Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9



1 2 3



Just as Vaginov built on his literary antecedents, he also built on the renamed but preserved city of St. Petersburg. Located on a swamp by the Tsar Peter I, and built at great loss of human life, the city took its distinct shape in foreign architecture and artificial waterways. Unlike the circular and organic labyrinth of Russia's old capital, Moscow, the new capital was a spacious, rectilinear grid of streetscapes, with palaces, cathedrals and government buildings imitating foreign splendors. In early summer, under the untimely glow of "white nights," even the difference between darkness and light becomes artificial. Famed as a window on the outside world, the city can just as easily mirror internal worlds, whether based on resemblance or illusion.

Known as the capital city with a provincial destiny, St. Petersburg is both coffin and cradle. In the burgeoning empire of Peter I and Catherine II, St. Petersburg was a strategic port and a foothold for Russia's expansion to the west. In 1917, it was the cradle of two revolutions--the February Revolution and the October Revolution. In the first years of this century, the city was also the center stage for struggle between various forces of political change--from revolutionary to reformist and reactionary. During these same years, the literary home of Pushkin, Gogol and Dostoevsky became the nucleus of the cultural revival known as the Silver Age.

Under Communism, as a former capital, the city became the empire's coffin. Even before Communism, St. Petersburg had been a coffin for lost causes: for the revolutionaries of 1905, the Decembrists of 1825, and the hopes for reform by the monarchy under Alexander II, who was assassinated in 1881. Even today, various memorials and figures of public sculpture are continually strewn with flowers, as a token of connection to some private milestone or the impulse to worship. This is especially noticeable around statues of Pushkin, which might also be considered memorials to a hypothetical Russia. Just as this Russia could inspire the loyalty of its subjects and the distrust of rulers, the anonymous offerings might even be thought of as affirming the powers of representation over the powers of material history.

It was Mandelshtam who saw the coffin as the logic behind the city's architecture--the landmark structures that Vaginov referred to as the "baroque, neo-Roman, neo-Greek architectural islands." By evoking antiquity through architecture, the city was a way for the state to immortalize itself, or at least to outlive its own destruction. As Mandelshtam wrote in "Word and Culture," the hunger for immortality by the state was even stronger than that of the individual. And even greater than the hunger of the state, he believed, was the hunger of time.

If Saint Petersburg was also a "window on Europe" and a showcase of western influence--from architecture and painting to music and philosophy--it was also a defense against a west whose incursions were sometimes forceful and unwelcome. In the 19th century, even those Russian thinkers who studied and, in some ways admired, western European culture felt it was also a threat. The Slavophiles believed the industrialized countries of the west were too materialistic, and that their liberal democracy with its privileged middle class was less a model of enlightenment than a caste system that exalted wealth over quality. The left wing of the Russian intelligentsia had been more receptive to industrialization, but it, too, saw the prevailing values of the west as harmful. In his 1880 lecture on Pushkin, Dostoevsky tried to reconcile the two intellectual currents, as well as the split between the real people ("narod") of Russia and the artificial, privileged society of St. Petersburg, with its fickle appetite for the exotic. In place of these divisions, Dostoevsky espoused a belief in Russia's native genius, but as a bridge among cultures and a call to unity among peoples.

If both wings of the intelligentsia could be critical of Russia's rulers in their own way, they sometimes found themselves at odds with Russian artists. Writers had to fear both the censorship of cultural reactionaries in the government and the censure of left-wing intellectuals who insisted that works of art have a clear social relevance. At its worst, that relevance amounted to polemic and political correctness. When the pressures of censorship fell more heavily on the more explicit channels of public discourse, such as journalism, the desire to carry on that discourse flowed more heavily to less explicit channels, such as literature, philosophy, and criticism. At the turn of the century, leading figures of Russia's "Silver Age" had all the more reason to feel influential, but they would also more boldly insist that the arts had a mission of their own--art for its own sake. This parallels the growth of Russia's middle class in the years before World War I, and it was the ensuing depletion and disorientation of the middle class that would leave the autonomous artist all the more vulnerable to marginalization or even scapegoating.

Despite the gap between Russia's political and artistic spheres, there was a parallel between the Silver Age and the political upheaval in the first years of the 20th century. At its extreme, this renaissance made ambitious claims for the powers of culture to influence people and change the world--as in the music and extra-musical pronouncements of Alexander Scriabin. Another example was Blok's notion of Symbolism as a special power to unlock secret knowledge through the poet's incantation (similar to powers of the seer or "vates" invoked by Vaginov's unknown poet). The renaissance was also marked by a frenzy of mysticism, escapism and decadence--the excess that provokes a tragic reversal. For some Russian artists, that reversal--or retribution--took the form of war and totalitarianism. For St. Petersburg, renamed Petrograd during World War I, the retribution after the October Revolution would be the loss of status as a capital and, after Lenin's death, the effacement of its original name.

The historic significance of St. Petersburg goes hand in hand with the mythological. By usurping Moscow as Russia's capital, St. Petersburg dared to become the fourth Rome. This was an affront to the prophecy of Russia's messianic destiny after the fall of Constantinople: Moscow is the third Rome, there will be no fourth. Yet another metaphorical connection lies between St. Petersburg and a figment of Russian legend: the magical, submerged utopia, Kitezh. Both ideal cities point to an ideal that lies beyond the boundaries of Russia. But, as early as Pushkin's poem, "The Bronze Horseman," the very majesty of this artificial city at the mouth of a river is a work of hubris that is punished by a flood--which drives the poem's protagonist, a Russian everyman, over the edge of insanity.

As an instant, artificial capital, St. Petersburg defied reality from its inception. Falling short of Moscow as a historic heart of Russia, St. Petersburg was an attempt to surpass it as a "window on Europe"--in terms of geopolitical strategy, but also culturally, as a cosmopolitan center alluding to a broader expanse of time and space. From its beginnings, St. Petersburg was a mutation of classical precedents, whether in France and Italy, or in antiquity. As a result, the everyday habitation was also the simulacrum of a quintessentially European capital. With its orderly architectural ensembles and the seemingly infinite trajectories of its major avenues (or "prospects"), St. Petersburg was built to be looked at. Primarily a legacy of Peter I and Catherine II, the canals, bridges, buildings and parks in the city's center evoke other worlds--but, as a collection of similitudes, the new capital could also be thought of as the ultimate Potemkin village. As a backdrop for the drabness and squalor of everyday life, as lived by most its inhabitants, the utopian perfection and sheer strangeness of St. Petersburg make everyday life appear hallucinatory, and the hallucinatory more plausible, whether in a story by Gogol or a novel by Bely. For Vaginov's characters, as they try to maintain the city's intellectual tradition, the former St. Petersburg becomes a setting where it is all too easy to confuse simulation or counterfeit with the real thing.

Another native of the city, the poet Joseph Brodsky, would write, "There is no other place in Russia where thoughts depart so willingly from reality: it is with the emergence of St. Petersburg that Russian literature came into existence." In one of his essays, Vladimir Nabokov all but turns this on its head, venturing that the quirky or fantastical nature of St. Petersburg was something brought out in the eyes of beholders by Gogol, then lost when the city ceased to be the capital of the empire. "Petersburg was never a true reality," wrote Nabokov, "but, after all, neither was Gogol--Gogol the Vampire, Gogol the Ventriloquist--altogether real."

In the same essay on Gogol, Nabokov would describe Petersburg as a "smudged reflection in a mirror, a transparent muddle of objects used not according to design..." In Goat Song, Vaginov notes the city's illusory quality in the very first prologue, calling St. Petersburg a painted city--in the literal sense because its buildings are periodically repainted in various pastel shades, but also because the city is a changeable and perishable surface at odds with some underlying reality (even starting with the bones of its slave builders). This quality also figures in the prologue's depiction of people turning into reptiles, whether as a perceiver's tendency to hallucinate, or the way the city's inhabitants change out of their skins like snakes in response to the political upheavals of their time. And the predominant color, as Vaginov notes, is green: the color of some buildings and even the scaly, reptilian layer of oxidized metal on the "Bronze Horseman." Or yet a spiteful mirror that turns appetite into feverish hallucinations and joyless laughter.

In his lecture on Pushkin, it is the artificiality of St. Petersburg that Dostoevsky equates with the central flaw in the eponymous protagonist of the poem Evgeny Onegin. On the scale of arrogance and privilege, the characters in Goat Song are no match for Onegin. But some of them, especially the unknown poet, share traits that Dostoevsky associates with that recurring figure, the "unhappy wanderer" on Russia's earth--unhappily turning up in a society cut off from the Russian people. The unknown poet fits the definition primarily by his search for answers in other times, places and civilizations. There is also a parallel in his attraction to Lida, not unlike that of another Pushkin wanderer, Alyoko, drawn to a gypsy camp by his attraction to the exotic Zemfira.

Like Pushkin in Evgeny Onegin, Vaginov outgrows his highly autobiographical character. And, like Dostoevsky and Pushkin, Vaginov shows awareness of the troubling disconnect between people and society (whether pre- or post-revolutionary). For Dostoevsky, the ideal counter-balance to the rootless artificiality of Onegin and St. Petersburg is anything but a retreat to provinciality. Instead, he extols Pushkin for drawing on what might be called a native universality--in its foundations as modest as the childhood memories of Pushkin's heroine, Tatyana, but potentially revealing Russia's utopian destiny: a striving for world unity that could overcome divisions in Russia and even beyond. And, despite the troubling contradictions embodied in the new capital city, Dostoevsky even saw that native universality as the unfinished potential in the reforms introduced by Peter I.


In their own way, the learned outsiders in Goat Song try to carry on what Dostoevsky saw as the mission of Peter I. The limited constituency for their empire of culture before the revolution is sharply diminished by political and economic necessity, not to mention emigration. What remains is what that world culture used to feed--an appetite to live, whether in time or space, beyond the insignificance of one time and place. To the extent the characters try to keep a hold on that culture within their small circle, they lose hold of the world around them. Even when one character, Kostya Rotikov, asserts (in Chapter XXV) that culture can remain their legitimate pursuit regardless what happens in government, he's not very persuasive. Arguing against him is the demise of the unknown poet, who tries to maintain his notion of culture but fails to build bridges to society.

Drawn together by a common youthful passion for "high culture," the characters in Goat Song gradually drift apart. In their attempts to maintain a hold on that culture and each other, the characters instead latch onto fragments that are a symbolic transformation, or even a caricature, of their past. As in Ovid's Metamorphoses (which Vaginov admired from an early age), each of the main characters starts as one thing and turns into something else. Even when they are physically still alive, they will have crossed that tipping point beyond which the critical mass of what matters in their life is in the past. Hence, Vaginov really is like an undertaker in viewing his subjects primarily as an exercise in representation, a representation very much of their own making, even to the point of revisionism.

With his faith in hallucination, the unknown poet has the Symbolist's thirst for metaphor and connections between distant points of time and space. "A cultured person lives intellectually, not in one country but in many, not in one epoch but in many, and can choose whichever destruction he likes," he tells Teptyolkin. "He doesn't grieve when destruction finds him at home, he's simply bored. He mumbles, 'I've met you once again,' and for him it will become a joke." In his thoughts on the mission and powers of poetry, the unknown poet draws on the younger generation of Symbolists (especially Blok), though his preoccupation with the craft of poetry--the "juxtaposition of words" and the changeable chemistry of meaning--is closer to Acmeism and Baroque poets of the 16th and 17th centuries.

In the course of the novel, the unknown poet becomes more isolated. On the one side, he encounters the genuine enthusiasm of the genuinely insane emigré poet, September; on the other, the trivialization of poetry by dabblers. There is also a deconstruction of the unknown poet's version of the "Eternal Feminine," Lida. She is portrayed initially with a touch of vulnerable glamour worthy of an ill-fated heroine in a French novel and, like Blok's "Unknown Woman," associated with mind-altering substances. By the hard times of 1920, she is even too haggard to dress the part of a streetwalker. In Vaginov's last mention of her, the unknown poet goes to where they used to meet and recalls helplessly seeing her taken away to a prison camp. Driven by a "craving for intoxication," the unknown poet even sees what he takes at least for an apparition, but which turns out to be a case of mistaken identity. More important is a reversal of Blok's formulation, in which the intoxicant (literal or figurative) is a means to an end, even if the hazy build-up leads to what is more sign than wonder. In the sobriety (literal or figurative) of the unknown poet's disenchantment, the apparition is pursued as the intoxicant. Reality is a slap in the face. The unknown poet is left with his walking stick and its ornamental amethyst, the symbolic antidote for intoxication: in other words, a signifier that no longer signifies. His suicide is anti-climactic and, in its immediate aftermath, even game for black humor. Based in part on the suicide of the poet Sergei Esenin, the death of the unknown poet would also foreshadow the suicide of Vladimir Mayakovsky.

A different kind of way out is used by Asphodelyev, a well-paid but less than satisfied literary talent who does his share of word-smithing for the Communist Party. He offsets his professed distaste for his career by collecting artifacts of literature--be it rare editions of Goethe and Pushkin or an expensive bookcase. The poet Troitsyn becomes bald, philistine and passé, and the mistresses he collects are progressively less charmed, but he nonetheless remains the passionate collector of poetic artifacts. Where others see the Soviet Leningrad of the mid-1920's, Troitsyn still sees St. Petersburg, a "fairy-tale city" but quintessentially Russian: "Even though a foreigner had built it, wasn't it as Russian as the Uspensky Cathedral in Moscow? Or St. Sophia in Kiev? In Petersburg, Russian Manon Lescauts, ladies with camellias, came out to feast their eyes upon the Neva, on the pearls floating in the springtime."

The coming apart of things is only one more reason why Vaginov's characters try collecting their way into permanence, or at least the mental refuge of a system. As depicted a century earlier in Pushkin's "The Bronze Horseman," St. Petersburg itself is more construct than reality and, as such, an affront to nature. When nature strikes back with a flood, Pushkin's everyman rages against the arrogance of human power, only to provoke--not an actual despot, but a statue. That is, the inanimate and the symbolic. Like Pushkin's poem--dating from a time of flood and political upheaval a century earlier, Goat Song is also about power of symbols while the real world loses the coherence and balance that make it seem natural: streets change their names, soldiers come back from war with missing limbs, toppled statues rot on the ground, valuable possessions are sold off or stolen, and libraries are dismantled and recirculated by street vendors. Or, in a scene that could be straight out of the inflationary 1990's, former shoppers, driven to speculate or make some badly needed money, line up on the street to sell belongings.

Corresponding to the tale of fragmentation is the form of Goat Song. The book consists mainly of short chapters, with the narrative hopping from one character to another, almost like a montage. Even within chapters, there are shifts of focus and abrupt swerves from outward reality to internal hallucination. The shifts and changing combinations lead to revisions, evoking an earlier semblance only to place it in a different light. In this experiment in the "juxtaposition of words," even the role of the author is fragmented--split between Vaginov himself and the so-called "author" who appears before, after and during the writing of the book. In one version, the author is a less than autobiographical mutation with three fingers, whose conception of writing is disputed by the unknown poet, and who throws his manuscript of a so-called "novel" into the fire.

If the fragmentation undermines the linear continuity and progress of conventional narrative, it can emphasize patterns of recurrence, even or especially if that recurrence is a parody of a character's earlier state--a kind of contrappasso. If the Unknown poet exchanges a divine madness for the clinical, an arbiter of taste (and tastelessness) becomes a dealer in antiques. Misha Kotikov converts his passion for poetic imitation into dental resonstruction. Minus his university chair, the philosopher becomes a roving lecturer who assures his politically correct audience that philosophy is only a game. And Teptyolkin ends up earning a salary by teaching revolutionary history, all the while serving as superintendent for his apartment building. Instead of spiritual communion with the Eternal Feminine, he settles (not always blissfully) for marriage--as does his wife, Marya Petrovna. She wanted to be a singer or a scholar but settles for being a homebody and even, on occasion, Teptyolkin's surrogate mother.

By the end of the novel, Teptyolkin has second thoughts about his earlier dream of bliss in the tower of culture. The author invites us to wonder: is the flaw with Teptyolkin's dream, or with Teptyolkin himself? To judge from the text, it would be more correct to fault a sentimentalizing of culture, instead of the culture itself. Likewise, there is something almost heroic in Teptyolkin's exile from the tower, coupled with his painstakingly affectionate discomfort amid the micro-Petergof in the courtyard of his apartment block. In this transformation, it might be possible to see a betrayal of culture, one more example of "civilization" adapting. But Vaginov also describes the toll of adaptation and turns the failures of his characters--for all their overshadowing by the city's monumental expectations--into something new.

If "burying" characters is an exorcism of sentimentality, Vaginov nonetheless shows affection for them and seems to share some of their enthusiasms, even when they're being ridiculed. What is buried in his characters and his city are the perishable pretensions that pass into and out of existence in "calendar time." What survives is something neither physically monumental nor entirely cut off from everyday life. In this there is a parallel with Mandelshtam's notion of classicism--not as something to be preserved by collectors, but as something to rediscover--an epiphany, a momentary flash of recognition that ripples through time. Nor is rediscovered classicism to be confused with the counterfeit precision of a simulacrum. Mandelshtam refers to the felicity of recognition--a face groped through blindness, or the kind of memory that emerges through forgetfulness: "So then, the poet has yet to be. We are free from the burden of remembrances. But, on the other hand, there are so many uncommon presentiments: Pushkin, Ovid, Homer. When a lover in a silent tangle of tender names suddenly remembers that this has happened before--the words and the hair and cock that crowed outside the window had crowed back in Ovid's Tristia--he is overcome with a profound joy of repetition, a head-spinning joy." Like the musical resolution of harmonic polarities in sonata form, this repetition corresponds to Mandelshtam's idea of harmony in his essay "Pushkin and Scriabin." The harmony to be arrived at is not merely an instance of repetition, but the cross-section through time, which Mandelshtam called the "crystallization of eternity."

For Vaginov's characters there are comparable moments of recognition. Misha Kotikov will finally see beyond the shortcomings of Zaevphratsky's widow, Ekaterina Ivanovna, as a biographical source, and fall in love with her as a human being--whose childishness is something better, and even more ageless than her supposed stupidity in literary matters. And Vaginov appreciates her value as a source of characterization who understands the men in her life better than they understand her. Another recognition, and very reminiscent of the groping analogy in Mandelshtam, is when Marya Petrovna, on the verge of death, wants for one last time to feel the various objects in her apartment--ordinary objects to be grasped and let go of, as it were, the book's farewell to objects. Unlike the other collectors trying to live vicariously beyond their own life, Marya Petrovna is acting in connection with the ordinary life of her marriage. And the dying woman Teptyolkin holds in his arms no longer has the lightness he worshiped in the first chapter as a figment of immutability (all too predictably dressed in silk). What he feels instead is the unbearable heaviness of a human being recognized as mutability and loss. In his first, early morning walk as a widower, Teptyolkin realizes that he is indeed alone, notwithstanding the presence of an unsymbolic pigeon.

It is possible to read Goat Song as an outcome of political climate, but its wayward mix of the ideal and mundane go all the way back to the "Silver Age" of Spain, in the interplay of delusion and ridicule in Don Quixote. In the earlier book the conflict between the ideal and the commonplace is, in a way, resolved. When the aged protagonist (another laughable figure) finally gave up his identity of knight-errant, Vladimir Nabokov, in his lectures, saw a capitulation to the "moral utilities" of a dark time. But the renunciation can also be viewed as an act of self-sacrifice, a leap of logic based on the rules of chivalry, and no less heroic for loyalty to a beloved who is never seen face to face. The book-crazed old man also comes one final step closer to the author who knows that, up to this point, Don Quixote has been a hero only in his own mind, or merely the elusive composite of conflicting chronicles.

Like Cervantes, Vaginov plays games with multiple versions of characters and authors (note his warning in the prologues). But the game is very much like the reality made up of revised people in a renamed city described by a renamed author. His response to the revised and renamed government may have been, to some degree, accommodation, or it may have been a feat of encryption whose decoding could never yield a monument to a political figure or agenda. Unlike a more serviceable work of socialist realism, the juxtaposition of words in Goat Song is meant to engage in more juxtapositions with the world outside, allowing the book to reflect different aspects of the world in different ways at different times. In a comparable way, attentive listeners have debated what is encoded in Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony: the composer's professed "response" to Stalin's "just criticism," or the wordless allusion to the composer's setting of a poem by Pushkin from a time of exile under Nicholas I. Entitled "Rebirth," the poem describes the "alien colors" overlaid by the "lethargic brush" of a "barbarian-artist" falling off with the passage of years "like old scales" (again the metaphor the snake) and giving way to the work of genius underneath. "So vanish the waverings from my tormented soul," wrote Pushkin, in what can be transposed as the recanting of a heretic composer or the hidden signature of defiance later revealed in the minds of the listener. Perhaps it is no accident that the earliest precedent invoked for Goat Song by Vaginov himself is the dubious chronicle by Philostratus, Apollonius of Tyana. The book arose from an imperial commission in ancient Rome and probably served its rulers' purposes, but the book also took on a life of its own. And who could say whether Apollonius was a work of fiction made real in the minds of its readers, or a true story twisted into legend?

As much as it is a book of mourning and memory, Goat Song is a book of laughter and forgetting. The degeneration from the poetic to the prosaic is at the heart of the novel and its title. It is precisely because the characters are treated as part of everyday life, rather than as "radiant beings," that they deserve attention. This can be interpreted politically, but the Czech novelist Milan Kundera argues that is in the prosaic that the novel as an art form reveals its capacity for poetry. In his essay, Betrayed Testaments, Kundera defines this prose of life--the everyday, the concrete, the momentary, what Russians call byt--as the opposite of the mythical. In that very prose, he writes, "we touch upon the most profound conviction of every novelist: nothing is more disguised than the prose of life; every man tries perpetually to transform his life into myth, tries, so to speak, to transcribe it into verse, to cloak it with verse (with bad verse). If the novel is an art and not just a 'literary genre,' it is because the discovery of prose is its ontological mission which no other art can assume entirely."

If "bad verse" would be an unfair description of Vaginov's poetry, he is still being rediscovered mainly as a former unknown novelist. His autobiographical double in Goat Song, the unknown poet, was keenly aware of the difference between prose and poetry. He would have preferred a different book, one that would have cast its heroes as radiant beings. Instead, as Vaginov wrote, the poet gave birth to an author who "seduced his soul and turned it into laughter." If not with the laughter of Gogol or Juvenal, then something more like the blend of grief, sarcasm and dissimulation in the works of Shostakovich. For all its refusal to put the new political reality on a pedestal, Vaginov's novel is hardly a reversal of changes over time. What is restored is the freedom to move outside "calendar time," providing acoustical space where the genuine "music of revolution" and its recurring promise of change can reverberate. What is also restored is the ability to recreate a world in the imagination, the same ability which had been used on St. Petersburg by Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky and Blok.

Goat Song is, after all, a book of the living. In what is again St. Petersburg, starry nights still give way to white nights. Behind the repainted facades of apartment buildings, cats prowl dingy courtyards, and, for all the novelties of post-Soviet commerce, there are still whimsical figures on candy wrappers, even one showing a battleship with a treat known as Severnaya Avrora. Just as in Vaginov's and Pushkin's times, all kinds of people take to the streets for walking and conversation, and couples go on strolling through the Summer Garden, along the Neva and the canals. Some might even stray into the Smolensk Cemetery, where Vaginov's coffin lies somewhere amid the ruined memorials and unparsed vegetation. In this empire of forgetfulness, they can head for the chapel of Xenia the Blessed, light a candle and pray for happiness, while old believers feed mendicant orders of stray cats.


1 2 3