When were you thinking of shooting yourself?

Sophie Pinkham

When Vladimir Mayakovsky shot himself in 1930, some Soviet writers interpreted it as an act of protest: stifled by political censorship, he couldn’t go on. In the decades since, the suicide of the great poet of the Revolution has been seen as the Soviet Union’s point of no return. This is the view taken by the Swedish scholar Bengt Jangfeldt in this biography, the first significant non-Soviet Life of the poet: ‘The bullet that penetrated Vladimir Mayakovsky’s heart also shot to pieces the dream of communism and signalled the beginning of the communist nightmare of the 1930s.’ Anti-communist critics have tended to dismiss Mayakovsky’s early political commitment as naive idealism, and later in his life as a self-destructive effort to conform. His political poems – about a third of his output – are rarely translated and considered hackery. Rosy Carrick’s new selection of his work, Volodya, doesn’t go along with this reading. In her introduction Carrick argues that the Western preference for the less political poetry has meant that ‘an understanding of the great diversity of Mayakovsky’s works has been to some extent lost, and, with it, the complexity of his political and social character too.’ Volodya includes poems and prose works unfamiliar to anglophone readers and collects the work of many translators who use a variety of techniques (Edwin Morgan translates Mayakovsky into Scots: ‘Een/gawp oot/fae a sonsy bap-face’). Political poems, manifestos and lectures that are usually ignored in the West are included here. The result is a fuller view of the poet struggling to reconcile his gift with his ideals, and to press his voice into the service of the Revolution. Though this Mayakovsky is often unsuccessful, he is stronger and more grown-up than Jangfeldt’s lovelorn, neurotic and misguided genius.

Osip Brik, Lili Brik and Vladimir Mayakovsky
Osip Brik, Lili Brik and Vladimir Mayakovsky

He was born in Georgia in 1893. His father, a forester from the impecunious minor aristocracy, died in 1906, and Mayakovsky joined the Bolsheviks soon afterwards. As a teenager he was arrested several times for disseminating radical literature and spent five months in solitary confinement, where he passed the time reading poetry. After his release he parted ways with the Bolsheviks and went to art school in Moscow, where he cultivated a Byronic image and gained a reputation for insolence. He fell in with David Burlyuk, a Cubist painter who recognised his poetic talent, and the two of them got together with the avant-garde poets Velimir Khlebnikov and Aleksei Kruchenykh to release the first Futurist almanac, A Slap in the Face of Public Taste. They announced that they had tossed the classics overboard from the ‘Ship of Modernity’, and would reinvent not only literature but language itself. They set out on a scandalous recital tour, performing with radishes in their buttonholes and airplanes painted on their faces. Mayakovsky wore a yellow blouse sewn, he wrote, from ‘three ells of sunset’. The Futurists aimed high. In 1913, Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov had written an opera libretto called Victory over the Sun. Mayakovsky imagined a more collegial relationship: in ‘An Extraordinary Adventure which Befell Vladimir Mayakovsky in a Summer Cottage’, the poet is infuriated by the ceaseless rise and fall of the sun; besides, it is ‘caressed by clouds’ while he has to sit and draw propaganda posters. He invites the sun over for tea, hiding his fear when the sun obliges.

Mayakovsky was easily the most accessible (and the most translatable) Futurist poet. He made extensive use of neologisms and puns, but he didn’t write in a nonsense (‘beyonsense’) language, as Kruchenykh did, and his poems are full of emotional as well as linguistic exuberance. His feelings animate the landscape: sidewalks and streetlamps spring to life, as if in a Bolshevik Disney movie, and a nerve can ‘leap like a sick man from his bed’. In his best poems he seems to want to transcend the limits of the individual and permeate the whole world. These poetic fantasies often resemble narcissistic personality disorders. In 1915’s ‘The Cloud in Trousers’ he imagines himself as a cloud, complaining: ‘I feel/my ‘I’/is much too small for me.’

After the February Revolution, artists of all aesthetic and political persuasions formed the Union of Cultural Workers, with Mayakovsky elected the writers’ representative on the ruling council. ‘The motto of myself and all the rest of us,’ he declared, ‘is … long live Russia’s political life and long live an art free from the state! I do not say no to politics, but there is no room for politics in art.’ He no longer belonged to any political party, and, in Jangfeldt’s account, supported a libertarian socialism with an anarchist inflection. But the Bolsheviks had little interest in either the avant-garde or art free from state control. After taking power in October 1918, they supported Proletkult, the workers’ organisation that promoted the transmission of revolutionary messages in a realist form accessible to the proletariat. Proletkult’s position was the antithesis of the avant-garde stance that revolutionary form and content were inseparable. Mayakovsky rejected an invitation from Anatoly Lunacharsky, the People’s Commissar of Education, to work with the Bolsheviks, and redirected his attention to poetry and performance at the Poets’ Café in Moscow, a meeting place for anarchists. Although Futurism’s demise was a consequence of political censorship, the avant-garde would probably have declined anyway: for most people, Lenin included, it was simply incomprehensible.

Mayakovsky remained popular, an exceptional performer, a natural celebrity. But he had to struggle to get his books published, and he began to make choices that some of his literary friends thought unsavoury, and that Bolsheviks found unconvincing. In 1920, he wrote a verse epic that began, ‘150,000,000 is the name of the author of this poem,’ identifying himself with the population of Russia. He pretended to submerge his voice in the collective, though the tone remained unmistakably his own. The audience for the first recital included Lunacharsky, who doubted the poem’s sincerity and didn’t promote it as Mayakovsky had hoped. It took more than a year for it to be published, after many interventions, and even then the run was small. Mayakovsky sent a signed copy to Lenin, who said it was ‘rubbish, stupid, stupid beyond belief, and pretentious’. Pasternak, who had once worshipped Mayakovsky, called it ‘uncreative’.

Lunacharsky and Pasternak were right, though Lenin may have been exaggerating. The rebellious, grandiose ‘I’ was the centre of Mayakovsky’s poetic universe, the logic of his style; without it, his poems were unmoored. His political rhetoric was most effective when subordinated to a larger emotion. ‘The Cloud in Trousers’ compares clouds to workers in white overalls on strike against the sky; the image is effective not because it glorifies workers but because it connects to the theme of Mayakovsky’s larger rebellion against the world. In ‘Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’, he offers a much less effective cloud image: ‘the workers’ wrath/condenses/into clouds,/slashed/by the lightning/of Lenin’s pamphlets.’ The propaganda poems seem impoverished even on the level of rhythm, assonance, consonance and rhyme. Lines like ‘Long live/the Revolution/with speedy victory,/the greatest/and justest/of all the wars/ever/fought/in history!’ lose little in translation.

Mayakovsky continued to write about his faith in the ‘third revolution of the spirit’ and the avant-garde, and about his hatred of statues and monuments. He explored options for publication abroad, but these soon proved unnecessary. The New Economic Policy, introduced in 1921, allowed private publishing again, and he won a surprise endorsement from Lenin for a poem condemning the proliferation of conferences in the Soviet bureaucracy. ‘I am not one of those who admire his poetic talents,’ Lenin said, ‘although I willingly confess my lack of expertise in this field. But it has been a long time since I last felt such enjoyment from a political and administrative standpoint.’ Mayakovsky promptly published a follow-up, the ‘Bureaucratiade’.

Many of the Russian intelligentsia were emigrating, willingly or under duress. Mayakovsky never considered leaving; he had no talent for foreign languages, and despite his frequent conflicts with the literary establishment, he was well connected and relatively affluent, in part because of his relationship with Osip and Lili Brik, a very wealthy couple. In 1915 they had watched him perform ‘A Cloud in Trousers’ and were entranced by his talent, if put off by his poor grooming. Osip paid for Mayakovsky’s book to be printed, with ‘O.B.’ on the cover and a dedication to Lili inside. Mayakovsky fell wildly and melodramatically in love with Lili. She had him cut his hair and trade his yellow blouse for a jacket and tie, and paid for him to have new teeth made. (At twenty, his teeth were already rotten stumps; he smoked a hundred cigarettes a day, though Jangfeldt claims he never inhaled.) But he wasn’t really Lili’s type, and it would be more than two years before she accepted his sexual advances and announced the relationship to her enlightened husband. Mayakovsky moved in, and the threesome formed what they called a ‘marriage cartel’ that lasted until Mayakovsky’s death, even after Lili and Mayakovsky had ended their sexual relationship. (Osip and Lili, it seems, never really had one.)

In 1920 Osip became an investigator in the Cheka’s department for ‘economic speculation’, apparently assigned to keep an eye on the former bourgeoisie – his old friends. ‘At that time we regarded the Chekists as saints,’ Lili said later; there are indications that she too may have worked for the secret police. Mayakovsky and the Briks made many trips to Western Europe, bringing back consumer goods unavailable in the Soviet Union. In 1925, Mayakovsky went on a recital tour of the United States, the topic of a book that he entitled, with his usual bluster, My Discovery of America. In New York, he fathered a child with a Russian émigré – a dangerous secret.

Mayakovsky was a huge, handsome man, and in the atmosphere of the time he had no shortage of lovers. Lili was probably the most important woman in his life, and she plays a central role in Jangfeldt’s book, which reads almost like a joint biography. She was born Lili Kagan, child of an affluent Jewish family in Moscow. As a teenager, she had a talent for mathematics and an extraordinary physical allure. In her younger sister Elsa’s description, she sounds something like the sun:

She had a large mouth with perfect teeth and a glowing complexion, as if she was illuminated from within. She had a neat bust, round hips, long legs and very small hands and feet. She had nothing to hide; she could have gone around completely naked; every little part of her body was admirable. Moreover, she liked going around with nothing on at all; she was completely lacking in shame. Later, when she was going to a ball, Mama and I liked to watch her getting dressed, putting on her underclothes, fastening her silk stockings and pulling on her little silver shoes and lilac dress with the square décolletage. I was dumb with admiration when I looked at her.

*

The allure came at a price. Jangfeldt uses quaint phrases to describe what sounds like sexual persecution by teachers, relatives, friends, even strangers. When Lili was 17, her music teacher ‘robbed her of her innocence while his girlfriend was busy washing up in the next room’. She later said she’d been afraid of seeming bourgeois. Her mother forced her to have an abortion and a surgical restoration of her ‘maidenhead’. ‘Lili reacted with her usual defiance,’ Jangfeldt writes. ‘When, several days later, the doctor removed the stitches, she rushed straight into the toilet and robbed herself of her innocence again, this time with her finger.’ But Lili’s troubles weren’t over. Her Uncle Leo, her mother’s brother, couldn’t ‘resist Lili’s precocious charms but threw himself at her and demanded that she marry him’. As if intent on compensating for decades of puritanical Soviet censorship, Jangfeldt spares us no detail of Lili’s sexual and romantic exploits. His fascination seems tinged with disapproval; I lost count of the number of times he described Lili as ‘promiscuous’. Maybe the word sounds friendlier in Swedish. Perhaps I’m being unfair; because Jangfeldt doesn’t use footnotes or otherwise make clear the origins of specific passages, it’s difficult to tell where he ends and his sources begin. I paused over his account of Lili’s relationship with a young painter:

He had her completely in his power: she was impressed by his drawings, and his conversation was so inspiring that it brought a blush to her cheeks. Once when she picked up his powder compact to apply some powder, he screeched: ‘What are you doing, I have syphilis!’ With that exclamation he won her heart, and during the last two weeks before she left for Munich they began an intimate relationship, without a thought for his illness.

The coquettish tone – ‘his conversation was so inspiring that it brought a blush to her cheeks’ – suggests that the source of the story is Lili herself. (Her unpublished memoirs were a major source for Jangfeldt, who also knew her personally.) But did Lili really say the painter ‘won her heart’ by announcing that he had syphilis? Was she being ironic? Memoirs and personal recollections are unreliable, and Lili, who lived to be 86, always had an eye on posterity. Jangfeldt indulges in plenty of casual psychologising – Mayakovsky is ‘obsessive compulsive’, has a ‘split personality’, and exhibits ‘schizophrenic’ behaviour – but it doesn’t seem to occur to him that being impregnated against one’s will by a teacher, or being proposed to by one’s own uncle, could lead to compulsive or self-destructive sexual behaviour. Perhaps there was something more than light-minded ‘promiscuity’ at play.

Lili eventually married Osip Brik. She had loved him since she was a teenager. Osip knew all about her sexual experience, and didn’t seem to mind. He and Lili went on business trips to the far reaches of the Russian Empire and to Western Europe, making time for research: they visited a brothel in Samarkand and a lesbian sex show in Paris. In Petrograd, a bored Lili got blackout drunk with two young men and woke up the next morning in a brothel. ‘Where other men’s wives would have made every effort to hide their shame,’ Jangfeldt writes, ‘Lili immediately told Osip what she had been up to … Osip, for his part, reacted coolly and rationally where other men would have been beside themselves with jealousy.’ Lili took lovers openly throughout the marriage. Unorthodox sexual and domestic arrangements formed part of the period’s experiments with the place of women in society and the family once traditional marriage had been rejected as a manifestation of capitalist property rights and an instrument of women’s oppression. Jangfeldt dismisses these experiments as mere pleasure-seeking. Carrick, on the other hand, draws our attention to Mayakovsky’s poems agitating for a revolution in everyday life and for fair treatment of women, citing his 1926 poem ‘Love’:

At the parade he sings out:
                    ‘Forward, Comrades …’
but forgetting
          his solo arias
                    at home
he yells at his wife for her faults:
      that her cabbage soup has got no fat
and the pickles
          have got no salt.

Still, Mayakovsky wasn’t entirely on board with free love. He was acutely jealous of Lili’s other liaisons. In 1919, Roman Jakobson told her sister Elsa that ‘Lili tired of Volodya long ago; he has turned into a real bourgeois philistine who is only interested in feeding and fattening up his woman. This of course is not Lili’s style.’ Victor Shklovsky said that Mayakovsky suffered from premature ejaculation; Elsa, who had introduced Mayakovsky to the Briks, said Mayakovsky was ‘not good in bed’, because he ‘wasn’t indecent enough’. Mayakovsky was certainly squeamish, a hypochondriac and germophobe. (According to Jangfeldt, the neurosis had its origins in his father’s death by blood poisoning after a needle prick.) He avoided public transport, handshakes and doorknobs; always carried his own soap and drinking cup; and travelled with a folding rubber bathtub.

Mayakovsky’s neverending drama with Lili seems to have inspired much of his best poetry, including 1923’s ‘About This’, published with photomontages by Aleksandr Rodchenko and a picture of Lili on the cover. He also started writing advertising copy in verse. Accused of wasting his talent, he said his efforts were poetry of quality and an important source of money, as were propaganda and advertising posters. (Volodya includes examples of his advertisements and public health posters, all in rhymed verse: ‘Don’t drink raw water – remember, it’s soiled/Water should only be drunk when it’s boiled.’) He had to support his mother and sisters, and Lili had expensive tastes.

When Lenin died in 1924, Mayakovsky wrote an epic homage, in which he warns against the institution of a Lenin cult – against processions, mausoleums and statues. ‘Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’ (an excerpt is included in Volodya) argues that one man cannot be worshipped, since he is only a manifestation of the collective.

The voice of an individual
               is thinner than a cheep …
The party
               is a hand with millions of fingers
clenched
               into a single destroying fist.
The individual is rubbish,
               the individual is zero …
We say Lenin,
               but mean
                              The Party.

Mayakovsky said that the poem was ‘probably the most serious piece of work I have ever done’, but it was derided by the few critics who didn’t ignore it. A proletarian critic wrote that Mayakovsky’s ‘ultra-individualistic’ lines in ‘About This’ appeared ‘uniquely honest’ compared to ‘Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’. As with ‘150,000,000’, Mayakovsky’s effort to submerge himself failed: his giant head kept bobbing back into sight.

From an early age, suicide fascinated and frightened him. In 1925 the popular poet Sergei Yesenin hanged himself. His farewell poem, written in his own blood, ended: ‘To die in this life is nothing new,/but neither is it new to live.’ Mayakovsky attempted to ‘paralyse’ these lines, countering: ‘In this life,/to die is not so hard./To build new life/is significantly harder.’ Jangfeldt sees this as Mayakovsky’s way of repressing the suicidal feelings prompted by Yesenin’s death. But these lines, too, can be understood as an effort to privilege a collective struggle over the torments of the individual. (Yesenin had never embraced the Revolution.)

By 1928, Mayakovsky was openly expressing his disillusionment with the Revolution. His play The Bedbug – directed by Meyerhold, with music by Shostakovich – centres on a vodka-drinking, guitar-playing party member called Prisypkin, who is put in a deep freeze after an accident in 1929 and revived in 1979, by which point ‘Roses are found only in gardening books, and dreams only in medical books, in the chapter on hallucinations.’ With Prisypkin is a bedbug, which goes on to spread obsolete illnesses like love, romance, poetry, suicide, dancing, smoking and drinking. In the end Prisypkin and the bedbug are caught and put in a zoo. Mayakovsky told the actor playing Prisypkin to imitate his own mannerisms. It’s hard not to conclude that he’d given up on utopian dreams and his hopes of using poetry to foment a spiritual revolution.

That year Mayakovsky encountered his friend Yury Annenkov in Nice and asked him when he planned to go back to Moscow. Annenkov said he had no plans to do so: he wished to continue to be an artist. According to Annenkov, Mayakovsky replied: ‘But I’m going back … because I have already stopped being a poet.’ Bursting into tears, he whispered: ‘Nowadays I am … a functionary.’ Back in Moscow, he took part in the campaign against Zamyatin and Pilnyak, though he admitted that he hadn’t read Pilnyak’s work. Despite his compliance, he was denied permission to go to Paris to see his Russian émigré lover, who soon married a French viscount. The Briks were attacked in the press for their frequent trips abroad. The only good news was that Stalin loved Mayakovsky’s performance of ‘Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’ on the sixth anniversary of Lenin’s death. Pravda asked him to submit some poems, but he refused when he learned that he would be published along with other poets and given no pride of place.

Mayakovsky’s 1930 play The Bathhouse, directed by Meyerhold, was a sharp satire on Soviet bureaucracy. But unlike The Bedbug, it was a critical and popular failure. Mayakovsky invited high-ranking functionaries, secret police operatives and official writers to the opening of his exhibition Twenty Years of Work, but few of them showed up. He considered joining the party, but didn’t go through with it; the 1930 Soviet Encyclopedia announced: ‘Mayakovsky’s rebelliousness, anarchistic and individualistic, is essentially petit bourgeois.’ He became a figure of mockery. One young man came up to him and said: ‘Mayakovsky, we know from history that good poets tend to come to a bad end. Either they’re murdered, or … When were you thinking of shooting yourself?’ The question was insightful as well as cruel. Mayakovsky’s extravagant gift required an extravagant end.

He shot himself in the chest on 14 April 1930. His latest girlfriend had just left his room after an argument. His literary friends soon crowded in to view the body, followed by the security organs. The official story held that the suicide was the result of ‘purely personal considerations’, along with a long-term (but not sexually transmitted!) illness. His farewell letter made a final request: ‘Blame no one for my death, and please don’t gossip. The deceased really hated gossip.’