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“He’s like, ‘your husband’s a fool and an old gelding…’”

June 6, 2020

James McGavran—who’s behind the website Poems and Problems, which now has an interesting section that juxtaposes literal and same-meter translations of Pushkin poems and closely related poems in other languages—is a Maiakovskii translator and scholar, and he recently wrote about Maiakovskii and the classic nineteenth-century poets.

In his Futurist youth, Maiakovskii is all about throwing Pushkin et al. off the “steamship of modernity” or putting them up against the wall during the Civil War. Attacks on the big names of Russian culture are “personal and frequently violent, but also superficial and fleeting”; Maiakovskii is more interested in a clever rhyme for Rastrelli than in making any specific aesthetic point (388–89). After 1917, when he switches from being a poet looking ahead to revolution to one carving out a role doing “poetic labor in Soviet Russia,” he starts reevaluating the literary tradition (389–90).

One way he does this is by writing poems that are intertextual in a curious way: he doesn’t only refer to another poet’s texts, but “drags [the canon’s] authors and characters into his poems, where they appear as onlookers or witnesses, but not full-fledged interlocutors” (391). The “I” in Maiakovskii’s poems might talk directly to Pushkin or Lermontov, but they don’t talk back, or if they do, their voice sounds just like Maiakovskii’s.

McGavran takes us through three examples. In “An Extraordinary Adventure That Befell Vladimir Maiakovskii in the Summer at a Dacha” (Необычайное приключение, бывшее с Владимиром Маяковским летом на даче, 1920), the poet yells at the sun and challenges it to drop by his place for tea, and it does (391–96). One detail I liked: Maiakovskii evidently had a trick at public readings of saying the first three syllables of the word neobychainoe ‘extraordinary’ really loud, then pausing, then saying the rest of the word (chainoe) quietly, which in Russian turns an “extraordinary adventure” into a “tea adventure” (393).

“Jubilee” (Юбилейное, 1924) starts with Maiakovskii introducing himself to Pushkin (125 years old that year) and moves into an imagined afterlife-as-books where they’re close to each other because their last names aren’t far apart in the alphabet. They’ll banish mournful civic poet Semen Nadson (who by rights falls alphabetically in between them) “куда-нибудь на Ща” (somewhere way down at the end of the alphabet, near the letter Щ) and hang out with Nekrasov, who they can play cards with (386–401). Along the way the poet quotes part of Onegin’s letter to Tat’iana in Eugene Onegin (Евгений Онегин, 1823–30), but first he gets wrong which character he’s quoting, then he “comically bungles the quote and changes its meter,” including throwing in a phrase that seems to come from a letter in Gogol’s Inspector General (Ревизор, 1835–36) instead (399, 399n22). Maiakovskii supposedly knew Eugene Onegin by heart (!), so having his poet-narrator, also named Maiakovskii, get it wrong is a game (399n23).

Pushkin is obviously in the text of “Jubilee,” but he’s also the sun of Russian poetry, which means he’s kind of in “An Extraordinary Adventure” too (392). Besides, McGavran shows, both of these poems can be read as comic reworkings of Pushkin’s “The Stone Guest” (Каменный гость, 1830). The sun has a monologue in “Extraordinary Adventure” that “directly echoes lines” from Pushkin’s “Stone Guest” and a later treatment of the Don Juan theme by Aleksandr Blok, as well as Mozart’s opera version (395). And where “The Stone Guest” ends with “a kind of fateful and fatal handshake, with the statue in complete control,” at the beginning of “Jubilee,” Maiakovskii shakes hands with a statue of Pushkin and pulls it off its pedestal, reversing who is in control and making an end into a beginning (398).

The third Maiakovskii poem, “Tamara and the Demon” (Тамара и демон, 1924), takes two Lermontov poems—“Tamara” (Тамара, 1841) and “The Demon” (Демон, written 1829–41)—and deliberately mixes them together (401–04):

Though Lermontov’s titles combine neatly in Maiakovskii’s, the poem itself subverts the plots of both its source texts. In Lermontov’s ballad, Queen Tamara’s love brings ruin and death, after one night of passion, to all whom she tempts to her tower chamber. In The Demon, on the other hand, it is the love of the immortal and cursed hero that ultimately kills the heroine, another Tamara (this one, however, is not a queen, but a young noblewoman (kniazhna)). In Maiakovskii’s poem, as one would expect from any comedy, no one dies, and the speaker and Tamara end up an apparently happy, domestic couple: Queen Tamara, the murderous temptress, is chastised and tamed, while the innocent young Tamara of The Demon is rescued from the deadly embrace of her supernatural stalker. (401)

At the end Lermontov himself shows up, a smiling hussar, and visits the happy couple of the “I” of Maiakovskii’s poem and Lermontov’s own two Tamaras combined into one (404). As with Nekrasov in “Jubilee,” the poet seems to be more interested in the fact that Lermontov is fun to be around than in the fact he was a great writer.

(I can’t resist going on a small tangent here to point out that Maiakovskii’s technique of bringing poets from the canon into his own poems as characters, and then treating them as fun human beings—Lermontov, Nekrasov, Pushkin—or dull ones—Nadson—is a lot like Nekrasov in his numbered cycle of satires, where he has a bit about how Pushkin was a good tipper, unlike that stingy Zhukovskii. Viacheslav Rymashevskii drew this parallel back in 1959, pp. 19–21.)

Taking all three poems together, McGavran comes up with this list of “shared comic principles”:

  1. Tragic plotlines are referenced or adopted only to be subverted and undone, typically after an unexpected release of narrative tension.

  2. Fantastical and mythical elements are explicitly, often physically dragged into the poems only to be demystified and rendered harmless.

  3. Textual allusions are typically eschewed in favor of face-to-face encounters that require the bodily presence of a literary figure in the poem; if quotations are employed, they are twisted from written into spoken lines and altered at will to fit the dramatic purpose of the monologue in which they appear. (404)

See James H. McGavran III, “Comic Confrontations with Tradition: Three Poems by Maiakovskii,” Slavic and East European Journal 63.3 (2019): 388–407 (no link). Disclaimer: I used to work with McGavran. The title of this post is from McGavran’s translation of the poet in “Jubilee” mixing up letters from Eugene Onegin and The Inspector General (399). It’s a different colloquial “like” than the one here, and I like it a lot (it translates дескать).

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