Wings by Mikhail Kuzmin

A key text in the history of gay literature, Wings was published in 1906 to the scandalized reaction of contemporary society and the generations which followed.

The novel deals with teenager Vanya Smurov’s attachment to his older, urbane mentor, Larion Stroop, a pederast who initiates him into the world of early Renaissance, Classical and Romantic art. At the close of the first part, Vanya is shocked to learn that the object of his admiration frequents a gay bathhouse. In order to sort out his feelings, Vanya withdraws into the Volga countryside, but his sickening experience with rural women, whose call on him to enjoy his youth turns out to be an awkward attempt at seduction, induces Vanya to accept his Classics teacher’s proposal and accompany him in a journey to Italy. In the last part of the novel, Vanya and Stroop, who is also in Italy, are seen enjoying the smiling climate and stunning artworks of Florence and Rome, while Prince Orsini mentors the delicate youth in the art of hedonism.

The novel, partly based on Kuzmin’s experience of travelling to Italy in 1897, is full of conversation in the Platonic vein; the title itself alludes to Phaedrus. Although the book was competently written in an elegant style all its own, its reputation has been dogged by scandal.

Kuzmin was one of the first writers in modern Europe to argue that homosexuality “was not immoral or ungodly, but morally distinctive, ethically sanctioned, and even at times spiritually superior, a matter not of decadent immoralism but the personal creation of values”.

The central theme of aestheticized sensuality has spawned comparisons of Wings with contemporary works by Oscar Wilde and André Gide.

Wings is in three parts, set respectively in St Petersburg, on the Volga and in Rome, and it is told in myriad episodic scenes of perhaps 2-3 pages in length: a curious and intriguing structure. In his Introduction, Hugh Aplin compares this structure to cinematic montage, which seems a fair approximation. These scenes, often thematically linked (e.g. death by suicide appears in parts 1 and 2, and the ‘death’ of an artist in part 3), are like dots that the reader must join together. It comes across as a series of brush strokes. Like Chekov, it addresses people by different versions of their name and you overhear seemingly isolated snatches of conversation.

“Wings”, is a metaphor threaded throughout the novel for a whole host of things: for the culture and friendships which allow us to soar, for what we acquire when we are open to beauty and courageous in our love, and as an allusion, in the final pages, to Icarus and his brothers.

Poignantly, many of the young men at the baths, including the one with the large penis, will soon be conscripted to war.

I found the “story” hard to follow. It is more allusive than narrative and is becalmed with philosophical soliloquies about love. Indeed, was the philosophising trying to justify homosexuality? Too didactic? Too much lecturing?

It’s misogynistic: ‘She’s only a vile female.’ (which may be inevitable from gay men of a certain type) and a callousness in their treatment. They are dismissed as worthless – relationships between men and women are portrayed as base and coarse.

Kuzmin was lucky to die of natural causes in 1936; just two years later other gay artists were rounded up with and shot.

Relevant today, given Putin’s current crackdown. In 1928, at the invitation of students of the Russian Institute of Literature, Kuzmin gave the final public reading of his life. He assumed the event would be poorly attended; the once-great writer had been largely silenced and, he worried, forgotten. The reading was not advertised to the public and only students with tickets were allowed entrance. The director of the Institute feared that any reading by Kuzmin would attract a large contingent of homosexuals and thus the attention of the authorities.

The director was right in his fear. On the night of the reading there came a crush at the doors, the ticket system broke down, and gays crowded in among the students. Kuzmin’s reading electrified the audience — no surprise, as he read his poem The Trout Breaks the Ice, a staggering work swirling with autobiography and cultural allusions that is also an ode to the triumph of desire, a poem that maintains its electricity through translation and time. An ovation followed the reading and the gays pushed to the front, showering Kuzmin with flowers, bouquet upon bouquet landing at his feet. The director and student organizers quaked — they knew they would be called before authorities to account for the scandal (they narrowly escaped punishment, pleading ignorance) — but Kuzmin beamed.

Nothing like Wings had ever been published; not in the West and not in Russia. As print runs sold out the book was immediately reissued. Also difficult to fathom is the relative ease with which gay artists were allowed to live their lives and envision their possibilities in prerevolutionary Russia. With the crumbling of the czarist empire, before Soviet repression took hold, we see a flowering of artistic daring and a measure of sexual freedom. But even so, Kuzmin’s daring humbles this writer, and ought to inspire us all.

He was in the Old Believer tradition – having spent some years in defiantly Old Believer guise, including cap, tight-fitting coat, boots and beard, he switched abruptly to the mannered dandyism of the Russian admirers of Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde

Old Believers are Eastern Orthodox Christians who maintain the liturgical and ritual practices of the Eastern Orthodox Church as they existed prior to the reforms of Patriarch Nikon of Moscow between 1652 and 1666. In 1652, Patriarch Nikon (1605–1681; Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church from 1652 to 1658) introduced a number of ritual and textual revisions with the aim of achieving uniformity between the practices of the Russian and Greek Orthodox churches. The main objectives of reformers in the 16th century, many from the secular “white” clergy, were to outlaw pagan rituals and beliefs and to standardise the liturgy throughout the Muscovite realm. Old Believers use two fingers while making the Sign of the Cross while new-style Orthodoxy uses three fingers for the sign of cross (three fingers (including the thumb). Is there a degree of sending up Tolstoy with his seeming primitism?

It is salutary to reflect that Wings was first published in Russia in 1906, when Kuzmin was in his thirties. He had at last come to terms with his homosexuality, as Vanya Smurov is beginning to do in the closing paragraph of the book. That he was openly gay in the final years of Tsarist rule and the opening decade_of Soviet Communism almost defies credibility, particularly when one thinks of the agonies of mind and body Tchaikovsky was forced to endure.

They are relatively little known outside their homeland

He was a eading figure of what was, arguably, Russia’s most brilliant and he began studying in 1891 at the St Petersburg Conservatory, where his tutors included Rimsky­Korsakov, but he remained there for only three years. None­theless, music was to continue to play a very significant role and enabled him to form ties

Wings brought about a genuine furore in Russia’s literary world, the success of ‘Alexandrian Songs’ enabled him to become closely involved with many of the most prominent figures of the then dominant Russian Symbolist movement but he had artistic independence and produced an -ism of his own, in Russian `klarizm’, from the Latin ‘clarus’, signifying clarity or transparency, and the ‘beautiful clarity’ that was its essential feature was one of 1 the abiding elements in all Kuzmin’s writing during his most successful, pre-revolutionary years

Our broad-=ranging discussion even mentioned the Bhagavad Gita.

Despite the glossary, I had to look up anacreontic = (of a poem) written in the style of the ancient Greek poet Anacreon, known for his celebrations of love and wine.

Quotations:

It does sometimes happen too, they say, that a woman loves a woman and a man a man … And it’s not hard to believe it, is it not possible for God to put that thorn too into the human heart, then? And it’s hard, Vanya, to go against what been put in, and perhaps it’s sinful too.

“Love, whatever its nature, can never be depraved except in the eyes of a cynic.” 

“I was in that kind of terribly stupid but not unpleasant situation, when you know that both of you know something, but are keeping silent. He stared straight at me, motionless, with a kind of mermaid look, not quite drunkenly, not quite insanely, almost terrifyingly, but when he began to wash me there was no room for doubt.”

Eroticism there had been aplenty in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts, and gender ques­tions, particularly the role of women in society, had been under discussion for more than half a century; but serious mainstream works with sex, let alone homosexuality, as their primary subject were almost unknown

The youthful hero, Vanya Smurov, is shown in three novel, unorthodox and increasingly exotic settings. Newly orphaned, he is vulnerable and susceptible as a series of mentors introduce him to various possible approaches to life, and other characters, through differing experiences or parallel situations, suggest the fates that potentially await him, depending on the decisions he makes.

It was considered stylistically careless ­’all over the place, awkward phrases written any old how,’ commented Andrei Bely — and the mosaic-like structure, which may be a positive attraction to the modern reader accustomed to the frequent cutting of cinematic montage, was not deemed a success. Inevitably, however, it was the thematic nature of the work that drew most attention

the sense of the words, thinking how his mother had died, how the whole house had suddenly filled with old women of some sort who had previously been strangers and who now became extraordinarily close, recalling the fuss, the offices for the dead, the funeral and, after all of that, the sudden emptiness and desolation

the rotten smell of sour cabbage soup… mothballs…Stroop’s scent

think, Vanya,.how odd it is, that here you have another person entirely, and his legs are different, and skin, and his eyes — and he’s completely yours, completely, , you can look at, kiss and touch all of him; every le 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 — look at a cat, it’s carrying as many as four times a year — 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. It’s a sin to make love with a cold heart or for gain, but anyone who’s touched by the fiery finger, whatever he does, he remains pure before the Lord. 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…’

`How are you to understand? I’ll say this: a husband lives with his wife, and a bachelor gets mixed up with a woman; someone might say that it’s all the same, but there’s a big differ­ence. What is it, one asks?’

`I wouldn’t know,’ responded Sergei, all eyes.

`Imagination. The first thing,’ said Prokhor Nikitich, as though searching not only for words, but for ideas too, ‘the first thing is: the married man has dealings with one woman — that’s one thing: the next thing is — they live quietly, peacefully, they’re used to one another, and the husband loves his wife in just the same way as he eats his porridge or curses the bailiffs, but the ers have nonsense on their minds all the time, it’s all fun and es, there’s no constancy, no steadiness; and that’s why the thing is lawful, and the other — fornication. The sin isn’t in act but in the application, how the thing’s applied to what.’

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