Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Mayakovsky's room - Lily Hyde

Like Andrew Strong in his great post yesterday, I thought I knew what I would write for this post. It was going to be about a very unusual literary house museum I recently visited: the revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s in Moscow.

Then, stricken with doubt about what I wanted to say and how to say it, I decided to do some extra research on Mayakovsky.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet I was sidetracked into comparing translations of ‘The Cloud In Trousers’ (or should it be ‘A cloud…’? Or just get rid of the article altogether…?); got distracted by glorious Bolshevik agitprop posters and wondering what seeing landowners impaled on bayonets illustrated on their toffee wrappers did to a generation of impressionable young minds; found Mayakovsky for the psychedelic seventies on YouTube and of course had to watch it again, and then I turned up the utterly wonderful and lunatic Velimir Khlebnikov and zaum – and that was it, I was gone for the rest of the day. Now it’s midnight and the post still isn’t written, let alone that novel chapter I was supposed to be revising.

Oh cursed Internet! I could cry. Why haven’t I got that app that turns it off for me? Why haven’t I got enough willpower not to need an app? Why am I writer with a writer’s squirrelly mind, that can’t stop searching out and storing away all these nuts of information for my imagination to greedily feed on? Now my mind is as surreally cluttered and skewed as the Mayakovsky museum, full of way too much unbelievably interesting information, mostly in a foreign language, and policed by ineffective and grumpy old ladies who have to be charmed into maybe possibly finding the guidebook.

Ideological sweet wrappers designed by Mayakovsky
At the heart of the Mayakovsky museum is a closed door, and behind it is a quite different space. It is small, neat, spartan, almost characterless. The air in here is very still. There’s a desk, a chair, a bed. A few carefully chosen books and a single unframed photograph. 

(Everything in this room is original, exactly as it was in 1930, one of those grumpy old ladies says in a reverential voice. Except the carpet. It had blood all over it and had to be thrown away.)

Mayakovsky's room
At the heart of all the wonderful terrifying squirrelly chaos of ideas and half-digested facts, blind alleys and blinding inspirations, YouTube videos and other people’s stories that fill a writer’s mind, there’s the closed room where the writer actually writes. I think it’s like this; very still, small and neat, quite bare, a bit lonely. You can’t tell if the stillness is breathless anticipation, or the shocked aftermath of a disaster.

Jane Austen writing on her ‘small sheets of paper’ in the corner of the dining room, daily life babbling on all around her – she’s in that room. Keats scribbling in Rome, the tuberculosis doctor at the door – he’s in that room. That woman in the crowded coffee shop this morning, intent on her laptop – she’s in that room. 

(In 1930 Mayakovsky shot himself in this room. His books were out of print; impatient students had booed him off stage; he’d been accused of Trotskyism, that inevitably fatal Soviet disease.

He stopped writing. The door opened. The chaos came in and the carpet was ruined.)

 There might be index cards and post-it notes and unpaid bills and souvenirs and talismans and coffee cups and newspaper clippings all over the writing desk. Children clamouring at the knee and cats walking over the keyboard. Poverty and fear of critical failure prowling at the window. The Internet, with all those bookmarked pages that are so very interesting, just a click away (still haven’t got that app) –

But in the moment of actually writing, I am in that room.

Not contemplating blowing my brains out, no. It was an effort to get in here, shut out all the delicious distractions and the horrible fears of failure. But now the door is closed. This is the space for creating that special secret lonely thing, alchemised, distilled from a hoard of lovely terrifying chaos: words on the page.


Joan Lennon said...

"He stopped writing. The door opened. The chaos came in and the carpet was ruined."

You made me cry and it's not even 8:30 yet. But thank you for posting anyway - a fascinating guy and an apposite post!

Stroppy Author said...

Lily, this is brilliant - the best post I've read anywhere in months. Or ever. Thank you!

Josh Lacey said...

Thank you for this beautiful piece - and the wonderful symbol of Mayakovsky's carpet.

Lily said...

Thanks so much for the lovely comments. Wow, Joan, I'm not sure anything I've written has ever made anyone cry before (well, apart from tears of laughter over pretentious epics written at fifteen, maybe) - I don't know whether to be honoured or apologise...

Rosalie Warren said...

Thank you, Lily, for that poignant post.

Katherine Langrish said...

yes, thankyou Lily - I knew nothing of any of this, and what a wonderful post!