Biographers are amateur private detectives’, Roman Jakobson once wrote. If so, there are few juicier cases than Vladimir Mayakovsky. For even his death presents a double murder: the suicide of the man and the annihilation of his poetry. The crime scene remains intact – preserved for us by Pasternak. The corpse lies, alone in a room, with a bullet through the heart. The murder weapon – a Mauser pistol – was provided by an agent of Stalin’s secret police. The suicide note is a startling poem – with a new pun. ‘Between eleven and twelve the ripples were still circling around the shot’, wrote Pasternak, on 14 April 1930. ‘The news rocked the telephones, blanketed faces with pallor. He lay on his side with his face to the wall, sullen and imposing, with a sheet up to his chin, his mouth half open as in sleep. Haughtily turning his back on all, even in this repose, even in this sleep, he was stubbornly straining to go away somewhere… death had arrested an attitude which it almost never succeeds in capturing. This was an expression with which one begins life but does not end it. He was sulking and indignant.’
At eight o’clock that evening, Mayakovsky has his skull drilled so that his brain could be preserved, as an organ of genius, for future generations in the USSR. When weighed, it was found to be 360 grams heavier than Lenin’s, ‘which meant a bit of a headache for the ideologues of the Brain Institute’. An inquest into the cause of death was launched immediately. It found that the poet had shot himself ‘for personal reasons’. But in this fascinating, long overdue biography, Bengt Jangfeldt presents a more complex solution.
Cause of death? Frustrated poetry.
Born in rural Georgia in 1893, Mayakovsky had an innate capacity for memorising and reciting verse. He only began writing it, as a teenager, when jailed for Bolshevik agitation. He served five months in solitary confinement, in Moscow’s notorious Butyrka prison, reading Byron, Shakespeare and Tolstoy ‘without great enthusiasm’. On release, Mayakovsky is said to have leapt out, a fully formed poet — like Pallas Athena from the brain of Zeus. In 1912, already obsessed with creating a new kind of poetic language, capable of articulating the coming revolution, he joined the Futurist movement and started touring Russia, reading his poetry to anyone who would listen (and many who wouldn’t). One early performance in Kiev was attended by ‘the governor-general, the chief of police, eight police commissars, 16 assistant commissars, 25 police supervisors, 60 police constables…. 50 mounted police were outside.’ Mayakovsky was delighted. ‘What poets, apart from ourselves, have been honoured with such a state of war?’, he demanded. ‘Ten policemen for every poem read. That’s what I call poetry.’
Already, Mayakovsky was a complex character. An ambidextrous cardsharp, who took losing as a personal insult; a proletarian agitator, who dressed like a dandy; a germ-fearing hypochondriac, smoking 100 cigarettes a day; a lady-killer with rotten teeth, causing a string of abortions wherever he went. He transformed perfectly successful romances into desperate and blistering love lyrics. Massive and overbearing, at six foot three, always beating out the rhythm of his verse with his steel toe caps and a cane, he made constant jokes, but rarely laughed at them. He had a shaven head, the demeanour of a ‘hooligan’, and when deprived of an audience he turned out to be neurotic and very gentle. Even his name, from the Russian word for ‘Lighthouse’, sounded like he’d made it up. His living arrangements were also unorthodox. From around 1915, until shortly before his death, he lived in a complicated ménage a trois, with his muse, Lilya, and her husband, the critic Osip Brik.
The sheer, shocking inventiveness of Mayakovsky’s poems is nigh impossible to translate. ‘I always put the most characteristic word at the end of a line and find for it a rhyme at any cost’, Mayakovsky explained in his essay ‘How To Make Verse’. ‘As a result, my rhymes are almost always out of the ordinary and, in any case, have not been used before me and do not exist in rhyming dictionaries.’ His poems fizz with ‘grammatical deformations, bizarre inversions, neologisms and puns’. According to one Russian critic, the English equivalent of a conservative Mayakovskian rhyme would be Browning’s ‘ranunculus’ with ‘Tommy-make-room-for-your-uncle-us’. What does come across in English, however, is the brilliance and brutality of his metaphors. ‘My poems’, he explains, ‘Jump out / like mad gladiators / ‘Kill!’ / they cry.’ In one, he invites the sun to have tea with him; in another, he inserts it, like a monocle, in his gaping eye. He orders firemen to climb into his heart, to put out an inferno. He complains he was ‘sired by Goliaths - / I, so large, so unwanted’, but says he is so tender, as a lover, that he is not a man ‘but a cloud in trousers’.
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