Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Fiery Angel by Valery Bruisov

Rupprecht has lived an adventurous life in early sixteenth century Germany, having been a university student, a landsknecht in the wars in Italy, and a trader in Spain’s colonies on the New World. His life is changed forever when, quite by chance, he meets a strange woman named Renata in an inn in Germany. She appears to be possessed by devils, but it transpires that she is haunted by the presence of an angel named Madiël, a presence that has been with her since childhood.

She desired nothing more than physical union with this angel, but because of her sexual lust for Madiël he abandoned her. She has been seeking him ever since, and believing him to be incarnated in the person of a handsome nobleman, Count Heinrich, she seduced him. Now he has abandoned her as well. She enlists the help of Rupprecht to find her beloved, and this begins a strange and obsessive relationship between Renata and Rupprecht. At times she seems to love Rupprecht, at other times she is repelled by him. At times she is overcome by lust and their relationship becomes passionately sexual, and then she is overcome by horror and disgust and will not let him touch her or even speak to her. Rupprecht’s suffering is intense, but he is unable to break free of her spell, and becomes involved in her plans to summon the aid of demons to find the true object of her love, the angel Madiël.

In the course of their occult experiments Rupprecht makes the acquaintance of other celebrated questers for occult knowledge, including Henry Cornelius Agrippa and Doctor Faustus. Rupprecht is prepared to sacrifice his immortal soul if only he can make Renata happy.

The Russian decadent poet and novelist Valery Bruisov published The Fiery Angel in 1909. It’s a novel of the occult, and an exceptionally good one. It’s also a story of obsessive and very unhealthy love, and a tale of religious, spiritual and sexual obsession. The extreme unhealthiness of the relationship between Renata and Rupprecht is its main claim to being a work of decadent fiction, and certainly it’s a relationship whose destructive qualities are on a truly epic scale. Whether Renata’s angel actually exists remains obscure. While it is possible that he is nothing more than the product of her own frenzied erotic longings, Bruisov is not entirely sceptical of the reality of the occult, so the true nature of Renata’s obsessions remains shrouded in mystery, which is of course as it should be.

Bruisov lovingly recreates the world of late medieval Europe, and in Renata and Rupprecht he has given us two of the most ill-starred lovers in all of fiction. Renata is both heroine and villainess, while Rupprecht’s own motives are also somewhat ambiguous. It’s a fascinating and memorable book, the product of a specifically Russian brand of decadence, and I recommend it very highly indeed.

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