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Vaginov: An Afterword by Benjamin Sher
Highly regarded, both as a poet and as a novelist, by such Russian literary figures as Sologub, Kuzmin, Kaverin and Bakhtin, Konstantin Vaginov (1899-1934) of Leningrad has gradually emerged as a link between the glories of the Silver Age and the Russian avant-garde of today. The recent republication in Russia of his four novels (Moscow: 1989) attests to his influence on the present generation. His grotesque, surrealistic yet empathetic satire of the intelligentsia rings true in the turmoil and spiritual malaise of the new Russia. No wonder. There is a strong affinity between the philistinism and decadence of Vaginov’s characters, their aping of Western values (rationalism, secularism, individualism) and the similar aspirations of many of today’s intellectuals. Like Tsvetaeva, Mandelshtam, Bulgakov and Akhmatova, Vaginov was nearly forgotten, and his memory had been nearly obliterated for three generations. Like them, too, he is now being given posthumous recognition as one of the masters of modern Russian literature.
This may have been a premonition: Two years after the publication of The Tower (i.e. in 1930), the great Futurist poet Mayakovsky, an exponent of unbridled experi-mentation in life and art, blew his brains out. With this, the cultural exuberance that had flourished for a generation came to an end.
In one ironic respect, Vaginov was fortunate. While most of the writers and artists of the Stalinist period, which commenced in a big way with the first Five-Year Plan in 1928, were either silenced, exiled, imprisoned or executed, Vaginov died of tuberculosis. He was one of the few lucky enough to die a natural death.
Vaginov’s tragic satire of philistines and idealists is given shape and direction by his magic lantern. In distorting the mundane reality of the world around him, Vaginov triumphs over the mediocrity which he himself satirizes. In The Tower, he captures the magnificence of late autumn.