|Briusov under the table. Picture credit: Northwestern University's Poet Page|
here. I feel Bely was being unjust; despite the very detailed end-notes which testify to Briusov's meticulous historical research, this is not an elitist book. Nor does it attempt to sustain Briusov's reputation for perversity, despite some references to unnatural congress at Satanic sabbaths. Perhaps Bely, aware that Ruprecht, Renata and the angel were avatars of a real-life love triangle involving Briusov, Nina Petrovskaia and himself, wanted to discourage potential readers.
Briusov was intensely interested in German culture, and this novel is his paean to the sixteenth century, when humanism collided with esotericism, global expansion with religious fanaticism. His plot and characters reflect the inevitable inadequacies and imbalances of this fusion. Melodramatic incidents, such as Renata's trial by the Inquisition, are combined with petty but true-to-life details: Ruprecht's involvement with Renata impoverishes him and he is ultimately too ashamed to make himself known to his aged parents. Ruprecht's intellectual flaws, his failure to distinguish between science and superstition, reflect the confusion within sixteenth-century academia. Another underlying issue is social status; Ruprecht is born with a toe-hold on the middle classes, but when challenging a nobleman to a duel, he lies, claiming 'Я такой же рыцарь, как вы' ('I am a knight just like you'). Honesty would have risked invalidating his challenge, since the honour code didn't oblige a nobleman to fight a commoner; but Ruprecht lies primarily because he feels he's earned the right to call himself a true knight. He lives by the honour code, talks the talk and wears the clothes - and he can't bring himself to admit that this will never be enough. He is even more humiliated when his enemy discovers that he isn't noble, but still condescends to fight him. Later in the book, he enters a freethinking Count's suite as an unpaid aide. The Count hails Ruprecht as a 'brother humanist' - but this intellectual bond doesn't prevent him from addressing Ruprecht by the familiar pronoun, as if the latter were a servant. Nor does Ruprecht's resentment prevent him from deferring to the Count, even when Renata's life is at stake. Ruprecht has plenty of convictions, but lacks the courage to act on them; he's observant, but lacks the nous to draw conclusions. I feel that he is all the more interesting for not being either a Conan-style barbarian or a Faustian disillusioned intellectual. The Fiery Angel has been translated into English in a Dedalus edition, although I vastly prefer my quaint, lavender-coloured library copy, with colour plates reproducing Briusov's original drawings. The Fiery Angel is much better known as an opera by Prokofiev; YouTube has many links to some of the more stirring performances.
My adventures at the LBF were not as dramatic as Ruprecht's or Renata's in early modern Germany. Nor did it resemble a witches' sabbath, although the wheeler-dealing among the publishers in the bigger tents looked pretty frenetic at times. Instead of meeting alchemists and inquisitors, I got to meet or gawp at some personal heroes. These were not, for the most part, the authors (many of whom were youthful unknowns). Instead, as ever, the LBF is a great venue to meet the people who make Russian literature accessible to non-Russian readers: translators, critics, and bloggers. Where else would you see Boris Akunin casually telling his translator Andrew Bromfield to 'start writing your own books' because Akunin, as a novelist, gets to 'wake up late, and I only write when I feel like it, although I usually feel like it', whereas Bromfield refers to himself as a 'recluse', working for hours every day to translate Akunin (and others)? It certainly sounds as if translators get the worse deal, despite their dedication and effort.
|Pavel Basinskii and Elif Batuman|
|Where did she get those boots?|
|Robert Chandler looking intense|
|Left to right: Lev Danilkin, Zakhar Prilepin, Pavel Basinski|