This slim Hesperus volume had been sitting on my tbr for ages – I was attracted by the fact that it was by a Russian author I hadn’t heard of and that Hesperus had felt the need to publish it! So as I couldn’t decide what to read, I kind of went for this as a holding operation.

Mikhail Kuzmin was a prominent Russian poet at the turn of the last century so I do feel rather ashamed that I hadn’t come across him before. His novel “Wings” tells the story of a naive young man, Vanya Smurov, who after the death of his mother, travels to Russia to live with family. He finds a mentor in the form of Stroop, an older, somewhat mysterious man who several female characters seem to be in love with but who maintains a lofty distance. They discuss aesthetics, beauty and art, and Vanya is drawn to Stroop on an intellectual and emotional level. However, he struggles with the issue of the physical – and when he comes upon evidence of a full-blooded relationship with Fyodor, Stroop’s ‘manservant’ (which has dramatic results for other characters) he flees with his classics tutor to Italy. Here, after a lot of soul-searching and discussion, Vanya encounters Stroop again – but is he ready to take the final step and accept the full range of his feelings?

This is an unusual little volume. The format of the novel is very singular – normal linear narrative, explanation and back story are almost absent and we learn things simply in a series of short vignettes, most only a page and a half in length. A wide array of characters drift past us, beautifully portrayed in a few words – Kuzmin is very adept at conveying a lot in a few words. And the story is not hard to follow, although much of it is told by implication, rather than directly.

As for the subject matter itself, which is basically the tale of Vanya coming to terms with the physical homosexual act – that could be discussed for hours, frankly. Much is made of the Greeks and the Romans, and it could be argued that in a sense the various characters are ‘grooming’ Vanya to make the final step. Is he discovering his true nature, or would his nature be different in another set of circumstances? There is a pivotal point in the book where one of the female characters, Maria Dimitriyevna, throws herself at Vanya and he is disgusted and repels her – this is obviously a defining moment in his recognition of his true feelings.

Public Domain via Wikipedia Commons

But as a woman and a feminist there were elements of this book that irritated me – there is a negativity about women (which I suppose may be inevitable from a gay writer) and a callousness in their treatment. They are dismissed as worthless – relationships between men and women are portrayed as base and coarse, whereas those between men as heavenly – hence Stroop’s instruction to Vanya near the end of the book: “One more effort, and you’ll grow wings. I can already see them.” Despite the era in which it was written, and the fact that Kuzmin was undoubtedly brave in tackling such a subject publicly in a homophobic society, I still feel a little uncomfortable with the treatment of the women in the book.

Putting those niggles aside, the book is beautifully written and I did enjoy reading it. But I don’t think it’s a volume I would necessarily return to again.