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Александр Сергеевич Пушкин

Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin


London Review of Books


Vol. 25 No. 4 dated 20 February 2003 |

The rake's progress

A lecher, heavy gambler and committed seducer with a terror of being cuckolded, Pushkin's life and death bore more than a passing resemblance to the fictions he created in Eugene Onegin, writes James Wood in this latest essay from the LRB

Thursday February 20, 2003

Pushkin: A Biography by TJ Binyon HarperCollins, 731 pp., £30, September 2002,

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It is in some ways unfortunate that Tchaikovsky set Eugene Onegin to music, not Rossini, the composer of deep shallows. Pushkin, according to TJ Binyon's remarkable biography, became 'addicted' to Rossini while living in Odessa, where an Italian opera company was visiting, and though Binyon makes nothing of it, it rather blares at us, as writers' tastes in music so often do (Joyce's love of Puccini, for instance, or Auden's dislike of Brahms).

Tchaikovsky, that great melancholy confectioner, has hardly any temperamental affinity with Pushkin's novel in verse. Eugene Onegin's sparkling 14-line stanzas - little private carriages of plush - simultaneously open art and seal it.

On the one hand, they admit with hospitable precision an enormous amount of the prosaic (if not exactly the ordinary) world: 'Strasbourg pies', and beaver collars, and several of Pushkin's old schoolfriends, and the marks that Onegin makes in the margins of his books, and Veuve Clicquot, and English pantaloons. Sylvia Plath once longed to write a poem that might be roomy enough to include a toothbrush. But Pushkin anticipated her: his marvellous picture of Onegin's dandyish bedroom sees brushes 'of thirty kinds -/ these for the nails, those for the teeth'.

Everyone who reads Eugene Onegin delights in the novelistic density of its life, and immediately understands how carefully Tolstoy must have studied it. There is Onegin's Vronsky-like existence in St Petersburg: how he comes late to the Bolshoi Theatre and treads on the toes of those already seated; how his minimal Latin allows him to add 'vale' to a letter and remember two (precisely two) verses of the Aeneid.

And there is his dusty existence on his country estate, where the unopened cupboards contain fruit liqueurs, 'a book of household calculations', 'the calendar for 1808', and where the billiard table is equipped with a 'blunt cue'.

On the other hand, Pushkin once wrote that 'poetry is a fiction and has nothing in common with the prose of real life,' and the paradox of Eugene Onegin is that it is self-confessedly a poem simultaneously of real life and of pure fiction. These stanzas that select so much of the real constantly remind us of the fictive status of those selections - fictive because they have been so carefully selected, so artistically compiled.

Pushkin frequently observes that Onegin and Tatiana are his poetic creations; in the first chapter he enters the poem as a character and recalls evenings spent loitering with Onegin by the banks of the Neva. In Chapter 5, he interrupts a description of winter to point out that two other poets have written much better about winter than he can.

He digresses at will - about the state of Russian roads, about Tatiana's dreadful grasp of the Russian language, about the English word 'vulgar', about how much he loves women's small feet - and then digresses on his digressions: when he comes to write up a country ball, he says that he meant, earlier in the poem, to describe a proper Petersburg ball but got distracted by 'the recollection/ of certain ladies' tiny feet', and promptly chides himself for such digressions.

This high-spirited self-referentiality, so different in tone from the programmatic self-exposés of Postmodernism, performs nevertheless a somewhat similar, alienating function: it is always telling us 'this is a poem,' rather as Rossini often tells us 'this is an opera.' Tchaikovsky would make heavy weather of these feathery cirruses.

If Eugene Onegin begs for Rossini's treatment, then Pushkin's life seems to have resembled a libretto by Stendhal with music by Mozart. The extraordinary wealth of Binyon's research - his biography represents a true lifework, a long simmering of scholarship - only confirms the sense one already had of Pushkin's maniacal libidinousness, his swaggering fondness for duels, his feverish bursts of creativity and his ambivalent love of high society.

Just as his most famous poem is both sincere and arch - or both passionate and ironical - Pushkin himself was both a Romantic and an Enlightenment classicist, born at the very end of the 18th century (1799), and, like Karl Kraus's definition of the historian, something of a prophet facing backwards. Romanticism, properly seen, was 'the absence of all Rules but not the absence of art'. Hence Shakespeare, 'our Father', was a Romantic.

Pushkin certainly came under the sway of Byron, but by the time he was at work on the later chapters of Eugene Onegin, he was having second thoughts. Though by the end of his life he had enough English to read some Wordsworth and Coleridge, his intellectual formation was most indebted either to 18th-century novelists (Sterne, especially, whom he read in French), or classical poets (especially Horace).

Pushkin's intellectual background was traditional; both his parents spoke excellent French, and all his early reading was in that language. His social background was much less traditional. His mother, known in Petersburg as 'the beautiful Creole', was the granddaughter of a black slave, traditionally thought to have been a captured Ethiopian, though Binyon, with customary care, thinks Cameroon the likelier origin. He was a gift for Peter the Great, and rose from servitude to become a general in the Army, responsible by the end of his career for all military engineering in Russia.

Pushkin's father belonged to a family that had distinguished itself in public affairs in the late 16th century, though it had apparently been in gentle hibernation for most of the 18th. He was weak, not very interested in his children, and neglected his finances; perhaps Pushkin was thinking of him when he wrote that Onegin had read his Adam Smith - unlike his father, who 'could not understand him,/and mortgaged his lands'.

Pushkin's father was dilettantish and literary; Pushkin's uncle, Vasily, was an established though mediocre poet, most remarkable, it seems, for his last words, recorded by his cheerful, slightly sardonic nephew in 1830: 'coming to, he recognised me, was melancholy and silent for a little while, then: how boring Katenin's articles are! and not another word. What about that? That's what it means to die an honourable warrior, on your shield, your war-cry on your lips!'

It was Uncle Vasily who took the little Pushkin, in 1811, to his admission interview at the new lycée at Tsarskoe Selo, fifteen miles south of Petersburg, where the boy would make several enduring friendships, and where he wrote 29 poems, five of them published in the newspaper the Herald of Europe.

He was also writing much less lofty verse, however. At school, the milieu he joined was lecherous, aristocratic, boyish, jokey and clever. Pushkin was nicknamed 'the Frenchman' because of his knowledge of French literature, but Binyon speculates that the name might also have honoured his scatological tongue. Binyon helpfully reproduces several of Pushkin's salacious ditties, such as 'You and I', which contrasts the poet with the Tsar, and gets in a dig at Dmitri Khvostov, a talentless and prolific poet:

Your plump posterior you
Cleanse with calico;
I do not pamper
My sinful hole in this childish manner
But with one of Khvostov's harsh odes,
Wipe it though I wince.

In the early 1820s, in Kishinev, he fell in love with an innkeeper's daughter, and wrote her a naughty poem, 'Christ is Risen', in which he promised, today, to kiss her like a Christian, but tomorrow, if requested, to convert to Judaism just for another kiss, and even to put into her hand 'That by which one can distinguish/A genuine Hebrew from the Orthodox'.

Some of Pushkin's light verse, especially the poems aimed, Lovelace-like, at women he had fallen for, is unpleasantly crude. Later, there would be people, like the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, who found Pushkin's ribaldry coarse. Everyone agreed that he was conventionally ugly. He was short, just under 5'6", with black curly hair, a broad nose and blue eyes, 'the ugly descendant of Negroes', as he described himself. Some women found his arrogance and the blatancy of his sexual need offensive, though many succumbed, and the woman he eventually married was famously beautiful.

He was the kind of man who, when he started writing Eugene Onegin in earnest, would write to a friend: 'Fuck fame, it's money I need.' He became a heavy gambler, fond of faro (Casanova's favourite game, too, Binyon murmurs), and several times was forced to hand over manuscripts of his poems in payment of his debts; at least two chapters of Eugene Onegin were sacrificed in this way.

There must have been many Petersburg Salieris, envious of the apparently uncouth effervescence of his performance and the quick genius of his creativity, its speedy sublime. (He would write a one-act play, one of his best works, about Mozart and Salieri, in which Salieri, maddened by Mozart's genius and 'idle wantonness', poisons him. One of the four so-called Little Tragedies, it is too brief to have been often staged, and is difficult to find in English. Besides, it has been splashily obscured by Peter Shaffer's Amadeus.)

Binyon's biography has the populousness of Tolstoy. An astonishing number of major and minor characters are introduced - and thickly introduced, with a paragraph or two of data - and kept in patient sight over hundreds of pages. Even very minor figures, who appear only once, get a packed footnote. A French chef called Tardif, for instance, cooks a meal for Pushkin when he is down in the Caucasus. A footnote reads: 'Formerly proprietor of the Hôtel de l'Europe, a luxurious establishment situated at the bottom of the Nevsky Prospect, he took to drink, got into financial difficulty and was ruined when his wife absconded with his cash-box and a colonel of cuirassiers. He fled to Odessa and, after various vicissitudes, ended up in Kishinev.'

Binyon thus honours Pushkin's gossipy style; Pushkin's own published notes at the end of Eugene Onegin contain such gems as: 'A periodical that used to be conducted by the late A. Izmailov rather negligently. He once apologised in print to the public, saying that during the holidays he had "caroused".'

Indeed, Binyon's book, which is full of narrative and almost empty of detailed literary analysis, seems to want to get as close as possible to the world, the insouciant style, even the bright prose of Pushkin. Binyon furnishes his prose with little gleaming antiquities: he uses the old English word 'rout' (for 'dance'; Pushkin used it, too), 'sensible' in the Austenesque way ('to be sensible of something'); refers to Pushkin being in 'a brown study' and suffering from 'the ague'; and mentions that Pushkin and his boisterous mates one night 'kicked up a terrible bobbery'. This is a big book, but it has a rakish, propulsive air, not unlike Pushkin's glittering short novels and stories, such as The Captain's Daughter and 'The Queen of Spades'.

Binyon's style of storytelling also honours the small, tight-knit, highly social nature of the Russian elite in Pushkin's day. Pushkin corresponded with several of his lycée chums until the end of his life. When the Decembrists made their failed coup attempt in 1825, he knew 11 of the ringleaders, and feared that he would be rounded up, guilty by association.

Binyon offers detailed biographies of many of Pushkin's original lycée class, and one can read his book like a novel, watching characters enter, leave and re-enter Pushkin's life. There is Wilhelm Küchelbecker, for instance, whom Pushkin met at the lycée. In 1818, Pushkin quarrelled and fought an abortive duel with him. Küchelbecker's second, Baron Delvig, was also an old lycée boy. There is a reference to him in Eugene Onegin: Lensky, reciting his verse, is said to sound 'like Delvig when he's dining drunk'. With Stendhalian swagger, Pushkin faced Küchelbecker, and shouted at Delvig: 'Delvig! Stand where I am, it's safer here.' Küchelbecker fired and missed, while Pushkin simply refused to shoot. They were easily reconciled.

Küchelbecker next makes a major appearance in Binyon's narrative in 1825. He was one of the Decembrists. Binyon, with characteristic control of irony and narrative information, remarks that Küchelbecker 'would have been better advised, in view of future events, to have taken the post of professor of Russian and Slavonic languages at Edinburgh which he had been offered that spring'. We later learn that when the coup failed, Küchelbecker fled to Warsaw, where he was arrested, and then sentenced by Tsar Nicholas to twenty years' hard labour.

Two years later, in 1827, Pushkin was travelling, resting at an inn. A military convoy arrived, and Pushkin saw a convict in shackles leaning against a post. It was Küchelbecker. They embraced before Küchelbecker was led off. He had been in solitary confinement since 1825, and was being transferred to a fortress at Dünaburg (now in Latvia), where he would remain in solitary confinement until 1835, after which he would be sent to Siberia.

One reason Pushkin was so nervous when the 1825 coup failed was that he had already had his own brush with the law. In 1820, Tsar Alexander had had his attention drawn to various radical poems by Pushkin, and decided that the country would be easier to manage without the troublesome propinquity of this poet, however brilliant. (Pushkin already had a considerable reputation.) He was exiled to Ekaterinoslav in southern Russia. He would spend six years away from Petersburg.

Pushkin was bored in this military outpost. Forced to create his own amusements, he turned up to dinner at the civil governor's house wearing transparent muslin trousers and no underwear. Ladies had to be rushed from the drawing-room.

From Ekaterinoslav he travelled to Kishinev, the Bessarabian capital, not far from the Russian-Turkish border (where he wrote the little poem to the innkeeper's daughter and ate Tardif's food). In Kishinev he wandered around his rooms naked, wore baggy Turkish pantaloons, and developed his habit of writing in bed, a notebook propped on his knees. More important, he began Eugene Onegin.

He started the poem in May 1823, and wrote it intermittently until September 1830. It was begun in relative juvenility and finished just as the poet was marrying. As late as 1835, Pushkin considered adding to it; years earlier he had apparently planned a chapter in which Onegin travelled to Odessa, and perhaps joined the Decembrists. (A few verses of this fragment exist.) Instead, he closed his poem after eight chapters, consigning his hero and heroine to the gilded cage of 1820s Petersburg and Moscow.

Like Stendhal's characters, the people in Eugene Onegin must fight literature in order to live. As all readers notice, Onegin, Lensky and Tatiana are - like the poem itself - fragile compounds of influences, most of them foreign. Onegin is a victim of English spleen, wears clothes from London, eats Strasbourg pie and reads Gibbon, Rousseau and Pierre Bayle. Even his day is timed by a foreigner - 'Bréguet's unsleeping chime'.

In the country, he meets Lensky, a striving poet and recent graduate of the University of Göttingen, still full of Schiller and Goethe. Lensky is in love with Olga, a figure, Pushkin says, you could find in any novel. Olga's sister, Tatiana, is an early version of Madame Bovary, a woman fed on the fictions of Rousseau and Richardson, who sees herself as a 'creation', like Clarissa, Julie, Delphine. Tatiana falls in love with Onegin, only to be rebuffed. He tells her that he is cynical about love, and would not want to betray such an innocent soul.

Onegin's pride, like Darcy's (and Pride and Prejudice cannot be banished from one's mind as one reads Eugene Onegin, though there is no evidence that Pushkin knew of it) makes him, at least, honest - though Nietzsche's comment that cynicism is the mediocre man's best chance at honesty is perhaps more accurate. For Onegin is thoroughly mediocre, the poor sponge of his times. Just as his cynicism about love seems inevitable, because culturally typical, so too does the way in which he flirts with Olga at a ball, thus inviting Lensky's challenge to the inevitable duel.

Pushkin's sketch of that ball is extraordinary. Even in poor smuggled English, the accuracy of the original can be felt. In Charles Johnston's version:

Here with his wife, that bulging charmer,
fat Pustiakov has driven in;
Gvozdin, exemplary farmer,
whose serfs are miserably thin;
and the Skotinins, grizzled sages,
with broods of children of all ages,
from thirty down to two; and stop,
here's Petushkov, the local fop;
and look, my cousin's come, Buyanov
, in a peaked cap, all dust and fluff, -
you'll recognise him soon enough, -
and counsellor (retired) Flyanov
that rogue, backbiter, pantaloon,
bribe-taker, glutton and buffoon.

Lensky, of course, is killed in the duel, occasioning a formal elegy in which Pushkin parodies conventional literary lachrymosity ('the bloom has withered on the bough' etc, etc) only to follow it with a passage in which, having mourned the death to poetry that Lensky's untimely snatch may represent, he revises his judgment, adding that it is more likely that Lensky would have become an idle drunk, with gout and many children.

Years later, Onegin visits Moscow, and sees Tatiana at a ball. No longer the bucolic ingénue, she is now a society lady, married to a general. 'How well she'd studied her new role!' He, quite unexpectedly, falls in love with her, only to be rejected. She admits to a strong residual passion for him, and tells him that she would happily give up this 'tinsel life' immediately, but she thinks that Onegin desires her now only because she has become so successful in society. So, in a nice irony, Tatiana suspects Onegin's motives when he is in fact at his greatest pitch of authenticity - for once, he is desperately, carelessly in love. The poem takes its leave of him at this moment, and chooses, apparently arbitrarily, to close. In the final stanza, Pushkin remarks that some friends who heard him read, years ago, from the first chapter, are now dead. Blessed are those, he intones, who died early,

Not having to the bottom drained
the goblet full of wine;
who never read life's novel to the end
and all at once could part with it
as I with my Onegin.
(Nabokov's translation.)

The poem has an artful, chiastic form: Tatiana falls in love with Onegin, and nothing much happens; and Onegin falls in love with Tatiana, and nothing much happens. Viktor Shklovsky suggested that Eugene Onegin is thus a good example of a work of art which refers not to a grounded reality but merely to itself; it is not a story so much as a game played with a story. John Bayley, in his perceptive book Pushkin: A Comparative Commentary, has faulted Shklovsky's formalism, arguing that as with Tolstoy's or Shakespeare's characters, we are encouraged by artifice to think of Onegin and Tatiana as real people with real motives and surprising actions - who knew that Onegin would fall in love with Tatiana? Or that Tatiana would reject him? Even Pushkin said: 'Do you know my Tatiana has rejected Onegin? I never expected it of her.'


Nevertheless, pace Bayley, Onegin and Tatiana are not real in the way they would be in a novel. To begin with, a poem, even a long one, necessarily slenderises characters, allowing far less detailed attention to motive and mental thought than, say, Pride and Prejudice allows Elizabeth Bennet. It is such attention that makes characters feel real, makes us feel that they are not the novelist's characters but ours. Pushkin's hero and heroine surely remain Pushkin's at all times, as he is keen to remind us. They are like the celebrated Alfred Jewel, which belonged to the King, and is inscribed: 'Alfred caused me to be made.'

Furthermore, Pushkin emphasises that these characters are not only his characters but the culture's: they are the children of Richardson and Rousseau, the offspring of Bréguet's springs. Self-consciously written by Pushkin and self-consciously written into by other literatures and cultures, they are doubly unreal, and this may explain why, although we read Eugene Onegin with admiration, laughter and passion, we do not read it with much sympathy for its actors.

Onegin and Tatiana do everything but move us, that great capacity of true novelistic and dramatic characters. It is very important for Elizabeth Bennet and - we feel - for Jane Austen, that Darcy's 'real character' be revealed (this phrase is repeated in the novel), that life amount to more than a brilliant, proud performance. But having looked at Onegin's library, Tatiana decides that he is a Muscovite dressed in the clothes of Childe Harold, a 'lexicon of words in vogue', just 'a parody'. We have no cause to doubt her word.

But if Onegin and Tatiana are doubly unreal they are not therefore doubly invisible. They are truly paradoxical - they are unreally alive. Their reality is the aggregate of Pushkin's wonderful observations and true, lively details - Onegin's blunt billiard cue, or the fact that Tatiana's father died 'just before dinner', or that Lensky, playing chess with Olga, is so distracted by his love that he moves Olga's pawn and takes his own rook. No characters, of course, not even Shakespeare's, are ever real, despite what Harold Bloom likes to tell us; they are only life-like, and the reality we accord them is decided by the depth of freedom their creators allow them.

In this sense, Pushkin's characters are quite unreal because so forcibly curtailed. Always, one feels Pushkin's playful irony, controlling and observing. When Tatiana marries her general, Pushkin wants us to know that she is performing a role, that love will not enter into it. So he has her look at her husband-to-be and exclaim: 'Who? That fat general?' But in the next stanza, here is Pushkin, ironically closing in: 'But here we shall congratulate/my dear Tatiana on a conquest.'

There is a kind of dialectic at work in Pushkin's verse, whereby the real enters his poems only to be ironised, at which point the ferocity of the irony seems almost to make Pushkin sad, causing him to elegise the loss of the real. And in Eugene Onegin, Pushkin's characters think like this too: Onegin is at first ironic and cynical about love, only to become, in Moscow, tearful about his former cynicism.

Similarly, Tatiana was happy enough to believe herself acting out a role from Richardson until she actually began to play a role in Moscow, at which point, as she tells Onegin, she longs for the country, for a simple bookshelf, a modest home, and the churchyard where her poor nurse now lies.

Pushkin deals with his characters dialectically, too: he keeps them at a remove until he seems to mourn their very unreality, and then desires to fall in love with them - but too late, they are already disappearing from his grasp. Hence the arbitrary leave-taking of the poem's end, in which Pushkin suggests that life is a novel it is better not to finish. Better, it seems, to abandon one's characters before one loses one's heart to them. Blessed are those who can part with life, 'as I with my Onegin'.

In such poems as 'Elegy' and 'I visited again', Pushkin mournfully imagines his own death, as if by elegising himself in advance of his own death, he will secure a kind of life after it. Certainly, his fondness for the fragment and the unfinished work (such as Eugene Onegin and The Captain's Daughter) suggests that he found it easier to abandon than to end. One ensures permanence by incompletion.

And this, of course, is what he did to his own life, by wilfully abandoning it in a duel. Binyon narrates the final years of Pushkin's life as well as he does the earlier ones. We see Pushkin, in 1826, lying to the authorities about the authorship of the irreligious poem The Gabrieliad, and then, having been rumbled, begging the Tsar's forgiveness for having written it. Dostoevsky's dynamics of guilt, ressentiment and abasement surely arise in part from the unhealthy relationship with the Tsar forced on Russian writers. Pushkin had to pass all his work through the vile Count Aleksandr Benckendorff, head of the gendarmerie. For years, secret police were keeping tabs on him.

But Pushkin was grateful to the Tsar for releasing him from exile in 1826, and in the last decade of his life he began to research the era of Peter the Great, even at times suggesting generous parallels between Peter and Nicholas. He wrote a historical account of the Pugachev rebellion - Pugachev was a Cossack who, in 1773-74, fomented an uprising in south-eastern Russia. His fictional version of this episode, The Captain's Daughter, was written in 1834, and is probably his finest piece of prose fiction. It begins with great promise: a young man, Grinev, is posted to a remote fortress. Pushkin takes gentle comic pleasure in disappointing the romantic young man's hopes: the fortress is just a messy little village, and the fortress's captain a sweet old man who drills the soldiers in his cotton dressing-gown and nightcap. The real captain is the captain's wife, a charming but formidable character.

Grinev, Pushkin-like, promptly falls in love with the captain's daughter, Masha. But Pugachev is on the march, and the fortress is in the end taken by his men. The sweet old captain and his wife are killed. The rest of the novella leaves the comedy and sharp social observation of the early scenes for a quick rattle of adventures: Grinev rescues Masha, obtains safe passage from Pugachev, is arrested by Russians who are suspicious that his safe passage means that he has really turned traitor and gone over to Pugachev, and so on.

Masha obtains a pardon from the Empress; she travels to Petersburg and petitions her in person. At which moment, the 'editor' of the story breaks in to tell us that 'the memoirs of Petr Andreevich Grinev end at this point.' There is an omitted chapter, in which Pushkin was clearly playing around with an alternate ending, which includes an exciting shoot-out at Grinev's estate. Elements of the story are indebted to Walter Scott, but the bucking adventurism is closer to Fenimore Cooper (whom Pushkin was reading at the time).

Pushkin had great difficulty extending his fictional prose. He had wanted to turn 'The Blackamoor of Peter the Great' into a novel (a fictionalised biography of his great-grandfather), but abandoned it after only a few chapters. His directness and lucidity, so influential on both Tolstoy and Chekhov, seem to have thinned his resources. And this is suggestive, because at exactly the moment when his longer fictions might have become novels, they refused to do so. In order for Pushkin to write a novel it had to become a long poem, and its characters had to become poetic properties rather than novelistic lets.

Perhaps Pushkin himself became something of a poetic property? He died in 1837, as Lensky, the poet, had died in verse. And as Binyon observes, the pistol that killed him was made in Paris by Lepage, another echo of Eugene Onegin: Lensky is killed by one of 'Lepage's fell barrels'. The handsome French émigré Baron d'Anthès had been paying unseemly attention to Pushkin's beautiful young wife, Natalia Goncharova, and despite the interventions of friends, Pushkin insisted on avenging his honour. (In the many letters to his wife from which Binyon quotes, a terror of being cuckolded is a regular theme, an ironically fitting anxiety for the committed seducer.)

Mortally wounded by d'Anthès, Pushkin died slowly in his apartment, surrounded by his books. A crowd gathered outside, and an irregular bulletin on his state of health was posted to the door of the building. The Tsar, apprised of the news, sent a letter, promising to look after Natalia and her children. Pushkin died in great pain. Unlike his uncle, there were no comic last words, just a functional, imploring, 'It's difficult to breathe, I'm suffocating.'

Binyon's book is a work of exhaustive scholarship. It has the confident air of one who expects no serious rival in his lifetime. Its only fault is its lack of extended literary criticism. But for all that, English's Pushkin will surely be Binyon's Pushkin for a long time to come.

· James Wood's first novel, The Book Against God, is to be published in May.


November 16, 2003

'Pushkin': Aleksandr the Great


PUSHKIN A Biography.
By T. J. Binyon.
Illustrated. 727 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $35

In the winter of 1837, after the bullet, the opium, the sacraments, the convulsions and the coffin lined with crimson velvet, the Russian Orthodox metropolitan of St. Petersburg refused to conduct a funeral service for Aleksandr Pushkin in St. Isaac's Cathedral, ''on the grounds that a death in a duel was tantamount to suicide.''

It will seem to many readers of T. J. Binyon's magnificent biography that the metropolitan was right -- that the poet might just as well have shot himself. Always quick to take offense; delusionally jealous of his dim but beautiful young wife; forever in debt from gambling, exorbitant household expenses and the care and feeding of a wastrel brother and loathsome in-laws; unable in the social whirl to find time to finish any of his longer writing projects; ''harassed and persecuted'' by the czar's own censors whenever he did jot down something about, say, Pugachev, Peter the Great or Boris Godunov; subject to mood swings that today, says Binyon, ''would cause him to be classed as a manic-depressive'' -- Russia's first pop icon/literary superstar, who by the vivacity of his own example had turned art into a substitute for politics, was a nervous frazzle and a burning fuse.

He was also, of course, short -- a ''small, swarthy, apelike poet,'' 5-foot-6, with pale blue eyes, unsightly side whiskers and clawlike fingernails, sometimes to be seen wearing a black frock coat and silk top hat like Bolivar's, sometimes with a fez and Turkish pantaloons -- and a surprising snob, boasting that his father's boyar side of the family went back 600 years. (On his mother's side, notoriously, there was that ''blackamoor'' great-grandfather from Cameroon, purchased in Constantinople's slave market as a gift for Peter the Great, who grew up to marry a Swede and become a general.) None of which interfered with Aleksandr's inordinate fondness for smoked sturgeon, Rossini operas and women with small feet. ''In such cases,'' he confided to a friend, ''I usually write elegies, as another has wet dreams.''

Nor, as we'd expect from someone given to hissing at actors onstage and accusing strangers of cheating at cards, was his last duel his first. During his exile from the capital, he kept himself in fighting trim by shooting off a hundred rounds a day. There seem to have been three duels in the early 1820's, mentioned in Nabokov's eccentric translation of ''Eugene Onegin,'' not counting challenges not accepted, or finessed by tactful intermediaries. Binyon alludes to several more that stopped short of the firing line in the spring of 1836 alone, a period of ''sullen rage'' during which Pushkin ''became incapable of rational thought or action, and lashed out indiscriminately at anyone or anything, caring little -- on the contrary rather hoping -- that he might, like Samson at Gaza, bring the whole edifice of his life crashing about him.''

Which is not to say that Georges d'Anthes, the Alsatian reprobate who couldn't stay away from Natalya Pushkin, didn't deserve rough justice, maybe even a horsewhip. (Binyon characterizes his ''distasteful'' behavior toward Natalya -- who may have flirted but was never unfaithful -- as clear evidence of ''a classic case of the 'stalker' syndrome.'') Yet everyone agrees that after making sure he picked a second who wouldn't talk him out of the duel, the poet was more relieved than anxious. From ''a state bordering on lunacy,'' he became almost cheerful: ''free,'' reported Zizi Vrevskaya, ''from those mental sufferings which had so terribly tortured him.'' On his way to his wounding he even stopped for a lemonade, at a cafe where, today, a Madame Tussaud wax replica with his risible side whiskers keeps a pale blue eye on Nevsky Prospekt.

If you are reminded of Eugene's duel with Lensky in ''Onegin,'' so is Binyon. Lensky, a reader of Goethe rather than Rousseau and therefore a much nicer person than Eugene, falls victim in the verse epic to ''fell barrels'' hand tooled in Paris by Lepage. So, too, did Pushkin insist on Lepage pistols for his appointment with d'Anthes, pawning some table silver to pay for them. And as if to salt this open sore, the all-knowing and all-telling Binyon informs us that the pistol d'Anthes used to kill Pushkin was borrowed from the French ambassador's son, who would use it four years later to kill Mikhail Lermontov. It is apparently not sufficient that the autocratic Russian state tries so hard to crush its poets by sitting on them, as Nicholas I sat on Pushkin and Stalin on Pasternak; for touring foreigners, they were target practice.

''It's difficult to breathe, I'm suffocating'' were Pushkin's last words. And we know exactly how he felt because Binyon, a lecturer in Russian literature at Oxford, a senior research fellow at Wadham College and the author of a history of detective fiction as well as mystery novels of his own, invites us in, sits us down and opens the closets and the veins. He has practically inhaled all of 19th-century Russian culture, from school curricula to court etiquette to book publishing to adultery. Thus, though he disavows ''literary analysis,'' he is not above pointing at Ossian and Ariosto, at Byron, Milton, ''Rob Roy'' and ''Tristram Shandy,'' as well as Chateaubriand (''Atala''), Stendhal (''The Red and the Black'') and Voltaire (whose refusal to fight a duel over Joan of Arc was the subject of one of Pushkin's last sketches). He has read every diary, letter, memoir, report card and dossier, attended every late supper, masked ball and febrile seduction, counted every ''dead soul'' serf whom Pushkin inherited as property and every ''free peasant'' he ''mortgaged'' to pay his brother's debts, and exhumed every body of every Decembrist the poet might have met at school before they plotted their abortive coup without him. (An unfinished 10th chapter of ''Onegin,'' Binyon tells us, would have explained Eugene's involvement with the Decembrists. Pushkin burned it. )

And because the biographer likes to gossip as much as the biographee, he follows some of these characters out of Pushkin's story into beguiling digressions on Freemasonry, Bulgarian archimandrites and stewed cloudberries. So while it isn't strictly necessary to know that Count Fedor Tolstoy, before he slandered Pushkin, had been so obnoxious as a member of an embassy to Japan that the Russian Navy dumped him on an Aleutian island together with a pet ape that he probably ate, I'm glad I do. Likewise, even though the poet's heavy-breathing relationship with Princess Evdokiya Golitsyna ended in 1817, it's nice to hear that in the 1840's she campaigned against the introduction of the potato as an infringement of Russia's sovereignty.

Still, the substance and sinew are the nervous wreck of a great poet, with a czar like a monkey on his back. He was a plump and clumsy child who hated exercise and often sat down in protest in the street. His hot-tempered father wept a lot, maybe to make up for being incompetent. His ''beautiful creole'' mother not only loved his younger brother best but went months not even speaking to Aleksandr; and when he departed for the new imperial lycee at Tsarskoe Selo, where vacations and holidays were not allowed, she let two years go by without seeing him at all.

Graduating from the lycee into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as a collegial secretary of the 10th rank, he was paid 700 rubles a year to do nothing whatsoever. And if anyone actually did ask him to do something, he considered it a ''gross affront'' to his dignity. For a people's poet, he was full of an aristocrat's entitled resentment. It's a wonder that such a ''dissolute young rake'' had time between brothels, faro and the theater to become so famous, as much for his satires and obscene epigrams as for his revolutionary odes, before his 21st birthday. Really, he should have been French.

This giddy period drew to a close in 1820, when several of his anti-authoritarian poems came to the unamused attention of Czar Alexander I. He was exiled to to the south instead of Siberia only upon his promise to refrain from writing verses against the government. In muslin trousers on the Black Sea coast, attended by his faithful manservant, Nikita, he imagined himself both as Ovid, exiled by Augustus, and Childe Harold, the doomed Byronic outcast. Nevertheless, between quadrilles, mazurkas, gunfights, police spies and fast women, including a serf girl he got with child, he wrote like an e-mail maniac. As, earlier, the clap had been good for his work ethic, so were these six years of durance vile away from the Big Onion action. All of a sudden, from mornings in bed with a notebook on his knees, he produced ''Ruslan and Lyudmila,'' ''The Prisoner of the Caucasus,'' ''The Fountain of Bakhchisaray'' and ''The Gypsies,'' with ''Boris Godunov'' and ''Eugene'' waiting in the wings. Of course, mention must also be made of Aglae, Olga, Karolina and Ekaterina. ''Everything on earth,'' he was paraphrased by a friend as saying at the time, ''is done to attract the attention of women.''

Czar Alexander died in November 1825, probably from typhus, after which, against the succession of his younger brother Nicholas, the Decembrist liberals revolted -- and were crushed, executed or exiled. At least 11 had been friends of Pushkin's. Several, in the dock, professed admiration for his freedom poems. Yet none had breathed a word to him of their conspiracy, probably because they didn't trust him to keep his mouth shut. But the Pushkin permitted by Nicholas to return to Moscow and St. Petersburg, with strings attached to his mouth and hands, was not the protorevolutionary or the militant atheist he had appeared to be before his forced sabbatical.

Not even Binyon knows exactly what happened. Somewhere in the south, a Byronic sympathy for Greek independence somehow metastasized into imperial bloodlust. He no longer identified with the Circassians, Chechens and Ingush, ''the free mountain peoples,'' but celebrated instead their pacification even unto genocide. Like Isaac Babel a century later, he wanted to ride with the Cossacks. At Erzerum in 1829, he wanted to stick Turks. It isn't possible to imagine a Byron writing praise songs for what the Russian army did to Warsaw after the Polish rebellion of 1830. Upon reading Pushkin's jingoistic ''To the Slanderers of Russia,'' his old friend Vyazemsky almost snarled, ''Go and hymn the government for taking such measures if your knees itch and you feel an irresistible urge to crawl with the lyre in your hands.'' Moreover, this unlikely apologist and cheerleader for autocratic empire, between chats with Nicholas, not only returned to the Orthodox faith of his boyhood but also decided to get married.

She was tall and beautiful, he was short and not; the rest is too much drinking and dancing and 100,000 rubles' worth of debt. Gogol will be quoted: ''One meets Pushkin nowhere, except at balls. So he will fritter away his whole life, unless some chance, or rather necessity, drags him into the country.'' Never mind that no one ever invited Gogol to these parties, so how did he know? Maybe when a tyrant gets his sticky hands on your intimate mind, you no longer trust your thoughts. But ''The Bronze Horseman,'' the greatest poem in the Russian language and perhaps the best poem about power since the ''Iliad,'' remained unpublished in Pushkin's lifetime. It predicted for St. Petersburg a flood. And then the bloodtide came.

John Leonard's books include ''Lonesome Rangers,'' ''When the Kissing Had to Stop'' and ''The Last Innocent White Man in America.''


Michael Dirda
'Pushkin: A Biography' by T.J. Binyon

Sunday, November 16, 2003; Page BW15

PUSHKIN: A Biography
By T.J. Binyon. Knopf. 727 pp. $35

This astonishingly detailed life of Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) reveals yet again the vast gulf that looms between the creative spirit and the personal life. Almost universally acknowledged as the supreme Russian poet, the author of Eugene Onegin and "The Bronze Horseman" also displayed, with equal mastery, nearly every youthful failing. He drank like a frat boy, treated and spoke of women as whores, alternately rebelled against and toadied to the tsar, reduced his family to penury by addictive gambling, and typically allowed his usually dirty fingernails to grow long and claw-like. Once he arrived at a formal dinner "wearing muslin trousers, transparent, without any underwear." He could be utterly thoughtless of others' feelings but was himself "morbidly sensitive to . . . appearing comic" and quickly roused to anger, jealousy and spite. Though he could be courageous and witty, and though he valued honor above all, it's no exaggeration to say that Pushkin all too often conducted himself like a lout and a vulgarian.

Except, of course, in his writing. The verse-novel Eugene Onegin possesses the sparkle of Byron's "Don Juan" (its partial model, along with "Childe Harold"), coupled with Tristram Shandy-like digressions on life and literature, as well as a melancholy love story just as sad as Fitzgerald's in Tender Is the Night. (The poem, according to Russian scholars, doesn't translate well, though I have enjoyed the versions by Charles Johnston and James Falen, generally regarded as the best in English; Nabokov's edition shines mainly in its extensive notes -- e.g., a long excursus on the code of dueling.) Throughout this biography T.J. Binyon quotes bits of Pushkin's verse and even in his deliberately plain English, one can feel the wistful beauty of the lyrics:

I loved you: love still, perhaps,

Is not quite extinguished in my soul,

But let it no longer alarm you;

I do not want to distress you in any way.

I loved you silently, hopelessly,

Tortured now by shyness, now by jealousy;

I loved you sincerely, so tenderly,

May God grant you be so loved by another.

Other poems are bawdy ballads (one describes two different women being brought to orgasm), or evoke a Horatian sense of tempus fugit. Pushkin's great poetic gift lay in his versatility and skill in mixing tenderness and irony, a romantic appreciation of nature and a worldly nonchalance: "He plays with his readers, teasing them and subverting their expectations."

In truth, the fickle Muses showered this minor aristocrat with gifts, for the poet also wrote some of the best stories of his time, and helped establish the norms of modern Russian prose. "The Queen of Spades," for instance, ranks as one of the world's great tales of the supernatural (or of madness, depending on your point of view). In it a young guardsman discovers an infallible system for winning at the card game Faro, but in gaining the secret he kills its possessor, an old woman. The cards avenge her. The Captain's Daughter is a melodramatic but enthralling love story set during the bloody Pugachev rebellion, a time when a Cossack peasant claimed to be the rightful heir to the throne of all the Russias.

T.J. Binyon, a professor of Russian at Oxford, is probably best known to common readers as an expert on crime fiction. For many years he reviewed mysteries for the Times Literary Supplement, eventually producing a study called Murder Will Out and two whodunits of his own. In his reviews Binyon disclosed an encyclopedic knowledge of detective fiction. He brings the same breathtaking command of detail to this biography, as he virtually recreates Pushkin's daily life. This will surely become the standard account of the poet in English.

That said, despite an eminently readable, clean, dry style, Binyon's book is likely to overwhelm anyone with a less than passionate interest in Pushkin. His pages are a veritable Almanach de Gotha of Russian nobility. So many names! It's hard to keep straight the Ekaterinas and Sofias and Mariyas. Readers who, like myself, love facts will relish such abundance, but others will suspect Binyon of surrendering to some compulsion to show off the range of his knowledge: For instance, during Napoleon's invasion of Russia he mentions that "many of the books of the imperial public library were crated and sent up the Neva." A nice detail, though hardly a necessary one. However, he then adds, in an asterisked footnote at the bottom of the page, "The brig carrying them wintered on the Svir River, between Lakes Ladoga and Onega: on its return most of the books were found to be spoilt by water." Such interesting, even amusing clutter as this seems the very definition of a scholarly factoid.

Alexander Pushkin was descended on his mother's side from Gannibal, a kidnapped African given to Peter the Great as a gift, but a man of such talents that he rose to the rank of general in the Russian army. His great grandson was quite proud of his "Negro" blood, and none of his contemporaries appeared to think twice about it (other than as a way to account for Pushkin's dark features and thick lips). Like Mozart, the poet displayed his genius early on, producing accomplished verse while still a teenager in a Russian academy.

Like many other intellectuals of the time, the youthful Pushkin joined various secret or semi-secret clubs, including the delightfully named Arzamas Society of Unknown People and The Green Lamp. Both these light-hearted sodalities, created for discussion, drink and debauchery, lent several members to the violent Decembrist revolt of 1825, an insurrection as doomed as the Easter uprising of 1916 chronicled by another great poet. But like Yeats, Pushkin avoided being involved in open rebellion, and thus escaped prison or even execution.

But some impolitic verses caught the government's attention, and the young aristocrat was exiled for three years to the Caucasus region, where he spent his time flirting with local matrons, writing sacrilegious verse like "The Gabrieliad" (Mary confesses to having had to service Satan, an archangel and God all on the same day) and producing important poems such as "The Prisoner of the Caucasus," in which a Circassian maiden saves the life of a young Russian and then commits suicide because he rejects her love. Eventually ordered to his parent's small estate to serve out his term of exile, Pushkin promptly impregnated the bailiff's 19-year-old daughter.

After Pushkin petitioned his way back into the tsar's favor, he was finally allowed to return to Moscow, and there found himself acclaimed as the premier poet of Russia. Unfortunately, the sovereign now insisted on approving all his future publications. At times a 20th-century reader is reminded of Soviet writers like Mikhail Bulgakov forced into an accomodation with Stalin.

Approaching 30, the young poet decided he needed to marry and settle down. But after being refused by several celebrated beauties, he fell into despondency:

There is no goal before me

The heart is empty, the mind idle,

And the monotonous sound of life

Oppresses me with melancholy.

But this lachrymose mood soon passed, as Pushkin was drawn to the social whirl, attending "routs," losing vast sums at cards, frequenting brothels, publishing his verse in magazines. He encountered the young novelist Nikolai Gogol, listened to the music of Mikhail Glinka, read Walter Scott, translated Chateaubriand. When Natalya Goncharova finally accepted his offer of marriage, he noted in a letter to a friend that she would be his 113th love.

For a man already given to gambling and extravagance, marriage to Natalya turned out to be an expensive proposition. She was high-maintenance, attending balls almost nightly, requiring a household of over a dozen servants, keeping her husband from the "spiritual tranquillity" he needed to write. And writing was one of the few ways open to Pushkin to increase his income. For when he could find the right quiet and solitude, he could be amazingly productive:

"In under six weeks, between 1 October and 9 November, Pushkin finished the History of Pugachev and wrote The Bronze Horseman, possibly his masterpiece; a short story, The Queen of Spades; Angela, a re-working, as a narrative poem of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, . . . two imitations of the verse folk-tale, The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish, and The Tale of the Dead Tsarevna and the Seven Heroes; two translations of ballads by Mickiewicz; and a handful of short poems, including . . . the great lyric "Autumn (A Fragment)."

But such leisure was harder and harder to come by. Soon the poet had three and then four young children, a mountain of debts and unending social and financial obligations. Binyon aptly sums him up at this time:

"When pressures upon him . . . became unendurable, he did not, as others might, lapse into apathetic resignation, but, in the grip of a kind of sullen rage, became incapable of rational thought or action, and lashed out indiscriminately at anyone or anything, caring little -- on the contrary rather hoping -- that he might, like Samson at Gaza, bring the whole edifice of his life crashing about him."

In 1836-37 a young Frenchman named Georges d'Anthès started paying increasingly indiscreet attention to Pushkin's beautiful wife. Rumors, probably untrue, began to circulate. Then one day Pushkin received an anonymous note enrolling him in a society of cuckolds. He immediately issued a challenge to d'Anthès, but their rencontre was averted through the machinations of friends; indeed, the Frenchman even married Natalya's sister Ekaterina as a way of defusing the situation. But the sense of dishonor festered in Pushkin and eventually flared up again. More letters were exchanged, and the two men finally met on the field of honor: Pushkin wounded d'Anthès slightly but was himself shot in the chest. There was nothing the doctors could do. Binyon tells us that the same pair of pistols used by d'Anthès were later employed in a duel in 1840 that left dead the poet Mikhail Lermontov, author of A Hero of Our Time.

Binyon's careful account of the Anthès affair makes for exciting reading (Serena Vitale provides an even more leisurely re-creation of the bloody business in Pushkin's Button). After the poet's death his friends discovered that Pushkin was roughly 100,000 rubles in debt and that he could hardly have sustained his financial house of cards for more than a few more months. One wonders whether the poet might not have been half in love with easeful death as a way of solving his unsolvable money problems. But Binyon doesn't speculate, just as he eschews any extended interpretation of the poems and stories.

As the poet lay dying in his library, he told his friend Dahl -- later the compiler of the great four-volume Russian dictionary beloved by Nabokov -- that he had just been dreaming that the two of them "were climbing high up these books and shelves." A few minutes later Alexander Pushkin was dead at only 38, but in the library of the world's literature he has climbed very high indeed. •


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