When were you thinking of shooting yourself?
- Mayakovsky: A Biography by Bengt Jangfeldt, translated by Harry Watson
Chicago, 616 pp, £26.50, January 2015, ISBN 978 0 226 05697 5
- Volodya: Selected Works by Vladimir Mayakovsky, edited by Rosy Carrick
Enitharmon, 312 pp, £14.99, November 2015, ISBN 978 1 910392 16 4
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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.