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Grand Master

The Complete Prose Tales of Alexander Sergeyevitch Pushkin

translated by Gillon R. Aitken
Norton, 495 pp., $6.95

Baron Delvig’s “Northern Flowers”

by John Mercereau Jr.
Southern Illinois University Press, 267 pp., $8.50

Pushkin: Death of a Poet

by Walter N. Vickery
Indiana University Press, 146 pp., $5.75

Pushkin

by David Magarshack
Chapman & Hall, 320 pp., 63s.

English readers are no doubt tired of hearing that unless they learn Russian they must take Pushkin’s greatness on faith. Unfortunately, whatever one may say or not say, this is the truth. Pushkin is still untranslatable, and will remain so unless another Pasternak arises who will do for him in English what Pasternak was able to do for Shakespeare in Russian. But his prose is more accessible to translation than his poetry, and it has been Englished quite satisfactorily several times. The latest version by Gillon Aitken is also adequate but not superior, it seems to me, to other good ones, not better certainly than T. Keane’s, which was first published in 1915 and then revised by Avrahm Yarmolinsky for his anthology of Pushkin in the Modern Library.

Pushkin’s stories are delightful, but they are more than this. Some of the greatest Russian fiction took rise in them: the germ of Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches is in “Dubrovsky,” that of Crime and Punishment in “The Queen of Spades,” of War and Peace in “The Captain’s Daughter.” Of course, although such derivations are historically interesting, they are not necessarily convincing aesthetically: a gifted borrower may be better than his source. But Pushkin’s followers are not better than Pushkin. Nevertheless, despite its unquestionable influence, his prose has not always been considered equal to his verse. And recognition of its excellence was rather late in coming. When the prose tales were first published in the 1830s, critics thought them superficial, a kind of prose equivalent of vers de société, entertaining, elegantly worded anecdotes, with neither philosophic, nor psychological, nor historic depth. It was some years before they were seen for what they indubitably are, little masterpieces, almost as great as the poems. Almost, because they are not quite so perfect stylistically, not quite so effortless. In reading them, as D. S. Mirsky has said, “one is always conscious of ‘the resistance of the material,”’ because “the higher level is never reached (as it always is in Pushkin’s verse) where all awareness of effort and resistance disappears and perfection seems to be the result of a natural, unpremeditated growth.” The reason for this is that Pushkin was an even greater innovator in prose than in verse, that he was writing prose in an age of poetry, consciously molding to his artistic purposes a language that was in a formative stage and still a bone of contention between traditionalists and modernists. It had been but recently purified of heavy Slavisms, but its chief reformer, Karamzin, whom Pushkin and the modernists followed, had used it rhetorically and sentimentally. His History of the Russian State was full of loftily grand effects, his celebrated novelette, Poor Liza, was sweetly mournful.

Pushkin set out to change all this and wrote prose fiction that was neither grandiloquent nor sentimental nor didactic. And if all of it came toward the end of his life, this was probably not, as is sometimes supposed, that his poetic inspiration was running out, but that the development of Russian prose was a challenge to him and a matter of first importance. It was a phase of his many-sided creativity; he did not know he was to die so soon, at the height of his powers. Like much of his work, like Eugene Onegin, in a sense like his very life, his tales were a subtle parody of accepted attitudes and forms. Readers were accustomed, for example, to shed tears over the seduction of innocent girls and to point a moralizing finger at prodigal sons. Pushkin gave them, in “The Postmaster,” the story of a girl whose fate was all happiness with her abductor, while her poor, conventional old father took to drink and perished miserably, worrying about her. Readers trembled at ghostly visitations and thrilled at hair-breadth rescues; Pushkin’s ghosts in “The Undertaker” turned out to be only a bad dream, and the rescue of a maiden in distress, in “Dubrovsky,” came just a hair’s breadth too late. He took delight in ridiculing, delicately and ironically, every kind of pretentiousness: the heroic pose, affected emotionalism, displays of intellect. His judgments were precise, unclouded by abstractions or popular preconceptions. He took his stand on what he saw and understood, and he did not permit his ego to stand between himself and the world; he was extraordinarily objective. His mind was incisive, his feelings passionate, his responses immediate, his actions determined. He was resolute and unambiguous in everything he did and everything he wrote. And although, on the face of it, his life—turbulent, childish—seems to be a contradiction of his work, which is exquisitely graceful, mature, perfectly controlled, there is really no discrepancy between them. His writings stemmed from his experience but were not about himself. He was irritated by those who insisted on seeing an author’s portrait in his fictional characters and wrote scornfully of Byron, “that poet of egoism,” who distributed the traits of his own nature among his invented beings.

PUSHKIN WROTE of what he understood, and his understanding was always of the specific, of such and such events, such and such individuals acting at a given time under particular conditions. Abstractions seemed false to him and pompous, and perhaps the only generalization that he might have accepted was that no generalization could be valid. For this reason his characters, unlike those of classicism and romanticism, are neither representative types nor images of virtue or evil, of grandeur or pathos. They are closer to the varied, contradicory creatures of realism, excellent examples of what Tolstoy was presently to say and show about men, that none of them was wholly good or bad, none consistently generous, brave, and kind or consistently mean, cowardly, and cruel but that each man was sometimes kind and sometimes cruel, sometimes brave and sometimes cowardly, sometimes noble and sometimes mean.

Unlike the Realists, however, Pushkin was not given to analysis. And this is why, no doubt, his masterful simplicity appeared at first to be simplistic. He was neither showy nor discursive. His prose, like his poetry, was art that concealed not only itself but the thinking that informed it. As one recalls his tales, one marvels at their brevity. Whatever the impression they make or the mood they create, whether they leave one, like “The Queen of Spades,” with a sense of extreme tension or, like “The Captain’s Daughter,” with an effect of leisurely progression, whether they grip one in the excitement of adventure, like “Dubrovsky,” or charm with a playful joke, like “Mistress into Maid”—Mr. Aitken calls it “The Squire’s Daughter,” which is not so good a title, nor so close to the original, and is a confusing echo “The Captain’s Daughter”—whether the mood is a mixture of passion, restraint, high-mindedness, and courage, as in “The Shot,” or of absurdity and pathos, as in “The Postmaster”—whatever one has lived through and whatever the effect, the story is so full and yet so fluent, it has told so much and yet sped along so rapidly, that one is startled, as one looks back, to see how little space it has taken up.

But then what Pushkin is really saying lies always beyond his work. His words, his plots, his characters suggest, without delimiting, his meaning, not because they lack precision or are intentionally symbolic but because his meaning, too large to be contained or defined, can only be alluded to. An ironic acceptance of fate is implicit in his design, a sage, tolerant view of human nature and human events is part of his irony. And above everything, there is the tacit assumption that art is supreme, unique and independent, the all-mastering conviction that it can have no aim other than itself.

Pushkin is such a towering figure that one is inclined to forget that other literary men existed around him, that he had both friends and enemies among them, that he took an active part in the controversies of his day, and that his work was intimately related to these friends, enemies, and controversies. His closest and most lasting friendship was with Baron Delvig, a fine poet, a generous and charming man, the godfather, as he has been called, of promising young poets, the center of what came to be known as the Pushkin Pleiad. It was a friendship that lasted from their schooldays to Delvig’s death in 1831. In 1825 Delvig became editor of a yearly anthology of Russian letters, the “Literary Almanac” Northern Flowers. Its eight issues (the last one in 1832 was posthumous) contained some of the best writing of the time, including much of Pushkin and some of Gogol. Professor Mercereau of the University of Michigan has had the happy thought of describing this publication. He has given its history and literary setting, its contents and appearance (his sketches of the title pages year by year are verbal facsimiles of the original). He has reviewed the contributions, provided brief biographies of the contributors and appended two valuable tables, one chronologically arranged by contents, the other alphabetically by contributors. It is a useful reference work that helps to revive for us the tastes and thoughts of Russia’s best minds in the period directly after the Decembrist revolt, when Nicholas I had begun his oppressive rule and Pushkin was producing some of his greatest things and was becoming enmeshed in the relationships that were soon to bring about his death.

In 1831 Pushkin married Natalia Goncharova. The events of the following six years are, in the main, well known: the young couple’s settling in Tsarskoe Selo, the arrival there of Nicholas and his court, the dazzling social success of Pushkin’s beautiful wife and the ruinous consequences of this success—the cost in money, time, and peace, her flirtation with D’Anthès, the malicious gossip, the fatal duel. The facts are known but they are variously interpreted. Professor Walter Vickery has re-examined them in a well-written, impartial essay that sifts the evidence and reconstructs the occurrences that step by step led to the tragic catastrophe of January 27, 1837. It is a judicious narrative that takes into consideration the characters, the moods, and the emotions of the principals involved in the disaster, without the usual predetermined bias, wherein Pushkin figures as a helpless victim and D’Anthès as the arch villain of a hostile clique. Especially good is its recreation of Pushkin’s exacerbated frame of mind, his grief and growing desperation, when instead of the peace and freedom he needed for his work, the love he had hoped for in his marriage, the respect he had a right to presume as his due, the royal trust and protection he had naïvely believed in, he found himself under constant surveillance, obliged to attend court functions in a humiliatingly inferior capacity, his time frittered away, his debts mounting up, his works censored, his love unreciprocated and his family relations discussed and ridiculed. It is a scholarly, convincing, and, in its unemphatic realism, a moving little book.

SO MUCH cannot be said of Mr. Magarshack’s biography, which adds nothing to one’s knowledge of the poet nor to one’s understanding of his work, and almost achieves the impossible: a dull account of Pushkin’s life. Pushkin was crucially implicated in the social and intellectual history of Russia. He knew the peasantry, the aristocracy, the outstanding thinkers and writers of his age; the Decembrists were his friends, two Czars his enemies; he exercised an enormous influence not only after his death but while he was still alive. He was so intricate a person, his relations with his contemporaries were so numerous and so complex, his passionate brief life so rich in thought and action, in happiness and despair, that its essential drama must emerge of itself without any effort on the biographer’s part. But a mere listing of the women he loved, the quarrels he had, and the duels he fought, which give but the sketchiest notion of the circumstances and the persons, is neither valuable nor interesting. Mr. Magarshack does little more than make such lists; and sometimes, notably in the matter of the final duel, he accepts without question and presents as fact certain sensational bits of gossip that have been effectively disproved. Pushkin’s work receives but hasty notice, and literal prose translations cripple his lyrics. Their incomparable grace is hobbled, they are made to plod, to limp. They seem trite, heavy, awkward: “What ardor was awakened in me! With what magic longing my ardent breast was constricted,…” “Alas, vain desires! She has rejected my supplications, my prayers, the anguish of my soul: the effusions of earthly raptures, as to a goddess, are of no use to her,” and so on. This may be accurate, but it is not Pushkin.

Amazingly enough, although there are brilliant studies of Pushkin’s work and exhaustive explorations of every aspect of his life, there is no biography of him in any country that might be called definitive, not even in Russia, where “Pushkinology” continues to expand, where every episode of his life, every word of his writing is meticulously examined. In English there are better biographies than Mr. Magarshack’s: D. S. Mirsky’s admirable little book, which was made available some five years ago in a paperback edition, and the abridged translation of Henri Troyat’s two-volume work, for instance. Are these not to be had in England? And is this why Mr. Magarshack has published his notes? There is certainly room for a new biography, but it should be more ambitious, more scholarly, more imaginative, and more sensitive than the one he has compiled.

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