The vast worldwide audience of RADIOFREEUBU is not doubt weary of my constant touting of these great Dedalus books, but I can’t help it – they just keep blowing me away! My latest fantastic find is Valery Bruisov’s 1908 work The Fiery Angel. It’s a historical novel set in the sixteenth century, the putative confessions of Rupprecht, a drifter who has just returned to Germany, flush from his adventures in the New World. One night while staying at an inn he hears a commotion in the room next door and rushes in to find the fascinating Renata, who at that moment is writing on the floor, the victim of demonic possession. Rupprecht is in turn possessed by Renata, who draws him into her compulsive, occult search for her lost love Count Heinrich, who may or may not be the embodiment of Madiel, the angel who has been appearing to her since childhood.
Although I was enthralled with Fiery Angel from the start, it’s so unusual that it took me a while to see it for what it is – a Decadent novel that is both representative and atypical. The seeds of the flower of evil that was the historical aesthetic movement known as Decadence blew all over the world and developed different growths depending on prevailing conditions and the native soil. Russian literature has, from the beginning, been spiritual and very serious (even in its humor), cynical and satiric, but never ironic, and Bruisov, as the leader of Russian Decadence, brought a decidedly Russian flavor to his version of it. Fiery Angel displays many of the core elements of Decadence such as an enigmatic, doomed femme fatale who sadistically manipulates her willing victim and an preoccupation with Satanism and the occult, but it also has an energy and earnestness that’s the farthest thing from typical fin de siecle ennui. Flaubert’s Salammbo and Louys’s Aphrodite, the paradigmatic Decadent historicals, are set in a glittering pagan world and told in a fragmentary, impressionist manner, while Bruisov’s work takes place in the earthy Reformation, and his strange story unfolds with deliberate conventionality and concreteness.
And what a story – while the French strived for brief perfection and unity, Fiery Angel is impressive in it’s variety and completeness – it’s got (among other things) a witches’s Sabbath, a magical ceremony of invocation, Cornelius Agrippa, Dr. Faustus and Mephistophilis, and ends in a convent full of possessed nuns who are soon to be put to the rack. It’s a bravura performance, and the author’s sure hand and encyclopedic knowledge result in an extraordinary, one of a kind work.
Here’s a few passages that I particularly dug, mostly in the femme fatale line:
Everything in her face was irregular, but there was in it a charm, distilled, perhaps, by some magic means, or with the aid of some Cleopatrian mystery.
All the gayness, all the lack of ceremony with which we conversed in the beech forest, had now evaporated, leaving the bottoms of our souls dry. I felt myself gradually lapsing into a condition of dumb helplessness, and it seemed to me as if I could now neither utter a word or attempt a movement. Thus, probably, feel animals when they grow paralyzed beneath the staring eye of the rattlesnake.
I felt already that I lacked the strength to leave Renata, that I either had been charmed to her by some magic power, or borne naturally into gentle bondage by the Mother of Love – the Cyprian.
And I even found in this torturing nearness a special charm and sweetness, as if one were to enjoy the deep cuts of a deep blade insensibly dividing the flesh.
Mystic knowledge is called so not because it is being willfully concealed, but because it is of its nature hidden, in symbols. We have no peculiar truth, but we have emblems bequeathed to us as a heritage by antiquity, by that first people of the earth that lived in commerce with God and His angels. Those people knew not the shadows of matter, but matter itself, and thus the symbols they left behind exactly express the substance of being.
Renata did not utter another word, and lowered her eyelashes, while I stayed at her feet, motionless, resting my head against the window-ledge, my eyes raised to the figure sitting there, to the beloved, cherished, though irregular features, sinking every moment once more deeper and deeper into their charm, as if deeper and deeper into the depths of a bottomless whirlpool. I gazed on this woman, whom only yesterday I had caressed with all the imaginable busses of a contented lover, and to whose hand, today, I dared not even touch my reverent lips, and felt radiate from her whole being a witching power that locked all my desires within its spell.
Do not forget that man is created in the image and similitude of the Creator Himself, and therefore there are elements in him incomprehensible not only to demons, but to angels as well. Angels and demons can strive only for their own bliss, the first – to the glory of God, the second – to the glory of Evil, but a man can seek sorrow and suffering, and even death itself.