The Mayakovsky Tapes: New Excerpt

The Mayakovsky Tapes by Robert Littell
The Mayakovsky Tapes by Robert Littell
The Mayakovsky Tapes by Robert Littell brings to life the tumultuous Stalinist era and the predicament of the artists ensnared in it (Available November 22, 2016).

In March 1953, four women meet in Room 408 of Moscow’s deluxe Hotel Metropol. They have gathered to reminisce about Vladimir Mayakovsky, the poet who in death had become a national idol of Soviet Russia. In life, however, he was a much more complicated figure.

The ladies, each of whom could claim to have been a muse to the poet, loved or loathed Mayakovsky in the course of his life, and as they piece together their conflicting memories of him, a portrait of the artist as a young idealist emerges. From his early years as a leader of the Futurist movement to his work as a propagandist for the Revolution and on to the censorship battles that turned him against the state (and, more ominously, the state against him), their recollections reveal Mayakovsky as a passionate, complex, sexually obsessed creature trapped in the epicenter of history, struggling to hold onto his ideals in the face of a revolution betrayed.


Revolution is not for the weak of heart.…

Nora: I’ll start the ball rolling if you like. I take my cue from those two unambiguous words they throw onto the silver screen moments before the houselights come up: The end. That’s where I’ll begin—

Tatiana: Are you seriously suggesting the end of a story is more instructive than the beginning?

Nora: Don’t be thickheaded, Tanik! I’m suggesting that the end is discernible from the beginning. And in that sense the end and the beginning are more often than not indistinguishable from each other.

So: You know what he can do with his pompous Comrade Government, ensure a decent life for them. The son of a bitch can shove it up his delicate poetic asshole is what he can do. The cunt! The prick! Hang on, I’m one jump ahead of you, ladies. You will want to know how is it possible to be both cunt and prick simultaneously. I grant you it defies logic, it defies common sense, it defies conventional wisdom about male versus female anatomy, for all I know it defies gravity, but what the fuck, he managed it. The Poet was both cunt and prick when he did what he did to us. Christ, when he did what he did to me!

Lilya: As for me, I’m more comfortable starting at the start:

In the years before the Revolution, our lifelines had crossed now and then, here and there—the occasional literary soiree in the airless cellar of the Stray Dog, the notorious poetry reading in the Polytechnical Museum that turned into a free-for-all (punches were exchanged, chairs broken, the police had to be summoned), a cabaret performance of Georgian folk dances by the teenage prodigy Georgi Balanchivadze, impromptu picnics on the Moskva River when Mayakovsky was courting my gorgeous younger sister, Elsa, ah, yes, I mustn’t forget that deliciously furtive Bolshevik district committee meeting in the Kotov Textile Factory outside of Moscow—but I never paid much attention to him, perhaps because he never paid much attention to me, perhaps because he basked in attention and took it as his due, and I never give the male of the species his due if the withholding of it can make him uncomfortable. Truth is Vladimir Vladimirovich seemed to be more interested in my husband, Osip Maksimovich. The two of them had been drafted in 1916 and served in the same Petrograd motor brigade. Neither ever heard a shot fired in anger. Their job was to meet the trains coming up from the great military base at Mogilev in Byelorussia and ferry majors and colonels and generals, all of them weighted down with colorful medals, to the city’s grand hotels for a night of passion with their mistresses. The way Osip told it, the two chauffeurs spent the nights stretched out on the backseats of French Renaults waiting for their charges to emerge from this or that hotel deluxe, with Osip reading, by flashlight, all twelve novels and twenty-nine short stories of Leon Tolstoy and Mayakovsky whiling away the endless hours writing verse in his Day Book. God knows how but Osip managed to get himself promoted to the rank of Commissar, an event the two motor brigade drivers promptly celebrated by going on a binge in a Petrograd whorehouse. My Osip and Volodya kept in sporadic touch after their less than glorious military careers came to an end. More recently Osip had arranged, at his own expense, to get several of the Poet’s poems printed in journals and was trying to organize the publication of a collection of Mayakovsky’s verse in pamphlet form, an undertaking worthy of Sisyphus given the rationing of paper due to the Great War.

This absence of personal chemistry between us changed the night Osip and I showed up at the Poet’s Café on the Arbat in Moscow for what had been billed as a mano a mano: the two young titans of Russian poesy would be facing off on the future of Futurism. I can still conjure the scene in the café’s main room. It was jam-packed with what my Osip (who, like most intellectual snobs, instantly recognizes other intellectual snobs when he is obliged to rub elbows with them) called the Great Tongue-Tied: highbrows bound into the intellectual’s straightjacket of grammatical correctness and casual incivility. The air was thick with cigarette smoke, the floorboards were littered with a carpet of cigarette ends and reeked of stale beer, which is what the Tongue-Tied drink when they manage to pocket an advance against royalties for something they might or might not actually write. From time to time slivers of soundless lightning, evidence of a distant thunderstorm, turned the café’s art nouveau stained glass windows opaque for a fraction of a second. Several of the Tongue-Tied, seeing the bursts of light, speculated that revolution, expected any day, might have begun. Alas, they were mistaken by several months and had to be laughed down by individuals with umbrellas who recognized inclement weather when they saw it. In the back, under the storm-illuminated windows, stood a gaggle of factors gesticulating with their hands and fingers as if they were deaf and dumb. Osip supposed them to be selling tsarist bonds to finance a new stretch of the Trans-Siberian rail line. He was dead wrong. They turned out to be betters laying odds on who would emerge the winner from the poetic confrontation.

The wooden chairs in the large square room had been arranged as if two primitive tribes were facing off against each other. Set slightly forward from their respective camps were two bar stools for the principals. In the one corner, at twenty-six, lean, long-jawed with deep-set burning eyes, sat Boris Pasternak, only just arrived in Moscow on a sledge from the Urals, still wearing a long coat covered with dust kicked up by the troika of horses. In the other corner, Vladimir Mayakovsky, the enfant terrible of Russian poetry who carried a chip on his shoulder and wore his anger on his sleeve, and somehow managed to look as if he had just come away from a street brawl. Several years younger and half a head taller than his rival, he was dressed in a threadbare city suit with one of his signature radishes jammed into the buttonhole—Mayakovsky, you see, had a dark side, he claimed a metaphorical affinity for people and plants that grew into the ground. Oh, he certainly stood out in the crowd with that yellow bow tie fastened to a dirty cardboard collar, the hem of his long coat weighted down with dried mud, his mop of thick uncombed (and presumably unwashed) black hair awry, a scruffy stubble of a beard on his pasty cheeks. Rocking agitatedly on his bar stool, he fetched a small notebook from an inside pocket of his long coat, moistened a thick thumb on his thick tongue and flicked through the pages to the one he wanted. He studied it for a long moment, then closed the notebook and, squinting sightlessly over the heads of the Tongue-Tied, clearing his throat as if he needed to cough up an obstruction in it, he began declaiming his poem, in turns ranting, whispering, raging, mumbling, mocking, whining, winnowing, all the while gasping for breath when he ran short of it. (I run short of breath just remembering it.) I had heard poetry read out before but never like this. He seemed to be trying to startle his audience into the poem, to detonate cultural revolution with words forced out of context, with metaphors that defied common sense. It was a revelation of what poetry could be when it wasn’t hostage to tense or grammar or syntax or rhythm or rhyme or reason or our miserable preconceptions of what verse ought to sound like. At moments it came across as a whirlwind of what the future might hold when revolution reached Russia, at others a dry gust that stirred remembrances of the lovers who had recently committed suicide together so their skeletons, buried in the same coffin, would be intertwined for eternity. Here’s the thing: Stolypin’s tie (which is how we’d christened the hangman’s noose of Imperial Russia), the endless Great War, the foothills of Russian corpses that the Hun stacked in front of his trenches in place of sandbags, the Tsar’s obliviousness to the craving for land and bread and an end to the slaughterhouse—all of this had conspired to make conventional poetry pointless. Osya thought it a matter of the Tongue-Tied writing on the wrong subjects in a dumb way. And suddenly this ruffian poet with the fists of a pugilist, this frowzy émigré from an allegorical steppe, seemed like the right person writing on the right subject in an original way. Stripping poetry of its traditional poetic diction, he crafted a language all his own, one that corresponded to a world distorted by great wars, by industrial revolution, by city slums infested with poverty and misery. Invented words bubbled to the surface—to quote Mayakovsky—like a “naked prostitute fleeing a burning brothel.” The poem he blurted out over the heads of the Tongue-Tied—the poem that changed my life!—was his Cloud in Trousers, a delirious depoetisized declaration of anguished love that he had composed for one of his countless mistresses but eventually dedicated to me. I stumbled across that little detail when my Osya paid to get a small edition of Mayakovsky’s Cloud in Trousers into print and I discovered “To you, Lilya” on the title page. My parents had named me Lili after one of Goethe’s beloveds, Lili Schönemann, but from that moment on, anointed by the Poet Mayakovsky, I became Lilya to Vladimir Vladimirovich, Lilya to Osip, Lilya to my sister Elsa, Lilya to everyone. If today I am Lilya to all of you here in this hotel room, it’s thanks to Mayakovsky’s dedication. Here are several of the lines that are seared on my brain:

There’s no gray in the hair of my soul,

no fogey softheartedness!

The very sound of my voice makes the earth quake

As I stride across it—me, a beautiful


Ah, and this:

If you want,

I can be consummately tender,

not a man, but—a cloud in trousers!

Already something of a celebrity, Mayakovsky had a knack for taking possession of a room crammed with people, then inciting them to riot with his poetry. The Poet was known to argue insolently with people who contradicted him or identified seeming inconsistencies in his point of view. Which is why Osip had dragged me against my will to the Arbat café and the mano a mano. He expected tantrums. He expected pandemonium. He expected fisticuffs. He expected, metaphorically speaking, blood would be spilled and there would only be one poet still on his feet at the end of it.

Curiously, it didn’t quite turn out the way Osip expected.

Pasternak listened intently as Mayakovsky declaimed his Cloud in Trousers, nodding all the while in what could have been taken (depending on which camp you were in) for appreciation or exasperation. There was a deafening silence when he reached the last line and, drained of energy, sank back onto his bar stool. Pasternak appeared to suck in the silence through his flaring nostrils. Then, to the general bewilderment of the spectators, he began slowly slapping one hand against a knee in what could only be interpreted as applause. “Interspersed with your stormy, imperfect passages,” he said, “one constantly stumbles upon fragments of art, suggesting a talent that occasionally rises to the level of genius. May-a-kov-sky,” he added, articulating each syllable of each word, “is a po-et’s po-et.”

“He is a pathetic poet,” snarled a bearded magazine editor who was known to detest Mayakovsky. “He woos fame as if she were a woman, then pretends, when he has beguiled her into his bed, he isn’t sure she suits him.” Spittle glistened on two silver teeth in his lower jaw as he spat out the word pathetic a second time.

In the airless room you could actually hear people pulling apprehensively on their cigarettes. Mayakovsky slid off his stool and waded into the Tongue-Tied, a ghost of a grin visible on his bloodless lips, his coal black eyes fixed on the magazine editor as he grabbed his lapels and lifted him clear of the chair. Seeing the terror in the man’s eyes, Mayakovsky settled him with exaggerated gentleness back into his seat. “I came across a man begging on the Arbat this morning,” he said as he made his way back to his stool. “He was dressed in rags that once passed for an army uniform, with a tin cup at his feet to collect money, and sang operatic arias a cappella so off-key it was pathetic. And because he was pathetic people understood he was desperate and stooped to give him a coin. If I am, as he says, a pathetic poet, the same people will understand, when I read my miserable poems in public, how desperate I must be, and I shall gain my livelihood better than an authentic poet like Pasternak here.”

Grinning in satisfaction, the Poet hefted himself onto the stool. “In any case,” he said, eyeing the offending magazine editor, “neither I nor the singer on the Arbat are nearly as pathetic as the editor of a pseudo-intellectual rag of a magazine that honest citizens buy so as to have a supply of toilet paper.”

Mayakovsky had the Tongue-Tied in the palm of his hand now. Fortified by the mocking laugher he had incited, he hollered “Settle down, my kittens,” and, turning to Pasternak, invited him to recite something not yet published. Pasternak, formal to a fault, bowed from the waist in the style of a Russian peasant, then, rising to his feet, said, “I shall say the poem, which I call ‘Hamlet,’ and then repeat it a second time as I am never understood at the first reading. Here,” he went on, “is the Danish Prince Hamlet speaking to his father’s ghost. Or Christ speaking to His Father in the garden of Gethsemane. Or me speaking to you. Who can be sure?”

I am trying, standing in the door,

To discover in the distant echoes

What the coming years may hold in store.

But the plan of action is determined,

And the end irrevocably sealed.

I am alone; all round me drowns in falsehood:

Life is not a stroll across a field.

When he reached the last line and looked up, I remember murmuring to my Osya, “So much for the fireworks you promised.”

“Wait,” he said, and hoping to light the fuse that would ignite the powder keg, Osip—who, in his youth, had been expelled from school for spreading Bolshevik propaganda—called out, “There are things afoot more important than poetry. Instead of lulling us into a nonalcoholic stupor with your verses, incite us with your views on revolution.”

“Make no mistake about it, friends,” Mayakovsky said, his eyes suddenly feverish, “revolution, not evolution, is the solution to our tribulations. It’s not a matter of impatience. It’s a matter of justice. Those of us who can see further than our noses embrace the chaos of revolution, we embrace the risk of revolution, we embrace Marx’s dazzling dream of liberating man from ignorance, religious dogmatism, and the class prison into which he was born. Revolution will change the way we perceive this world, the way we relate to one another, the way we love our lovers. Women will be the equal of men in bed and in the workplace. It will free artists from having to drag around fetid creeds like medieval balls and chains. It will permit us to spit out the past, which is stuck like a bone in our throats. It will transform the language we use to describe the world we see. Revolution is the last, best hope for Tsarist Russia. And revolutionary Russia is the last, best hope for the petrified fossil Europe.”

It was an electrifying moment. This hooligan, this ruffian, this jailbird, this jawbreaker, was saying aloud what many of us were thinking but only dared articulate in the isolation of our flats. I sucked in my breath. I thought I caught a general sucking in of breath and grabbed Osip’s arm, fearing there wouldn’t be enough oxygen left in the room to sustain life. “What’s wrong?” he whispered.

“Everything is right,” I murmured as a trill resembling a whirlwind passing through the rigging of a sailing ship rose from the crowd.

A woman’s shrill voice pierced the commotion. “The illustrious anarchist Mikhail Bakunin predicted that Marx’s cure—this Utopian dictatorship of the proletariat that you are so impatient for us to embrace—would make Russia sicker than it is under tsarist rule.”

Shaking his head in disgust, Mayakovsky said, “It is well known that revolution is not for the weak of heart, little lady. Bakunin had a weak heart. He lost his nerve when—”


Copyright © 2016 Robert Littell.

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Robert Littell is the author of eighteen previous novels, most recently A Nasty Piece of Work and the nonfiction book For the Future of Israel, written with Shimon Peres, former president of Israel. He has been awarded both the English Gold Dagger and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for his fiction. His novel The Company was a New York Times bestseller and was adapted into a television miniseries, and his novel Legends has been adapted into a television series. He lives in France.

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