Sunday, December 29, 2019

Two Biographies: Venedikt Erofeev and Lilya Brik

Ah, biographies! I read so few biographies – until the two under discussion today, I think my last was Charles J. Shields’s And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, which I wrote about in 2011 for my other bookshelf blog – that I feel utterly incapable of explaining much about why I so enjoyed Alisa Ganieva’s book about Lilya Brik, Её Лиличество Брик на фоне Люциферова века (more on the title below) and Венедикт Ерофеев: посторонний (Venedikt Erofeev: The Outsider), written by Oleg Lekmanov, Mikhail Sverdlov, and Ilya Simanovsky (henceforth “The Troika”). Sure, I’m exaggerating: I know why I enjoyed them – the authors imposed structure, created and developed solid story arcs, and effectively combined history and human interest – but I lack the vocabulary and experience to write a nuanced critical piece about them.

Perhaps resorting to my first line of that old post about the Vonnegut book is a good start since it helps explain the attraction of the books about Brik and Erofeev:
Charles J. Shields’s And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life tells the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., story in a way that makes Vonnegut’s life feel like a strangely everyday epic, making Vonnegut, to borrow a term from Russian literature, a hero of his time, someone emblematic of his generation.
Both The Outsider and what I’ll call Her Liliness (Ganieva’s title plays on the word “величество,” “majesty,” per the Oxford Russian dictionary, and the name Lilya, setting it against the backdrop of a Luciferian century) also describe their subjects as (anti?)heroes of their times. Brik (1891-1978) is part of the Russian avant-garde beginning in her early adulthood in the early twentieth century and Erofeev (1938-1990) is a more underground figure, expelled from multiple post-secondary institutions, and often lacking the official Soviet-era documentation one needs to prove one isn’t a camel. Brik’s life is relatively cushy, at least on a certain material level: among other things, as Vladimir Mayakovsky’s muse, she successfully asks the poet to procure gifts (including a car!) from France, and she helps other artists develop their work, too. Erofeev – there’s a reason he’s called “the outsider” – enjoys evading the Soviet system, though his dependence on alcohol complicates discussion of freedom in his life.

The Outsider and Her Liliness both work because their authors draw so effectively on material from interviews as well as other books and materials about or by their subjects. Ganieva quotes Swedish slavist Bengt Jangfeldt quite a lot (his Mayakovksy biography, for example, which was translated into English by Harry D. Watson) and nearly twenty pages of endnotes cite sources including Viktor Shklovsky, Elsa Triolet, and correspondence between Brik and Mayakovsky. The dishiness of Ganieva’s book comes largely from those sources, with, as a random example from my notes, actress Faina Ranevskaya saying that Lilya Brik told her she only wanted to be with her husband, Osip Brik, and would have given up Mayakovsky. That, combined with a score of other factors – affairs and marriages, conflicts (Shklovsky called Lilya a “дура” (fool) and “bourgeois”), rights and royalties and Mayakovsky’s work, plus allegations of working for the security services – leads Ganieva herself (who makes sure to present positive aspects of Lilya’s role in the literary community) to sum up Lilya’s whole life as “материал для сплетен,” which I noted down as “gossip fodder.” Nothing in the book feels overly lurid to me (heartless or tactless, sure) given the traumas of Stalin-era repression.

The Troika, too, assembles an impressive collection of materials showing various angles on Erofeev’s life, quoting poets, friends, literary figures, and Erofeev’s own works. Most appealing: they alternate chapters about Erofeev’s life with chapters about Moscow-Petushki, his best-known work. (Confession: I didn’t read the M-P chapters as carefully as the more biographical chapters since I read M-P some years ago. But I’m hoping, even planning, to reread the poem, perhaps in 2020, along with The Troika’s detailed analysis.) It’s hard to sort through my notes on The Outsider since I read it electronically but paging through, I find and remember, for example, mentions of Erofeev’s love of folk songs; his ability to recite seemingly endless memorized poetry; a mention that Mikhail Bakhtin compared M-P with Gogol’s Dead Souls, plus, of course, numerous comments on Erofeev’s brand of freedom. I particularly focused on quotes from poet Olga Sedakova, who so respected Erofeev’s freedom – from the whole world, not just the Soviet world, as she puts it – and who credits him for teaching her about life. And then there’s the drinking, an integral part of Erofeev’s life and work (oh, the drinks in M-P!), which to my twisted mind, somehow correlates with something Viktor Kulle notes (I’ll summarize): the main enigma (загадка) about Erofeev is that he was an “antiperfectionist” by nature but M-P is a perfectionist text.

As I look back on what I’ve written, I realize that what I haven’t mentioned is the reason these two books made such strong impression on me: they aroused my curiosity. They read like dreams because they’re written well and tell stories about people who interested me from the start. But both Ganieva and The Troika use sources and describe lives and times such that I want to explore, to read more, to understand. To read more Mayakovsky (including in James Womack’s wonderfully lively and, truly, inspiring translations), to finally read Shklovsky’s Zoo, or Letters Not About Love (written to none other than Elsa Triolet, Lilya Brik’s sister), to read Triolet’s Goncourt Prize-winning A Fine of 200 Francs, to reread Moscow-Petushki, to read Erofeev’s Записки психопата (Notes of a Psychopath), and to read some of Olga Sedakova’s work, particularly since I have a nice collection, In Praise of Poetry, which contains translated (thanks to Caroline Clark, Ksenia Golubovich, and Stephanie Sandler) poems and writings about poetry, and which Open Letter sent to me five years ago. I may be a lousy critic of biographies but I can’t think of a higher form of praise than to say these two biographies piqued my curiosity.

Up Next: Goodbye to 2019, those books in English I keep promising, Rage, and, some month or other, Mikhail Elizarov’s big, thick, carnivalesque Earth, which is about death, the funeral business, being alive, and just about everything else.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: I received an electronic copy of The Outsider from the Big Book Award: The Outsider, which won the jury’s first prize, was one of my top two picks. I received a copy of James Womack’s Mayakovsky collection from Fyfield Books/Carcanet Press. I know Alisa Ganieva a bit.


  1. Both of these sound fascinating, and I'm guessing not available in English yet? I have something of an obsession with Mayakovsky, so would love to read the Brik book. But you may have nudged me to picking up my copy of Zoo.... :D

    1. Thanks for your comment, kaggsysbookishramblings! Both these books really held my attention, which is quite a feat since I'm not big on biographies. You are correct about translations (at least as far as I know!) but I'm glad to hear you're now interested in Zoo, too! I've been meaning to read it for years.

      Have a lovely holiday -- may 2020 bring you lots more good books!

  2. I've posted my own review:

    1. Thank you for posting the link to your review, Languagehat. I'm glad that you also found the book well worth reading. I'm also very glad that you addressed Erofeev's darker side, with the drinking and nationalists and anti-Semitism and other nasty behaviors. It still feels uncomfortable to think back to the discussions in the book of his "freedom."