Steve Ralls

Revolutionary Russia

Filed By Steve Ralls | August 30, 2007 9:47 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Marriage Equality
Tags: book reviews, italy, literature, Mihail Kuzmin, russia, steve ralls

Russian authors are not known for their brevity. Indeed, one might say that they have a tendency 'to go on for a bit.' But during its height, the Russian literary scene was nothing short of dazzling. And, as it turns out, there were even Russian writers who could dazzle in brief. Such was the case with Mikhail Kuzmin, an author little known outside of his homeland who, in 1906, during the close of the Czars and the debut of communist rule, set the land of Tolstoy afire with the first novel to deal with gay characters and same-sex love.

Kuzmin's controversial novel, Wings, has recently been translated into a new English edition, and 101 years after its first publication, its story of blossoming love and sexuality still seems modern. It is also mesmerizingly intelligent, confoundingly constructed and undeniably Russian.

In fact, Wings is so boldly cerebral that, at times, it becomes difficult to follow. The prose, sometimes languid and sometimes achingly beautiful, covers the breadth of a complete Humanities course: Kuzmin often obscurely refers to Wagner, D'Annunzio, Debussy, Goldoni, Thibault, Shakespeare and even the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Their compositions and conquests provide a backdrop to the quiet love story of a young Russian orphan and the older, wordly mentor that he comes to adore, and Kuzmin creates a tender literary ode to the most human of emotions: jealousy.

Wings is the story of Vanya Smurov who, after finding himself orphaned and living with relatives in St. Petersburg, befriends an older intellectual, Larion Stroop, who awakens Vanya's senses and sensuality. Stroop, who is so enigmatic and unforgettable that he leads at least one woman to commit suicide when she learns that she cannot have him, pontificates on the virtues of same-sex love almost as often as he visits the Russian bathhouses. At first troubled by what he learns about Stroop, young Vanya escapes to the countryside, only later to realize that he has fallen in love with his mentor and to question the judgment he earlier passed on his friend. With his own sexuality awakening, Vanya matures quickly near the novel's end, boldly facing his own mortality, his changing idea of 'love,' and the choice to live life as his heart dictates or his society demands.

Kuzmin, a well-educated author who lived as an openly gay man in early 20th century Russia, deals with his characters' sexuality in hushed tones. Wings is not sexually bold by modern standards, but it is viscerally modern in its intense passages about longing hearts, jealous lovers and the uncontrollable pull that soul mates exact on our lives. His language is sometimes swooning, as in the opening of the novel's second section, when one of Vanya's confidants, Maria Dmitriyevna, expounds upon the definition of longing:

"Just think, Vanya, how odd it is, that here you have another person, another person entirely, and his legs are different, and his skin, and his eyes - and he's completely yours, completely, you can look at, kiss and touch all of him; every little mark on his body, wherever it might be, the little golden hairs that grow on his arms, every little furrow and hollow of the skin that is loved much too much. And you know everything, the way he walks, eats, sleeps, the way the wrinkles spread across his face when he smiles, the way he thinks, the way his body smells. And then it's as if you cease to be yourself, and it's as though you and he are one and the same; your flesh, your skin cleaves to him, and in love, Vanya, there's no greater happiness on earth, whereas without love it's unbearable, unbearable! And what I would say, Vanya, is that it's easier not to have while loving, than to have without loving. Marriage, marriage: the secret isn't about the priest giving his blessing and children coming . . . but about a soul getting a burning desire to give itself to another and to take him completely, if only for a week, if only for a day, and if both of their souls are burning, then that means God has united them. . . . Anyone who's touched by the flaming spirit of love, whatever he's done, it's all forgiven him, because he's no longer his own, in the spirit, in the rapture . . . "

And she goes on to tell young Vanya that " . . . it's frightening . . . when love touches you; joyous, but frightening; as if you're flying and always falling, or you're dying, like sometimes in dreams; and all the time there's only one thing you can see everywhere, whatever it was that pierced you in the person you love: be it the eyes, the hair, the walk."

In his captivating soliloquies about the heart, Kuzmin's talent soars, and he is an author in love with his heart and in rapt awe of its capabilities.

And while Wings may at first look seem deceptively smooth with its brief 99 pages, it is an intellectual behemoth, with choppy timing and passages as difficult to follow as the most challenging parts of Virginia Woolf's The Waves. And like Woolf, Kuzmin writes in the style of living interpretation: scenes, thoughts, ideas and emotions falling upon the brain like atoms into matter. The novel travels from Russia to Italy, and from the story of a young orphan to that of a romantically obsessed lover. Along the way, the novel blossoms, revealing petal after petal of human emotion and some of the most acute observations set down in writing about desire and the balance between the mind and the soul.

Wings is, at its heart, about the bold courage love requires and the unbreakable tie we all eventually find within us - the one that exists between ourselves and the soul that first awakens our passions. It is a novel as complicated as its subject matter, and as revolutionary as its author.

"It's hard," Maria Dmitriyevna tells Vanya, "to go against what's put in [the heart] , and perhaps it's sinful, too." And Kuzmin writes all too knowingly about the pointless endeavors of ignoring our longings and trying to set aside our psyches.

It is an idea that was infuriatingly revolutionary at the time of its writing, and a reality that is well remembered even now.

For more about Mikhail Kuzmin and Wings, click here.

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Eric Georgantes | August 31, 2007 9:13 AM

I was planning on picking up Crime and Punishment as my first Russian lit after I finished reading Homosexuality and Civilization, but it looks like I have a new starting point.

Thanks for the recommendation!

What a spectacular review, Steve! I knew I should have read the book before sending it on to you to review! Now I really want to read it! *grins*