Book Review – Debauched Genius: The Loves of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Debauched Genius TchaikovskyReview of D.H. Gutzman’s Debauched Genius, The Loves of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Amazon, 2021) 322 pp. (paperback $15; Kindle version $9)

D.H. Gutzman’s novel, Debauched Genius: The Loves of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is a vodka-drenched romp through the life and mind of one of the world’s most renowned composers. Extensively researched, and closely adhering to the biographical facts insomuch as they are known, Debauched Genius resurrects Tchaikovsky as a restless but brilliant soul, constantly teetering between fear and love. It’s not a perfectly told story. Too often the characters seem to be speaking purely for the sake of edifying the reader listening in, making the dialogue occasionally feel maladroit. Likewise, its abrupt ending left me with a slightly unsated sensation and desirous of a more circumspect and sober denouement. All the same, in today’s day and age when human sexuality, especially as it pertains to great historical figures, is more than ever under the intense heat of the magnifying glass, Gutzman’s novel – at once sincere, tragic, and riotously funny – limns the complex entanglement of creativity and corporeality.

Overview

Inner Demons

Debauched Genius opens in 1870 on Tchaikovsky in the middle of intercourse with Eduard Zak, his then 18-year-old music student. Before Tchaikovsky can climax, Zak pulls himself out from under him and tells his tutor that he no longer wants a sexual relationship. Though apparently heterosexual, Zak loves Tchaikovsky and wishes to remain friends. Tchaikovsky loves him as well, but “Pyotr could no more quell his need to combine love with sex, than he could repress the excessive, overwrought passion in his composition” (Location 231 on Kindle). Zak, meanwhile, believed “The sex [was] killing [their] love,” and hoped to continue a Platonic relationship with Tchaikovsky without what he called the “sordidness” of intercourse. Despite Tchaikovsky’s pleading, Zak puts on his clothes and leaves the room. Chapter one ends with Tchaikovsky on the floor, clutching the score for his just completed Romeo and Juliet orchestral fantasy and shaking it at the door: “‘I wrote this for you …’ he screamed. ‘This is my love. This is my love and it is all for you!’ And it was.” (L 93)

The fact that Zak calls off the affair with Tchaikovsky in the midst of the sex act seems a deliberate authorial provocation to the reader who may by proxy experience his “unfulfilled need and the pain of his swollen arousal.” (L 70) This doesn’t justify Tchaikovsky’s behavior as Gutzman portrays it, which comes across as highly immature and petty, but it does show the authoritative strength of sexual desires, not so easily subdued. Moreover, by endeavoring to bring the reader into the erotics of the scene and make them complicit in desire, potentially judgmental readers whose sexualities and social conditions allow for easy and risk-free erotic release are perhaps reminded that ultimately we are all existing from one orgasm to the next, the only difference is how far the distance is between them. As in a tragic opera, this first chapter serves as an overture for the rest of the narrative.

Tchaikovsky’s vulnerability to absolute infatuation with handsome boys began young. In chapter seven, we see Tchaikovsky at 14 in the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in Saint Petersburg, where he experienced his first major crush on Sergey Kireyev, four years his junior. Tchaikovsky followed this boy all over school grounds, and Kireyev was well aware of the effect he had on his admirer. At one point in the novel, Kireyev and his friends are congregating around the staircase leading from the school down to the waters of the Neva river while Tchaikovsky watches him from nearby. To flaunt his power over the future composer in front of the other boys, Kireyev calls Tchaikovsky over and says, “Ptyor, moi droog, I feel like slapping you. May I please slap you really hard?” (L 467). Tchaikovsky gladly agrees. “The younger boy smiled sweetly and then struck his would-be friend as hard as he could in the face.” (L 467) Kireyev then tells Tchaikovsky that he might allow him to write a song about him and sing it for him, but only if Tchaikovsky lowers his trousers and exposes his member to the group. Again Tchaikovsky agrees, and “somehow the humiliation fed his love.” (L 479)

Another romance of Tchaikovsky – in a way the reverse of his affair with Zak – is with the precocious young Count Vladimir Shilovsky. Shilovsky was one of Tchaikovsky’s aristocratic students who supported Tchaikovsky financially in his early career. Unlike Zak, Shilovsky is homosexual and Tchaikovsky’s desire for him is fully reciprocated. Though, in chapter six, after Zak has left, Tchaikovsky becomes too distraught to show the same enthusiasm for the count, and Shilovsky departs feeling betrayed.

Later, in chapter 11, at a party celebrating Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, a drunk and brazen Shilovsky walks into Tchaikovsky’s bedroom and finds a timid Joseph Kotek – shy and adolescent, though already a skilled violinist – sitting alone. Shilovsky instantly assumes (and he isn’t wrong) that he has found his replacement and decides to have some fun at the boy’s expense. Pretending to read his palm he tells Kotek, “Knowing Pyotr Ilyich, I know you …. You come from money, right? And you’re a musician with enormous potential …. And you’re beautiful. Perfect.” (L 799). Then he says:

Now I will tell you about him. He is not what he seems. You will have to play nurse as well as lover. Nurse and mother, too. He has hallucinations. When he calls you ‘Mamma’ and crawls into your arms, you mustn’t show surprise. Sing him a lullaby. (L 799)

Soon, the composer’s brother, Modest Tchaikovsky, comes in to rescue Kotek. After Modest and Shilovsky bicker for a bit, Modest gives Kotek some advice of his own. In response to Kotek clarifying to Modest that he is not a homosexual, Modest replies:

It doesn’t matter what you are not. You’ll fall in love with him and not know why. It’s because he’s a genius and a child. As a child, every sensation overwhelms him, from the first snowfall to the last wildflower. Every moment in his life, every event, is intense. Sex is not a game to him, as it is with Shilovsky or an adventure, as it is with me. To Pyotr, sex is an attempt to cling to some kind of internal safety, some security … to fill an emptiness in him. He never seeks to corrupt youth as gossips accuse. He seeks to commune with it, to ward off not only the fear of death, but the terrible sadness of being alive. (L 848)

For obvious reasons, this advice doesn’t make Kotek feel very comfortable either. At the door, ready to leave, Kotek tells them that the reason he’s at the party is to hear Tchaikovsky’s music, which he loves. Then he confesses tearfully, “I only wish he would write something with more joy in it.” (L 886) Shilovsky responds:

Oh, my dear, sweet, innocent malchick, Joseph Kotek … don’t you realize there is no such thing as joy in Russian music, anywhere? There is longing, desire, regret, conquest, defeat, despair, devotion, guilt, and sex, but no joy. There is a kind of frantic hysterical abandonment that some mistake for happiness, but no joy. A wistful hope perhaps, but no joy. If you think you sense joy, you are either mistaken or not Russian. (L 886)

The specter of the public

Kotek does in fact fall in love with Tchaikovsky and they remain together for several years, though their relationship falls apart in chapter 26, when Tchaikovsky decides to remove the dedication he wrote for Kotek on his Violin Concerto in D Major. He wrote this concerto “for and with Joseph Kotek,” and though it was a very difficult piece for the violin, he knew that Joseph’s talent was up to the task. (L 2147) However, Tchaikovsky had a constant fear of social condemnation and was worried what a dedication to Kotek would imply, as rumors were already circulating. This deeply hurt Kotek, and after hearing Tchaikovsky’s explanation he said to him, “So you erase me from your work? Your work is your soul. This work is our love … you can hear it in every note. It was written for my fingers, for my talent, for my feelings. No one else could play it the same” (L 2196). Joseph left, and once again Tchaikovsky was in despair.

The fear of ridicule comes up at many points in the novel, for instance in chapter eight during a partially public argument between Tchaikovsky and Shilovsky. The composer is visibly worried that his lover will make a scene out of spite, and Gutzman writes, “What Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky feared more than anything in the world was not Truth, but public humiliation. Public rejection.” (L 614) Tchaikovsky is never shown in the novel to crave fame, though beset as he is by severe social anxiety, the specters of gossip, rumor, scorn, and mockery are his omnipresent, faceless antagonists throughout the text. In chapter one, Gutzman takes the idea of sexual gratification – often written off as a shallow and unnecessary luxury, especially for sexual minorities – and reconceptualizes it as a critical element of, if not contentment, then profound relief. Here, Gutzman does the same thing with public acceptance, another concept which has a special significance for sexual minorities. Tchaikovsky’s obsession with what the newspapers of the world will write of him in lieu of concern for whether or not his actions are morally appropriate at first glance seems to discredit Tchaikovsky’s character and indicate that he would ultimately eschew care for others if the Ring of Gyges was within reach.

However, it’s clear that Tchaikovsky’s fear of derision is much deeper than arrogance, vanity, or a need for veneration. Instead, the text explores the trial of understanding oneself in a heavily appearance-based society. Being a man of such passion and sensitivity in a world where from a very young age one is under intense expectations to act “respectable,” Tchaikovsky struggles to distinguish between his public image and his own individual nature. Near the end, in chapter 42, Tchaikovsky is being dressed before a performance by Modest, “Bob” (his nephew and lover), and Alyosha (his servant and occasional lover). Suffering from crippling stage-fright as he typically did, Tchaikovsky is not up to the task of doing it himself, instead rambling on about his many anxieties. As they attach his cuff studs, he says, “Whenever I read about a horrible criminal, a murderer or a rapist about to be executed, I try to find a picture of his face. I study it, looking for some sign of his evil. And no matter how heinous the crime, I find myself feeling sorry for him. For the criminal. How did it all come about?” (L 3787)

This theme is taken further by two story arcs that take place after the main events of the novel. One is set in 1895 and involves Modest, Bob, and other close associates of Tchaikovsky going through his diaries and letters in order to hide all references to his sexuality. The second takes place in 2014 at the Tchaikovsky museum at Klin, where a government official is seeking to verify that nothing incriminating about Tchaikovsky’s life is available to the general public in preparation for the upcoming Winter Olympics. These time jumps awaken the reader to the way history negotiates itself with posterity, and inspects how much gets lost when authenticity is forced into an ill-fitting but socially acceptable narrative.

For instance, in Chapter three, set in 1895, Modest and Bob are in a room surrounded by boxes of documents preparing for the task of censoring and altering their brother and uncle’s personal papers. Modest says to Bob, “We’re going to destroy the man we know and love and create the one that history will revere.” (L 252) However, neither are happy about this project, especially Bob, who pulls out Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 6,” and says to Modest, “What about this? It’s dedicated to me. His last symphony. I won’t let you change that.” (L 275) Modest says, “It’s all right. It may remain as he wrote it. A dedication to a nephew is not something out of line or suspect. You are allowed to be ‘beloved nephew,’ but nothing more.” (L 275).

Engagement with women

Two female characters get extended presentations in Debauched Genius. The first of these is Tchaikovsky’s correspondent and patroness Nadezhda von Meck, the manageress of a railway network which she inherited from her late husband. She is depicted as an astute and socially intuitive woman, if somewhat eccentric. She is enraptured by Tchaikovsky’s music and supports him financially, though under the condition that they never meet face-to-face, fearing that a conversation in the same room would make their friendship stuffy and lifeless. Von Meck becomes one of Tchaikovsky’s closest confidants, and they exchange numerous letters throughout the novel.

The second major female character, by contrast, is less concerned with personal boundaries than the first. Antonia Milyukova first sees Tchaikovsky in chapter 21 at a performance and immediately falls in love, writing to him repeatedly for a chance to speak in person. Tchaikovsky politely declines, but as she insists, he struggles to figure out “How to level with her without leveling with her? How to be honestly dishonest.” (L 1762) Eventually, he agrees to meet, thinking that perhaps she would be able to pick up on subtext and consent to being his “beard.” He tells her that he has “certain shortcomings in the department of intimacy,” and says also that he has “gentlemen friends and business partners who, out of habit, required a great deal of personal attention.” (L 1762, L 1817) He assumes, foolishly it turns out, that she understood he was homosexual, though “It was only later at the church, being prodded to repeat the vows, “that Pyotr suddenly understood that in fact, she understood nothing.” (L 1909) Tchaikovsky stumbles backward under the pressure of this realization, and Joseph Kotek has to whisper in his ear, “Kiss the bride.” (L 1909)

On their honeymoon, Tchaikovsky arranges that they would sleep in separate bedrooms, which Milyukova agrees to, but eventually she enters into Tchaikovsky’s room in seductive clothing and responds to his protestations by saying, “Don’t you think it’s time to dispense with your shortcomings?” obviously not understanding the intended connotation of that word. (L 1936) The scene of the great composer undergoing a nervous breakdown while trying to repeal a woman who is oblivious to nuance, and who thinks she can redress Tchaikovsky’s “shortcomings” with enough effort Gutzman illustrates in all its painful awkwardness without missing its comedic farcicality.

Observations

The question of age

One aspect of the novel that I struggled to understand was how Gutzman navigates the question of the ages of the young men Tchaikovsky fell for erotically and romantically? With the age gap lately the most contested fault line in contemporary Western sexual regulation and discourse, does Gutzman draw attention to Tchaikovsky as a lover of youths, or does he assimilate the evidence of the composer’s same-sex attractions into the established contemporary LGBTQ identity?

Prima facie, Gutzman plumps for the latter. For instance, at novel’s end, in his acknowledgments, Gutzman chastises many biographers of Tchaikovsky who dismiss his sexual orientation as inconsequential, writing that, on the contrary, it was a fundamental part of his life and an inspiration at every turn to his music. Being gay himself, the author says, he better understands the role that homosexuality plays in driving a creator’s artwork. Furthermore, in the present-day sections of the novel, when the museum curator Sasha (who is gay) is contemplating the current situation of homosexuals compared to the late 19th century, he thinks, “While much of the rest of the world was accepting gay marriage, Russia was still imprisoning homosexuals. And in America, certain gay youths were still being disowned by backward parents.” (L 3235) Later, Sasha laments over how much of Russia was “brainwashed to believe that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was one-hundred percent heterosexual.” (L 3248) Here it seems that the line between these 21st century “gay youths” and “imprisoned homosexuals” and the sexuality of Pyotr Tchaikovsky is clear and obvious.

However, there are ample instances in the novel where Tchaikovsky’s interest in males only within a certain age range is overtly specified. For starters, the word “boy” is used 250 times in the novel. More specifically, when Eduard Zak tells Tchaikovsky that he can’t help being attracted to women any more than Tchaikovsky can help being attracted to men, Tchaikovsky replies, “Boys. I am attracted to boys.” (L 107) When Shilovsky asks Tchaikovsky what more he can do to get him to stay with him, “Pyotr squeezed his eyes shut and sadly said, ‘Be fifteen again!’” (L 449) Near the end, in chapter 42, Tchaikovsky is listening while some men bring up his past sexual encounters with boys and young men (I won’t spoil the exact circumstances). When he protests that these affairs were consensual, one man retorts, “My God, man, we are speaking of sodomy. You used our children to sin against God!” (L 3748). Finally, when Modest and Bob are going through Tchaikovsky’s papers in 1895, Modest says, “We have to change every compromising ‘he’ to a ‘she.’ We need to obfuscate ages as well as sexes.” (L 263)

Dozens of examples like these can be found throughout the book, giving evidence to the fact that, though homosexuality per se is the pivotal matter of apprehension, Gutzman also saw Tchaikovsky’s pederasty as its principal manifestation. Nor does Gutzman depict Tchaikovsky’s sexuality as ethically problematic, ipso facto that is. The novel does show Tchaikovsky as frequently petty and lacking in self-awareness, for example in the opening chapter when Tchaikovsky is pleading with a sexually uninterested Zak to come back to bed with him. Similarly, his relationship with Shilovsky is clearly tumultuous and causes great distress to both partners. However, the tragic elements in Debauched Genius, considerable though they are, are equally divided among the individual, social, and cosmic spheres; the myth of the conniving sex predator cannot be found.

Historical accuracy

Debauched Genius is closely rooted to the historical sources from which it sprung. As Gutzman writes in the acknowledgements, “I have made every effort to stay true to Tchaikovsky and his life, and in this way, hopefully, I have through illusion, approached some new truths about the man and his work.” (L 3945) Aside from altering some time frames and, of course, inventing many private scenes, dialogue, and descriptions, most of the major (and even many minor) events of Tchaikovsky’s life are represented and Gutzman makes good use of the myriad of available documents to reconstruct this unique slice of time. Here are some examples of how the text remains faithful to history – and where it diverges for structural and dramatic purposes.

As the subtitle of Debauched Genius, The Loves of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky would suggest, this novel is heavily concerned with Tchaikovsky’s romantic and sexual partners, so let’s start with how much of the text follows what history tells us about these individuals. The historical Eduard Zak, was born in 1854 and was in Tchaikovsky’s composition class in 1868 in the Moscow Conservatory. Apparently they both became very close, and their relationship may have even been sexual. Between 1871 and 1872, Zak worked for the railways in Ukraine and was employed by Tchaikovsky’s older brother Nikolay. In a letter, Tchaikovsky implored his brother to allow Zak to rest with him in Moscow, clearly desperate to see him again and worried what too much labor would do to his “intellectual refinement.” Zak arrived in Moscow in 1873 and their relationship apparently evolved into a “passionate affair,” though later that year for unclear reasons he committed suicide. (http://en.tchaikovsky-research.net/pages/Tchaikovsky:_A_Life)

We know little of the extent of this affair, or why Zak killed himself, but Gutzman portrays Zak as a troubled young man who was anxious about his relationship with the composer. This anxiety is closely linked to the cause of his suicide and Tchaikovsky becomes grieved by the role he believed he played in it. Outside of the novel, we do know that Tchaikovsky was incredibly distraught by this loss. Fourteen years after Zak’s death, Tchaikovsky wrote this in his diary:

Again thought of and recalled Sack [Zak]. How amazingly clearly I remember him: the sound of his voice, his movements, but especially the extraordinarily wonderful expression on his face at times. I cannot conceive that he should now be no more. His death, that is, complete nonexistence, is beyond my comprehension. It seems to me that I have never loved anyone so strongly as him. My God! no matter what they told me then and how I try to console myself, my guilt before him is terrible! And at the same time I loved him, that is, not loved, but love him still, and his memory is sacred to me! (ibid.)

The cause of Tchaikovsky’s remorse is not known either, but there’s no reason to suspect it was anything beyond survivor’s guilt. T. he novel also portrays Eduard Zak as a major influence on Tchaikovsky’s overture Romeo and Juliet, which he completed in 1869 when Zak was 15, and scholars have suggested Tchaikovsky associated the themes of Shakespeare’s play with his feelings towards Eduard. (http://en.tchaikovsky-research.net/pages/Eduard_Sack)

Sergey Kireyev, Tchaikovsky’s first crush, was also true to life, though their respective ages were 12 and 16 when they first met, instead of ten and 14. Modest, in his autobiography, compares Tchaikovsky’s love for Kireyev to the “chivalric service of ‘a fair Lady.’” (http://en.tchaikovsky-research.net/pages/Sergey_Kireyev) Kireyev was not quite the tyrant that Gutzman makes him out to be, though he did actually strike him in front of his friends (without his permission, however) to prove Tchaikovsky would put up with anything from him, which he did. (ibid.) They met again in 1867 when Kireyev was 22, and Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Anatoly, “How sweet he is, though not so handsome as formerly.”

Tchaikovsky first met the historical Shilovsky in 1866 when the latter was 14. Shilovsky was the son of the Moscow theater director Vladimir Begichev, and, though young, was already writing compositions for performance. As in the novel, the historical Shilovsky was much more brash about his homosexuality than Tchaikovsky and seemed to have even initiated the courtship. In the next couple of years, the two of them did much traveling together with Shilovsky paying Tchaikovsky’s expenses. As also depicted in the novel, Shilovsky had a reckless streak which put a strain on their relationship in its later years.

Gutzman takes bigger liberties with Tchaikovsky’s relationship with Joseph Kotek. In Debauched Genius, Tchaikovsky is first acquainted with Kotek in 1873, and their romantic relationship lasts between 1875 and 1878. According to Tchaikovsky’s letters, though, Tchaikovsky and Kotek first began a romantic affair in 1877 when Kotek was 21 and Tchaikovsky was 37, though Tchaikovsky had known him for six years. That same year, however, Tchaikovsky’s feelings towards Kotek had cooled, one of the reasons being (as he explained in a letter to Modest) Kotek’s recently injured finger, which Tchaikovsky found distasteful to look at. (http://en.tchaikovsky-research.net/pages/Iosif_Kotek) Their friendship continued for the next couple of years, though numerous incidents caused strain on both sides (Kotek refused to perform Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto” fearing its poor reception and Tchaikovsky was put off by Kotek’s frequent womanizing).

The last of Tchaikovsky’s romantic relationships I’ll consider is with his wife, Antonina Milyukova. Gutzman characterizes their marriage as utterly disastrous, and it most certainly was, though the historical Milyukova was not entirely the tone-deaf harpy she is made out to be, nor was Tchaikovsky so incapable of addressing her concerns after their separation. Sources tell us that Milyukova met Tchaikovsky through a mutual friend in 1872 and since then, as she later wrote, had loved him secretly for four years. In 1877 she confessed her love for him in a letter. They married that year.

Still in that same year, Tchaikovsky felt unable to endure her presence and left her for good. This seems to be the moment when Tchaikovsky gave up the idea of living a “normal life,” writing to Anatoly, “Only now, especially after the tale of my marriage, have I finally begun to understand that there is nothing more fruitless than not wanting to be that which I am by nature.” Milyukova, however, was not willing to grant a divorce, much to Tchaikovsky’s chagrin. Tchaikovsky gave her a monthly alimony and they communicated via a third party. Eventually, they both seemed able to forgive each other, though they never spoke again. After Tchaikovsky’s death, her mental health deteriorated and she spent her last ten years in a psychiatric hospital. (https://en.tchaikovsky-research.net/pages/Antonina_Tchaikovskaya)

Apart from Tchaikovsky’s relationships, Debauched Genius goes into great detail regarding many other aspects of the composer’s life, staying consistently close to the historical record. Though, of course, not even the historians know everything. Particularly, there is much debate over what occurred in the week or so before Tchaikovsky’s death. Gutzman chooses the more dramatic conjecture, though the historicity of this position is disputed. (http://en.tchaikovsky-research.net/pages/Tchaikovsky:_A_Life) Another debate about Tchaikovsky’s life is how much his sexuality impacted his art and sense of self. Gutzman depicts Tchaikovsky as deeply tormented and conflicted, as do many other historians, though some, such as the scholar Alexander Poznansky, believe Tchaikovsky’s anxiety on this score is often overemphasized and that Tchaikovsky did not necessarily view his attractions with much shame and doubt. (ibid.)

General critiques

This novel did have some minor flaws. Namely, the dialogue can occasionally feel inauthentic. For example, in chapter three, when Modest and Bob are in Tchaikovsky’s archives, Modest explains the task before them. Bob responds, “Do you really mean we have to edit, censor, and destroy much of what is in this room?” (L 263). Clearly, the reader infers, Bob understands perfectly well that that is what they need to do. Clunky expositional dialogue such as this sometimes made me feel the characters were speaking over-deliberately, for the benefit of an unseen audience. As well, the ending felt rushed: The climax occurs only two chapters before the last, and the final few pages don’t seem to pay homage to the emotional tension building up throughout the novel. Not that I felt short-changed on closure; all of the major plot elements were covered, but the acute dramatic pressure the novel raised till then seems to be largely frittered away before the book’s close.

Verdict

Debauched Genius is a solid read. Given that the novel’s plot does not stray too far from the life of Tchaikovsky, it’s easy to follow what is going on, despite its time jumps and considerable roster of characters. Seeing Tchaikovsky ramble on about his paranoias, such as his fear that his head will fall off while conducting as his servant and family members struggle to dress him, or watching him fruitlessly try to hide from his wife by climbing into a wardrobe provides no shortage of comedy, and the depth of devotion he feels for his lovers and friends is always poignant and moving. How closely the narrative sticks to the actual facts of Tchaikovsky’s life is impressive as well, and Gutzman does a remarkable job sorting through and distilling these countless historical details into rich, pure literature. All in all, Debauched Genius is a notable contribution to the new, 21st-century tradition of resexualizing the past.

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