Posts Tagged ‘Michael Scammell’

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)

Laughing your way through Bolshevik Russia

Sunday, June 9th, 2013
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utesov

Utesov (left) in 1934’s “Merry Fellows”

In case you missed it, Grisha Freidin talks over at the New York Review of Books about the lighter side of the Bolshevik era.  Yes, there was a lighter side, apparently.

He praises Michael Scammell’s “nuanced review” of Douglas Smith’s Former People: The Last Days of The Russian Aristocracy – but then takes him to task for a passage about the fox trot, one of the unlikelier imports brought to Russia by Americans working for the American Relief Administration in 1921–1923 (we wrote about that effort here … the relief effort, not the fox trot).

Scammell wrote:

The fox-trot was an immediate hit in Moscow—but not with the authorities or, surprisingly, with some pillars of the literary establishment.

The bard of the Soviet proletariat, Maxim Gorky, maintained that the fox-trot encouraged moral degeneracy and led inevitably to homosexuality. Anatoly Lunacharsky, commissar of enlightenment, wanted to ban the foxtrot—and all syncopated music—from the country altogether (and he succeeded some months later).

Says Grisha: “Nothing could be further from the truth. Gorky’s notorious outburst against the decadence of contemporary Western dance music postdates the ARA’s tenure in Russia by five years (‘On the Fat People’s Music,’ Pravda, April 4, 1928). Nor did Commissar of Enlightenment Lunacharsky, whose disparaging remarks about fox-trot appeared in his tribute to the Malyi Theater in a 1924 volume marking its centenary, try to ban or indeed could ban ‘all syncopated music a few months later.’ Jazz music and fox-trot thrived in 1920s Russia well into the 1930s.”

Here’s proof:  Jazz leader (and comedian) Leonid Utesov in 1934’s Merry Fellows, which took Russia by storm.  And the final clip, Utesov’s Jazz Band in 1938’s “Temptation Rag” well, just because we like ragtime.  (Whoops, Mosfilm is being a drag – you’ll have to click the link to youtube in the film below.)

Joseph Brodsky and the courageous couple who brought him to America – Carl and Ellendea Proffer

Thursday, May 24th, 2012
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The Russian Brodsky

I met Michael Scammell years and years ago in London.  He was the vigorous, larger-than-life (or so he seemed to me) founding editor of the fledgling journal Index on Censorship, documenting censorship and freedom of expression around the world.

I was an acolyte performing insignificant editorial work in the cramped offices somewhere near Covent Garden – at least that’s where I recall the headquarters, though it must have moved several times since then.  Scammell, a critic and translator, was said to be working on something about Alexander Solzhenitsyn – the biography was published in 1985.

In 2002,  I republished his 1972 interview with the poet in Joseph Brodsky: Conversations – I remember his pleasant note  giving permission after I reintroduced myself.

So I read with interest his insightful “Pride and Poetry”, in the current issue of The New Republic, which considers Lev Loseff‘s Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life.  (I reviewed the same book for Quarterly Conversation here.)

Scammell draws many of the same conclusions I did, including this one, as he weighs whether “Loseff was perhaps right to put so much emphasis on Brodsky’s Russian life, Russian sensibility, Russian language, and Russian poems”:

In his best readings he offers the reader intimations of Brodsky’s genius, and captures crucial features of the poet’s achievement by obeying Brodsky’s injunctions to follow the twists of his language and write a biography of his verses. This is not, I fear, the sort of poet’s biography that Brodsky himself would have wanted to read. Judging by the vividness of his memoiristic essays, and also by what I remember of him, he would have demanded more flesh on the bones, more human interest, more drama, and—despite himself—more scandal. It probably will not happen very soon, but the world will see such a biography eventually. And so it should, for this astounding man deserves it.

Noting the serious biographical omissions in the book, Scammell comments:

A perhaps more weighty explanation is hinted at in Loseff’s eccentric statement that he is not qualified to write a biography of Brodsky “because Joseph was a close friend of mine for more than thirty years.” What would Boswell have made of such a statement? It appears to be an indirect way of alluding to Brodsky’s strenuous strictures against a proper biography. “A writer’s biography is in his twists of language,” he wrote in his great essay “Less than One,” and to a would-be biographer he protested that “A poet is not a man of action…. If you are of a mind to write a biography of a poet, you have to write a biography of his verses.” To his will Brodsky appended the following injunction: “The estate will authorize no biographies or publication of letters or diaries [after my death] … My friends and relatives are asked not to cooperate with unauthorized publication of biographies, biographical investigations, diaries, or letters.” Shelley, Byron, Hardy, James, Auden, and any number of illustrious predecessors would have agreed with him, but Loseff gets in a small dig by way of muffled revenge: in his lifetime Brodsky loved to read—what else?—biographies of famous poets.

This fits.  Though he disparaged biographies of poets, when he introduced C.P. Cavafy to our University of Michigan class, he began by … explaining the Alexandrian poet’s life.  How else?

But I need to offer one correction:  Scammell writes of the 1972 exile, when Brodsky was booted from Leningrad, “He was met in Vienna by George Kline, a longtime admirer and translator of his poetry…” No, the poet was met by Carl Proffer, who flew out to Austria to meet him and lure him to the University of Michigan.  That’s why, as he writes, “From London Brodsky set off for Michigan, where he had a job waiting for him and where he settled in surprisingly quickly.”  Carl took him to meet W.H. Auden the next day, in the village of Kirchstetten.

Scammell notes that Loseff “lived in America at the same time as Brodsky.”  There’s a reason for that.  Loseff writes: “Meanwhile, I had emigrated to the United States in the summer of 1976 and on Brodsky’s recommendation had been offered a job at Ardis…” The poet, as I recall the story from Ellendea Proffer, didn’t merely recommend Loseff – he pretty much offered him a job.  And the husband-and-wife publishing team graciously accommodated, though they hadn’t yet met the newest émigré.

The legacy of the Proffers is too often overlooked.  Loseff recalls Carl this way:

In 1972, Proffer was a rising star in American academe. At thirty-four, when most Ph.D.’s in the humanities were still slogging away as humble assistant professors struggling to write their first scholarly book, Proffer had already written two and had been appointed full professor at the prestigious University of Michigan. The son of a factory foreman, the first child in his family to attend college, he chose literature over basketball. … Annoyed at the slowness and conservatism of American publishers and publications in the field of Russian art and literature, tired of the lack of publishers in general, Carl and his wife, Ellendea, decided to start their own publishing house. They called it Ardis, the name for the house in Nabokov’s Ada. Nabokov himself, who was very particular about his editors, publishers, and interviewers, had come to trust Proffer and had given him the copyright for all his Russian works. Ardis published these and many other hard-to-find twentieth century authors in facsimile editions: poetry collections by Akhmatova, Gumilyov, Zabolotsky, Mandelstam, Pasternak, Khodasevich, Tsvetaeva, and a host of other Silver Age poets…

Joseph Brodsky’s words were even stronger: “In terms of Russian literature, Carl Proffer might be compared to Gutenberg. … he changed the very climate of Russian literature. Writers whose works had been rejected or banned now felt themselves freer because they knew that for better or for worse, they could send a piece to Ardis.”

I wrote about the Ardis venture for the Times Literary Supplement in 2002; a shorter version was published by the Los Angeles Times here. (And an even earlier version around 1976 or 1977 in the Michigan Daily.)  Carl died tragically young of cancer at 46, in 1984.  Ellendea carried on alone, eventually earning a MacArthur “Genius” award.

Someone said that a monument should be built to them in Mother Russia, whose literature they published against great odds, sometimes bootlegging banned works out of the U.S.S.R.  Pending a monument, I did what I could by dedicating Joseph Brodsky: Conversations to Carl Proffer’s memory – “who in the words of Joseph Brodsky, ‘was simply an incarnation of all the best things that humanity and being American represent.'”

Postscript:  Frank Wilson at Books Inq reminds me that today Joseph would have been 72. This quote from him pretty much summarizes my attitude this election year:

I do not believe in political movements. I believe in personal movement, that movement of the soul when a man who looks at himself is so ashamed that he tries to make some sort of change — within himself, not on the outside.