When Vladimir Mayakovsky committed suicide on April 14, 1930, the news sent shock waves through the Soviet Union. Ilya Ehrenburg, who knew of Mayakovsky’s notorious gambling habit, thought he might have been playing Russian roulette with his beloved Mauser pistol and lost his bet. But Mayakovsky’s suicide note, written two days before his death, suggested otherwise. Asking his mother and sisters to forgive him and sardonically asking for there to be no gossip (“the deceased hated gossip”), Mayakovsky had appended a few lines from an unfinished poem:
The game, as they say,
The love-boat has come to grief
On the reefs of convention.
Life and I are quits
And there’s no point
In nursing grievances.1
The word “love-boat” suggested romantic reasons, but also created a mystery, for Mayakovsky’s tangled love life was mostly unknown to the general public. At the time of his death he was simultaneously involved with three different women: his longtime mistress, Lili Brik, with whom he had spent most of his adult life in a bohemian ménage à trois (together with her husband, Osip Brik), but who was just then involved with a movie director; Tatyana Yakovleva, a striking young White Russian whom Mayakovsky had met in Paris and asked to marry him, but who had just married a Frenchman instead; and Veronika Polonskaya, a sultry young stage actress, also married, to whom he had also proposed marriage. Emotionally he was a wreck, and his death might have been precipitated by his relations with any one of his paramours.
But that wasn’t the only mystery. In the tightly controlled Soviet Union, suicide was seen as a crime and an act of defiance, an assertion of personal freedom that contradicted the image of the state as a workers’ paradise. Why would someone as famous and popular as Mayakovsky have killed himself, even under provocation? What most of his readers didn’t know was that for the first time since the October Revolution, Mayakovsky was seriously disaffected. Stalin had started to purge his regime of “Trotskyists” and other perceived enemies, and two recent satirical plays of Mayakovsky, The Bedbug and The Bathhouse, had aroused official anger with their frank criticisms of government leaders and corrupt bureaucrats. His enemies whispered that he, too, was a secret Trotskyist and an elitist, out of touch with his proletarian base.
He was already being shadowed by the OGPU (the secret police), and its agents swarmed through his apartment the moment his death became known. They had long since penetrated Mayakovsky’s inner circle. Osip Brik had been an agent of the secret police in the early 1920s and he and Lili still maintained close contact with them; and the official death notice was signed by no fewer than three secret agents, in addition to a couple of Mayakovsky’s literary allies.
The OGPU’s subsequent inquiries revealed that, despite government disapproval, Mayakovsky was still hugely popular with readers, and that a large part of the intelligentsia regarded his suicide as a political protest brought on by a crisis in Soviet literature. The suicide note, in the suspicious and paranoid atmosphere created by Stalin’s regime, was seen as a cover for more serious issues. The authorities, however, were able to seize on the note for their own ends. “The early stages of the investigation,” ran the official announcement in Pravda, “show that the suicide was motivated by purely personal considerations, quite unconnected to the poet’s public and literary activities.”
Mayakovsky had done the regime a favor with his reference to the “love-boat,” and in 1935 he got a kind of reward. Lili Brik wrote to Stalin to protest that Mayakovsky’s work had been allowed to go out of print and was being forgotten, and she asked the first secretary to rectify the situation. Stalin responded with surprising warmth, given that he had probably never read a word by Mayakovsky. Mayakovsky, he announced, was “the best, most gifted poet of our Soviet epoch,” adding, “indifference to his memory and his work is a crime.” Within a week Moscow’s Triumph Square was renamed Mayakovsky Square. A metro station was also named for him later, and a gigantic bronze statue erected in the square bearing his name. His political poems were reprinted in huge, multivolume editions and became staples of the Soviet literary curriculum.
Lili obviously thought she was helping her old lover by getting him rehabilitated and restoring his reputation with the government, but she was wrong. As Pasternak noted in his autobiography, after Stalin’s canonization, Mayakovsky’s work “began to be introduced forcibly, like potatoes under Catherine the Great. It was his second death. He had no hand in it.”
The official endorsement ruined Mayakovsky’s reputation for politically sensitive Russian readers and hurt his reputation in the West, especially during the cold war. In today’s Russia, since the disappearance of the Soviet Union, his works are virtually gone from high school curricula and are little read by the general public, while in the English-speaking world, he is also forgotten or ignored, especially when compared to the attention given his great contemporaries Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Osip Mandelstam. The first three undoubtedly regarded him as their equal, if not a better poet, and Mandelstam always treated him with respect, if not affection, yet a quarter-century after the demise of the Soviet Union, Mayakovsky remains under a cloud.2
This injustice must have been very much on the mind of the Swedish scholar Bengt Jangfeldt when he embarked on his sumptuous new book, Mayakovsky: A Biography, which definitively rescues the poet from near oblivion and restores him to his central position in Russian literature during the first quarter of the twentieth century. Jangfeldt, the author and editor of several earlier books on Mayakovsky, seems to have read just about everything written by or about the poet and talked to everyone of interest who could be interviewed by him, not least the redoubtable Lili Brik, who died in 1978, chief friend, mistress, and impresario in Mayakovsky’s life. This richly detailed and profusely illustrated biography, fluently translated by Harry D. Watson, is the best sort of literary monument to the poet and unlikely to be surpassed for many years to come.
Jangfeldt doesn’t flinch from describing the provocative behavior of the assertive young punk who stormed into Moscow’s prestigious Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture at the age of eighteen, dressed all in black, with shaggy hair and a mouthful of rotten teeth. The future “raging bull” of Russian literature was a towering six feet two, with the build of a boxer and a booming voice to match, yet he was also soft and vulnerable. “The springboard of his boldness was a wild shyness, while beneath the appearances of a strong will there hid a phenomenal sensitivity prone to unjustified gloom, an absence of will,” wrote Pasternak. Mayakovsky was a force of nature: headstrong, bellicose, an instinctive rebel and breaker of boundaries who in a sense never grew up. Till the end of his life he was a noisy adolescent in search of novelty and instant gratification, whether when falling in love with the next beautiful woman who crossed his path, gambling his last kopeck away at cards or billiards, or basking in the adulation of his audiences.
He was also extravagantly gifted—as painter, poet, performer, clown—and his promise was instantly spotted by David Burliuk, an older member of the Art Institute and himself exceedingly versatile. In 1911, Mayakovsky showed Burliuk two poems he had written, one a streetscape consisting entirely of visual images:
the first cubes leaped from the windows
of runaway houses….
pulls steel rails
from the trolley’s mouth.3
(Translated by Jack Hirschman and Victor Ehrlich, with adaptations)
Mayakovsky was building on the work of Alexander Blok and the Symbolists, but the dynamic of the line about cubes leaping from windows immediately struck Burliuk as visionary. Hailing the young hooligan as a genius, he enlisted him in his newly formed artistic group, the Cubo-Futurists. When the Futurists issued their notorious manifesto, A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, soon afterward, the young Mayakovsky’s poems were included. The manifesto was very much to Mayakovsky’s taste. “We alone are the face of our Time…. Throw Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc., etc., overboard from the Ship of Modernity,” it announced. The Futurists’ motto was “Cubism in pictorial art, Futurism in verbal art,” and among the members were the “trans-sense” poets, Velimir Khlebnikov and Aleksei Kruchonykh, and avant-garde artists, such as Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, and Alexander Rodchenko, who were pushing the boundaries of representation in painting.
Some of the Futurist poets went off on a wild reading tour of the provinces to draw attention to themselves. Mayakovsky wore a homemade yellow and black striped shirt for his performances and reveled in exchanging insults with audience members. His poems were highly rhetorical, with a heavy beat punctuated by extravagant rhymes. An approximation might be some of the work of the Beat poets of the 1950s (as in “Howl”), or hip-hop artists’ emphasis on street language and rhyme, though there was no music, of course. A more serious affinity was with the New York School of poets of the 1960s, notably Frank O’Hara4; yet some of Mayakovsky’s simpler lyrics could sound like nursery rhymes, except for their gloomy content:
Upon the roadway of my rutted
with cruel heels
drum out their senseless words.
Where towns are hanged
and the crooked tips
of their towers
in a noose of clouds,
I walk alone
To weep for constables
on their cross-
The Futurists’ tour launched Mayakovsky and also started his love affair with the stage. It offered him a place to experiment with new forms and create a new persona for himself in an artificial environment. Embracing Burliuk’s semi-ironic labeling of him as a “genius,” he adopted the stance of “poet and prophet” and created a mythological autobiography for himself. His subsequent growth as a poet and corresponding rise in avant-garde literary circles were meteoric; in 1913, still under twenty, he presented and starred in his verse tragedy, Vladimir Mayakovsky, at the Luna Park theater in St. Petersburg. The first act featured “a man missing an eye,” “a man without a head,” “a man with two cardboard kisses,” and so on, and amounted to a fantastical call for revolution on behalf of the halt, the lame, and the sick:
You wouldn’t understand
cold as an anonymous sneer,
I am carrying my soul to be slaughtered
for the dinner of impending years.
Rolling like an unwanted tear
from the unshaven cheek of the square,
I am probably the last poet.
(Translated by Maria Enzensberger)
The second act showed the poet in a toga after the revolution, accepting gifts from the poor for his saintly sacrifices and gathering their tears in a suitcase to take to “the dark god of storms” in the far north. The play featured several of Mayakovsky’s distinctive themes, “madness, suicide, the struggle with God, man’s existential exposure,” in Jangfeldt’s summing up, and his performance was met with hisses, catcalls, and almost wholly negative reviews.
Hisses and catcalls did not deter or upset Mayakovsky, however. Over the next few years, in addition to shorter works, he wrote a succession of long poems in his theatrical style: “A Cloud in Pants,” “The Backbone-Flute,” and “Man,” as well as another play, Mystery-Bouffe, which was directed by Vsevolod Meyerhold, with scenery and costumes by Malevich. Mayakovsky composed his poems aloud while walking, and he liked to read them himself, making a remarkable impression on his listeners. In “A Cloud,” he both dramatized and satirized himself as a split personality—riotous hooligan on the outside, vulnerable lover and martyr underneath:
No gray hairs streak my soul,
no grandfatherly fondness there!
I shake the world with the power of my voice
and walk on—a handsome twenty-two-year-old.7
(Translated by George Reavey, with adaptations)
From that self-conscious opening the tension would build, comedy would turn to tragedy and back to comedy again, and he would burst into tears at tense moments in his recitation. Maxim Gorky attended one of the first readings of “A Cloud” and was so “frightened and moved” by Mayakovsky’s sobs that he started to weep himself. Pasternak, another listener, commented that the narrator’s self-sacrificial impulses and thirst for suffering reminded him of a Dostoevsky character.
“The Backbone-Flute” was a love poem dedicated to Lili Brik, to whom he had been introduced by Lili’s sister, Elsa (later Elsa Triolet, the French novelist) in 1915, when he was twenty-two and Lili twenty-four. The daughter of a wealthy Jewish lawyer, a famous beauty and patron of the arts and famously promiscuous, Lili was married to the literary critic Osip Brik, but didn’t let that get in her way. She was intelligent, strong-willed, adventurous, a feminist, using her pronounced physical attractions to make her way in the world. She believed in, and insisted upon, free love, and Osip, seeing advantages for himself, went along with the arrangement.
Jangfeldt introduces her in chapter two of his book, and she almost runs away with it, in part because she is such an arresting character herself. “I saw right away that Volodya was a poet of genius,” Jangdfeldt quotes her as saying in her unpublished autobiography,
but I didn’t like him. I didn’t like loud-mouthed people…. 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, vulgar one at that.
Nevertheless, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Lili would have an affair with the brawny young poet. When told about it, Brik allegedly said, “How could you refuse anything to that man!” But this was more serious than her earlier liaisons. Mayakovsky was an enormously persistent and demanding (and jealous) lover, and this was reflected in “The Backbone-Flute,” where the poet’s alternation between euphoria and despair are now occasioned by his mistress:
I am fated to be a tsar.
On the sunlit gold of my coins
I shall command my subjects
your precious face!
the earth fades to tundra,
and the river bargains with the north wind,
I’ll scratch Lili’s name on my chains, and in the darkness of hard labor
kiss them again and again.
(Translated by Max Hayward and George Reavey, with adaptations)
Lili was happy to sleep with Mayakovsky, but held him at a certain length for nearly three years before suggesting he move in with herself and Osip, an arrangement that lasted on and off for the rest of his life. Meanwhile she lost no time in persuading her protégé to cut his hair and throw away his yellow blouse. She arranged for a dentist to make new teeth for him and bought him fancy new clothes to wear, so that he began to look more like an English dandy than the bohemian of old (though remaining just as wild in temperament).
“A Cloud in Pants” and “The Backbone-Flute” were both described as love poems. Mayakovsky’s third major work, “Man,” had no such description or dedication, but resembled the first two (and his play Vladimir Mayakovsky) in that it was essentially a tragedy in autobiographical form, featuring the poet as hero. This time, he boldly took the life of Jesus as his model. The poem was split into sections: “Mayakovsky’s Nativity,” “Mayakovsky’s Life,” “Mayakovsky’s Passion,” “Mayakovsky’s Ascension,” and so on, and the poet was “the people’s Christ,” a secular martyr and prophet, battling evil (in the form of wealth, exploitation, inequality) on behalf of the poor and downtrodden.
The allegorical subject matter makes the poem sound pompous or boring, but the wealth of detail in Mayakovsky’s story and the power of his imagery, not to speak of his outlandish yet utterly convincing rhymes, stunned his listeners. The room was full of notable poets who had just read their own work (the event was called “Two Generations of Poetry Meet”), and Mayakovsky’s reading was the star performance. Pasternak called the poem “a work of uncommon profundity and exalted inspiration.” Andrey Bely, the doyen of Symbolism, sat opposite Mayakovsky “as if transfixed,” according to Jangfeldt. “When the reading was over, he rose, shaken and pale, and declared that he could not imagine how poetry of such power could be written at such a time.” After a later reading, Bely again rose to his feet and declared Mayakovsky the most important Russian poet after the Symbolists. He had revolutionized Russian poetry both in form and subject matter, and no serious writer could ignore his influence after that.
Mayakovsky was working as a draftsman in Petrograd (as an alternative to being drafted into World War I) when the October Revolution broke out, and he had a ringside seat. It seemed to fulfill all his hopes, including the message of his recently produced drama, Mystery-Bouffe, a rowdy parody of the traditional mystery play portraying a struggle between two groups, the “Unclean” working class and the “Clean” upper class, that ends with the victory of the “Unclean” and the creation of a workers’ paradise on earth. Mayakovsky and his fellow Futurists saw themselves as the natural allies of the revolutionaries. They had already imagined what the future society should look like; now the Bolsheviks would put that vision into effect.
Mayakovsky joined the government-sponsored writers’ union, and spent two full years designing posters and writing propaganda for ROSTA—the Russian Telegraph Agency. He wrote political verses, children’s poems, and commercial jingles for the new Soviet co-ops that replaced business. He also wrote and acted in three innovative movies with Lili Brik and imagined that he would become a star director and performer one day. According to Jangfeldt the films demonstrated originality and talent, and with friends like Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, Mayakovsky might have gone further, but in the end he opted for literature.
By sheer force of will Mayakovsky turned himself into the self-proclaimed poet laureate of the Revolution, though it was never a comfortable fit. In his Ode to the Revolution, Left March, and innumerable similar works he sang the praises of the Bolsheviks and urged them onward to victory, and in his long epic poem, 150,000,000 (the then population of the Soviet Union), celebrated the Red defeat of the Whites in Russia’s Civil War. Lenin, however, was not impressed. The poem was “nonsense, stupidity, double-dyed stupidity and pretentiousness!” he told his colleagues, and said that the commissar for enlightenment (and Mayakovsky’s friend), Anatoly Lunacharsky, should be “horsewhipped” for allowing it to be printed. After a revival of Mystery-Bouffe to celebrate the second anniversary of the Revolution, the play was panned by critics, and Pravda published a mocking headline, “Enough of This Mayakovskery.” Not long afterward, a decree was issued denouncing Futurism as “absurd” and “perverse.”
Mayakovsky ignored these difficulties, and in 1924 celebrated the man who had excoriated him in a long epic, Lenin, a Marxist history of the world up till Lenin’s time. A third patriotic epic, Good, published in 1927, was another encomium to the Soviet state to mark the tenth anniversary of the Revolution. By now he had overcome his critics and had the satisfaction of seeing his pro-Soviet poems published in millions of copies. Luckily there were a few exceptions to his political work, such as “An Extraordinary Adventure that Befell Vladimir Mayakovsky in His Dacha,” a delightful account of the sun coming down from the heavens to talk to him, and two more love poems to Lili, one long one, About That,8 and one short—”I Love,” written in 1923 after Lili made her first determined attempt to put an end to their affair:
above the roar despite
saw a boy simply
took his heart
play with it
like a rubberball.
All the others,
the screwed-up girls,
“Love that guy?
Hell, he’ll swallow her up.
She must be some tamer from
The circus or zoo.”
(Translated by Jack Hirschman and Victor Ehrlich, with adaptations)
Thanks to his popularity, Mayakovsky now led a life of comparative ease and was given more latitude than most other writers. He had become a cultural ambassador for the new state, traveling to Paris, Berlin, and other cities in Western Europe, and in 1925 crossed the Atlantic to America for his first and only visit. He marveled at the “austere disposition of bolts and steel” in a poem on the Brooklyn Bridge and welcomed “the futurism of naked technology,” as he put it in his subsequent book, My Discovery of America. But he claimed to be frightened by the sight of technology out of control and trotted out the usual Soviet clichés about American loneliness and the heartlessness of capitalism. The lonely poet had a lightning affair with an intelligent and attractive young Russian emigrée, Yelizaveta (“Elly”) Jones, who acted as his informal interpreter in New York. Nine months later she bore him a daughter, Helen Patricia, whom he was able to meet just once when Elly brought her to Nice a couple of years later.9
Returning to Moscow, Mayakovsky touched rock bottom with such poems as “Going Home,” a paean to the dictatorship of the proletariat with a request that Stalin “command” the “poet’s work,” and some months later, “To Sergei Esenin” (the only poet to rival Mayakovsky for popularity in the early 1920s), accusing the peasant poet of pessimism and political incorrectness for taking his own life. Mayakovsky was becoming a “newspaper poet,” as he himself acknowledged, suppressing true emotion for the sake of fake emotion and propaganda, and his personal life was collapsing as well. It was after visiting Elly and their baby daughter in Nice and contemplating the havoc he had caused that Mayakovsky embarked on his furious love affair with Tatyana Yakovleva in Paris. When she rejected his proposal, he promised to return and try again in October, but the government refused him a visa for the first time ever. Soon after, with encouragement from a jealous Lili, he launched into his affair with Veronika Polonskaya.
Mayakovsky was beset on all fronts. Defeated in love, he was forced to confront the price of his unqualified support for the Revolution too. In one of his poems, “Letter from Paris to Comrade Kostrov on the Nature of Love,” Mayakovsky dramatized the conflict between politics and personal emotion that he had experienced for most of his life. In another poem, “At the Top of My Voice,” inspired by Pushkin’s epitaph for himself, Exegi Monumentum, written just under a hundred years earlier, he admitted how much violence he had done to his work:
my throat too,
you love poems—
has more charm.
on the throat
of my own song.
“I…stomped on the throat of my own song” was Mayakovsky’s epitaph for himself, and Jangfeldt devotes several chapters to his last agonizing months, tracking the events of his last fateful week day by day, until the poet concluded there was no other way to resolve both his emotional and his political dilemmas. Jangfeldt marshals the huge variety of sources he has amassed to create a gripping account of the poet’s tumultuous life and tragic death. Inexplicably for a book published by an academic press, however, there is no bibliography, just a list of the main sources, chapter by chapter, and while there is an index of names, there is neither an index of topics nor of the Mayakovsky poems discussed by Jangfeldt. A further problem is the translations, but in all other respects, this book restores Mayakovsky to his rightful place in the pantheon of Russian letters and does him full justice.