Alex Cigale on Mariengof

Translator Alex Cigale has spent years working on bringing the “lyrical excesses” of Anatoly Mariengof’s Russian prose from his 1928 novella Cynics into English. In the latest Saturday European Fiction in B O D Y he offered up a sample of some of Mariengof’s shorter prose in “Aphorisms, Anecdotes, And Other Literary Trifles” and now talks about Mariengof’s relevance today, why writer Zakhar Prilepin has called him the “Russian Oscar Wilde” and how Lenin disliked his work to the point of insult.

The interview is followed by a brief excerpt from Cigale’s translation of Cynics

Literalab: What is so innovative about Mariengof’s prose in particular and how does it still appear so original today?

Alex Cigale: For brevity’s sake, it is probably best I quote here from a more or less trusted authority. Mariengof’s novella Cynics, which I have now re-translated, was one of Joseph Brodksy’s favorite pieces of writing, and understandably so: “A poet’s prose writer”. Writing in his Introduction to the French translation of Cynics, Joseph Brodsky characterized it as: “One of the most innovative productions of Russian literature in this century, as for its style, so for its structure.” He continued by enumerating its following merits:

“For example, he [Mariengof] was the first to use the Kino-Eye technique, which later acquired that name courtesy of John Dos Passos’s great [USA] trilogy. Another wonderful feature of Cynics is its witty, fragmented dialogues…. Her name is Olga, her husband’s is Vladimir. Both of the names bear within them an echo of Kievan Rus, and consciously serve as epitomes of the primordial characteristics of a Russian man and a Russian woman. Or, if anyone wishes to take this a step further, of Russian history, as such.”

In the late 1910s, in his early twenties, Mariengof made a stir as Russian poetry’s enfant terrible, founding with the great Russian lyrical poet Sergey Esenin what would become the last hurrah of Russian Futurism, a movement they called Imaginism, whose core technique was pushing metaphor to its absolute limits in a kind of dandyish mannerism. A main inspiration were the ideas of film montage (juxtaposition) of Kuleshov, Eisentstein, Pudovkin: a flood of “word-images,” use of filmic techniques such as close-ups and jump cuts. In his late twenties and early thirties, in an age when the slightly older Mayakovsky had essentially abandoned poetry for sloganeering, Mariengof, after having returned full circle to the Russian Silver Age’s “art for art’s sake” origins, switched to prose and published abroad, in Germany, three novellas that are his primary claim to fame.

The answer to your specific question is two-fold. It seems to me that, aesthetically and stylistically, his maximalist impulse has for now won over the day from an earlier minimalism, if recent American literary fiction is any indication. More importantly, his socially and politically aware caustic satire, that has been such a particularly rich vein in Russian literature since Gogol, harks back to the beginning of the decline of the Roman Empire of Petronius and Juvenal. It seems to me that, nearly a century later, we are at a similar historical juncture that likely calls for a commensurate literary response, and this might account for the revival of Mariengof’s popularity in Russia of late.

Literalab: Zakhar Prilepin has called Mariengof the Russian Oscar Wilde. What do you make of this definition?

Cigale: In general, Russians have an inordinate fondness for this kind of cultural appropriation, and it serves roughly the same commercial function as our own “French fries” and “Belgian waffles”. The tagline, beside being a catchy label, does however speak to Mariengof’s early courting of controversy, his personal dandyism, and the elegance of his “high style,” as well as to his restless exploration of practically all the literary forms (poetry, prose, play, essay).

The highly controversial contemporary Russian novelist Zakhar Prilepin (he is a Bolshevik and a Russian nationalist) has been instrumental in reviving Mariengof’s reputation. The year 2015 saw the publication of Mariengof’s Collected Writings in four volumes (in the Library of National Classics series) for which Prilepin wrote the introduction, and of Prilepin’s own Uncommon Poets: Mariengof, Kornilov, Lugovskoy (Molodaya Gvardia), in its immensely popular biographical series, Zhizn zamechatel’nykh lyudey. And I guess my translations of Mariengof’s “Aphorisms, etc.” you are publishing in B O D Y, from his late in life autobiographical writings, offer the best evidence for his eminent quotability and a claim to being a structural parallel to a posthumous De Profundis. However, the devil is in the details, as they say, and for Mariengof, there was no reprieve of a spiritual conversion: he remained a confirmed atheist, amoralist, and a “bittersweet” cynic.

Literalab: How does Mariengof’s work as a poet affect his prose writing? It seems that in the Russian literary tradition when poets write prose there is more integration between the two forms of writing whereas among America writers in particular (I think, at least) prose is used for more straightforward memoiristic, actually prosaic purposes.

Cigale: Well, there is a straight line from the mannerist extravagance of the early poems to the lyrical excesses of the novellas, and it was precisely the reason that I was attracted to the idea of re-translating Cynics in the first place, something that I’ve been working on and off on for seven years now and that I just completed. As far as the function/form, poetry/prose distinction and the American parallel is concerned, it is a bit of both. That distinction however is not between poetry and prose, but between prose and verse. I know from my own experience and writing process that I had reached a point where I could no longer do what I wanted to do in verse alone, and it is also one reason that I had gone full-time into translation a decade ago. For Mariengof, part of that was no doubt the genre differentiation in terms or both reaching a different kind of audience and, later, as an adjustment to censorship.

For example, both Mariengof and Mayakovsky, nearly a decade earlier, had adopted their work intended for the big screen for the stage, because they realized they would not be permitted to address their themes or, in Mayakovsky’s case, express his experimental poetics in the Soviet film industry. But also, Mariengof was no Diogenes, but a very pragmatic and clear-eyed man, both in his personal and in his professional life, and so was much closer to us, utilitarian Americans in that respect.


Literalab: Can you comment a bit on Mariengof’s reputation among his contemporaries? What can you say about Mariengof’s life and writing after his major prose works, so from 1930 until his death in 1962? Did he write for the desk drawer, lose hope, never have hope in the first place…?

Cigale: Once again, because of his “late” birthdate and catching the tail end of the Russian Silver Age, he did not begin to publish until after revolution, and so this career arc was in many ways determined for him. I’m not aware of any major, older poets acknowledging him, other than Esenin who was two years older. He got his initial breakthrough on moving to Moscow by showing his poems to Bukharin, who was then editor of Pravda and, predictably, didn’t like them, but saw talent and set him up with a career in the cultural bureaucracy. When the notoriety of his verse rapidly spread, an article in the March 12, 1919 issue of Pravda characterized his verses as “the apogee of crudeness” and justified its focus on him by stating that “his poems occupy the first and most visible place, … because he sets the tone, because he is the most striking, … because he articulates that which others only hint at.” And: Lenin himself was reported to have had the following terse reaction to Mariengof’s verses, that might be rendered in contemporary colloquial English as: “He’s a sick little puppy” (“Больной мальчик.”). Perhaps more importantly, and aesthetically significant, is that Velimir Khlebnikov is said to have acknowledged a debt of influence to Mariengof and his verses in that short period of his initial fame.

However, life is more important than literature, and his was touched by tragedy. His father had been killed in 1918, and his only son inexplicably committed suicide in 1940. And those dates are significant. You know: “The problems of three little people [let alone of literary fame] don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” So, Mariengof rolled with the punches, as it were, doing what he had to, to survive. Which in his case was adjusting to what was possible: work in film, theater, and radio.

To summarize: there were seven theatrical productions of Mariengof’s plays and six films produced and released based on his scripts. In the years preceding and following his 1923 marriage to the Kamerny Theatre actress Anna Nikritina, he had two historical plays produced – A Conspiracy of Fools, at the Meyerhold Theater, and The Babylonian Advocate, at the Kamerny – and worked as the head of the screenwriting department of Proletkino (1924-25). (Vsevolod Meyerhold, Russia’s leading proponent of experimentalism on the stage was, by the way, like Mariengof, from the provincial capital of Penza.) This apparent willingness to adapt his methods and “compromise” with the times seems only natural for a writer whose entire oeuvre may be characterized by a deep-seated nihilism, pragmatism, and “amorality”. He was however respected, and had many life-long friendships, mostly outside of literature, in the theatrical world and notably, in the world of music. One of the pieces included in B O D Y touches upon his acquaintance with Shostakovich, and the great Russian poet-bard Bulat Okudzhava, who had been a regular visitor, dedicated many of his songs to Anatoly Borisovich (Tolya to all his close friends).

Literalab: What would you say is the relevance for a writer like Mariengof not only for us looking back a hundred years after the Russian Revolution, but for the turbulent times we’re living through now?

Cigale: That is precisely my point! As I had mentioned earlier, two previous translations, both out of print now, exist, and though I had specific issues with these (getting the prose across into a precise, fluid, and mellifluous English presents immense difficulties and required some one year of concentrated work,) and I was initially moved to begin the work for its immensely rewarding aesthetic qualities, it is both its value as a documentary record of the Russian Revolution-Civil War-NEP decade, and that, exactly a century later, we seem to now be on the verge of a similar historical realignment…. Well, a number of Russian commentators have noted that this revival seems particularly relevant to our own times. If I may, I would like to close with a quotation or two. Perhaps the central theme of Cynics is a sort of eternal recurrence of history; Mariengof’s alter ego and narrator, Vladimir, erudite to the point of perverse pedanticism, takes a distinctly morbid pleasure in constantly reciting the Old Style Russian Chronicles, usually for their most gruesome records. At such climactic points, usually concluding a section with this rhetorical flourish, he works himself up into a frenzied, delirious deluge of language on the subject.

Two short excerpts from Cynics

(Part 1, section 23):

Moscow is dark and soulless, as it was five centuries ago, when the town streets were shuttered by gates for the night, their locks guarded by “the gate keepers”.

I find comfort in this darkness and desertedness, because I can enjoy my good fortune without fear of being mistaken for an idiot.

If we are to take the honorable English councilor at his word, Ivan the Terrible decided to teach my ancestors how to smile. With this in mind, he ordered during his walks or rides through town to “chop off the heads of those who came in his sight whose countenances he disliked”.

But even such decisive measures didn’t bring about the desired effect. Our character remained lightless.

If a person walks around with a happy face, people will point their fingers.

But love has split my physiognomy from ear to ear with a smile.

If it were day, boys would be chasing after me now.

Through the sieve of the dentition of Kremlin’s wall peek tiny specks of starlight.

Looking at the Ivanov Column erected by Godunov, I involuntarily compare it with my elation.

I feel compelled to ring all the bells, so that every dog living in this insane city, spread out like Rome and Byzantium over seven hills, knows about the momentous event that is my love.

It is exactly then that I ask myself the following disgusting little question:

“What precisely is going on? why exactly are you hankering after Ivan the Fool’s bell tower? Isn’t its Lombard-Byzantine style far too ecstatic for you?”

The depressing little answer reveals a concrete enough meaning:
That’s the kind of man you are. To you, not even the stink that issues from your lowly person seem despicable. Quite the opposite – it tickles your self-adoring fancy.”

And for good measure, from just a bit later (Part 2, section 5,) for despite its unrelieved cynicism and godlessness, I believe that this book is truly a repository of wisdom an experience, that yet may teach us, even if by negative example, how we might live today:

On Patriarch Joseph’s casket in the Uspensky Cathedral of the Assumption is a chalice, embossed with grasses. Winding along its border is an inscription:

“True love is like unto a golden vessel, for its intent is to be shattered; shall it bend, then it is wisely righted.”

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