Night Wraps the Sky

mayaBy Vladimir Mayakovsky

As I have said previously I am not big on poetry, generally. This could be changing slightly as I have found another poet that I like. The poems here are his best work; not the propaganda poems which made up mych of his output as the ‘poet of the revolution’. They are really strong, visceral with an excellent turn of phrase and are exciting even, which is not the way most poetry is. If you combine reading these poems with the fact that he would have performed them at workers meetings and indulged in banter, humour and dealt with heckles then they take on another dimension as well. These poems are meant to be performed and by all accounts Mayakovsky was a larger than life character that commanded the stage. In the book one of the contributors compares Eminem to Mayakovsky and it’s not too far from the mark. This isn’t intellectual language, it’s strong language and Mayakovsky’s rhythmic genius has been deemed impossible to translate into English. But, still the contributors here have tried and to my eye and ear they have done a good job because you can sense the personality of Mayakovsky behind the words.

Mayakovsky was full of contradictions. On one level as a futurist he wanted to destroy all that had been before but he couldn’t help but regard Pushkin as the greatest of poets. He was strong and anarchic yet seeming subservient to Bolshevism and his mistress Lili Brik (the Franz Ferdinand record cover with the loud-hailer is based on a Rodchenko poster that featured her). Mayakovsky wrote against suicide vehemently but then committed the act himself in 1930. Commentators have said that he may have seen the writing on the wall, several of his friends were being imprisoned under the beginnings of Stalin’s purges and it was only a matter of time especially since Stalin was not enamoured with him. Mayakovsky wouldn’t have survived the 30s it is fair to say. But as the revolution’s greatest poet he probably would have met the same mysterious end as Gorky who was arguably the revolution’s greatest writer. Nevertheless, his suicide was a turnaround from his previous position.

This is a very good edition. Along with the poetry you learn about Mayakovsky’s life through his own words in a biographical text called ‘I, myself’ and through extracts and reminiscences of those who knew him as well as contributors like John Berger. It’s a very good introduction and collection of his most known poetry; a ‘Greatest Hits’ if you like. I might have to track down the travel journal he wrote about his visit to America – that should be interesting as well. He also wrote and acted in movies, though only one full one survives, and worked with Rodchenko on posters and slogans. So, a renaissance man.

This is definitely well worth reading, highly recommended, Mayakovsky’s work is still relevant and powerful 80 years after his death.

One of the anecdotes I laughed out loud at while reading: Mayakovsky was at a meeting, on stage, engaging in banter with the audience. One of the audience a stern looking man with a bushy beard (in stark contrast to the shaven headed Mayakovsky) obviously took offence and began pointedly walking for the exit. Mayakovsky bellowed in his booming voice ‘Comrades! The learned gentleman is now leaving to have a shave!’

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assommoir By Emile Zola

This possibly one of the bleakest books I have ever read. I am no stranger to Zola having read La Debacle, Germinal, Therese Raquin, Nana and some others. However, none of them have the pathos of this and there really is no glimmer of hope in this novel that I can see.

About a third in I found myself getting a little fed up with it as the plot started resembling a bad season of Eastenders. Or, rather what I imagine Eastenders to be like as I haven’t really watched it. Zola said that his novel was the only book about the common people that doesn’t lie, but i’m not sure. It does seem a bit exagerated at times – like Eastenders. They are all having affairs, no one cares about the children, there’s gossip, sniping and families breaking up. There was only one murder though.

I’m glad I read it but it wasn’t as good as La Debacle or Germinal even, which wasn’t a soap opera but still about the working people. There was craft in this but I don’t know why the critics say that this novel is the most masterful example of Zola’s craft. The action did just seem to be at one level and often quite superficial as it moved from one episode to another.

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41pI617gLEL._SL500_AA240_[Contemporary Russian Folk Artifacts]

By Vladimir Arkhipov

What a brilliant brilliant book. I saw it in the shop and it was only a tenner. As soon as I opened it I knew I had to buy it. There are so many fantastic objects here and the commentary given by the inventors or their relatives has honesty and humour. These are working people who require a useful object – when the object breaks or wears out they look for ways to make it useful again. Some of them actually do look great though – the TV aerial on the cover or the strange hybrid crutch shovel or toy train (below). I also like the fact a shovel is made out a sign with a shovel – genius. I’m sure the inventor got a few laughs out of that. If you see this book buy it, or you can peruse the website the author has set up which is a very strange hybrid beast in itself. If you have anything you have made Vladimir takes submissions too. I have decided to re-examine my approach to broken or worn objects with a view to making them useful again – possibly in a different way.

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Memories of the Future

memories-of-the-future-sigizmund-krzhizhanovsky By Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

Half-way through this book after reading six of the seven stories I thought this was ok – and only just. However the last and longest novella that makes up half the book was excellent. There were quite complex scientific principles espoused with humour and a dollop of intrigue – at least they seemed complex to me. If the ideas wern’t complex then Krzhizhanovsky did a good job of making them seem so. It’s a real pity some of the other stories are a bit patchy. Also a real pity there are no longer works like Memories of the Future in translation. There is another collection of stories but given my lack of affinity with the ones in this book I may just leave it. Should another novella appear I will definitely read it. As I said, a couple of the stories were fine but some just seemed deliberately zany with no real point to the absurdity. Absurdity can give form to a story ala Gombrowicz but here something just didn’t ring true. Perhaps I am being unfair and am happy to be persuaded otherwise if anyone has  a different take on it. I might even try a re-read on some of the stories due to the strength of  ‘Memories’ and its strange atmosphere. If my opinions change I will do a separate post. This is worth reading for the ‘Memories of the Future’ novella.

Soundtrack: Anything off  ‘Distortion’ by the Magnetic Fields.

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