Magazine article The Spectator

'Mayakovsky: A Biography', by Bengt Jangfeldt, Translated from the Swedish by Harry D. Watson - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Mayakovsky: A Biography', by Bengt Jangfeldt, Translated from the Swedish by Harry D. Watson - Review

Article excerpt

Mayakovsky: A Biography Bengt Jangfeldt, translated from the Swedish by Harry D. Watson

University of Chicago Press, pp.601, £24.50, ISBN: 9780226056975

Why increase

the number

of suicides?

Better

to increase

the output of ink!

wrote Vladimir Mayakovsky in 1926 in response to the death of a fellow poet. Four years later, aged 36, he shot himself. What drove the successful author, popular with the public and recognised by officialdom, to suicide? Bengt Jangfeldt provides some clues to this question in his detailed, source-rich biography.

Mayakovsky came to poetry as a Futurist, co-authoring the 1912 manifesto A Slap in the Face of Public Taste , which granted poets the right 'to feel an insurmountable hatred for the language existing before their time'. That the new era demanded a new language was a principle Mayakovsky adhered to all his life. After the October Revolution he wrote poems and plays that propelled him to the top of the emergent literary hierarchy, performed for large audiences, made propaganda posters for the Russian Telegraph Agency, dabbled in film and collaborated with the Constructivist Alexander Rodchenko on innovative advertisements. In 1923, attempting to revive the Russian avant-garde, Mayakovsky launched Lef , a periodical that, despite promoting utilitarian art designed to serve the socialist state, proved useless to the ruling ideology.

His poetry, full of neologisms, punchy metaphors, original imagery, syncopated rhythm and staccato lines, stuns the reader with its energy and self-confidence, often making it hard to discern any inner conflict. Jangfeldt portrays him as a split personality, talking about 'the destructive battle between the lyricist and the agitator within him', exemplified by the poems 'A Cloud in Trousers' and 'About This'.

Mayakovsky's last major work, 'At the Top of My Voice', a message to posterity pervaded with 'a feeling of being at the mercy of uncomprehending contemporaries', is dissected against the backdrop of 1929, Stalin's 'year of great change'. For all their insights, these critical analyses ignore the fact that Mayakovsky is incredibly difficult to translate, so the promised ed 'pyrotechnic display of witticisms, word games, and brilliant rhymes' never materialises the way it does in Herbert Marshall's translations, published in 1965 and quoted here. …

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