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.

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 English versions of the taped interviews and of unpublished memoirs that Lili Brik made available, as well as of selections of Mayakovsky’s poetry were done by a team of translators under the supervision of Samuel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 …

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