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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography



Bengt Jangfeldt

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To purchase Mayakovsky

Title: Mayakovsky
Author: Bengt Jangfeldt
Genre: Biography
Written: 2007 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 584 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: Mayakovsky - US
Mayakovsky - UK
Mayakovsky - Canada
Mayakovsky - India
La vie en jeu - France
  • A Biography
  • Swedish title: Med livet som insats
  • Translated by Harry D. Watson
  • With many illustrations

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting life and orbit; well-presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Literary Review A 12/2014 James Womack
The Spectator . 21/2/2015 Anna Aslanyan
Svenska Dagbladet . 12/4/2007 Michel Ekman
The Telegraph . 1/2/2015 Jeremy Noel-Tod

  From the Reviews:
  • "Jangfeldt carefully shows the way in which all aspects of Mayakovsky's life -- his womanising, his astonishing productivity, his chain-smoking, his gambling, his poetry -- came from the same source. In Jangfeldt's concentration on how Mayakovsky's art and life were absolutely and inextricably intertwined, the granite Soviet figure is remade into something more akin to a butch Russian Oscar Wilde, and is all the more interesting for the metamorphosis. (...) Mayakovsky: A Biography is also a beautifully coordinated group portrait of the individuals surrounding Mayakovsky (.....) This is a wonderful book that presents us with a captivating, contradictory, frustrating human being." - James Womack, Literary Review

  • "However notorious a womaniser Mayakovsky may have been, this biography tends to overdo romance at the expense of less juicy themes. (...) This biography is a worthy attempt to bring Mayakovsky alive; and yet to resurrect him, we should return to his poetry" - Anna Aslanyan, The Spectator

  • "Jangfeldts bok är på grund av Majakovskijs långa och ofrivilliga allians med Sovjetmakten den första kritiska biografin på något språk, och dess värde ökas ytterligare av att den bygger på nya arkivstudier och intervjuer med numera döda närstående. (...) Majakovskij framstår här som ett kulturhistoriskt fenomen av mycket stort intresse, men som författare undflyr han läsaren. Men vad Bengt Jangfeldts bok ger är mycket nog." - Michel Ekman, Svenska Dagbladet

  • "In Jangfeldt’s pioneering account, the public story of Mayakovsky’s life is interwoven with the private stories of his poems, which multiply that life through metaphor, as in a house of mirrors. (...) Jangfeldt’s authoritative volume -- which is handsomely typeset and generously illustrated -- does much sympathetic justice to a catastrophic personality who fascinated Soviet Russia." - Jeremy Noel-Tod, The Telegraph

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (1897-1930) is among the best-known poets of the early Soviet period but, as Bengt Jangfeldt notes, "no real biography of Mayakovsky himself has ever been written", and this volume is actually: "the first non-Soviet biography of him", at least of any truly comprehensive sort.
     A colorful figure, Mayakovsky's reputation no doubt suffered greatly due to Stalin's canonization of him -- turning him into the very sort of 'statue', his image and how it was to be seen fixed practically in stone, that he railed against in some of his early poetry. Jangfeldt's biography isn't so much an exercise in rehabilitation -- Mayakovsky's poetry speaks for itself -- as a helpful reminder of the poet and his work, which hasn't received nearly as much attention as that of many of his contemporaries in many decades.
       Jangfeldt describes relatively little about Mayakovsky's earliest years -- just twenty-three pages for the years 1897 to 1915. The decisive moment for him is in July 1915, when Mayakovsky read his 'A Cloud in Trousers' in the apartment of Lili and Osip Brik, at the invitation of Lili's younger sister, Elsa. Elsa was in love with Mayakovsky, and would continue to pine for him -- even as she herself would attract suitors like flies: among them would be both Roman Jakobson and Viktor Shklovsky; she married a Frenchman, taking his name, under which she is best-known now -- Elsa Triolet -- before then marrying Louis Aragon. But introducing Mayakovsky to Lili and Osip pretty much meant Elsa lost her special bond with the poet, since the trio hit it off right away, and most of Mayakovsky's life after that was spent as part of this unusual ménage à trois.
       Lili and Osip's marriage was a very open one -- not entirely unusually in those days and times, as Jangfeldt makes clear --: deeply in love, Lili nevertheless liked to sleep around, something that apparently didn't bother Osip very much. Osip doesn't seem to have been sexually very eager, with his wife or anyone else -- though Lili was apparently hurt when, in 1925: "a young librarian had managed to awaken his slumbering sexuality". Mayakovsky -- who had lots of conquests of his own, even as he apparently wasn't a very satisfying lover -- loved Lili and was jealous of her other lovers, but somehow they managed to work things out between them. For the most part this odd arrangement combining intimacy and friendship thrived and survived for the next fifteen years.
       Revolutionary Russia was more than just a backdrop here, as especially Mayakovsky was an engaged poet, torn between the pure poetry Lili wanted to and could bring out in him, to the more functional poetry dedicated to revolution and the state. As Jangfeldt sums up:

     The whole of Mayakovsky's life and poetry was about politics, the building of Communism, and the poet's place therein.
       While the uglier sides of Soviet politics quickly intruded on cultural production, during Mayakovsky's time matters had not yet descended to the later horrors of Stalinism. Many artists were expelled from the Soviet Union, but even when Lenin disapproved of a work such as Mayakovsky's 150,000,000, the reaction was more a personal outburst and did not bring with it the repercussions that became the norm in later times:
     Rubbish, stupid, stupid beyond belief.
     In my opinion only 1 out of 10 such things should be printed and not more than 1,500 copies for libraries and oddballs.
     And Lunacharsky should be horsewhipped for Futurism.
       Interestingly, travel abroad was common for Mayakovsky and his circle -- especially to Germany and France -- and where there were difficulties it was because they were denied entry-visas as Soviet citizens. An artificially pegged ruble made travel abroad relatively cheap for part of that time -- and Mayakovsky in any case earned well: "a good thirteen times more" than the average industrial worker in the mid-1920s, Jangfeldt estimates. Though not much of a sightseer -- he preferred to play cards -- Mayakovsky did get around, including to the United States.
       Times changed quickly, however: by 1930 the Soviet Encyclopedia maintained:
Mayakovsky's rebelliousness, anarchistic and individualistic, is essentially petit bourgeois.
During the last few years Mayakovsky had gradually come to realize that his services were no longer in demand, that he had no obvious place in the society which was taking shape and in which literature and literary politics were dominated to an ever-greater degree by individuals whose qualifications were not primarily literary.
       Jangfeldt's chronicle, so good on domestic detail, does not always give a good impression of just how fast and far-reaching these changes were; Stalin gets few mentions and remains a peripheral figure.
       For a while Osip worked for the state security Cheka (later: GPU); in 1924 he was: "sacked from the GPU as a 'deserter'" (but there were apparently hardly any other consequences). The instruments of terror were, by and large, nowhere near as threatening as they soon would become, but one doesn't always get a good sense of the effects at any given time -- in part, no doubt, with a few brief exceptions, because Mayakovsky and the Briks led lives of considerable privilege, able to get away with quite a bit.
       Jangfeldt paints a fine picture of, especially, the fascinating Lili, as well as Mayakovsky. Parts are underplayed: there is frequent mention of Mayakovsky's suicidal disposition, but fairly little exploration of it in any detail, from what lay behind it to what exacerbated it. But the man, and the most significant works (his poems; plays like The Bedbug) are well introduced.
       Arguably, Jangfeldt might have treated what became of Mayakovsky posthumously in more detail -- basically, he ends his story with the poet's death, only briefly and occasionally mentioning aspects of his legacy. Few writers have had their public image shaped as dramatically as Mayakovsky did, and this, and the consequences of it, are a fascinating subject in their own right, surely an important part of any study of Mayakovsky and his poetry. But for a volume on a life, with a focus on the personal (rather than the historical-political surrounding events, which do play a role but rarely intrude too greatly in the narrative), Jangfeldt's is a very impressive study of a remarkable poet, and a rather remarkable group of people -- a who's who of Russian literature of the times.
       Mayakovsky is also an exceptionally well (and helpfully) illustrated biography -- mostly photographs.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 January 2015

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Mayakovsky: Reviews: Vladimir Mayakovsky: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swedish author Bengt Jangfeldt was born in 1948.

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© 2015 the complete review

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