Posts Tagged ‘Lili Brik’

Bengt Jangfeldt and the bad boy of Russian poetry

Saturday, August 12th, 2017
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She picked up the pieces. Lili Brik and Mayakovsky in happier times, 1915.

Bengt Jangfeldt wrote me a note to say he will be coming to town this autumn on Stanford-related business. We’re lucky to have him. The leading Swedish author, twice a winner of the August Prize and also a recipient of the Swedish Academy’s biography prize (and also a dear friend), is the author of biographies of Axel Munthe: The Road to San Michele (2003), Vladimir Mayakovsky: A Biography (2007), and also Язык есть Бог [Language is God], a biography of Joseph Brodsky (2010), and The Hero of Budapest: The Triumph and Tragedy of Raoul Wallenberg (2012). He is also the editor of Love is the Heart of Everything: Correspondence Between Vladimir Mayakovsky and Lili Brik 1915-1930. He is the Swedish translator the poetry of Mayakovsky (with Gunnar Harding), as well as the poetry and prose of Osip Mandelstam and Joseph Brodsky.

Master biographer

In anticipation of the visit from one of my favorite people, I wondered how his book on Mayakovsky, poet of the Russian Revolution, had fared since he gave me a copy in Stockholm last year. (I discussed his talk about it here.) To my surprise, I ran across “The Bad Boy of Russian Poetry” in the New York Review of Bookswritten by yet another friend, Michael Scammell:

When Vladimir Mayakovsky committed suicide on April 14, 1930, the news sent shock waves through the Soviet Union. Ilya Ehrenburg, who knew of Mayakovsky’s notorious gambling habit, thought he might have been playing Russian roulette with his beloved Mauser pistol and lost his bet. But Mayakovsky’s suicide note, written two days before his death, suggested otherwise. Asking his mother and sisters to forgive him and sardonically asking for there to be no gossip (“the deceased hated gossip”), Mayakovsky had appended a few lines from an unfinished poem:

The game, as they say,
Is over.
The love-boat has come to grief
On the reefs of convention.
Life and I are quits
And there’s no point
In nursing grievances.

The word “love-boat” suggested romantic reasons, but also created a mystery, for Mayakovsky’s tangled love life was mostly unknown to the general public. At the time of his death he was simultaneously involved with three different women: his longtime mistress, Lili Brik, with whom he had spent most of his adult life in a bohemian ménage à trois (together with her husband, Osip Brik), but who was just then involved with a movie director; Tatyana Yakovleva, a striking young White Russian whom Mayakovsky had met in Paris and asked to marry him, but who had just married a Frenchman instead; and Veronika Polonskaya, a sultry young stage actress, also married, to whom he had also proposed marriage. Emotionally he was a wreck, and his death might have been precipitated by his relations with any one of his paramours.

But that wasn’t the only mystery. In the tightly controlled Soviet Union, suicide was seen as a crime and an act of defiance, an assertion of personal freedom that contradicted the image of the state as a workers’ paradise. Why would someone as famous and popular as Mayakovsky have killed himself, even under provocation? What most of his readers didn’t know was that for the first time since the October Revolution, Mayakovsky was seriously disaffected. Stalin had started to purge his regime of “Trotskyists” and other perceived enemies, and two recent satirical plays of Mayakovsky, The Bedbug and The Bathhouse, had aroused official anger with their frank criticisms of government leaders and corrupt bureaucrats. His enemies whispered that he, too, was a secret Trotskyist and an elitist, out of touch with his proletarian base.

He was already being shadowed by the OGPU (the secret police), and its agents swarmed through his apartment the moment his death became known. They had long since penetrated Mayakovsky’s inner circle. Osip Brik had been an agent of the secret police in the early 1920s and he and Lili still maintained close contact with them; and the official death notice was signed by no fewer than three secret agents, in addition to a couple of Mayakovsky’s literary allies.

Michael Scammell and I had met, briefly and intermittently, during my years in London, where I volunteered my humble editorial services at the journal where he was editor and founder, Index on Censorship. He was already a bigshot and, as I recall, already working on his biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. We’ve corresponded in the years since.

He doesn’t stint on the passages about an important source for the Bengt’s book, the legendary Lili Brik herself:

Solzhenitsyn’s biographer

Jangfeldt introduces her in chapter two of his book, and she almost runs away with it, in part because she is such an arresting character herself. “I saw right away that Volodya was a poet of genius,” Jangdfeldt quotes her as saying in her unpublished autobiography,

but I didn’t like him. I didn’t like loud-mouthed people…. I didn’t like the fact that he was so big that people turned to look at him in the street, I didn’t like the fact that he listened to his own voice, I didn’t even like his name—Mayakovsky—so noisy and so like a pseudonym, vulgar one at that.

Nevertheless, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Lili would have an affair with the brawny young poet. When told about it, Brik allegedly said, “How could you refuse anything to that man!” But this was more serious than her earlier liaisons. Mayakovsky was an enormously persistent and demanding (and jealous) lover … Lili was happy to sleep with Mayakovsky, but held him at a certain length for nearly three years before suggesting he move in with herself and Osip, an arrangement that lasted on and off for the rest of his life. Meanwhile she lost no time in persuading her protégé to cut his hair and throw away his yellow blouse. She arranged for a dentist to make new teeth for him and bought him fancy new clothes to wear, so that he began to look more like an English dandy than the bohemian of old (though remaining just as wild in temperament).

I’ll likely be writing more about Lili Brik, one of Russia’s great literary widows – we have another mutual friend, Ellendea Proffer. The NYRB review concludes: “Jangfeldt devotes several chapters to his last agonizing months, tracking the events of his last fateful week day by day, until the poet concluded there was no other way to resolve both his emotional and his political dilemmas. Jangfeldt marshals the huge variety of sources he has amassed to create a gripping account of the poet’s tumultuous life and tragic death. …  this book restores Mayakovsky to his rightful place in the pantheon of Russian letters and does him full justice.” Read the whole thing here.

A very cold August in Stockholm: Bengt, Humble Moi, Alexander Deriev, and Igor Pomerantsev (Photo: Liana Pomerantsev)

Why Mayakovsky killed himself.

Saturday, October 1st, 2016
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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.

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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.

Biographer Bengt Jangfeldt on “the battle for Mayakovsky”

Friday, October 25th, 2013
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Angry young poet in 1929

I bought Vladimir Mayakovsky‘s Poems in the summer of 1978, in a small Chinese bookstore in Kathmandu that specialized in propaganda. I haven’t looked at it much in the years since; the dust-jacket disappeared sometime in the subsequent decades, and I wouldn’t have recognized the slim, maize-colored hardcover as the one I bought way back then, except for my Islington address scribbled on the inside front cover. It is the second edition (1976) of the book, published by the state-run Progress Publishers in Moscow – therefore, the official Soviet version of the premier poet of the Russian Revolution.

The introduction is big on hyperbole and cant – “the fight for a better future for all mankind,” “a big step forward in world art in general,” with poems that accomplish “new feats in the name of communism.”  But one succinct word is missing:  suicide.  Mayakovsky killed himself in 1930.

It wasn’t a truth that could be missed at Bengt Jangfeldt‘s Piggott Hall lecture on “The Battle for Mayakovsky” last Thursday,  which opened with a photograph of handsome young poet dead at 36, shot through the heart – or almost shot through the heart, as the eminent Swedish biographer, who is perhaps the world’s foremost expert on Mayakovsky, put it, “he missed a little because he was left-handed.” The face is in unearthly repose, the lips parted slightly – it resembles Jacques-Louis David‘s hagiographic portrait of the dead Marat, another revolutionary who met a violent end.  The poet’s death was “very un-Marxist, I would say,” according to Jangfeldt, and that was an immediate problem for the Soviets.

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Biographer Bengt

Mayakovsky was unusual in the annals of Soviet totalitarianism: he was victimized because he was published, and a battle for his legacy has been mounted and his biography doctored, censored, and subjected to “awful, spiteful scrutiny,” Jangfeldt said. The news of his suicide was manipulated by the state, and presented as a response to romantic disappointment – the possibility that the revolutionary poet had become disillusioned instead with the revolution, and had “no longer believed in what he wrote and hated himself,” was officially unacceptable.  In a macabre sign of the times, his brain was sent to the brain institute; the Soviets were intent on discovering the “materialistic basis of genius.” Mayakovsky fared embarrassingly well: his brain was 360 grams heavier than Lenin’s (we wrote about the curious and complicated history of Lenin’s brain here). Later accounts gloss over his dramatic finale altogether: some say simply that he died in 1930, or, as the case with the Progress book in my hand, don’t say anything at all.

mayakovsky3By 1935, his legacy was in jeopardy.  His lover Lili Brik wrote a letter to Joseph Stalin complaining of the neglect. She was summoned to the Kremlin.  Stalin took action: “Mayakovsky is still the best and the most gifted poet of our Soviet epoch. Indifference to his cultural heritage is a crime. Brik’s complaints are, in my opinion, justified,” he wrote. Was it the power of a woman?  Jengfeldt thinks not. “Why did Lili Brik write this letter now and not before? … Why did Stalin act with the speed of lightening?” In retrospect, it looks like something of a put-up job, a letter concocted at higher levels, possibly by Stalin himself, to trigger a series of events.

One probable motive:  The Alexander Pushkin centenary was fast approaching in 1937, and preparations were well underway.  Pushkin was the great poet of Russia, yes – but what could the Soviet Union offer that was comparable?  Stalin’s action reversed a reputation in decline, and suddenly Mayakovsky was inescapable. “Towns, streets, boats, squares were named after him.  He was forcibly introduced like the potato under Catherine the Great.  His canonization occurred at a time the party was manically naming heroes.” Mayakovsky and Maxim Gorky became the gods of literature, in poetry and prose, respectively.  Soviet honor was saved amid a wash of unsuccessful socialist realism – at least for awhile.

Lili Brik soldiered on through the decades, carrying the torch as her lover’s poetic reputation oscillated. His life had been as messy as his death, and the Russians liked their poets to have ideal family lives – “a poet of the revolution is not supposed to have a complicated private life,” said Jangfeldt.  Moreover, Lili was Jewish, and the Communist authorities did what they could to erase her memory, championing other candidates as the “true love” – he had been unfaithful to his married lover, and there were plenty of other candidates to choose from. Brik’s character and motivations were endlessly maligned. In 1970, Jangfeldt became fascinated by the story, and translated and published some of Mayakovsky’s letters to Brik into Swedish.  He took photocopies to Brik’s Moscow apartment in 1972, as a sort of carte d’entrée.  He never forgot her words of greeting to him.

“Tell me, is Stockholm still a beautiful city?” she asked.  She hadn’t been to Sweden since 1906, and lived in the usual Soviet time warp.  It was one of those moments, Jangfeldt said, “when you feel the wings of history beating you in the face.”

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Happier days in 1915

Jangfeldt later published translations of 416 letters between the couple, Love Is the Heart of Everything: Correspondence between Vladimir Mayakovsky and Lili Brik, 1915-1930.  “When this was published, they could never say she hadn’t existed. … This process of forced oblivion had to be stopped. I defended her place in history, nothing else.” The authorities, he said, “must respect that Mayakovsky lived with her for 15 years and he dedicated his poems to her.”

Brik died at 87 in 1978, also by her own hand.  “She will always have a difficult life – even after her death,” Jangfeldt said. She missed the fall of communism, and another death for Mayakovsky.

“When communism fell, he fell, too,” said Jangfeldt, like one of the statues pulled down by crowds at the times of revolution.  “People had been force-fed his poems for years” and a backlash was inevitable.

Too often, he had been seen as “a high-pitched and vulgar mouthpiece for the regime” – yet many of his poems are very good, and no more than five or six poems have created the reputation of a great poet. “It’s difficult for people today to believe that people may have been honest in believing in the revolution. I don’t think Mayakovsky was cynical,”Jangfeldt said.

The first volume of Mayakovsky collected works was published in Russia this year, out of a project score of volumes in years to come.  Meanwhile, enjoy the videos below.  The first has archival footage, and I think that’s Mayakovsky’s voice reading briefly about one minute in. The second shows Mayakovsky in 1918’s The Lady and the Hooligan, the only film featuring Mayakovsky that has survived in its entirety.