I’m with the Imaginists

Tony Wood

On 28 May 1919, the residents of Moscow woke to find that the walls of the Strastnoi convent had been daubed with what at first glance might have appeared to be crude blasphemous slogans. More attentive reading, however, revealed that this was poetry: ‘I sing and appeal: Lord, give birth to a calf!’ ‘Look at the fat thighs/Of this obscene wall./Here the nuns at night/Remove Christ’s trousers.’ ‘Citizens, change/The underclothes of your souls!’ These words came courtesy of the Order of Imaginists, a group of avant-garde poets; they had been published together with their manifesto in February of the same year – only to meet a storm of criticism. Lenin is alleged to have read the assembled texts, by Sergei Esenin, Anatoly Mariengof, Vadim Shershenevich and Ryurik Ivnev, and to have referred to Mariengof – who wrote the lines about the underclothes – as a ‘sick boy’.

Russia was in the midst of civil war, with millions dying in battle, and from hunger or cold. The cities had emptied: by 1920 St Petersburg had lost almost three-quarters of its pre-Revolutionary population, and Moscow half; those who remained dismantled houses for firewood, leaving horse carcases to rot among the ruins. It was against this apocalyptic backdrop that the Imaginists led their bohemian lives, shocking as much by their incongruous frivolity as by their risqué material. They declaimed in one murky café after another, strutting the streets of Moscow with walking sticks and in top hats; they staged prank after prank (in 1921 they renamed several main thoroughfares after themselves and hung a sign from the neck of a statue of Pushkin reading ‘I’m with the Imaginists’); they ran a bookshop and hounded out customers attempting to buy work by their rivals, while happily promoting their own books, of which they produced more than thirty in 1920 and 1921 alone. But with the exception of Esenin, whose peasant roots and nostalgia for rural Russia had very quickly earned him great popularity as a ‘people’s poet’, the provocativeness of the Imaginists has far outlived their poetry. Indeed, they are chiefly known as an unhealthy influence on Esenin, an irritating and regrettable sidelight on the career of a national genius.

Between 1918 and 1922, Esenin and Mariengof were inseparable. They shared lodgings, benefactors and whatever food they could find: they dedicated poems to each other; they were so close many commentators have assumed that they were lovers. It was this legendary friendship, the moments of rambunctiousness and the social and political upheaval of the times that Mariengof sought to portray in his brilliantly sardonic memoir, A Novel without Lies, first published in 1927. In short, sometimes almost epigrammatic chapters, the book follows their adventures in Moscow during the Civil War and the early years of NEP, describes their drifting apart after 1922, with Esenin’s brief, unstable marriage to Isadora Duncan and subsequent decline into alcoholism, and ends with a movingly laconic account of Esenin’s last days, before his suicide in 1925.

The public didn’t like Mariengof’s version of Esenin – largely because Esenin became even more popular after his death: to reproach him wih the comical vanity and insincerity Mariengof ascribes to him was entirely out of order. ‘Only a cold stranger’s hand will prefer whitewash and rouge to other hues,’ Mariengof had written early in the book, but it disappeared from view and was reprinted only in 1988.

Born in 1897, Mariengof grew up in Penza, where his father worked for a gramophone company. He moved to Moscow in 1918 and got a job at the Central Executive Committee publishing house, where he met Shershenevich and Ivnev. He had read Esenin’s poetry, and pictured him, he says, as ‘a peasant, about 35, over six feet tall, with a beard like a salver of red copper’. He was surprised, therefore, when a short man with wavy blond hair and blue eyes – looking like ‘a young and pretty hairdresser from the provinces’ – stood before him in a peasant smock and dog-eared leather boots. It soon transpired that the costume was for show: what Esenin wore when he wanted to wheedle money or favours out of the authorities. A Novel without Lies is in large part a story of insincerities, from Esenin’s smock-wearing to his dreadful treatment of his first wife, Zinaida Raikh, from his cajoling of state officials to what Mariengof clearly feels was the great tragedy of Esenin’s life: the trickiness and endless play-acting for the sake of ‘the mystic masquerade and great lie we call art’.

On one of his early visits to Mariengof’s office, Esenin advises him on how to succeed in literature. ‘You’ve got to conduct a skilful game,’ he says, explaining how, when he arrived in St Petersburg from Ryazan Province in 1915, he told a succession of literary figures, from Aleksandr Blok to Fedor Sologub, that he was

going to Riga to roll barrels . . . Barrels – ha! I came to Petersburg for worldwide fame, for a bronze monument . . . Klyuev here’s the same. He pretended to be a house painter. He came into Gorodetsky’s kitchen through the back entrance: ‘Would you happen to need something painted?’ And here we go, he starts reading verses to the cook. You know what poets’ cooks are. She dashed straight to the master of the house.

Nikolai Klyuev – whose poetry was part folk-derived, part mystical and homoerotic – heavily influenced Esenin in the years immediately before the Revolution, in his behaviour as much as in his writing: he would apparently pretend to be illiterate, dress in smocks and give readings accompanied by accordions. Esenin happily tagged along: his biographer, Gordon McVay, refers to the two of them at that time as ‘the terrible twins of an increasingly false folkiness’. Whenever Klyuev met anyone of importance he would put on as rural an accent as possible, a subterfuge which was to serve Esenin well during his Imaginist years. Mariengof reports a visit to the Moscow Soviet, headed by Lev Kamenev, to secure permission to open a bookshop: Esenin, back in his smock, rounded his os to replicate Klyuev’s Olonets accent.

Mariengof relates these and other escapades with what appears to be a gleeful sense of undermining Esenin’s hagiographers. (On one occasion at least his sense of humour gets the better of the historical record: there is no evidence to support his claim that during the Civil War Esenin worked in a circus to avoid the draft, reciting poetry on horseback.) Some have seen this as condescension, but posthumous teasing is more plausible. At one point Esenin is convinced he has syphilis. At a dinner party, he asks Vsevolod Meyerhold to examine his gums; Meyerhold, who has fallen in love with Esenin’s ex-wife and is trying to discuss the subject maturely with the poet, nods meaningfully. Esenin is horrified, grabs a friend who has been drinking from the same glass, and the two scurry off to await their end: ‘We’re going home. We’ve got syphilis.’ This is ridiculous, vain and endearingly comical – in much the same way that the smock and Olonets os would be, if you were in on the act.

Being in on the poetic act is frequently Mariengof’s principal claim on our attention: there are several quotations from Esenin’s poetry, accompanied by an insider’s account of the circumstances surrounding their composition. One passage recounts a walk through streets littered with horse carcases on which ravens and dogs with blood dripping from their muzzles were feeding. Back in the kommunalka, the communal apartment they lived in on Bogoslovsky Lane, they tried to write with ink that had frozen in the well – an episode that appears, transmuted, in Esenin’s poem ‘Mare Ships’. And Mariengof claims that Esenin wrote the lines, ‘I’ll let no one in my chamber,/To no one will I open the door,’ during the (several) days they spent locked in the bathroom to be close to the boiler, while the other residents hammered at the door in increasing desperation.

Several of the short sections of A Novel without Lies are taken up with trips away from Moscow – to Kharkov, where Esenin gives an outdoor reading, ‘wedging his words between the din of church bells’ as the crowd ‘contracts into a huge black fist’. They meet the Futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov, who speaks in fractured sentences and writes illegible poems in the dark. They travel to the Caucasus (entertainingly rendered throughout as ‘Caucuses’), and on the way see a scrawny horse trying to outrun their train. The horse seemed to haunt Esenin as if it stood both for the noble spirit of rural resistance to industrial modernisation and the futility of that resistance. But it also represents the tensions in Esenin’s work as a whole, as nicely observed by McVay: a wistful longing for rural simplicity in a poet who, once his career began, spent almost all his time in the salons and saloons of the city; an empathy with the horse, in a man who was always on the train outrunning it.

This may seem like hypocrisy, but something more complex is suggested by Mariengof’s description of Esenin as a master of ‘manufactured sincerity’. Not cold, calculating insincerity, but artificial honesty, as if he were a liar desperately trying for truth, but only able to dress up his lies a little differently. Elsewhere, Mariengof arrives at an ingenious and lenient diagnosis: he refers to Esenin’s way of relating to people as obkhozhdenie, which is rendered here as ‘treatment’; however, the word is also connected etymologically with the verb obkhodit, which means ‘to get around’ someone or something, literally or figuratively. Mariengof says that

Esenin always loved to turn a word inside-out, to arrive at its original meaning.

Words, in their centuries-old wandering, tend to wear out. With our tongues we’ve licked clean the beauteous metaphorical figures of some, the aural image of others, and the sense, subtle and sarcastic, of still more.

Perhaps it was by carefully listening to the inner core of every word that Esenin came to the conclusion that man must be ‘treated’.

The implication is that, for Esenin, there was no way of relating to people without also manipulating them – and that language was somehow an accessory to this. Mariengof holds the ‘inner core’ of language itself accountable for his friend’s misdemeanours – you couldn’t call this condescension.

Mariengof and Esenin began to drift apart late in 1921 or early in 1922 – partly for literary reasons, Esenin gravitating once more towards peasant poets such as Klyuev and Petr Oreshin while Mariengof stuck with Imaginism’s repertoire of metaphorical contortions. There were personal reasons, too: Mariengof had fallen in love with the actress Anna Nikritina, much to the annoyance of Esenin, who moved out of their lodgings in Bogoslovsky Lane, refusing to ‘sit on the edge of someone else’s nest’. He met Isadora Duncan in November that year. Her mouth is ‘small and red as a bullet wound’; later, she dances for Esenin and Mariengof, using a scarf as a stylised, substitute partner, and ‘snaps its spine’, leaving ‘its corpse stretched out on the carpet in convulsions’ at the dance’s conclusion.

Esenin and Duncan’s relationship seems to have been strained from the start. According to Mariengof, Duncan ‘knew no more than ten words of Russian’, and had used four of them the first time they met (‘golden head’, ‘angel’, ‘devil’); Esenin spoke only Russian. He divided the next few months between her apartment and Mariengof’s, drinking more and more heavily and alternating between cruelty towards Duncan and infatuation. They married in May 1922 and soon after set off on a trip to Berlin, New York and Paris. The journey wasn’t a success. Esenin came back alone, saying he would be seeking a divorce; at a reading in the Bronx he had caused a scandal with some ugly anti-semitic remarks, and in Berlin two of his poems published in an emigré journal were, according to McVay, described by one reader as ‘untalented vomit’ and ‘the defecation of a brainless head’; in Paris he was taken ill and diagnosed with epilepsy – though it’s far more likely that his fits were alcohol-induced.

He returned to Moscow with nothing but loathing for the West, and his alcoholism continued to have serious effects on his health: on a trip to Baku early in 1925 he seems to have contracted tuberculosis; by December he has been admitted to a psychiatric clinic in Moscow, suffering from delirium tremens and hallucinations. Mariengof visits him, arriving just after Esenin has downed a bottle of champagne. ‘The whites of his eyes had filled with red and the tiny black holes of his pupils with a horrid, naked madness.’ Esenin begins to stare at the rug hanging on the wall, discerning red and yellow faces, and asks Mariengof to wipe their noses – which Mariengof does once Esenin threatens to smash them with a bottle. ‘There is a lot that drowns in memory,’ Mariengof writes. ‘But something like that – never.’ Within a few weeks Esenin had discharged himself and travelled to Leningrad, where he took a room in the Hotel Angleterre, and in the early hours of 28 December, after writing his last poem in his own blood, he hanged himself.

Mariengof had enjoyed a certain success during Esenin’s last few years, as the leading contributor to the short-lived Imaginist journal Hotel for Travellers in the Beautiful, and as the author of two plays, The Conspiracy of Fools (1922) and The Bipeds (1925). After Esenin’s death, he wrote two novels, Cynics (1928) and The Shaven Man (1929), and then concentrated almost exclusively on writing for the theatre and cinema; before his death in 1962 he wrote two further volumes of memoir, My Century, My Friends and Girlfriends and This is for You, My Descendants!, the first published only in 1990, the second in 1994.

Lenin aside, Mariengof had plenty of other critics. Dmitry Furmanov, author of the Socialist Realist novel Chapaev, called him ‘a typical glossy dandy’, adding that ‘he creates the most repulsive impression . . . by his openly bourgeois essence.’ McVay agrees, in his way: ‘few people speak well of Mariengof, and his verse sometimes betrays a cynicism which, if taken literally, is repugnant.’ It’s hard to argue otherwise on the evidence of lines such as ‘I’ll make the sky, the sky, have an abortion,/And squeeze some milk from the teats of the moon’ or, in 1918: ‘We spit blood shamefully/At the foolish face of God . . ./In this pile of skulls/Lies our red revenge.’ Mariengof invites his readers to bite his ‘frozen nipples’, and offers to ‘fill with new gifts/The scrota of flabby eunuchs’. Lunacharsky considered these and others of the Imaginists’ lines so bad that he resigned as honorary president of the Union of Poets in protest, referring to a ‘malicious violation of . . . talent, and of humanity, and of present-day Russia’.

The Imaginist Declaration, published in February 1919 and chiefly written by Shershenevich, asserted that ‘the only law of art, its only and incomparable method, is the revelation of life by means of the image and the rhythm of images . . . All content in a work of art is as stupid and senseless as newspaper collages on pictures . . . We have no philosophy. We propose no logic of thoughts.’ The boastful nihilism of this statement doesn’t fit Esenin, whose nostalgia for the village (or the idea of the village) manages to survive all his Imaginist obscenities, incongruities and shock effects. This ambivalence, visible in his alternation between simple lyrics and laments of drunken self-absorption, is missing from Mariengof’s work, leaving only a succession of mangled metaphors, whose emptiness can be misread as straightforward unpleasantness.

This is not to suggest that Mariengof was simply trying to épater le bourgeois. The devastation around him also surely played its role in forming – or better, smashing utterly – his view of the world; but this, too, is not enough, which is why critics accuse him of cynicism. There is doubtless some combination of all of these things in him, but the cynicism has been overstated. McVay’s qualification – ‘a cynicism which, if taken literally, is repugnant’ – is instructive. What if we don’t take it literally? Is it still cynicism, and if not, what is it?

Russian literature of the early Soviet period is full of characters – and writers – who are not at home in the world. This registers first as comedy – the hero of Yuri Olesha’s Envy (1927) observes that ‘things don’t like me. Furniture tries to trip me up. Once a lacquered corner-table literally bit me’ – before returning as tragedy: the increasing marginalisation and then persecution of Babel, Bulgakov, Mandelstam, Platonov, to name but a few. In the early 1920s, Viktor Shklovsky declared the need to ‘recover the world; we live as if coated in rubber’; but in hindsight, Formalism’s devices and its espousal of ostranenie – ‘making unfamiliar’ – seem less boldly programmatic than despairing, the last-ditch shock tactics of a generation trying to recover a world before it disappears. Mariengof seems to embody both the strident before and the disillusioned after of this process: intense, ecstatic clashes of images meant to ‘revive dead words’, as Esenin put it, which turn into a hollow catalogue of horrors as their authors feel less and less a part of the world that is coming into being. By the time of A Novel without Lies, what is left is an unremitting disappointment.