So is this a great, challenging, multi-lingual, inter-cultural and inter-textual, amusing, incisive and poetic romp through soviet Russia in contemporary real-time? Well, oui (un peu) et non, mais quelle surprise..
There are many ways to interpret e.e. cummings' intention here, but I can't quite believe that he got away with his reputation in tact. It says something too about the time of writing. There is a good reason why EIMI went out of print, and why he had to write an explanatory note to the 1958 edition (which is reproduced in this 3rd edition). It is not indecipherable (well, not quite..) but it is almost unremitting drivel. To use his own language, it is a complete nonbook of unsense.
To defend the weary dreariness of each page with an interpretation that it successfully evokes his feelings about what it was like to be in soviet Russia (well, Moscow, for 10 whole days!) seems like moot-point-scoring, as does whether this gloom was entirely the essence of the place or partly the purility (the EIMI or the wah wah wah) of the author's reaction to it. The reader is left with the same feeling.
I wonder why e.e. did not travel around the USA at around the same time, being as it was in the midst of the Great Depression, and conjure up something similar. But then, this would have required more than a simple rejection of the system of government and of the people he would have seen. e.e. seems to be proud of himself simply for not falling in with the leftist-intellectuals of the time who were seduced by collectivism. Perhaps that really was a feat in itself at the time and independent thinking really was a tiny glimmer in the gathering storm clouds of ideology.
The only interesting (to me) passages in the text are about the role of the artist in society, and it is a shame that these are few and far between. In soviet Russia, the artist enjoys great privileges and esteem, but only of course if he feeds the party machine (or believes in his proletarian art). These days, what even is an artist? Pop-singers, band-members, movie stars/directors, best-selling authors? Do they not feed the consumer machine?
e.e. is famous for his ab/mis/conf/use of language (in poetry). A few of his poems are incredibly beautiful and because there are even hints of them in this text, it is safer to leave this book on the shelf, for the protection of those poems. A final thought about e.e.'s language, the artist and the 1920s/1930s: EIMI strikes me as early evidence of C. P. Snow's later criticism "the intellectual life of the whole of western society was split into the sciences and the humanities — and this was a major hindrance to solving the world's problems." (quote taken from wikipedia page on The Two Cultures — ]).
If you are a lover of Cummings's beautiful and human poetry, EIMI is unmissable. His enthusiasm for the flexibility of language is evident throughout, and the novel/travelogue/extended prose poem is a marvellous cubistic exposé of what Cummings saw as the absurdity of Soviet Communism, despite having been willing to observe with an open mind.
There's a glossary of the Russian words used, and an outline plot summary by Cummings himself, but don't worry - EIMI is nowhere near as opaque as Joyce's Finnegans Wake, with which I've seen it compared. It is dense, admittedly, but it's riotously good fun, and once you adjust to Cummings's use of changing nicknames for central characters it's perfectly clear what's going on. If you don't speak French you might want a French dictionary handy too.
It's one of the few books I would recommend without any reservations. Please read it.