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.

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