In the TLS, Clare Cavanagh has an excellent and informative review of the new biography of the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky by Bengt Jangfeldt (which I also wrote about a few months ago). Mayakovsky, of course, is one of the towering avant-garde heroes in the New York School’s pantheon, and Cavanagh’s review, along with Jangfeldt’s biography, provide a welcome opportunity to learn more about the fascinating story of Mayakovsky’s life and times.
In her review of this “revisionary, passionately researched biography,” Cavanagh chronicles the poet’s stormy life and complicated legacy, especially the fate he suffered by being posthumously turned into the state poet of Stalin’s totalitarian Soviet Union: a cruel turn of events that Boris Pasternak called Mayakovsky’s “second death.”
Even while “generations of Soviet citizens, laypeople and writers alike, had the official Mayakovsky crammed down their throats from childhood on,” dissidents demurred: “émigré aversion to the self-proclaimed Poet of the Revolution was pronounced from the start.” Outside of Soviet Russia the story was different: “His impact on international writing continued unabated. The list of experimental poets under his sway spans decades and nations: it includes everyone from Louis Aragon and André Breton to Władysław Broniewski, Pablo Neruda, Nicolas Guillen, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and beyond.”
The ideologically-charged struggle over Mayakovsky’s work and reputation has raged for decades. However, as Cavanagh notes, Jangfeldt’s book “the first ‘post-Soviet’ biography. First published in his native Swedish in 2007, it effectively supplants the extant biographies in both Russian and English: this will become the standard source.”
Cavanagh praises the book for illuminating not only Mayakovsky’s life but his poetry as well:
Jangfeldt sees his task primarily as resurrecting the life in something close to its lived complexity. And this in turn illuminates the poet’s writing, which was self-consciously intertwined with the life much like Byron’s or Whitman’s here, to name two of Mayakovsky’s foreign favourites, whom he read in Russian translation. Hence his own transcontinental influence, decades later, on the “personalism” or “confessionalism” of poets such as Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg.
(Just a sidenote: although it’s great to see this acknowledgment of Mayakovsky’s influence on postwar American poets like O’Hara and Ginsberg, O’Hara quite deliberately called his famous mock-poetry movement “Personism,” not “personalism“).
Jangfeldt centers his biography on the “vortex of political, literary, and private storms” that dominated Mayakovsky’s life, especially the juicy love triangle between Mayakovsky, Lili Brik and her husband Osip. Cavanagh explores the fascinating, dramatic features of that vortex, including the heady climate of the diverse avant-garde circles Mayakovsky moved through, the poet’s love affairs and heartbreaks, his doomed attempt to navigate the extraordinary political pressures placed upon the poet in revolutionary Russia, his tragic and endlessly-debated suicide, and the complex story of his posthumous career.
Along the way there are some great little details, including my favorite:
Mayakovsky’s personal tastes ran to fine clothes, fancy gloves and inflatable bathtubs for his travels. These last two items were partly prophylactic: an incurable hypochondriac, he refused to shake hands, or take baths in unfamiliar bathrooms.
An inflatable bathtub! This reminded me of the opening stanza of O’Hara’s own poem titled “Mayakovsky” (made famous by its inclusion on the TV show Mad Men, and which I discuss briefly here):
My heart’s aflutter!
I am standing in the bath tub
crying. Mother, mother
who am I? If he
will just come back once
and kiss me on the face
his coarse hair brush
my temple, it’s throbbing!
Heaping praise on Jangfeldt’s extensive and revealing research, Cavanagh concludes “Resurrecting Mayakovsky, as it turns out, is an endless business. Bengt Jangfeldt has given him new life through his biography. I hope that Western scholars will follow his lead by generating equally revisionary readings of the art.”