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.
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.’
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