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Bengt Jangfeldt, Med livet som insats. Berättelsen om Vladimir Majakovskij (Life at Stake: The Story of Vladimir Majakovsky)

Wahlström & Widstrand,  2007. ISBN: 9789146212126

Reviewed by Henning Koch in SBR 2007:2

There is something refreshing about a biography that tells the facts and allows the reader to draw his or her own inferences and conclusions, and Bengt Jangfeldt’s Med livet som insats is just such a biography. Moral judgments can be a way of turning away from the moral intricacies of the subject. Yet Jangfeldt, in this excellent biography, throws the windows open on the whole obliterated and corrupted world of Russia in the wake of the 1917 Revolution.

In the case of Mayakovsky, the facts are quite a remarkable thing in their own right, as until this book came along we never actually had them. Ever since the mid-thirties when Stalin, who preferred dead poets to living ones, suddenly decided that Mayakovsky was the revolutionary voice that really counted in Russia, it has been difficult to get any real biographical information on the man – just a lot of whitewash and politically dry-cleaned anthologies – omitting anything that smacked of dissent, or those works that gave vent to Mayakovsky’s more lyrical sides.

By 1929 Mayakovsky had already famously killed himself with a shot through the heart, after years of personal turmoil and political frustration in the hardening climate of Soviet Russia, in the face of which he had been in spiritual retreat from the outset – while at the same time playing the role of Bolshevik so well that he more or less believed in his own performance.

Jangfeldt clarifies an essential distinction about Vladimir Mayakovsky, one that flies in the face of years of disinformation: namely that he never really was a revolutionary of the real world; and always more of a dreamer who sought to write, publish and be adored even at the cost of his own personal integrity.

Mayakovsky’s intense creative energy kept him busy in many spheres in addition to poetry, including the writing of party propaganda, screenplays for the fledgling film industry in Russia, and drama. However, Boris Pasternak and others who consistently worked against the clampdowns of the party machine, found it hard to condone Mayakovsky’s abstentions.

In a short period of time, the Bolsheviks managed to do what the Tsars had never accomplished: the wholesale removal, execution or exile of critics, opponents and individualists. In 1922, when Lenin came up with the idea of putting 160 of Russia’s foremost philosophers, artists and "anti-revolutionaries" on a ship (the so-called "philosophers’ ship") and sending them into exile, Trotsky described this extraordinary act as "Bolshevik humanism". Mayakovsky, at this time, was already well into his notorious ménage a trois with Lili and Osip Brik, the latter actually working for the Tjeka (the Communist secret police), and he certainly had the required weight to question the leadership’s policies both in his poetry and the press. Even though artists such as Mandelstam, Pasternak, Anna Achmatova and Sergej Jesenin remained in Russia, Mayakovsky was one of the most prominent writers to unquestioningly and actively support the Revolution. Later, as his life darkened, he described himself as a poet who had "trodden on his own throat."

In the early days, when Mayakovsky was Chairman of the Association of Cultural Workers (his deputy was Gorky), he stated, "I do not say no to politics, but in art there is no room for politics." With the tightening of the political environment in 1921-22, Mayakovsky left the association and also Futurism behind, and was a prime mover in LEF, a cultural group that advocated journalism over and above prose and novels. Jangfeldt interestingly comments that, for Mayakovsky, "this anti-romanticism was in fact at heart an expression of romanticism...". Later, Mayakovsky alienated a number of artists with his unyielding insistence on ideology. Eisenstein, for instance, had to endure a pummelling of October, which, Mayakovsky wrote, was marred by "aestheticism".

In 2004 when Bengt Jangfeldt started working on this biography, spurred on by the enormous amounts of archive material he was given access to at the house of Lili Brik (Mayakovsky’s eternal Muse and lover) no biography of Majkovsky had been written anywhere, in any language, outside Russia. Jangfeldt was very well qualified to write this book. For one thing, he had personal contacts among Mayakovsky’s circle of friends and colleagues. Secondly, as a Russian speaker Jangfeldt was able to conduct his own research into the newly opened archives.

The reader is easily able to distinguish the disturbing double life of Mayakovsky – his revolutionary fervour contradicted by his love of fine clothes, motorcars, casinos, émigré heiresses, etc. Gabriella Håkansson, writing in Dagens Nyheter, puts it very well when she alludes to the undoubted "dark fire" which powered Mayakovsky’s poetical output – while at the same time asking very pointedly what it was that he actually burned for.

After reading this biography with its exceptional and unprecedented range of photographs and other illustrations, one comes away convinced that Mayakovsky’s enthusiasm for Bolshevism was little more than a sort of subliminal need for utopia and romanticism. At the same time, his swaggering personality was an attempt to cover up deep insecurities which never quite allowed him to find the absolute romantic love he craved. Vladimir Mayakovsky, it seems, needed nothing except love, money and Lili Brik. It is a pity for him that he was not born in Paris, in another time; for, although Stalin would not much have liked such bourgeoisie tendencies, Mayakovsky would probably have been quite happy to spend his life there, writing panegyrics or valedictions on love – whilst railing against the idiocy of the world.

Henning Koch

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