Poet Mikhail Kuzmin, born in the 1870s into a family of Russian Old Believers, was a passionate exponent of gay literature in the early twentieth century.
Selected Prose & Poetry of Mikhail Kuzmin. Translated from the Russian by Michael Green. Ardis/Overlook Press, 288 pages, $19.95.
By Jim Kates
Riding behind, or alongside, the great poets I once called the Four Horsemen of the Soviet Apocalypse—Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak, and Marina Tsvetaeva—is a contemporaneous cavalry that is too little known in the West. Some of these writers have begun to receive literary attention in translation: Nikolai Gumilev and Daniil Kharms, Velimir Khlebnikov and, if mostly by notoriety, Vladimir Mayakovsky. Others await their day in the Western sun. A selection of Vladislav Khodasevich (translated by Peter Daniels) is in the works, and now we have the Selected Prose & Poetry of Mikhail Kuzmin.
In the United States, the legalization of same-sex marriage looks to be just around the corner. In Russia, sexual activity between consenting adults of the same sex still counts as criminal activity. Normally, this wouldn’t be a useful or relevant beginning to a review of literary work, but Mikhail Alekseevich Kuzmin’s homosexuality at the beginning of the twentieth century formed an integral part of his literary identity. The position of Kuzmin (1872–1936) in the culture of sexual politics and literature in Russia may perhaps be compared to that of Oscar Wilde in English culture.
He was luckier than Wilde, though, living as he did during a brief generation of acceptance—the generation (in our own cultural terms) of E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf. Kuzmin, born in the 1870s into a family of Russian Old Believers, became a passionate exponent of gay literature in the early twentieth century. In the introductory words of Michael Green, his editor and translator here, “Kuzmin’s sexual inclinations became well known, even notorious, early in his career when [he published the novella] Wings, in essence a frank defence of the homosexual way of life. If we consider that an analogous American work . . . was not published until more than forty years later . . . we can appreciate something of the shock a ‘gay novel’ would have had at the time.”
Okay. Enough about sexual politics. Can we read Kuzmin just for the fun of it? It may be difficult to prove that from this edition. The reader could wish for a production that was less sloppy and better proofread. Mistakes abound, sometimes obscuring meaning. If on page 57, the phrase “the sash of his red silk blouse undone, a smile on the flushed face that was unusually so pale” suggests that unusually should be usually, a glance back at the original text (“улыбкой на покрасневшем, но не привыкшем к румяна лице”) shows something entirely different is called for, more like “a smile on a painted face not accustomed to rouge.” And, while Wings comes with a few scattered explanatory notes, the other stories in the volume have none.
Yet the answer is yes, reading Kuzmin is well worth the candle. The celebrated Wings begins the selections here: it is followed by a number of shorter stories, poetry, and a play—in short, a meaty presentation of Kuzmin’s writing before his natural death in 1936, at which time he was officially unrecognized but still widely followed.
In general, the poems interest me more than the prose, and the generous selection in this edition includes both Kuzmin’s early lyric cycle, “Alexandrian Songs,” published in 1906 (the same year as Wings) and his best-known sequence, 1929’s “The Trout Breaks the Ice,” contained in the last volume of poetry Kuzmin published in his lifetime.
The “Alexandrian Songs” weave city and love together in an idealized classicism so that one blends into another. One poem ends, “O when shall I see thee, adorable city?” and the very next one begins,
When It was I first encountered you
poor memory cannot tell me:
was it morning, or in the afternoon,
evening, or perhaps late at night?
I remember only the wan cheeks,
the gray eyes beneath dark brows
and the deep-blue collar at the swarthy throat,
and all this seems to come to me from childhood,
although I am older than you, older by many years.
The speaker almost seems to be the city itself.
“The Trout Breaks the Ice” was written in a monthly calendar of 12 “thrusts“ explained thus in the last words of the poem:
…it’s my belief
A trout can break the ice that prisons it
If only it perseveres.
The poetry is far more contemporary and directly allusive than what’s found in the “Alexandrian Songs,” immediately engaging with a light touch, deriving from Pushkin as much as from Wilde, who is explicitly invoked in the “Second Prologue.”
Sometimes the round of favorite pleasures
Becomes more tedious than sitting at a desk.
Then chance, only chance, can rescue us,
But chance is no pet dog to come at beck and call.
Like so many other writers of his time and place, Kuzmin turned to translation in his last years, before he died of pneumonia. Green specifies, “We may doubt whether Kuzmin, had he lived a year or two longer, would have had the privilege of a natural death. In 1938 [his lover] Yurkun was arrested along with a number of other literary men and shot.” The Selected Prose & Poetry of Mikhail Kuzmin is a necessary, if flawed, introduction of a significant Russian writer into English. We can hope that this volume will spur broader and deeper explorations of his work.