Why Mayakovsky killed himself.

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Vladimir_mayakovsky_and_lilya_brik

The poet with Lili Brik in 1915

Vladimir Mayakovsky was the celebrated hero poet of the Russian Revolution. His suicide in 1930, at the age of 37, rocked the Soviet world. What had happened? Had he become disillusioned with the new order he had championed? Or was it foul play? The Soviets put forth a different story – romantic disappointment. But the truth, as always, is more complicated.

Enter his biographer Bengt Jangfeldt, perhaps the foremost Mayakovsky expert in the world. I had the good fortune to visit Bengt in Stockholm this summer. He is one of the foremost authors in Sweden, and undoubtedly one of Scandinavia’s most generous spirits. He was not well that day, however, so we had to postpone a whirlwind tour of Stockholm for another visit and chat over coffee at his apartment in the old part of the city.

bengt

Biographer Bengt

Before I left, he pressed the English translation of his Mayakovsky: A Biography (Chicago) into my hands. It hadn’t been published at the time of Bengt’s short visit to Stanford three years ago (I wrote about his lectures here and here). According to Stanford’s Marjorie Perloff“this biography is essential reading not only for students of modernist poetry but also for anyone interested in the relationship of literature to life in the former Soviet Union.”

I haven’t yet had a chance to read the 600+ page volume, but I share my guilty secret: I flipped to the end to see how Bengt would tell how the poet came to end his life with a bullet through the heart. An excerpt, which includes Bengt’s correspondence with Mayakovsky’s lover Lili Brik:

“How many times did I not hear the word ‘suicide’ from Mayakovsky,” Lili wrote. “That he would take his own life. You’re old at thirty-five! I shall live till I’m thirty, no more.” His terror of becoming old was closely connected to his fear of losing his attraction for women. “Before the age of twenty-five a man is loved by all women,” he stated shortly before his suicide to a twenty-five-year-old fellow writer. “After twenty-five he is also loved by all – except the one he is in love with.” …

mayakovsky2The urge to commit suicide is the dark sounding board in Mayakovsky’s life, and the theme of suicide the leitmotif of his writings, from the first line to the last. The tragedy Vladimir Mayakovsky, the poem “Clearance Sale” (“Years and years from now/in short, when I am no longer alive – / dead from hunger,/or a pistol shot –/professors […] will study/me/how,/when,/where I came from”). “The Backbone-Flute” (“More often I think:/it might be far better/ to punctuate my end with a bullet” [trans. George Reavey]), “Man” (“The heart longs for the bullet/ and the throat hallucinates about a razor”), the film Not Born for Money, “About This,” the film script How Are You?, the unfinished play Comedy with Suicide, The Bedbug. The list of works and quotations is almost endless.

“The idea of suicide,” Lili declared, “was a chronic disease with Mayakovsky, and like all chronic diseases it grew worse in unfavorable circumstances.” Underlying the urge to suicide was not only the fear of aging but also the feeling of not being understood, of not being needed, of loving as few are capable of loving without feeling that he was loved in return.

Mayakovsky was a maximalist: he gave all that was in his power and demanded much in return. “Countless numbers of people loved him and were fond of him,” Lili wrote, “but that was just a drop in the ocean for someone with an ‘insatiable thief’ in his soul, who wanted everyone who didn’t read him to read him, all those to come who didn’t come, and that the one he thought didnt’ love him should love him.” Love, art, revolution – to Mayakovsky, everything was a game with life as the stake. He played as befitted a compulsive gambler: intensely, without mercy. And he knew that if he lost, the result was hopelessness and despair.


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