Synopses & Reviews
The Birds of Berlin
Therefore let us found a city here
And call it Mahagonny,
Which means city of nets. . . .
It should be like a net
Stretched out for edible birds.
Everywhere there is toil and trouble
But here we'll have fun ....
Gin and whiskey,
Girls and boys . . .
And the big typhoons don't come as far as here.
Would you like me to show you? the old man asks. Professor Edwin Redslob is more than old; he is ancient, a survivor of almost a century of violence. He was already in his mid-thirties when Germany's broken armies came straggling home from the First World War, and now he is eighty-six, tall and smiling and white-haired. He can hardly see through the thick lenses that fortify his eyes, but he totters across his dusk-darkened studio, past the window that opens onto the white-blossoming apple trees in the garden, and then he bends over a wooden cabinet that contains his treasures.
As an art expert, he joined the Interior Ministry more than fifty years ago to help the nascent Weimar government create a new image for the new Germany, and he began by commissioning a young Expressionist painter named Karl Schmidt-Rotluff to redesign the most fundamental image, the German eagle. Now he bends over a shallow drawer, grunts and fumbles through a sheaf of pictures, and finally pulls forth the one he wants: the Weimar eagle. He holds it high, gazing at it with affection. The eagle boasts all the pride and dignity of its imperial ancestors, black wings spread wide, beak hungrily open, but it has other qualities as well. It seems less grim than the traditional eagle; indeed, it seems almost cheerful, afriendly eagle. A marvelous thing, says Dr. Redslob. But the number of insults that this picture provoked--you wouldn't believe it.
It is a mistake, perhaps, to attach too much importance to symbols. In the Berlin Zoo, there is a real eagle--two of them, in fact--and we can stand outside the cage and regard the imprisoned beast that we consider the German symbol, and our own. At the base of an artificial tree, there lies a pool of rather dirty water, and one of the eagles slowly lowers its claw-feet into the pool and begins picking at the bloody carcass of a rabbit that has been left there to satisfy its appetite for carrion.
In the tranquillity of the Zoo, there are cages for every variety of giant bird-huge hawks wheeling restlessly within the limits of their confinement, flamingos folding and unfolding themselves, and even some mournful marabous, which stand in stoic silence and stare back at their visitors. Wandering loose in the Zoo, ignoring the elephants and the rhinoceroses, there are dozens of mallards, always two by two, the green-headed male trailed by his speckled brown and white mate. Nor do they remain in the Zoo. They float among the swans in the canals outside the Charlottenburg Palace. They roam among the chestnut trees in the Tiergarten. They nibble at weeds in the Havel River. You don't have ducks like that in American cities? a Berliner asks in surprise. Here they are everywhere.
Berlin, more than almost any other great city, is a city of birds. One hears not only sparrows chirping in the midst of the traffic on the Kurfurstendamm but wood thrushes singing in the Glienicker Park. One sees species one never expects to find in cities-magpies andnightingales and a black-feathered, yellow-beaked diving grebe known as a water chicken. Even at the Hilton Hotel, the traveling businessman wakes to the sound of peacocks screeching in the night.
One reason for this variety of birds is that Berlin has always been what jean Giraudoux called no city of gardens [but] a garden itself. Though it is still the largest metropolis between Paris and Moscow, it also has 835 farms, and almost 200 waterways, and more than half of its land is devoted to parks, forests, and gardens. There are wild boars roaming in the woods of Berlin, and herds of deer, and there are flocks of sheep grazing on the outer runways of Tempelhof airport. The air is clear and cool, a little sharp.
Another reason for the birds of Berlin is that the Berliners care for them, feed them and watch over them. In the southern district of Lichterfelde, in the shadow of a gigantic white research hospital that has been heavily financed by the Rockefeller Foundation, a pink-cheeked old gentleman welcomes a visitor by leading the way out into the back yard so that one can watch him take a shovelful of sunflower seeds from a metal box and spray it on the lawn. One of the green-headed mallards rushes forward to snap up the seeds, and the old man points to a linden tree where a dozen long-tailed doves sit cooing in anticipation. Turkish doves, he says. They come from the Himalayas, and they always stop here for their food.
The birds represent, generation after generation, a kind of permanence in a city that has never known the century-old traditions of a Paris or a London. Born in the thirteenth century in the mud and swamps at the junction of the Spree and Havel rivers,Berlin remained a minor crossroads during the grand reigns of Venice and Amsterdam and even, for that matter, Hamburg. As late as 1860, Henry Adams described it as a poor, keen-witted provincial town, simple, dirty, uncivilized, and in most respects disgusting. Only in the latter part of the nineteenth century, with industrialization and the coming of the railroads, and then the political triumphs of Bismarck, did Berlin grow into the great metropolis of Central Europe (its population, which was 198, ooo in 1815, soared to 826,000 by the time the Empire was founded in 1871, and to 2,529,000 in 1900).
"Let it be said immediately: this biography is a masterpiece. It is the kind of monumental, deeply penetrating life survey that is written once in ten years, at most."
"Vladimir Mayakovsky, a foresterand#8217;s son from the Caucasus, became the leading Russian avant-garde poet of the pre-World War I years, a prophet of the 1917 Revolution, the author of a long poem on Lenin, and then an increasingly disillusioned--though still firmly 'Communist'--poet, agitator, dramatist, and film maker in the Soviet Union of the 1920s. A dazzling lyric poet who never quite grew up, he tragically committed suicide in 1930 at the age of 36. Bengt Jangfeldt prize-winning Mayakovsky, first published in Sweden, gives a beautifully detailed portrait of the period as well as the individual life, especially of Mayakovsky's passionate and tormented relationship with Lili Brik, herself a leading figure of the period. Jangfeldt's absorbing story is full of surprises: it lays to rest many common assumptions about everyday life under Soviet rule even as it underscores others. A real page turner, copiously illustrated and well translated, this biography is essential reading not only for students of modernist poetry but for anyone interested in the relationship of literature to life in the former Soviet Union."
"This will of course become a standard work, not only as the first non-Soviet biography of Mayakovsky but because of Jangfeldtand#8217;s exclusive access to sources. For more than three decades he has had intimate contacts with people from the poet's circle. The richness of detail in the captivating tale we now have access to is a result of his important private archive."
andquot;Jangfeldt carefully shows the way in which all aspects of Mayakovskyand#39;s life--his womanizing, his astonishing productivity, his chain-smoking, his gambling, his poetry--came from the same source. In Jangfeldtand#39;s concentration on how Mayakovskyand#39;s art and life were absolutely and inextricably intertwined, the granite Soviet figure is made into something more akin to a butch Russian Oscar Wilde, and is all the more interesting for the metamorphosis. . . . Mayakovsky is also a beautifully coordinated group portrait of the individuals surrounding Mayakovsky. . . . This is a wonderful book that presents us with a captivating, contradictory, frustrating human being.andquot;
andquot;Jangfeldt paints a fine picture of, especially, the fascinating Lili, as well as Mayakovsky. Parts are underplayed: there is frequent mention of Mayakovskyand#39;s suicidal disposition, but fairly little exploration of it in any detail, from what lay behind it to what exacerbated it. But the man, and the most significant works, are well introduced. . . . A very impressive study of a remarkable poet, and a rather remarkable group of people--a whoand#39;s who of Russian literature of the times. Mayakovsky is also an exceptionally well (and helpfully) illustrated biography.andquot;
A fascinating portrait of the turbulent political, social, and cultural life of the city of Berlin in the 1920s.
A Life at Stake is the first serious biography of the legendary Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Physically imposing, crude, a sexual adventurer and ex-convict, Mayakovsky rose to fame between 1912 and 1917 as a Futurist agitator and the author of radical poems and plays. He embraced the Russian Revolution and became one of its most passionate propagandists, then at the age of thirty-six took his own life, disappointed in the course of Soviet society and ravaged by private conflicts. Mayakovskyand#8217;s poems are as exhilarating today as when he declaimed them for friends in smoky flats in Moscow, Berlin, Paris, and New York. In Bengt Jangfeldtand#8217;s propulsive biography, Mayakovskyand#8217;s life, too, is compelling: a story of constant, passionate upheaval against the background of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, Stalinand#8217;s terror, and cycles of anti-Semitism. Mayakovsky emerges from this biography a highly vulnerable figure, more a dreamer than a revolutionary, more a political romantic than a hardened Communist.
Few poets have led lives as tempestuous as that of Vladimir Mayakovsky. Born in 1893 and dead by his own hand in 1930, Mayakovsky packed his thirty-six years with drama, politics, passion, andand#151;most importantand#151;poetry. An enthusiastic supporter of the Russian Revolution and the emerging Soviet State, Mayakovsky was championed by Stalin after his death and enshrined as a quasi-official Soviet poet, a position that led to undeserved neglect among Western literary scholars even as his influence on other poets has remained powerful.
With Mayakovsky, Bengt Jangfeldt offers the first comprehensive biography of Mayakovsky, revealing a troubled man who was more dreamer than revolutionary, more political romantic than hardened Communist. Jangfeldt sets Mayakovskyand#8217;s life and works against the dramatic turbulence of his times, from the aesthetic innovations of the pre-revolutionary avant-garde to the rigidity of Socialist Realism and the destruction of World War I to the violenceand#151;and hopeand#151;of the Russian Revolution, through the tightening grip of Stalinist terror and the growing disillusion with Russian communism that eventually led the poet to take his life.
Through it all is threaded Mayakovskyand#8217;s celebrated love affair with Lili Brik and the moving relationship with Liliand#8217;s husband, Osip, along with a brilliant depiction of the larger circle of writers and artists around Mayakovsky, including Maxim Gorky, Viktor Shklovsky, Alexander Rodchenko, and Roman Jakobson. The result is a literary life viewed in the round, enabling us to understand the personal and historical furies that drove Mayakovsky and generated his still-startling poetry.
Illustrated throughout with rare images of key characters and locations, Mayakovsky is a major step in the revitalization of a crucial figure of the twentieth-century avant-garde.
Includes bibliographical references (p. 393-404) and index.
About the Author
Otto Friedrich, born in 1929 in Boston, majored in history at Harvard, where he received a degree magna cum laude in 1948. He went to Europe and worked for the Stars & Stripes in Germany and United Press in Paris and London. Returning to New York, he served as an editor at the Daily News, Newsweek, and the Saturday Evening Post. He was managing editor at the Post from 1965 until the magazine's suspension in 1969. Friedrich's account of the Post's last years, Decline and Fall, appeared in 1970 and was hailed as `a classic of American journalism.' It won the George Polk Award as that year's best book on the press. Among his other books are Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s (1972); Going Crazy: A Personal Inquiry (1976); The End of the World: A History (1982); City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s (1986); Glenn Gould. A Life and Variations (1990); Olympia. Paris in the Age of Manet (1992); and The Kingdom of Auschwitz (1994). Friedrich also wrote two novels and, in collaboration with his wife, nine children's books.
Table of Contents
A Most Joyous Date
1. Volodya, 1893andndash;1915
2. Lili, 1891andndash;1915
3. A Cloud in Trousers, 1915andndash;1916
4. The First Revolution and the Third, 1917andndash;1918
5. Communist Futurism, 1918andndash;1920
6. NEP and the Beginnings of Terror, 1921
7. Drang nach Westen, 1922
8. About This, 1923
9. Free from Love and Posters, 1923andndash;1924
10. America, 1925
11. New Rules, 1926andndash;1927
12. Tatyana, 1928andndash;1929
13. The Year of the Great Change, 1929
14. At the Top of My Voice, 1929andndash;1930
15. The First Bolshevik Spring, 1930
16. A Game with Life as the Stake
17. Mayakovskyandrsquo;s Second Death
Index of Names