Exercise # 2: Crowdsourced Reading Notes for M. Kuzmin’s Wings (1906)

This is a space in which we add together some notes for reading and interpreting Mikhail Kuzmin’s novel Wings. Since the names and references in this novel can sometimes be rather confusing (often several names are used for one character), the first section will be the most useful to most of you in reading and understanding.

Under “additional notes” you can put anything else you needed to look up in the process of reading the novel, or anything you already know but would like to share with classmates who might find this useful.

This exercise is voluntary, but please contribute as much as you can! (Don’t forget to “sign” your contribution with your pseudonym.)

NAMES AND ALTERNATE NAMES OF CHARACTERS:

Vanya (Ivan Petrovich Smurov; Ivanushka; Vanyechka)

Larion Dimitriyevich Stroop (Shtrup; throughout the novel referred to as English, half-English or a British subject)

“Uncle” Kolya (Nikolai Ivanovich, actually Vanya’s cousin)

THE KAZANSKYS:

  • Konstantin Vasilyevich (Uncle Kostya, Alex’s brother)
  • Alex/Alexei Vasilyevich (married to Anna)
  • Anna Nikolayevna (married to Alex)
  • Their children:  Koka (loves Ida Goldberg), Boba, Nata (Natalia Alexeyevna, loves Stroop)

Daniil Ivanovich (Vanya’s Greek teacher)

Ida Pavlovna Goldberg (loves Stroop, tragic suicide)

Fyodor/Fedya Vasilyevich Solovyov (a gay bathhouse attendant and Stroop’s hired paramour) *note: for the Russian reader, the surname Solovyov would conjure up two significant meanings: first, the 19th-century philosopher Vladimir Solovyov argued for an outlook combining Russian Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Hellenistic philosophies, and was an important influence for Symbolists (presumably including Kuzmin). Second, the word “solovey” means “nightingale” in Russian, which may suggest something about the physical beauty or artistic symbolism of Fedya’s role.

the Shpeier sisters (friends of the Kazanskys)

THE SOROKINS (with whom Vanya stays in the country during part 2):

  • Prokhor Nikitch (“old” Sorokin–a timber merchant and Old Believer)
  • Arina Dmitriyevna (his wife)
  • Maria Dmitriyevna (Arina’s sister, tends to romanticize)
  • Sasha (Arina and Prokhor’s son, same age as Vanya)
  • Also connected to the Sorokins, but not related: Sergei and Malanya (servants), Ivan Osipovich, Parfen

Vanya (the name of the corpse that washes up at the end of part 2)

Ugo Orsini (composer or musician?)

Monsignor Mori (the Canon; writes about Roman emperors and Antinous)

Mme Monier (acquaintance in Italy)

Sergei/Seryozha (“the artist,” symbolically chooses lust for Veronica Chibo over his “purer” love for Blonskaya)

A note on Russian naming customs:  Russians usually have a given name (such as Ivan), a patronymic (Vasilyevich), and a surname (Smurov). The given name can take multiple forms called diminutives, forms that usually share the first letter or root with the given name. Diminutives generally denote affection, a close relationship, that someone younger is being addressed, or occasionally, condescension. Because Ivan is in his teens, his elders and friends address him familiarly as Vanya; his uncle addresses him endearingly as Ivanushka when trying to get money out of him. Patronymics are formed from the father’s given name; for men, “ich” or “ovich” is added to the root of the father’s name, and for women, “ovna” or “yevna”. Therefore, Konstantin Vasilyevich’s father was named Vasilii, and Natalya Alexeyevna’s father is Alexei. Surnames also change based on gender, adding “a” or “aya” to female surnames, so Natalya Alexeyevna would not be Kazansky, but Kazanskaya (though some translations choose not to include this detail). -AMU

ADDITIONAL NOTES:

Link for Antinous as a signal figure for homosexuality; see also Wikipedia entry on Antinous

Introduction to Kuzmin and his work

Biographical book review of Kuzmin’s life and work from “Gay Today”

Russian literature and homosexuality (from glbt online encyclopedia)

Contemporary Symbolist author Vyacheslav Ivanov, part of Kuzmin’s circle in St. Petersburg, wrote the following about Kuzmin in his diary: “[Kuzmin] is a sort of pioneer of the coming age when, with the growth of homosexuality, humanity will no longer be maimed and crippled by the modern // aesthetic and ethic of the sexes, understood as ‘men for women’ and ‘women for men’ […].  This aesthetic of savages and this biological ethic, which blind every ‘normal’ person to an entire half of humanity and cut off an entire half of its individuality in favour of the continuation of the species.”–Quoted in Evgenii Bershtein, “’Next to Christ’: Oscar Wilde and Russian Modernism,” in  The Reception of Oscar Wilde in Europe, ed. Stefano Evangelista, London: Continuum, 2010, pp. 296-7.

Kuzmin’s title and recurring metaphor (Wings) obliquely allude to a passage in Plato’s Phaedrus where Socrates explains the image of the soul with reference to wings. Here is the passage in Benjamin Jowett’s contemporary (1892) Greek-to-English translation:

“All soul is immortal, for she is the source of all motion both in herself and in others. Her form may be described in a figure as a composite nature made up of a charioteer and a pair of winged steeds. The steeds of the gods are immortal, but ours are one mortal and the other immortal. The immortal soul soars upwards into the heavens, but the mortal drops her plumes and settles upon the earth.  Now the use of the wing is to rise and carry the downward element into the upper world—there to behold beauty, wisdom, goodness, and the other things of God by which the soul is nourished. On a certain day Zeus the lord of heaven goes forth in a winged chariot; and an array of gods and demi–gods and of human souls in their train, follows him. There are glorious and blessed sights in the interior of heaven, and he who will may freely behold them. The great vision of all is seen at the feast of the gods, when they ascend the heights of the empyrean—all but Hestia, who is left at home to keep house. The chariots of the gods glide readily upwards and stand upon the outside; the revolution of the spheres carries them round, and they have a vision of the world beyond. But the others labour in vain; for the mortal steed, if he has not been properly trained, keeps them down and sinks them towards the earth. Of the world which is beyond the heavens, who can tell? There is an essence formless, colourless, intangible, perceived by the mind only, dwelling in the region of true knowledge. The divine mind in her revolution enjoys this fair prospect, and beholds justice, temperance, and knowledge in their everlasting essence. When fulfilled with the sight of them she returns home, and the charioteer puts up the horses in their stable, and gives them ambrosia to eat and nectar to drink. This is the life of the gods; the human soul tries to reach the same heights, but hardly succeeds; and sometimes the head of the charioteer rises above, and sometimes sinks below, the fair vision, and he is at last obliged, after much contention, to turn away and leave the plain of truth. But if the soul has followed in the train of her god and once beheld truth she is preserved from harm, and is carried round in the next revolution of the spheres; and if always following, and always seeing the truth, is then for ever unharmed. If, however, she drops her wings and falls to the earth, then she takes the form of man, and the soul which has seen most of the truth passes into a philosopher or lover; that which has seen truth in the second degree, into a king or warrior; the third, into a householder or money–maker; the fourth, into a gymnast; the fifth, into a prophet or mystic; the sixth, into a poet or imitator; the seventh, into a husbandman or craftsman; the eighth, into a sophist or demagogue; the ninth, into a tyrant. All these are states of probation, wherein he who lives righteously is improved, and he who lives unrighteously deteriorates. After death comes the judgment; the bad depart to houses of correction under the earth, the good to places of joy in heaven. When a thousand years have elapsed the souls meet together and choose the lives which they will lead for another period of existence. The soul which three times in succession has chosen the life of a philosopher or of a lover who is not without philosophy receives her wings at the close of the third millennium; the remainder have to complete a cycle of ten thousand years before their wings are restored to them. Each time there is full liberty of choice. The soul of a man may descend into a beast, and return again into the form of man. But the form of man will only be taken by the soul which has once seen truth and acquired some conception of the universal:—this is the recollection of the knowledge which she attained when in the company of the Gods. And men in general recall only with difficulty the things of another world, but the mind of the philosopher has a better remembrance of them. For when he beholds the visible beauty of earth his enraptured soul passes in thought to those glorious sights of justice and wisdom and temperance and truth which she once gazed upon in heaven. Then she celebrated holy mysteries and beheld blessed apparitions shining in pure light, herself pure, and not as yet entombed in the body. And still, like a bird eager to quit its cage, she flutters and looks upwards, and is therefore deemed mad. Such a recollection of past days she receives through sight, the keenest of our senses, because beauty, alone of the ideas, has any representation on earth: wisdom is invisible to mortal eyes. But the corrupted nature, blindly excited by this vision of beauty, rushes on to enjoy, and would fain wallow like a brute beast in sensual pleasures. Whereas the true mystic, who has seen the many sights of bliss, when he beholds a god–like form or face is amazed with delight, and if he were not afraid of being thought mad he would fall down and worship. Then the stiffened wing begins to relax and grow again; desire which has been imprisoned pours over the soul of the lover; the germ of the wing unfolds, and stings, and pangs of birth, like the cutting of teeth, are everywhere felt. (Cp. Symp. 206 foll.) Father and mother, and goods and laws and proprieties are nothing to him; his beloved is his physician, who can alone cure his pain. An apocryphal sacred writer says that the power which thus works in him is by mortals called love, but the immortals call him dove, or the winged one, in order to represent the force of his wings—such at any rate is his nature. Now the characters of lovers depend upon the god whom they followed in the other world; and they choose their loves in this world accordingly. The followers of Ares are fierce and violent; those of Zeus seek out some philosophical and imperial nature; the attendants of Here find a royal love; and in like manner the followers of every god seek a love who is like their god; and to him they communicate the nature which they have received from their god. The manner in which they take their love is as follows:— I told you about the charioteer and his two steeds, the one a noble animal who is guided by word and admonition only, the other an ill–looking villain who will hardly yield to blow or spur. Together all three, who are a figure of the soul, approach the vision of love. And now a fierce conflict begins. The ill–conditioned steed rushes on to enjoy, but the charioteer, who beholds the beloved with awe, falls back in adoration, and forces both the steeds on their haunches; again the evil steed rushes forwards and pulls shamelessly. The conflict grows more and more severe; and at last the charioteer, throwing himself backwards, forces the bit out of the clenched teeth of the brute, and pulling harder than ever at the reins, covers his tongue and jaws with blood, and forces him to rest his legs and haunches with pain upon the ground. When this has happened several times, the villain is tamed and humbled, and from that time forward the soul of the lover follows the beloved in modesty and holy fear. And now their bliss is consummated; the same image of love dwells in the breast of either; and if they have self–control, they pass their lives in the greatest happiness which is attainable by man—they continue masters of themselves, and conquer in one of the three heavenly victories. But if they choose the lower life of ambition they may still have a happy destiny, though inferior, because they have not the approval of the whole soul. At last they leave the body and proceed on their pilgrim’s progress, and those who have once begun can never go back. When the time comes they receive their wings and fly away, and the lovers have the same wings.”

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