A Novel Without Lies, by Anatoly Mariengof
This book is not a novel at all; it's a memoir, but a memoir of the life of a friendship. Anatoly Mariengof and Sergei Esenin, both young Russian poets, met in 1918 and were inseparable for several years. Together they lived and wrote and developed the Imagist philosophy of poetry. But as Esenin became mentally unstable, they drifted apart for a time, though they made amends. Esenin committed suicide in 1925, and Mariengof wrote down his reminiscences of their time together.
There is not a whole lot of background provided, of course, so it's good to know a little bit about what was going on in Moscow in the 1920s, but you can get by with knowing that the Soviet Republic is newly born, everyone is poor, and Russians take poetry and literature far more seriously than anyone else you know. Plus the editors provided little side notes in the margins to explain the various people who show up in Mariengof's stories, which is very helpful (but most of them end up either emigrating, exiled, or put to death).
At this time Russian literature had been in ferment for a few decades and there were several competing schools. I'd heard of Blok and the Symbolists before, but here we also meet Acmeism, Futurism, Ego-Futurism, and Esenin's own Imagism, which is usually known in English as Imaginism to differentiate it from English Imagism. Esenin and company believed in loading their poems with unusual imagery. All those poets must have had a marvelous time arguing with each other. Other people followed all this as well, though; many of the poets mentioned were highly regarded and read by lots of people, to the point that Mariengof can tell a story that would never happen in anywhere else--he got mugged, and as the young toughs were relieving him of his nice new winter coat, they realized who he was: Mariengof, the great writer! He got to keep his coat.
Mariengof talks about his and Esenin's life together. By our standards they were horribly poor, freezing in winter and so on, but you can see that as poets they had privileges that others did not. Esenin is described as lovable--everyone loved him--but he cared little for other people and was often cruel, especially to those closest to him. Of his character, Mariengof comments that "It's the most unbelievable nonsense, that art ennobles the soul." He married several times and had several children (not always with the wives, so it gets complex). Esenin called himself a "hooligan poet," and was popular for his peasant background.
In 1922 Esenin married, of all people, Isadora Duncan--though they did not speak each other's languages. They were terrible for each other; he was cruel and she came back for more, while her circle was too luxurious and alcoholic for him to handle. Esenin followed Duncan around Europe, and he hated it. He was a stranger in a strange land, and no one had heard of him, nor did they care about poetry. Soon he and Duncan divorced and Esenin went back to Moscow, but he was permanently altered; he drank far too much and became mentally unstable. Mariengof says that “In none of Esenin’s poems do you find such lyrical warmth, such sadness
and pain, as in those he wrote in his final years—the years filled with
the black terror of drunkenness, emotional disintegration and
Mariengof's portrait of his friend was soon suppressed by the Soviet government, which felt it to be disrespectful of a poet of the people. That's completely unsurprising, but it's too bad that the book was treated like that. Mariengof isn't, in fact, angry or disrespectful of Esenin. He is honest about his friend's troubled character and the things they got up to, though, and that was enough for the censors.
Dwight at A Common Reader sent me this book, for which I am grateful. I don't know a whole lot about Russian literature but I want to learn a lot, and this was a great book for me to read. It's a window into early Soviet Russia, it's the story of two friends who loved each other, and it's a history of a friendship that fell apart into tragedy.