From the reminiscences of four worldly women emerges a vivid portrait of the life and times of Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky.
Secrets play little part in this latest from esteemed espionage author Littell. Rather than spin a tale of clandestine agents, Littell fashions an extended dialogue among four blatantly forthright witnesses to history. As a premise, Littell opens with one R. Litzky, once “a young American…Moscow State University [student]…minoring in Fatal Flaws of Capitalism” and now an 86-year-old man living in Brooklyn Heights. Litzky stumbles upon a cache of tapes he recorded more than 60 years ago in which four women recall their relationships with idolized poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. (Mayakovsky and the women are all based on actual people.) Litzky says the women tell “the butt-naked truth,” and he means it. As Mayakovsky “couldn’t decide which was more important to consummate: erections, poetry, or revolution,” the transcribed tapes are akin to an R-rated version of All About Eve with the four ex-lovers sniping over the primacy of their passionate affairs and relationships with the poet. In a comment intended not “as a compliment, only a description,” Nora Polonskaya, a “foul-mouthed blonde theater actress,” calls Lilya Yuryevna, Mayakovsky’s muse, “an epicurean at the table of carnal love.” Besides bedrooms grand and fetid, Littell’s mural offers vivid images of Moscow, Paris, and New York in the 1920s as politically committed writers like Mayakovsky spread their political and physical seeds. In New York, “Negro musicians” entertain “the crowd with the latest wrinkle in jazz, something called the boogie-woogie,” and in Moscow, Boris Pasternak and Mayakovsky fire up revolutionaries at bohemian soirees. An inexorable momentum in the women’s recollections brings Mayakovsky to the end of the decade and a melancholy, tragic demise.
Littell’s mordent wit is perfectly suited to his melancholy tale, rich in dark imagery and razor-sharp dialogue.