Review: Wings by Mikhail Kuzmin
Published by Hesperus Press
Reviewed by Paul Kane
It is salutary to note that Russia’s leading gay rights organisation, Wings, took its name from this short novel by Mikhail Kuzmin (1872-1936). Originally published in 1906, Wings was the first Russian novel to openly and sympathetically treat the theme of homosexuality; and even today it is of considerable interest. The novel tells the story of one Vanya Smurov, at its start a naïve youth, and it is about how he comes of age and (as we would now view it) comes out as a gay man. In Kuzmin’s hands, though, this is as much a spiritual quest as a question of sexuality. Vanya wants to live fully and rightly, and this means living in accord with his essential nature; in Nietzsche’s terms, he wants to become what he is. At one point, our protagonist is told by a friend that:
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. (p.44)
This quotation illustrates one of the still fascinating aspects of Wings: the way it functions as a kind of manifesto. For throughout the novel, it should be emphasised, Kuzmin makes a concerted attempt to argue for the naturalness of homosexuality at a time - and in a society - when this was needed. So there are, as one might already have expected – those Russians! –quite a number of earnest intellectual justifications along these lines, some of them quite subtle (e.g. the notion that nature itself is more variegated and diverse than our common unitary conception of it).
Still another point of interest lies in how the novel is made. 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 – if he or she wants to get the full emotional import of Vanya’s story, that is. Aplin’s translation, by the way, is masterly: the English prose has a definite chiselled majesty in places, and has many unexpected and incidental pleasures. He also provides full notes to the text.
As for the notion of “wings”, it 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.
Wings is a wonderful novel, chockful of truth and beauty, and well worthy of being re-read; and its significance in the history of gay literature can hardly be doubted. Perhaps also its present publication will encourage an interest in the poddyovka as a fashion or fetish item. Hesperus Press’ edition has two typos, on pages 24 and 58, but is otherwise impeccably produced. Thoroughly recommended.
Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org