From International Socialism (1st series), No.78, May 1975, p.28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Mayakovsky and His Circle
Viktor Shklovsky, translated and edited by Lily Feiler
Pluto Press, £4.50 hardback, £2.00 paperback.
WHY DOES most left-wing literature look very boring? Open yesterday’s Red Weekly or today’s Morning Star and a glance at the centre-page spread can bring that same stark sense of incipient coma that you normally associate with watching Crossroads or Churchill’s People for twenty minutes.
On my desk is a copy of Lenin’s On Literature and Art. It’s a great book but it’s printed by Progress Publishers of Moscow. That means the usual Progress format – a dust-jacket the colour of dead porridge and a lay-out to match. About the only other literature that looks as energetically repulsive is the rack of damp pamphlets plugging Christianity and bad causes that you find at the back of empty churches.
This is a pity. Our ideas are better than right-wing ones and I see no reason why they shouldn’t look better too. Maybe the left in the past felt that beauty was a bit limp-wristed and bourgeois and so set out to be ugly and virtuous.
I mention these things because there are welcome signs that Pluto is breaking out of this dull bind. Viktor Shklovsky’s Mayakovsky and His Circle is a magnificently made book: an eye-catching cover, vivid titles, readable print and so on. Peripheral virtues, you may feel; but if they tempt a few people to pick the thing up in a bookshop, buy it and read it then it’s a small victory for us. Well done, Pluto.
If you’re tempted to buy it too, what sort of read are you in for? Shklovsky says:
‘What I’m writing is neither memoirs nor a research paper. There’s no system, and the writer will not be described exhaustively, and his biography will not be written by me.’
What he offers instead is a kind of prose poem – at times lyrical, at times disjointed, at times superb, at times opaque. It tells you little about the history or the sociology of its subject (though the editor Lily Feiler makes a good stab at that with very full and useful notes). What it conveys instead is the feel of a group and a period, the feel of how it was to live and write in Russia in the decades before and after the Revolution.
Mayakovsky himself is a fascinating and complex figure – youthful rebel and poseur, Futurist poet and Communist militant, despairing suicide. ‘Nonsensical, stupid, sheer stupidity and affectation’ wrote Lenin in 1921 on seeing Mayakovsky’s poem 150,000,000, but later, after discussions with art students, he learned to respect the poet. Trotsky grunted about Mayakovsky’s ‘Bohemian nihilism’ but in 1924 spent long sections of Literature and Revolution in admiring analysis of his work.
But by the end of the 1920s this sort of free, vigorous and invigorating debate had gone dead in the Soviet Union. On 9 April 1930, the journal Press and Revolution tried to print a greeting to Mayakovsky from the editors. It was cut out on the orders of Khalatov, Head of the State Publishing House. Five days later Mayakovsky shot himself. In his pocket was his last poem. He wrote:
As they say, that’s the end of the story,
Five years later, for reasons best known to himself, Stalin changed his mind and decided one morning that Mayakovsky had been ‘the best, the most talented poet of the Soviet epoch’, so in 1940 Shklovsky was able to write this book.
Into it he poured all his personal memories of Mayakovsky and his circle and all the contending circles in the explosive literary and artistic developments around the years of the Revolution. The book is a montage of snapshots. There’s the first conference of the OPOYAZ group of poets in the bitter winter of 1915: ‘We used books to make a fire but it was cold and Pyast kept his feet in the oven.’ There’s Mayakovsky in 1919 designing propaganda posters by the dozen during the Civil War and doing them flat on his belly because the cheap stoves filled the top half of his office with smoke and fumes. There’s the neighbour who refused Mayakovsky the loan of his razor because he claimed he’d be using it himself for a long, long time. ‘I understand,’ answered Mayakovsky, ‘you are shaving an elephant.’ And so on.
Mayakovsky and His Circle is rambling, insightful, trivial, anecdotal, moving and worthwhile, often all on the same page. It’s everything an academic textbook is not. It’s not a full account of writers and the Russian Revolution, but if you want one writer’s angle on the joy and the terror and the futility and the cold and the splendour of revolution then read it.
Last updated: 2.3.2008