The Mayakovsky Tapes

Written by Robert Littell
Review by John O'Donnell

In 2012, the celebrated spy-thriller novelist Littell published Young Philby, a deftly complex story about “Kim” Philby, the most notorious espionage agent of the 20th century. Littell told the tale by means of some 20 portrayals of the spy by his handlers, associates, paramours, friends and foes. The technique of multiple perspectives in the hands of so capable an author parsed the autonomous identity of subject with the ambiguity of predicates.

This novel returns to the same format, or perhaps begins there. Vladimir Mayakovsky—the idolized, censured, resurrected, forgotten and re-resurrected Russian poet—put a bullet through his heart in 1930. Twenty-three years later—in the novel—four women meet in Moscow’s Metropole Hotel to reminisce about their shared lover, clearly a sex addict and a showman. The poet was their vector, the intersection of their lives. The novel basically is a caddy, competitive conversation of surviving lovers about their sex lives and attitudes toward Stalinism.

The transcript of this meeting is preserved—and this is the conceit—because one of the ladies implausibly invites a young American exchange student, R. Litsky (read: Littell) to preserve the interchange on his smuggled wire recorder. Years later Litsky finds the recordings in his attic and decides to publish them. The ladies talk about sex and about Soviet propaganda, and then hear on the radio that Stalin has died and go down to the bar for a drink. End of story.

If it was a story. I cannot help thinking that Littell found in his “attic” an early manuscript that he felt could be only now published given his deserved literary reputation. The characters are cardboard; the dialogue, stilted; the action, nonexistent. This novel should not define him.