russian roulette and been spared by Fate? He had always conducted himself with mystifying mock-seriousness and jocular solemnity. Exaggeration was his characteristic style. The images of torment and cries of pain that filled his poems were simply mannerisms, it seemed, and technical devices, like the preposterous gestures and outlandish costumes he affected, and the huge voice he cultivated to impress his audiences. His laughter was immense, his satire broad, and his show of tragedy, a mask he wore in the vaudeville act he made of his life. The end revealed the opposite to be the truth: The tragic mask was not a mask, but the face itself; and comedy, not tragedy, was what Mayakovsky had always played with in a desperate attempt, no doubt, to make light of suffering, to burlesque the demands of an insatiable ego by means of ludicrous hyperbole.

He spent his life strutting in the role of rebellious hero on a stage of his own making; and the epoch into which he was born made his performance more appropriate than it could have been at any other time. Protest and propaganda were in the air. The stance of rebellion was full of meaning. Tradition was the universal enemy. Violence, overthrow, and brutal reconstruction were the order of the day. Mayakovsky fulminated against the ideals, forms, and establishments of the past—political, religious, ethical, aesthetic. In 1905, at the age of twelve, in his native Georgia, he led his classmates in revolutionary demonstrations; two years later, in Moscow, he attached himself to an underground group of Bolsheviks, was arrested, put under surveillance and, the following year, clamped into jail. During his imprisonment, with leisure to do some reading, he decided that he too could write but that what he had to say required fresh words, constructions, and rhythms; and once released, announced to a comrade that he “wanted to create a Socialist art.” In 1912 he joined the artist David Burlyuk and the poets Velemir Khlebnikov and Alexei Kruchonykh in producing a manifesto entitled A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, which proclaimed the determination of these Futurists to “throw overboard” the most renowned Russian authors, both living and dead, and build a new art needed by a new…

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