Tuesday, 25 August 2015

A. V. Lunacharsky: Vladimar Mayakovsky, Innovator

It has been said many times that Mayakovsky’s espousal of the proletarian cause was not a chance occurrence. This means that the prerequisites for taking him in this direction existed within him, for in our times there are many people and not a few poets, but not all people, not all poets follow this road. However, this inner voice would never have led him as it did, if not for our times, for no one determines his own way, but the way of any man is determined, to a great extent, by his times and surroundings. In speaking of Mayakovsky’s work and life, we speak of his encounter as an individual with the proletarian revolution as a colossal social phenomenon.

The proletariat and its revolution existed in a latent form long before October 1917, and even before 1905. Mayakovsky knew of the existence of this great force and at times he came quite close to it in his everyday life, yet, during his early period, he was still quite removed from it. One can say that when Mayakovsky embarked upon his career, he was still beyond the sphere of influence of this gigantic social body, the revolutionary proletariat. The first step Mayakovsky took on the road to revolution, understood in the broad sense of the word as the rejection of and attempt to destroy that which exists for something else, better and nobler, he did as an individual. Mayakovsky often provides definitions and self-portraits in which he says that he, Mayakovsky, is too large for the surroundings in which he must live. He puts a double meaning into the word “large.” On the one hand, he is simply stating the fact that he, Mayakovsky, is a very tall, big man; on the other hand, there is a corresponding largeness of spirit, the scope of his ideas, his passions, his demands up life, his creative powers; they, too, are out of proportion with his surroundings.

It is characteristic that in this respect the words “greatness” and “largeness” merge. As far as he is concerned, these passions, these thoughts, this dissatisfaction, these hopes and this despair of his are not something born of his mind, they do not revolve in some “empyrean consciousness”; all this is of his body, it is all taking place within his Herculean frame. Mayakovsky was a materialist (I will later discuss whether or not he became a dialectician): he experienced intensely everything that was of the earth, of the flesh, washed with hot blood, full of a natural thirst for life, and he experienced it as Mayakovsky, the corporeal being and as Mayakovsky, the psyche corresponding to this being.

Well, this Mayakovsky found that he was cramped in the world. This does not mean he was cramped in the universe. He liked the universe, the universe was very big, and he wanted to be on very close terms with it: he invited the Sun to come down and visit him and the Sun came down and talked to him. But the Sun came to him in his dreams, whereas those who were truly close to him and those with whom he tried to come in close contact were none of them as large as he. This is why Mayakovsky felt so melancholy and so terribly lonely. He found it difficult to find true friends. And only towards the end of his life did he begin finding them in a cross between the great vastness of the forces of Nature and individual persons, among whom he still found very few true friends. He never succeeded in closely approaching the greatest men of our epoch, men concerned with other matters in another sphere, the political leaders of our revolution. And yet, he finally found the entities, towards which he lunged with the great force of his desire to end his loneliness. These were social entities: the Proletariat and the revolution.

The proletariat and the revolution were close to his heart, firstly, in their Herculean, vast scope, the great battles which they unleashed in the spheres of direct political struggle and labour and, secondly, because they were the key to the future. He obviously did not have a very clear concept of what the future would be like. But he knew that it would be the sort offuture in which he, a big man, would finally be able to breathe freely, in which he would be able to draw himself up to his full height, in which his heart would find in heaven. That is why, while all but foreseeing his fateful end, he says, in the introduction to his poem At the Top of My Voice, that he, this big man, should be revived in the future.

Hi, listen!
comrade heirs and descendants, to an agitator,
loud-speaker-in-chief! Deafening
poetic deluge, I stride to you
through lyrical volumes, as the live with the living speaks.

When freedom is won, when great, erect people come to live on earth, then one can love and sing as one wishes But now –

Descendants,
in our lexicons,
look up the flotsam that floats down from Lethe,
odd remnant-words like “prostitution"
“tuberculosis”
“blockades.” For you,
who’re so healthy and nimble, a poet
licked up
consumptive spittle with the crude rough tongue of placards.

Mayakovsky did all he could to pave the way for the man of the future. This was the starting-point from which Mayakovsky began his fight for the big man in pre revolutionary times. There was no road to the future in the bourgeois world, there were no entities of social order, of the collective which he could come to love, there was only a petty-bourgeois void, and it was against this petty-bourgeois void that he protested.

There were some social notes in Mayakovsky’s protest from the very start. However, the essence of this protest was the world is too shallow to accept a great individual, and the great individual rejects with indignation and disgust this shallow world, this mercenary world, degraded as it is to a bourgeois level to a bourgeois level. This was Mayakovsky’s first revolt.

Mayakovsky’s second revolt resulted from his youth. It not a matter of a man being young and, therefore, loving to behave defiantly, like a king-of-the-castle, towards others. No, youth meant something else to Mayakovsky: he felt that the world he had been born into, and of which he id become an integral part, was old and decrepit. It had its own famous personages and museums, revered by all, but these famous personages and museums served only to sanctify and bless the worthless, decrepit world in which he lived.

Mayakovsky realised full well that there were priceless treasures in mankind’s past, but he feared that if these treasures were acknowledged, all the rest must be acknowledged, too. Therefore, it was better to revolt against everything and say: We are our own ancestors! May our youth proclaim its own young words, such as will make it possible to rejuvenate society and the world!

Youth usually wants to stress the fact that it will say things that have never been said before. This desire produces in Mayakovsky’s revolutionary writings the contrasts which many critics have noted and which, undoubtedly, are often paradoxical, are often an unexpected trick, are often rudeness, are often a young boy’s prank. And those who, like Shengeli and all the other “old maids,” said: “Oh, dear! This is terrible! This is hooliganism!” were horrified because they had no youth left in their blood. One can even be young at an advanced age or be dog-old at an early age, it is not a matter of years, but of creative power. And those who lack it could not understand how the wine fermented in Mayakovsky, how it blew out the cork and even blasted the bottle, how a young, impetuous talent was fermenting. These pranks of the young Mayakovsky were signs of his future growth, just as a pure-bred puppy has large and clumsy paws, true signs of his future great size.

His third revolutionary step was born of his skill and, first and foremost, of his skill in the formal sense of the word. He felt in himself a great love for words, he felt that words obeyed him, that they formed into battalions at his command. He was carried away by this power he had over words. He felt that if a person did not know how to command words, but merely repeated what others had said before, he was like a conductor who comes to a well-rehearsed orchestra and waves his baton after the musicians have already played a particular phrase, while the listeners think he is conducting. Such a state of affairs is similar to one in which an epigonus thinks he is writing new poems, while he is actually possessed by old words and thoughts. Mayakovsky was always exasperated by formal impotency, and he said that one should write in an entirely new way. He did not yet know what this new way would be, in form and content, but, above all, it had to be new. And he who would write according to the old tenets should be castigated as a servant of the decrepit world.

Mayakovsky’s next revolt (similar to his castigation of his surrounding’s which was born of his skill) was a revolt which resulted from production. Here, to a great extent, we have approached the very essence of his works. Who, Mayakovsky asked himself, are those poets whom I renounced for being imitators, for continuing the process of the world’s growing decrepitude, regurgitating, as they do, songs that have already been sung? What is the content of their songs? Is there any usefulness in what these poets are producing? Perhaps, then, poets cannot produce anything of use at all? Mayakovsky was incensed by poets who proudly stated: “A poet does not produce useful things, a poet produces useless things. Herein lies my charm as a poet, this is the exalted nature of things poetic.” If one were to listen attentively to the useless things these poets sing about, one would discover they were nothing more than a soulful rigmarole. Historical themes, genres, and what-have-you are put through the so-called subject, pulled through the stomach and intestines, and then only are they presented to you. If a person is a poet, he must be a “lyricist” first, he must know how to be very musically nauseous in front of the whole world.

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Sunday, 23 August 2015

Yevgeny Yevtushenko: Poets must reach out to ordinary people

Rossiyskaya Gazeta: This year has been declared the Year of Literature. This is the state showing that it wants to help Russian literature. But how should we do this?
Yevgeny Yevtushenko: 

My answer is very simple – we must reach out to ordinary people. Our intelligentsia simply does not understand how detached it is from the general public. I have travelled across Russia giving readings of my own poetry alongside recitals of great works by famous actors, and the venues were packed everywhere. 

RG: What was the longest poetry reading in your life?

Y.Y.: In 1963, when I read my long poem, Bratsk Station, in full before an audience of workers. It was a venue for about 800 people, but they put speakers out on the street, and people stood and listened there, too. It was a very chilly day in April. I read for four-and-a-half hours without a break. There were children in the audience as well. That was one of the happiest days of my life. What is any Nobel Prize worth compared to that?

RG: The title of one of your last poems – The state, be a human! – has become an aphorism. This poem is dedicated to the events in Ukraine, but its meaning is much broader. What should we do today, when political hostility has engulfed the whole world again?

Y.Y.: I have always liked the academician Sakharov’s thought about the future convergence of the best ideas created by mankind in its history. This is the most correct and purest way: study all the philosophies and take the best out of them. Do not accept mistakes and injustice, learn not to repeat them, and progress to an “ism” that has not yet been named. But perhaps no “ism” is needed – no special definition for this world order – don’t you think?

RG: What kind of relationship should poets have with the authorities?

Y.Y.: In my opinion, Pushkin created the ideal image of a poet – both a supporter of the state and a rebel. I think a real statesman should be a bit of a rebel, too – an enemy of bureaucracy, rather someone who panders to it. Peter the Great had this blend of characteristics, for example.

RG: You are sharing the bill with the poet Vera Polozkova at a reading in the Luzhniki Stadium on Oct. 3? Why did you choose her?

Y.Y.: Because, like me, she can hold such a large audience.  

RBTH

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Bulat Okudzhava: Paper Soldier




Once there lived a soldier-boy,
None handsomer or braver,
but he was just a children's toy
A soldier made of paper.
He'd change the world, or so he said,
for joy and peace he'd labour,
but he was hanging by a thread,
a soldier made of paper.

He'd bravely go through fire and smoke, 
He'd die for you twice over. 
But he was just a laughing-stock, 
a soldier made of paper. 
You wouldn't trust a paper guy,
With secrets or your favour. 
And why is that? I'll tell you why,
'cause he is made of paper.

He challenged fate, prepared to die,
Marched on another caper,
"Ready, fire!" was his cry,
Forgetting he was paper.
"Forward march! We stand or fall!"
He, burning into vapour,
Died under fire for nothing at all, 
'cause he was made of paper.


Saturday, 15 August 2015

'I would like to live and die in Paris': Mayakovsky abroad

Vladimir Mayakovsky was one of the major Russian poets of the first half of the 20th century and a leading member of the futurism movement. His poems, which are marked by their rebellious spirit and unconventional broken rhythm, are still popular. He invented new words, randomly placing them within sentences, while the lines of his poems themselves form symbolic visual representations in their own right.

Mayakovsky was unconventional in his private life too: from 1918, he lived in a ménage à trois with his lover Lilya Brik and her husband Osip Brik. He conducted numerous affairs with other women at the same time. 


Mayakovsky travelled outside the Soviet Union nine times and had dreams of travelling around the world. During his trips, he delivered lectures, recited poetry and had meetings with various cultural figures.

He returned from each of those trips with suitcases full of books, magazines and copies of drawings, which he distributed them among his friends, eager to share new ideas from the art world. Naturally, he also wrote about his journeys in his poetry. Mayakovsky summed up his attitude to other countries in this way: "I would want to live and die in Paris if there were not such a place as Moscow."

His works have been translated into English, German, Czech, French, Japanese and Chinese. The Malik-Verlag publishing house in Germany published the first translations of his poems, during his lifetime.

In the 1920s, Mayakovsky made several trips to Europe, which he used as a means of getting to know contemporary European art.

He made his first public appearance in front of a foreign audience on Oct. 20, 1922 at a meeting in the Berlin café Leon. During his stay in the city, the poet got to know several German artists, including the expressionist George Grosz.

Paris made a great impression on Mayakovsky. After his visit, he wrote an entire collection of poems called Paris, in which he professed his love for the French capital. "If I were a Vendome column: I would marry La Place de la Concorde,” he wrote.

In Paris, Mayakovsky visited the studios of Pablo Picasso and Fernand Léger, met with Jean Cocteau and even attended Marcel Proust’s funeral.

He returned to Berlin in 1924. In his biography of the poet for the Outstanding Lives series, Alexander Mikhaylov says that Mayakovsky wanted to get a U.S. visa during this particular trip. As the Berlin-based newspaper Nakanune reported at the time, “Vladimir Mayakovsy arrived in Berlin yesterday on his way to the U.S.” 


Mayakovsky did achieve his dream of visiting the U.S. in 1925. First he went to Cuba and then on to Mexico, where he met the modernist artist Diego Rivera, a communist. Mayakovsky was enchanted by the Mexican landscapes, writing: “In an absolutely blue, ultramarine night there are four bodies of palm trees, looking like long-haired bohemian artists. The sky and the earth blend into one. There are stars both above and beneath. Two sets of them. Above are motionless celestial bodies that are available to all, and below are creeping and flying stars of fireflies.”

Mayakovsky then spent three months in the U.S., visiting New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburg and Cleveland, giving lectures and poetry recitals to workers and figures from the art world. He was captivated by North America’s technical prowess. “More than the twisted landscape of Mexico impresses you with plants and people, New York amazes you with its elaborate construction and technology as it rises from the ocean,” Mayakovsky wrote in My Discovery of America, an essay he penned on his return. He also described his impressions of the journey in a collection of poems entitled Spain, Ocean, Havana, Mexico, America.

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Thursday, 6 August 2015

Dmitry Merezhkovsky: Rediscovering a controversial early symbolist

As Russia marks 150 years since the birth of Symbolist writer Dmitry Merezhkovsky, Alma Classics are publishing the first unabridged English translation of Leonardo da Vinci: The Resurrection of the Gods, the story of the painter’s life.

Ignat Avsey, who died in 2013, translated several novels by Dostoevsky and specialized in unearthing forgotten literary gems. He regarded this posthumously published Leonardo as his most important translation, and it could be a spark that helps reignite Merezhkovsky’s reputation.

At nearly 700 pages, Merezhkovsky travelled in the artist’s footsteps, and his landscapes are vivid. This novel, first published in 1900, was the second part of a Christ and Antichrist trilogy, dealing, as much of Merezhkovsky’s work does, with the nature of religion. Like Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Leonardo is full of devils, bacchants and naked, flying witches.

Merezhkovsky, one of 10 children, was born on Aug. 2, 1865. His father served as a privy councilor under Alexander II. His childhood homes, a palatial dacha on St. Petersburg’s Yelagin Island and a classical-style Crimean estate between mountains and sea, gave Merezhkovsky’s imagination some picturesque source material. Hearing bible stories and saints’ lives from the housekeeper, he developed a lifelong religious devotion. Merezhkovsky’s poetry was first published while he was very young, despite the scorn of Fyodor Dostoevsky, who told him he would have to suffer to write well. In 1892 he published a second book of poems, Symbols, and his lecture On the causes of decline in contemporary Russian Literature, which glorifies individual creativity, and is now seen as an early manifesto for the new literary age.

Sergei Diaghilev and the World of Art magazine welcomed him and published his literary essays. Merezhovsky and his flame-haired wife Zinaida Gippius, who was also a poet, became increasingly interested in esoteric religion, attempting to create their own church. After the 1905 revolution Merezhkovsky prophesied: “The church will be torn down and the monarchy too,” and argued that a spiritual revolution was needed before a physical one.

A second trilogy of historical novels ended with December the Fourteenth, the story of the Decembrist revolution of 1825. Merezhkovsky said he wrote historical fiction to use the past in “searching for the future.” He was becoming an increasingly controversial author. Critics mocked Merezhkovsky’s idea of himself as a “great philosopher and a prophet,” calling his books “bad literature.”

He was accused of having terrorist connections, and his gloomy prognostications about Bolshevik tyranny soon came true. He described the new government as “the Antichrist's Kingdom Come.” The couple sold all their belongings and fled in December 1919, never coming back.

In 1925 Merezhkovsky launched The New Ship magazine in France as a focus for dissident, émigré literature. He became friends with another exiled writer, Ivan Bunin, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1933. Merezhkovsky continued to write prolifically and is said to have died with a pen in his hand.

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Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The Prank: The Best of Young Chekhov

IT'S TRUE THAT CHEKHOV, gathering his work for collected editions, essentially renounced these stories by excluding all of them. But when he was 22 and trying to get The Prank (Шалость) okayed by the Moscow censor in 1882, he was mighty proud of them. By the time he submitted the book, he had published several dozen stories and skits in Moscow and Petersburg humor magazines. These dozen, with two of the best on either end, he selected and ordered, and his brother Nikolay, only two years older but already a well-known artist, contributed the spirited and risqué illustrations.
Anton was the third son, but even at 19 he was his family’s savior, arriving in Moscow from Taganrog, their hometown on the Black Sea, to join his parents and younger siblings. (While his father fled creditors, Anton had stayed behind to finish school and to tutor and earn money.) His two older brothers, talented and careless, prey to drink, couldn’t stay out of their own ways. When the censors nixed the volume twice, Chekhov gave up on it; he was already publishing in bigger humor magazines. While in medical school for five years, attending classes and clinics more regularly than most students, Chekhov wrote and published several hundred short stories and skits, supporting the entire family and eventually making his parents quite comfortable.
No doubt, when the New York Review of Books introduces its publication of this title, its pages it will include, as the original book did not, the staged photograph of Anton and Nikolay, with Anton standing and looking over the seated and studiously working Nikolay’s shoulder.
In those years, says a biographer, Chekhov’s “voice was a low baritone with a soft timbre; his contemporaries remembered especially when he was excited in a conversation, his brown eyes lit up, shone, and flashed, and on his lips twinkled a quick smile.” He was as handsome as Keanu Reeves (and, by my account, 245 times as talented).
There are few letters from those days, but he was quite himself: quick and funny, highly juiced. The excited 20-year-old, having begun to make his way in the world, tells a friend, “Move to Moscow!!! I terribly love Moscow. Whoever gets used to her will not leave her. I will forever be a Moscovite … Come!!! Everything’s cheap. Buy trousers for 10 kopecks!” Who among the pantless wouldn’t come running?
One editor who occasionally published Chekhov from 1880 to 1882 posted a note to Chekhov in the magazine’s contributors’ box (this was how freelancers heard whether their pieces were accepted or not!): “You are withering without having flowered.” The British biographer Ronald Hingley doesn’t blame the editor, however, and takes no delight in these stories:
How far Chekhov was from discovering an identity in 1880 is symbolized by the signatures to his ten short publications of that year, all in Strekoza [Dragonfly]. These have seven different pseudonyms distributed among them. Mostly variations on the Christian name “Anton” and the jocular school nickname “Chekhonte,” they include the combination “Antosha Chekhonte,” his best-known pen name.
Hingley begrudges Chekhov the pen names, but Chekhov, his identity firmly in place, thought them amusing, and so can we.
Not that Hingley or anybody else knew or cared about The Prank until the scholar M. P. Gromov found it in 1967 in an archive at the pre-Soviet Moscow censorship office. Gromov points out that Chekhov “told no one anything about his first book and never wrote about it, and its fate was left secret from even those very close to him — his sister, his wife and brothers.” Gromov was able to compare the drafts from the magazines and the manuscript, and noted that, “for the book, Chekhov reworked, strengthened, corrected and polished the stories.”
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