Genius

Pushkin

by Henri Troyat, translated by Nancy Amphoux
Doubleday, 696 pp., $10.00

Pushkin on Literature

translated and edited by Tatiana Wolff
Barnes & Noble, 454 pp., $24.00

Pushkin: A Comparative Commentary

by John Bayley
Cambridge University Press, 369 pp., $13.50

The essence of Pushkin is simplicity. He always said and wrote exactly what he meant, and, within the limits of the official restrictions that fettered his comings and goings, behaved as he pleased. Concealment was foreign to his nature, obscurity repellent to his sense of art. His actions and opinions were in the open, and the story of his life has been told many times. If his poems are untranslatable, it is not that their meaning is veiled but, on the contrary, that it is so plain and unadorned, so precisely worded, so musically given, that it cannot be translated without irreparable loss. It is his clarity that baffles critics and biographers. There is nothing about him to discover, and yet everything to explain. All is clear in him except his genius.

Of his biographies, Henri Troyat’s is probably the best in English, now that it has become available in a new, complete, and very able translation, which corrects the abridged and mutilated version—“an amputated and impoverished text of the adaptor, not my book”—that first appeared in 1950, and incorporates the additional material that has since come to light about Pushkin’s last duel and his death. M. Troyat writes with a scholar’s scrupulousness and the vividness of an expert novelist, and though approaching Pushkin with the reverent awe customary to lovers of Russian poetry, he succeeds, without demeaning the genius or “fictionalizing” his life, in painting a credibly human portrait.

Scenes, episodes, individuals, everything is well authenticated and everything comes to life: the atmosphere of semibarbarous Moscow into which Pushkin was born in 1799, with its sprawling houses owned by aristocrats and filled with serfs, its coaches, theatricals, and balls—a slave society like that of Europe in the Middle Ages but with the veneer of contemporary Western culture, French literature and fashions, German philosophy, a measure of Anglophilism; the disorganized household of the Pushkins, where the “graceless, morose infant” Alexander “dragged listlessly from room to room”; the lively school at Tsarskoye Selo, where literature was a passion and the unprepossessing child developed into a brilliant, witty adolescent and a recognized poet before his graduation.

There follow the period of dissipation in St. Petersburg; life in exile, first in the Caucasus and Bessarabia, then in the lonely northern estate of Mikhailovskoye; the Decembrist revolt and the new Czar’s deceptive promise of benevolent patronage; the fateful decision to marry the beautiful, silly Natalia Goncharova; the diversionary excursion to Erzerum, when Pushkin had to be forcibly restrained from rushing into battle with the Turks; the “miraculous” autumn in Boldino; and finally, the oppressive, maddening life at court, with the heartbreaking embroilments that led to death. Troyat tells movingly the well-known, tragic story.

His Pushkin emerges a diverse but integrated being, a passionate, proud, independent, gay, impulsive man, a loyal friend and an ardent but inconstant lover, whose many affairs with women were a means of filling the emptiness of boredom and whose gambling, drinking, and dueling …

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