A NOVEL WITHOUT LIES
Translated by Jose Alaniz
Translated by Andrew Bromfield
Press on Cynics
"Cynics is certainly a befitting title for this novel. ...Mariengof writes in short, laconic scenes and excerpts which are witty, sharp and expressive, and strewn with filthy details and pretentious mannerisms." – The New York Times Book Review
"Anatoly Mariengof's short novel Cynics is a thrilling account of social breakdown among the stylish classes after the Revolution, by a writer captivated by the new business of cinema." – Prospect magazine
"The tragedy and travesty of the couple and the country make for a powerful novella. Highly recommended." – A Common Reader magazine (North California)
From the Complete Review's review:
Cynics is set between 1918 and 1924, the narrator Vladimir describing life in revolution-torn Russia. Vladimir and his partner Olga are making their way as best they can through the times. They're used to living in some style, but adapt to the changing circumstances muddling through the revolution without taking anything too seriously. The collapse of the established order brings with it many day-to-day consequences, with the non-functioning plumbing among the least of it. Living quarters, heating material, and, above all, food can be hard to come by.
These are the years of famine, and Mariengof offers frequent reminders of the extremes the population was forced to go to, interspersing the text with numerous examples of cannibalism, for example.
Olga is the more flexible one: her cynical attitude making the compromises bearable. She has few illusions, and understands much more clearly than Vladimir what is happening – sharply observing, for example: "That the revolution is giving birth to a new bourgeoisie."
Cynics is a compelling novella and a clear-eyed look at Russia's revolution. More concerned with effect than cause, Mariengof's account is a devastating one.
Cynics is also a love story: Olga and Vladimir don't have the most conventional of relationships, but ultimately they are devoted to one another. The final section and sentence: "It was as though nothing on earth had happened" effectively ties together the enormous historical survey and the very personal love story; it is arguably among the most powerful last sentences in a 20th-century work of fiction.
From Michael Stein’s review in Literalab:
It’s a novel about the early days of the Russian Revolution, the civil war and the famine that ravaged the Soviet Union. The extremes of hunger and poverty are set off against the obscene wealth of those taking advantage of the Soviet government’s New Economic Policy. A story of love and betrayal runs through it all, and ongoing love in spite of betrayal, of working for the revolution, of trying to more or less ignore it, of falling victim to the new regime’s increasingly bloody nature.
Mariengof was not the first or only writer to adapt the techniques of cinema to prose writing. John Dos Passos and Alfred Doblin are two of the more famous examples, but Cynics takes this experimentation further and is wielded more effectively and with greater control.
…His pitiless accounts have a shocking and cumulative effect, much in the same way that the similarly brutal “The Part About the Crimes” section does in Roberto Bolano’s 2666.
Its satire cuts so deep that you can’t even say he was writing for his desk drawer but for an even more remote and inaccessible destination, like an underground crypt or a time capsule sent into outer space. The half century of obscurity, this book was condemned to, was tragic but obviously beyond our control. If it drifts back into obscurity now that we have it in English we have no one to blame but ourselves.
Press on A Novel without Lies
"It was this legendary friendship, the moments of rambunctiousness and the social and political upheaval of the times that Mariengof sought to portray in his brilliantly sardonic memoir, A Novel without Lies (...) A Novel without Lies is in large part a story of insincerities" – London Review of Books
"Exaltation, hope, despair and a passion for a transfigured future combined with savage humour and intoxicated imagery. The result was a stream of remarkable verse and a series of impossible lives, lived with superhuman energy in circumstances of astonishing material misery. No one, not even a young Russian poet like Sergei Esenin (1895- 1925), could live at that pitch for long. This memoir, written by his closest friend, explains why." – Times Literary Supplement
"A Novel Without Lies, Anatoly Mariengof's controversial memoir, hidden away for so long in the closed holdings of Soviet public libraries, deserves to be widely known. Mariengof concentrates on the bohemian lives of the Imagist poets in 1919-22, and presents a candid, yet affectionate, portrait of his closest friend, the famous peasant poet Sergei Esenin. Mariengof's tone tends to be cynical and condescending, racy and often sarcastic. With its lively style and unique psychological insight, this memoir has abiding value, both for the scholar and the general reader." – Gordon McVay, author of Esenin: a Life and Isadora and Esenin
The Complete Review's review:
A Novel Without Lies doesn't read much like fiction. In fact, it looks very much like a straightforward memoir, Anatoly Mariengof recounting his relationship with the great Russian poet Sergei Esenin. In any case it offers a remarkable story and a good picture of Russia in the revolutionary years between 1917 and 1925 (when Esenin hanged himself). In Mariengof Esenin seems to have found a kindred spirit. Several times their poetic reputation helps get them out of uncomfortable spots -- this really was a world where, despite famine and revolution, poetry still meant a great deal.
A Novel Without Lies is also a who's-who of Russian writers of the time: Mariengof and Esenin seem to have met nearly everybody -- which also makes for some good anecdotes and personal sketches. Finding a place to sleep, heating material, and food are among the major problems of the day, not that they let that get them down too much. Mariengof charts Esenin's career, and there are quite a few good scenes of their poet-lives in those days.
It is Esenin's marriage to Duncan, and his trip to Western Europe that finally breaks them apart. Mariengof quotes from Esenin's letters from abroad; to say he was miserable there is to put it mildly.
A Novel Without Lies offers a very good picture of the lives of the poets -- these and many of the other Russian writers of the times -- in that period. It is certainly a very good Esenin-portrait, but also gives a nice feel for the difficult and very strange times. As in Cynics, it's remarkable how Mariengof sustains such good cheer in the face of even the greatest hardships. A Novel Without Lies is also very entertaining, full of good anecdotes.