We’re so pleased to welcome author Wayne Goodman today, on the tour for his novel Vanya Says, “Go!”. Wayne is sharing a favorite excerpt from the book and is also offering readers the chance at winning a print or e-copy of the book, so be sure to check out the Rafflecopter widget below for details.
In 1906, Mikhail Kuzmin published Wings, the first Russian-language book that spoke of same-sex relationships in a positive way. I have found it to be a window into a long-gone time and place. However, as written, it can be a difficult read due to the style, a plot that jumps around, and too many characters, some of whom appear only for one sentence.
At the time, it was met with distain from the literati, some called it pornography, even though there are no erotic sequences in the book. The other LGBTQ writers at the time became emboldened and began telling their own stories in the own countries. This is why I find Wings historically-significant and do not wish its spirit to be lost to time.
With Vanya Says, “Go!” I have retold the story from the point of view of the main character, a recently-orphaned boy sent to St. Petersburg to live with friends of the family. Wings ends rather abruptly, and I have written an additional section projecting where the story might have gone, attempting to remain true to Kuzmin’s style.
The excerpt below is from the opening of the book, and it introduces the reader to Vanya.
About the Book
In 1906, Mikhail Kuzmin published “Wings,” the first book in Russian to discuss same-sex relationships in a positive light. With “Vanya Says, ‘Go!,’” Wayne Goodman retells the story from the perspective of the young man at the heart of the tale. The original work contained only three sections, but a fourth has been added to round out the story and provide some closure.
Kuzmin was one of the most celebrated poets of his time, the Silver Age of Russian Poetry. While his poems were quite successful, his somewhat-autobiographical novel “Wings” met with skepticism and criticism. Kuzmin used many constructs from poetry (characters who appear all too briefly with no second mention, plot jumps with little connecting material, long-winded orations); however, his descriptions of scenery are exquisite, and the dialogue is quirky and colorful. “Vanya Says, ‘Go!'” is crafted for the modern reader while keeping much of the original Russian style. It is a window into a time and places long gone. The story is narrated by the main character, who at 16 years of age is dealing with being an orphan foisted off on friends of distant relatives and attempting to acquaint himself with his sexual orientation while also discovering various religious and philosophical frameworks.
“An exemplary study in classic Russian literary charm… with a choice cast of picaresque characters. Goodman draws the reader into the desperate historical moment of pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg, and artfully stages Vanya’s gay yearnings against its fast-moving currents.” — Edmund Zagorin
“The author accurately evokes a long-lost Russia through his marvelous characters and descriptions… the underlying commentary on the decaying social order, and the romance of that forgotten time period.” — Andrew Demcak
“Set in Old Russia… this is an interesting, fact-based story of an orphaned gay youth and his attempt to find himself, his own opinions, and love.” — Daniel Curzon
Watch Wayne Goodman read from Vanya Says “Go!” on Facebook
This?… This is St. Petersburg?
I remember thinking that the ﬁrst time I rode on a train into our great city. The festive imagination of a child, thinking he’d see gleaming palaces, hordes of people milling about some great square, a military band playing inspiring marches, the train pulling through a grand entrance arch to let the passengers know they had arrived in the capital city of the most glorious country on Earth.
That was in 1906, a lengthy ten years ago, and now we call our city Petrograd, a ﬁne Russian name. When this Great War started a few years back, the government decided to leave behind the more Germanic sounding parts, ‘Saint’ and ‘burg,’ in order to distinguish us from our enemies in the Central Powers.
I have penned these words in English because Stroop, my dear Stroop, insisted he was half English, and I learned your language at his request. The editor(s) will have the burden of correcting my unintended misusage.
Mother had passed away earlier that spring, and I sat next to my cousin, Nikolai Ivanovich Smurov (who made me call him “Uncle Nika” for some silly reason) on a splintered bench in the train car we had ridden all through the night. It was early May and muggy, even at that early hour. Dawn, bright, almost-poisonous, cracked the sky. Near us sat other passengers who had boarded at some of the towns we had passed through. Many wore tattered clothes from bygone eras and their general disinterest suggested that traveling by train was an everyday occurrence for them. For me, it was only my ﬁrst time in a rail car, and up until I saw those blasé people, my extraordinary experience made it seem like we were sitting on the most solid bench in the most important railcar in all of Russia.
The image of Nika’s silly grin while he slept, his grey dishevelled hair and matching grey trousers with the lilac pinstripes persisted in my mind. I barely knew the man, but he had been the one to approach me after the funeral to discuss my disposition. “Your mother left no money, and you know we have very little ourselves, otherwise Natasha and I would be happy to take you in, dear cousin.” He wiped at his brow the way a person who is chosen to deliver some bad news might. “As you are still studying in school, you will lodge with a family friend, Konstantin Vasilyevich Kazansky in St. Petersburg, and I shall visit you from time to time. Yes? He is a cab driver, I believe.” Nika halted again, seemingly in the hope that inspiration would strike as to how to deliver additional difﬁcult words. “It will be fun. You will meet many people who might be able to help you. Yes, the Kazansky home will be most fun indeed!” Nika then attempted a wooden smile to reassure me. “Although we have little money, I shall pay for your lodgings, and later on, if you get any inheritance at all, I shall deduct my expenses. Right?” As if a recently-orphaned teenaged boy could comprehend such business dealings. At that point, any mention of my mother brought me to the brink of tears. “And there will be other young people visiting all the time, and you will make plenty of friends, I am quite sure.”
I hardly knew him, and he hardly knew me. How he could predict such upbeat things with such downright conﬁdence amazed me. At home, I had only a few friends from school as it was. I looked at the blistered red paint on the wooden ﬂoor of the carriage thinking of the afternoon our little house ﬁlled with strange older women whom I did not remember meeting, but they all seemed to know me. They cackled and argued, fussed and fed. Their hugs and tears were meant as solace, but as these women were unfamiliar to me, it did little to stem the constant stream of tears within my own chest. My mother, the only person who seemed to care about me at all, had been taken away.
“Of course, Uncle Nika.” I nodded in compliance with no idea of what I had agreed to.
The sun had just risen, and bulky shadows covered the lifeless scenery near the train. We pulled into the station and walked onto the platform, where uniformed porters scrambled to assist the wealthier-looking passengers. None of them glanced at us. Nika hired a cab on the street and we rode to the home of the Kazanskys through the dimly-lit and unfamiliar streets of St. Petersburg.
About the Author
Wayne Goodman has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area most of his life (with too many cats). When not writing, he enjoys playing Gilded Age parlor music on the piano, with an emphasis on women, gay, and Black composers.