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His Neighbor’s Wife

I Love: The Story of Vladimir Mayakovsky and Lili Brik

by Ann Charters, by Samuel Charters
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 398 pp., $17.50

Brik and Mayakovsky

by Vahan D. Barooshian
Mouton (Slavistic Printings and Reprintings, 301), 157 pp., $30.00 (paper)

In 1922 Mayakovsky prefaced an autobiographic sketch with the following remark: “I am a poet. This is what makes me interesting.” Lili and Osip Brik might have said: “We were friends of Mayakovsky. This is what makes us interesting.” He spent almost half his life, fifteen of his thirty-six years, with them. His greatest love poems were dedicated to Lili Brik; her husband was his closest friend. Theirs was an extraordinarily complex relationship of love, friendship, and intellectual interests.

The books under review tell much of the story, and in so doing reconstruct the background of Mayakovsky’s poetry—the events, circumstances, and ideas that shaped it. The poetry itself is taken for granted, its importance subsumed, but this peripheral approach to what makes Mayakovsky “interesting” is not irrelevant. Talk about his life is not idle gossip, for his writing was more intimately and immediately related to the facts of existence than is true of most poets. His emotions were too fervent, his temperament too violent to allow for the usual distance between language and living. He was consumed in the process of living, swallowed up by experience to which the words of his poems gave voice in loud, extravagant hyperbole. His life was not so much transmuted as embodied in them.1

I Love—the title is appropriately borrowed from one of his poems to Lili Brik—began, Ann Charters tells us, as “a short, lyrical description of a love affair,” but, as the personal and political complexities of the story became evident, turned into a book that “took more than six years to complete.” The Charters first called on Lili Brik in her apartment in Moscow in 1972, returned during the next two years to tape interviews with her “about Mayakovsky and their life together,” and went to Stockholm and New York City for talks with Tatiana Yakovleva and Veronica Polonskaya, whom Mayakovsky loved in the last years of his life, and with Rita Rait, an old friend of his and of the Briks. English versions of the taped interviews and of unpublished memoirs that Lili Brik made available, as well as of selections of Mayakovsky’s poetry were done by a team of translators under the supervision of Samuel Charters, who also provided an excellent “Note” on the difficulty, indeed the “impossible dilemma” faced by any one “trying to translate Russian poetry.” Rita Rait was especially helpful, and the book is dedicated to her.

Neither a work of literary criticism nor of scholarly biography, I Love is the book its authors intended it to be, a popular narration of a famous love affair that happened to involve one of this century’s most original poets and picturesque men. Much of its matter is familiar to students of Mayakovsky. Some of it Lili Brik had already published, and in her interviews with Mrs. Charters she “often paraphrased and repeated anecdotes” in her “earlier articles.” A good deal, nevertheless, is new or newly translated. And if the tone of the book is hardly equal to its theme, a drama of such intricate and tragic passion as would require a Dostoevsky to do it justice, its substance is genuine: details of streets, rooms, furnishings, sometimes even the words and gestures of the principal actors—in short, the setting of the drama rather than the drama itself.

A pity, then, that the writing often suffers from defects of style, the least of which is an annoyingly ubiquitous use of verbal contractions, whether the context is formal or informal:

The Tsar who’d refused to take the disturbance seriously abdicated.

Mayakovsky was still seeing…Tonya Gumilina, who’d been part of the composite portrait of Maria…although he’d broken off his affair with her. She’d become involved….

More serious are such solecisms as:

There were colorful decorations like Burluik had been struggling to achieve.

Esenin hung himself in a hotel room.

The dedication of “A Cloud in Trousers” is translated as “To Thou, Lilya,” and Lili Brik is made to say:

Both of us, Brik and me, but especially me, were indignant over Mayakovsky and the others.

There are also such sentences as:

The living room off the tiny entrance foyer was filled with a long, low sofa with silk cushions and a piano, with an automobile Osip had made out of playing cards sitting on top of it.

Moreover, there is something crude and sensational in the way the story is told.

Still, real people emerge from it. Lili Brik, notably, whose image is so often blurred or distorted, appears as neither demon, angel, nor Belle Dame Sans Merci but, divested of supernatural properties, as an understandable woman, appealing and, on the whole, unhappy, selfish but good-hearted, loyal, generous, and with a good deal of pathos in her lively, amorous existence. Or so it seems to me on the evidence presented. Her capacity for friendship could withstand rebuffs to love and endure disappointments. She could subdue jealousy and act magnanimously, as she did, for example, toward the end in an episode that will serve as illustration. When she first realized that Mayakovsky’s infatuation with Tatiana Yakovleva was more than a passing fancy, Lili, in Ann Charters’s words, “lost her temper and began breaking china.” But six months later she was so alarmed by Mayakovsky’s despair on hearing that Tatiana was marrying another man that, after a sleepless night, she offered to join him in Leningrad where he was scheduled to give some readings:

I told him that I was very anxious about him. He answered with a phrase from an old Russian saying. “This horse has died, I’ll begin riding another….” “But perhaps you’d like me to join you?” He wanted that very much. I left that evening. He was so terribly glad to see me that he didn’t let me move away from him a single step. We went together to all his performances, always in large halls crowded with students.

Lili Brik was born into a prosperous, professional family of non-Orthodox Jews. Her father, Yury Alexandrovich Kagan, was a Moscow lawyer with a clientele in the world of theater and music. Her mother was an amateur pianist. They adored and spoiled their older daughter. She was bright, pretty, flirtatious, delighted in luxuries and the arts, did well in school without trying very hard, and after graduation spent a year in Munich studying sculpture. She visited art galleries, went to the theater, and took lessons in classical ballet. Subsequently, in a more stable society, she could have been the sparkling ruler of a literary salon.

She met Osip Brik in 1905 when she was fourteen. He was four years older, had been expelled from school for revolutionary activities but was readmitted that fall. He also belonged to a well-to-do Jewish family in Moscow. His father, a dealer in jewelry and antiques, was a connoisseur of dark coral which he imported from Italy and sold throughout Russia; Osip accompanied him often on his business trips. His mother, a liberal intellectual, knew several languages, admired Herzen, and encouraged her son in his socialist inclinations. He was a brilliant student, an eloquent and witty speaker, a prodigious reader who, according to Vahan Barooshian, “usually read about two or three books daily” and “during his adult life…maintained a ‘working’ library of over four thousand books.” He received a law degree from the University of Moscow, having chosen “that field because it did not require him to attend lectures and classes” and thus gave him time to devote himself to politics. “He read all the works of Marx, Engels and the Russian revolutionary democrats.”

Lili did not realize how deeply she had fallen under Brik’s spell until the summer after their meeting when he announced that he was determined never to marry but to devote his life to the Revolution. She was shaken, and in the years that followed broke off several engagements when, unexpectedly, she would encounter Osip “on the street or in the theater.” But when after an interval of six years he looked her up and proposed marriage, she consented without much enthusiasm. “By that time my feelings had cooled toward him…. I answered indefinitely…. He said, ‘Lilichka, let’s try.’ ‘All right,’ I answered, ‘let’s try.’ ” Despite this tepid response, however, her love was apparently stronger than his. At any rate, “The only year of real happiness in my life,” she told Mrs. Charters, “was the first year I spent together with Osya.” They were married in 1912, traveled to Uzbekistan, and, back in Moscow, lived extravagantly in the fashionable apartment provided by her parents: “We spent 10,000 on furniture and 20,000 on living like kings. We visited the theater, went to the races, traveled wherever we liked, and even rented expensive cars.” They would not have children, they decided: “it was too big a responsibility.”

Gradually his love for her appears to have diminished and their pleasant life in Moscow came to an end in 1914. Osip was drafted and given employment in the Automobile Corps. They moved to Petrograd, having stored their belongings, and there after a long day’s work at an exhausting and boring job, “Osip came home tired and went to bed early, and he never liked sleeping in the same bed with me. He said he couldn’t rest.” When Mayakovsky entered their lives the following year, they were no longer living as man and wife, but neither then nor later did they ever think of separating. As Osip once told Rita Rait, “Our long friendship and intimacy did not depend on anything and could not end because of anything.”

In his autobiography, under the rubric “Most Joyful Date,” Mayakovsky recorded that on July 15, 1915, he “made the acquaintance of L.Y. and O.M. Brik.” The momentous occasion, described in her memoirs by Lili’s younger sister Elsa—(Elsa Triolet by her first marriage, Aragon by her second)—is reproduced by Mrs. Charters. The eighteen-year-old Elsa, who, to the dismay of her parents, had been seeing something of the unmannerly, uncouth, and arrogant poet, now brought him to meet the Briks against their will. They disliked him. Two years earlier they had been shocked by his outrageously rude behavior at a testimonial dinner for the poet Balmont, and his well-known, flamboyant performances as a Futurist were not to their taste. “Please, I beg you,” Lili whispered to Elsa, “tell Mayakovsky not to read us any poetry.” As they sat down to tea, he “stood leaning against the door frame,” and oblivious to all of them, leafed through the pages of “a small notebook” that he put back in his pocket, and presently, looking “around the narrow little room as if it were a public auditorium…said abruptly in his deep voice, almost as if he were challenging them to go on ignoring him

Your thought

musing on a softened brain…”

and so on through the whole of “A Cloud in Trousers,” the first of his extraordinary love poems, in which the theme of private unhappiness turns into a condemnation of all society. “With the last words he sat down at the table, leaned close to Lili, and asked in a suddenly personal manner—still continuing the theatricality of the reading—if he could have a cup of tea. Lili was unable to speak…. Silently she poured a cup of tea from the samovar, and just as silently Mayakovsky accepted it,” then asked if he might dedicate the poem to her.

The effect on Osip was equally overwhelming. He hailed Mayakovsky as a great poet “even if he never wrote another line,” took the notebook from him to read, and reread the work the rest of the evening, offered to publish it at his own expense, and “drew up a contract promising to pay Mayakovsky fifty kopeks a line ‘forever.’ ” Mayakovsky did not go back to Kuokola, the Finnish resort town where he had written the poem, but took a room in a small hotel near the Briks. Within a month, he and Lili were lovers. When she told Osip and asked, “What am I to do?” he answered, “I quite understand you. How is it possible to refuse Mayakovsky?” And then, “But we must never part from one another.”

Free love was for the Briks a matter of principle, and Mayakovsky was not one to conceal his emotions. Their affair was in the open, a difficult, highly romantic relationship of the Sturm und Drang variety, a maelstrom of exultation and despair. Mayakovsky’s poems to Lili are full of pain and tenderness, of jealousy and the near madness of unfulfilled desire; his letters to her are gentle, pleading, amusing, abject. Osip thought them “hyperbolic characters,” steered clear of their quarrels, and was the only one to keep his head. Rita said that she had seen Mayakovsky “in rages,” Lili “in tears,” but she never saw Brik “lose control.” All three had other lovers, but they always returned to one another. And it is surely wrong to assume, as is often done, that Lili did not love the poet but only wanted to be the Beatrice of a Dante, the Laura of a Petrarch. If she could not live up to Mayakovsky’s Dostoevskian passion, could not be the Grushenka of a Dmitry Karamazov, she did love him in her own, quite faithful, fashion, but as Rita Rait, who knew her well, has doubtless judged correctly: “As much as she loved Mayakovsky, Lili was even more attached to Brik, forming all her own judgments about literature and politics from what ‘Osya says,’ ” wherein one may glimpse, perhaps, the nature of Lili’s private tragedy.

However this may be, the Briks devoted themselves to Mayakovsky. “Volodya,” Lili once told Rita, “is like a son to Osya and me.” They gave him friendship and confidence in abundance, the kind of support he needed despite his show of swaggering self-assurance. They promoted his work, published it themselves or negotiated contracts on his behalf, and more than once saved him from suicide. Had they not been abroad on that fatal 14th of April, 1930, they might have succeeded in doing so again. Osip’s first published article, “Bread!,” was an exultant encomium of Mayakovsky’s poetry as necessary food, nourishing and real by contrast to the escapist, sugary pastry of the Symbolists; thirty years later, in 1945, when he died of a heart attack, he was busy with a new edition of Mayakovsky’s poetry. Rita saw him for the last time two days before his death. He said: “I was always Volodya’s editor. He hated to put in periods and commas. When he wrote he always gave me the manuscript and said, ‘You put in all the damn commas.’ ” He had thought of writing his reminiscences of Mayakovsky, and once said to Lili: “To me Mayakovsky is an event, not a human being. My book will be called Vladimir Mayakovsky: An Eyewitness Relates.”

And yet, the Briks have been grossly, and it seems purposely, slighted in the Soviet Union. In 1972 the original Mayakovsky Museum, located in the apartment that he had shared with the Briks, was moved elsewhere and the guides, if questioned, would speak of the Briks as Mayakovsky’s “neighbors”; Lili’s photograph was also that of “a neighbor.” Mrs. Charters ascribes this falsification to the official prudery of the Soviet state and also to anti-Semitism: “It is officially impossible to accept the fact that the leading poet of the Revolution was so closely influenced by a Jewish intellectual.”

Professor Barooshian considers that Osip’s “formalism and independent literary orientation” are responsible for the shocking disregard of a “commanding theoretician of the Russian avant-garde,” the author of two essays, “Sound Repetitions” and “Rhythm and Syntax,” that are recognized as “neglected classics of Russian criticism.”2 Through painstaking research Barooshian has set out to remedy this neglect. He has extracted from the files of obscure publications a bibliography of Brik’s writings that contains 162 items and is still incomplete, and has assembled an impressive record of his activities in the cultural life of his time: the organizations he founded, the many committees on which he served, his polemics with official and semi-official factions, his great influence on Mayakovsky, who seemed to him “the avatar of his own political and social views.” In these views Formalism, Futurism, and Marxism were reconciled as revolutionary movements aimed at the overthrow of bourgeois values in all spheres of thought and action—art, philosophy, government, society. Brik supplied Mayakovsky with the material of his commemorative poem on Lenin and elaborated the principle of “social command” on which Mayakovsky prided himself in his work “to propagate revolutionary ideas by means of art.”

United in their beliefs, they strove together to advance them. And one cannot but admire their sincerity, their ardent faith, their determination, the zeal of their unremitting struggle for artistic freedom. At the same time, it is hard to avoid the impression that their ardor was fanatical and their conception of freedom narrow, limited as it was by an intransigent certitude that the truth they were proclaiming was indubitable and unique. Theirs was a doctrinaire position and their methods distinctly high-handed. They tried to ram Futurism down the throat of a public that would have none of it. They disregarded the tastes, interests, and capacities of the people they proposed to serve. Blind to the realities they thought they were addressing, they were an extreme and concentrated example of that fatal propensity to abstract, dogmatic formulations that Isaiah Berlin has seen as a characteristic and dangerous tendency of Russian thinkers.

The details of Mayakovsky’s last years make painful reading, and not just because of his romantic disappointments. More painful than these are his encounters with an increasingly hostile public—the hecklers at his readings, the indifferent publishers, the disdainful writers, some of whom, like Pasternak, had once been his admirers—above all, his own sense of failure: on his last visit to France he told a friend that he was returning to Russia because he had “stopped being a poet.” He had reached the final stage of that poet’s martyrdom which, as Roman Jakobson has pointed out, was a theme that ran throughout his work. He was “an expiatory offering” in the name of a future, universal resurrection. Jakobson’s eloquent homage to Mayakovsky, “On a Generation that Squandered its Poets,” is a lament for a friend and a threnody for a whole generation, the most tragically lost of all generations because, as tragedy demands, it was destroyed by its own flawed nobility:

We strained toward the future too impetuously and avidly to leave any past behind us. The connection of one period with another was broken. We lived too much for the future, thought about it, believed in it.

In a passage quoted by Barooshian, the artist Rodchenko, a friend and collaborator of Mayakovsky, recalled in his memoirs:

We were rebelling against accepted canons, techniques, tastes and values…. We had a vision of a new world, industry, technology and science. We were inventors and transformers of the world…. We created new concepts and broadened the concept of art itself.

Of course they left their mark on a future world, but they were victims who mistook their doom for their salvation. And their communal tragedy was reflected in that of the generation’s most representative poet, whose ebullience and passions were the surface of suffering that became unbearable, whose ego, in Jakobson’s image, was a “battering ram thudding into a forbidden future.”

  1. 1

    A splendid study of Mayakovsky in which this aspect of his work is discussed in detail is Mayakovsky: A Poet in the Revolution, by Edward J. Brown (Princeton University Press, 1973).

  2. 2

    Edward J. Brown, Mayakovsky, p. 210.

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