Mayakovsky: A Biography by Bengt Jangfeldt (Translated by Harry D Watson) - review by James Womack

James Womack

At the Top of His Voice

Mayakovsky: A Biography


University of Chicago Press 610pp £24.50 order from our bookshop

There are Mayakovsky Streets in forty-five Russian cities and fourteen Ukrainian cities. There are three Mayakovsky Streets in St Petersburg, more than there are in the whole of Kazakhstan, which boasts only a couple, one in Almaty and one in Ust-Kamenogorsk. Triumph Square in Moscow was called Mayakovsky Square from 1935 to 1992; the metro station that serves it is still called Mayakovsky. Omsk seems particularly fond of the poet: as well as a street, it has a cinema and a nightclub (or rather a ‘youth relaxation complex’, which I hope is a nightclub) blessed with the great man’s name.

All this toponymy goes to suggest something of what Pasternak called Vladimir Mayakovsky’s ‘second death’ in 1935, five years after his suicide. In response to a plea from Mayakovsky’s lover Lili Brik, Stalin famously declared that ‘Mayakovsky was and remains the best, most gifted poet of our Soviet epoch. Indifference to his works and memory is a crime.’ After that, the commemoration machine cranked into action, Mayakovsky was elevated to the position of premier Soviet poet and his work started to be forcibly distributed, like ‘potatoes in the time of Catherine the Great’ (Pasternak again). If you look at Brik’s original letter, you see that Stalin’s decree is scrawled firmly and rapidly across it, and the speed of change was equally radical and decisive: the letter is dated 24 November 1935; Triumph Square was renamed Mayakovsky Square on 17 December.

After the apotheosis, the backlash: what Bengt Jangfeldt calls the ‘third death’ happened after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Mayakovsky was removed from the school curriculum and was no longer published or promoted, was no longer used as a symbol of whatever values the country wanted to promote. Second-hand bookshops were clogged with his work: I bought the thirteen-volume 1955 Complete Works in 2001 for 130 roubles, slightly over two pounds sterling. Mayakovsky has become an object of academic study rather than of popular acclaim. He is present, but largely ignored: his imposing granite bust is still on display at the corner of Nekrasov and Mayakovsky Streets in St Petersburg, but the last time I was there it was heavily Gorbacheved with bird shit.

Jangfeldt’s biography therefore has two obvious and possibly contradictory tasks: to humanise the Soviet icon and also to suggest to us why we should still be interested in this relict of the 20th century. The first task is the harder. By any standards, Mayakovsky’s life in broad outline is the stuff of socialist hagiography. Mayakovsky’s father died from blood poisoning when his son was twelve. Mayakovsky, his mother and two sisters moved from Kutaisi in Georgia to Moscow and made their living as best they could, taking in lodgers and painting decorative boxes and Easter eggs. Mayakovsky joined the Bolsheviks when he was about fourteen. He was expelled from school and spent a couple of years engaged in political activity, radicalising the Moscow bakers. He claimed to have eaten an address book during a police raid to prevent sensitive information falling into their hands.

Later, at art college, he started writing poetry. He travelled round the country in an attempt to bring Futurist poetry to the masses, predicted the Revolution in his early masterpiece ‘A Cloud in Trousers’, welcomed it when it finally arrived, and handed himself over to the victorious Communist Party to serve it and the new regime as best he could. He wrote a 3,000-line poem on Lenin’s death and legacy and continued to support and dedicate himself to the cause right until his death. His last major poem, ‘At the Top of My Voice’, contains lines such as:

When I appear
before the CCC
of a more enlightened future

I will
lift up
over the heap of poetic robbers

like a Bolshevik membership card
all hundred volumes
my party books.

Mayakovsky sometimes seemed to want nothing more than to be the spokesman of the Soviet Union: he wrote a very long and bad poem called ‘150,000,000’, which has as its protagonist the whole 150-million-strong population of the Soviet Union, locked in a final battle against capitalism, as personified by Woodrow Wilson. Even Lenin found this too much and wrote an angry memorandum to Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Soviet cultural commissioner, calling the work ‘rubbish, stupid, stupid, beyond belief, and pretentious’. Setting Lenin’s misgivings to one side, with so much evidence in favour of Mayakovsky’s ideological bent it is unsurprising that the Soviet regime should have found it easy to promote a case of the poet as nothing more than a larger-than-life voice of the regime.

Jangfeldt unpicks this version of Mayakovsky primarily by avoiding the Soviet-era emphasis on society at the expense of the individual. A writer whose first significant work was a play called Vladimir Mayakovsky: A Tragedy is never going to be immune from charges of self-aggrandisement and pretension, but Jangfeldt shows how Mayakovsky’s maximalist world-view was not simply a result of setting himself at the service of monolithic historical forces and vast state structures.

Essentially, Mayakovsky’s suitability for the role of the Soviet Union’s number one poet was the result of a happy coincidence in the professed utopian ideas of the regime and Mayakovsky’s own excessive, highly strung personality. Almost from the start of his life, Mayakovsky seems to have been an extreme show-off and a compulsive gambler, competitive and unstoppable even when playing games with his sisters. The poet who sets himself up as the ultimate iconoclast, who ends ‘A Cloud in Trousers’ by whipping a knife out of his boot and threatening God himself, is also the little boy back in Georgia, crying ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ and desperate to win at croquet.

Jangfeldt carefully shows the way in which all aspects of Mayakovsky’s life – his womanising, his astonishing productivity, his chain-smoking, his gambling, his poetry – came from the same source. In Jangfeldt’s concentration on how Mayakovsky’s art and life were absolutely and inextricably intertwined, the granite Soviet figure is remade into something more akin to a butch Russian Oscar Wilde, and is all the more interesting for the metamorphosis. Jangfeldt also dispenses with Soviet-era prudishness and obfuscation: we are told quite openly that Maxim Gorky decided, maliciously, to spread the false rumour that Mayakovsky had syphilis, and that Mayakovsky probably suffered from premature ejaculation.

Mayakovsky: A Biography is also a beautifully coordinated group portrait of the individuals surrounding Mayakovsky, in particular focusing on his relationship with Lili Brik, her husband, Osip, and the attempts of all three of them to live together. An immense amount of relevant contextual information is provided calmly and accurately: without getting bogged down in the subtleties of distinction between the Cubo-Futurists, the Ego-Futurists, the members of the Centrifuga group and so on, the reader comes out of this book with a clear sense of the literary panorama of Russia during the most fascinating and complex years of the early 20th century.

The secondary task, that of rehabilitating Mayakovsky and suggesting his continued importance as a poet, is accomplished almost by stealth. This is a wonderful book that presents us with a captivating, contradictory, frustrating human being. Who would not want to go and read his works after being introduced in this way? Who would not want to learn more about a man who, in Berlin pubs, ordered two beers, ‘für mich und mein Genie’?


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