Pushkin on Literature
Pushkin: A Comparative Commentary
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 were the fury of a gifted man thwarted by powerful little bureaucrats and, in his exasperation, goaded to tempt fate.
Troyat sees the inward continuity of Pushkin’s character throughout his life, his death provoked by the same pride, recklessness, and rage that had marked him in boyhood and at the outset of his career. He is able to reveal the submerged level on which his life and work were blended—how, for example, the jet of inspiration in the astonishing Boldino period was a response to Pushkin’s prophetic sense of doom on the eve of marriage. “It was as though he had been blinded by a premonitory vision,” in the ominous light of which he wrote, within three months, in addition to a sheaf of other poems, his so-called Little Tragedies, The Covetous Knight, Mozart and Salieri, The Stone Guest, The Feast in Time of Plague, as well as his prose Tales of Belkin which are, as it were, “transpositions of the plays into prose.” All are centered on a single theme, “the whole problem of Providence,” all of them, including the lyrics, about “love, death, and chance.”
Pushkin’s work, says M. Troyat, “was the very image of his life—brilliant, mischievous, satirical, grave, or rebellious by turns, and sometimes sad as death.” But “if he had lived as he wrote,” he would have been “a calm and happy man; if he had written as he lived, he would have been a wild-eyed, puerile, verbose romantic. But he managed to separate the two.”
This separation is the heart of Pushkin’s mystery: his life is tumultuous, his work serene. Nevertheless, the contradiction, though palpable, is superficial. For if his work is an ordering of chaos, this very ordering expresses him. It is a way of thinking, a habit of consciousness a detached contemplation of humanity that rests on the ingrained assumption of man’s relative helplessness within the infinite realities of time and nature, and is manifest in everything he writes and in the way he writes, in themes, characters, style.
Hardly religious, but very superstitious, Pushkin lived on familiar, almost comfortable, terms with fate and mystery. It seems to me that it was this ever-present awareness of the incomprehensible that made him the realist that he was. For, if the expression may be allowed, his was a realism of the spirit—not just the technical audacity of showing traditionalists and neoclassicists that a samovar may, quite properly, become the stuff of art, but the philosophic view that samovars belong in art because they are the stuff of life.
Nor is his respect for the ordinary the same as Wordsworth’s doctrine, enunciated in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, which it seems to resemble. Wordsworth was conducting an “experiment” to see if “the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation” could be adapted to poetry, was proceeding, that is, from an idea of what art should, or might, be. Pushkin proceeds from what he knows life to be, a sobering knowledge of man’s condition that leads to irony and simplicity, a ridiculing of pretensions: inflated language, misty thought, pompous behavior, egotism. He heaped scorn on Byron’s self-centeredness, and his own work, even at its most subjective, is never self-regarding.
He has been called “the first Russian Realist”—by Belinsky, I think, to begin with—but he himself does not seem to have known the term. It is not to be found in his vocabulary, although its meaning is implicit throughout his work. He disliked theorizing and never wrote formally on the art of writing, but he was the most responsible and conscious of artists, and his ideas about literature are pervasive: one finds them in poems, letters, diaries, reviews. The scattered comments in prose have now been published, in an excellent translation, in Pushkin on Literature, with helpful explanatory notes. They add up to an ars poetica that, like his poetry, is sophisticated and unpretentious, and far from simple. “Subtlety,” he writes, “is not a proof of wisdom. Fools and even madmen are at times extraordinarily subtle. One can add that subtlety rarely combines with genius, which is usually ingenuous, or with greatness of character, which is always frank.”
Again, in a letter to his friend Vyazemsky about some of his verses: they are “too clever,” whereas “poetry, God help us, must be kind of stupid.” In seven lines of light verse in which Voltaire thanks a neighbor for some rose bushes, Pushkin sees
…more style, more light, more thought…than in half a dozen long French poems written in modern taste, in which thought is replaced by tortuous expression, Voltaire’s lucid language by the inflated language of Ronsard, his liveliness by unbearable monotony, and his wit by vulgar cynicism or drooping melancholy.
Pushkin’s idea of artistic “stupidity” is not exactly naive. It is a counsel of precision, severity, and taste, which he defined as “a sense of measure and appropriateness.” For himself poetry was both an organic necessity and a marketable commodity: “I write for myself and publish for money”; “I look on a completed poem as a cobbler on a pair of boots he has made: I sell it for profit.” He was the first professional writer in Russia, the first to make a living by writing. But he also had a missionary zeal with regard to Russian culture, and, however homely his references to his own work, he knew its importance.
Russian literature was then in a formative stage, endangered by the baleful, artificial influence of the French. English was more suitable to it, but Pushkin wanted it to strike out for itself, in its own language and in keeping with the temperament of its people, whose distinctive traits were “a certain gay craftiness, a spirit of mockery, and a vivid way of expressing themselves,” of which he saw Krylov, the Russian La Fontaine, as the supreme embodiment. For years he sought permission to publish a journal where literary criticism, which he lamented was nonexistent in Russia, might be introduced. Finally, in the last year of his life, permission was granted, and his last piece of writing was a note to a contributor, Alexandra Osipovna Ishinov, requesting translations of several passages from Barry Cornwall and complimenting her on her History of Russia in Tales for Children. “That is how one should write!” Pushkin set down in a firm hand on the afternoon of January 27, 1837, and left the house to meet D’Anthès on “the field of honor.”
But his finest commentary on art, and the best portrait we have of him as an artist, is the Mozart he created in Mozart and Salieri, the happy genius who composes as naturally as he breathes, who laughs and jokes one moment and plays his tragic Requiem the next, and, having accepted Salieri’s invitation, remembers to inform his wife he will not be home for dinner. This final touch is too much for Mr. Bayley who thinks it unnecessary for Pushkin to add considerateness to Mozart’s other, grander virtues. Yet it is characteristic of Pushkin. Its point is that for a genius the commonplace is not obliterated in the presence of mortality and immortality, of death and art.
But then, in dealing with Pushkin most of us are a little like Salieri—though happily without his murderous envy—too cumbersome in our attempts to explain his wisdom, too heavy for his graceful irony, too solemn for the lightness with which he treats everything he touches, even tragedy. This is why the flavor of his work is best conveyed neither in translations, all of which fall short of the mark in varying degrees, nor in analyses, but in essays that are themselves works of art, precise, restrained, elegant, like Edmund Wilson’s, which Mr. Bayley rightly singles out as “the best short introduction to Pushkin in English.”
Mr. Bayley’s own understanding of Pushkin is indisputable, and his admiration is ardent enough to satisfy even a Russian: The Bronze Horseman is “the most remarkable of nineteenth century poems,” Mozart and Salieri contains “without question the finest blank verse written in the nineteenth century,” Russalka is “the most haunting of nineteenth century tragedies,” The Gypsies is “a unique work,” and its Byronic hero, Aleko, is the only one of that time who is “psychologically interesting.”
Mr. Bayley substantiates his views by means of textual explications and comparisons with works that English readers might be expected to know. His range of references is prodigious: from Homer, Horace, and Ovid to Joyce, Kafka, Valéry, the authors of Europe are called upon to help define the matchless quality of Pushkin, whose unique position, Mr. Bayley points out, was to be both “the founding father” of his nation’s literature and “the representative of…the whole tradition of European and classical culture.” He formulates with admirable succinctness the gist of Pushkin’s objectivity:
Neither in his poems nor in his letters does he seem to cultivate, or even be aware of, any image of his own personality, any self-distinguishing privacy of emotion or feeling…. Pushkin seems to have no interest in the “game” or drama of his own life.
Recognizing objectivity as the central principle of Pushkin’s work, he examines and describes its multiform functionings with ingenuity and sensitiveness.
Conversely, there are some questionable judgments and procedures. Mr. Bayley’s specific preferences—Poltava, for example, over Boris Godunov—are matters of taste and, therefore, not arguable. But when in analyzing a lyric he says that Pushkin “stands beside” his own emotion and “watches its objectification by technical means,” he seems not to have felt the altogether personal desolation, the intimate longing that are unmistakable in the music and cadence of the lines. Then, to compare Pushkin’s powerful “The Drowned Man” with Wordsworth’s verbose and tiresome “Peter Bell” as if they were poems of equal stature is surely misleading, even though the point of the comparison is legitimate enough.
And to argue that Dostoevsky’s understanding of Shakespeare was inferior to Pushkin’s because he called Stavrogin, in The Possessed, “his Prince Harry, seeing both as men of mystery” is a flagrant error. It is not Dostoevsky who calls Stavrogin “his prince Harry” but the ridiculous Stepan Trofimovich and Stavrogin’s doting mother, who, blind to the man’s demonic nature, want to interpret his crimes as the pecadilloes of a wild but noble youth. Mr. Bayley has missed the irony of Dostoevsky’s allusion.
The passages that are closely examined are printed in Russian, accompanied by literal prose translations, and I cannot help wondering what a reader who does not know Russian will get from such observations as the following, on four lines from the Prologue to The Bronze Horseman:
By traditional hyperbole and this graceful nodding onomatopoeia, Pushkin pulls off the delicate feat of making the martial spectacle seem at once stirring, beautiful, and slightly ridiculous….
when all he has to go on is an English version that reads:
I love the warlike animation of the diversion on the field of Mars, the symmetrical beauty of the troops of horse and foot, those tattered flags of victory dipping in orderly formation, the gleam of those brazen helmets riddled through in battle.
On the other hand, anyone will respond to his appreciation of “Autumn”: “It has the always faintly wistful delicacy of an exquisite miniature, and yet the spacious and comfortable interior of a long conversational poem,” or to his witty remark that, unlike the eighteenth-century novel from which it derives, where no “contrast” exists “between the objective tale and the authorial presence,” Evgeny Onegin is “like nature without God, and Pushkin, the deus absconditus, turns the subjective sensibility into an objective property.”
Mr. Bayley’s method is a kind of free literary association that often results in effects of repetitiveness and is sometimes bewildering. The same themes recur in different contexts; one poem suggests another, this one a third, and so on, in a scintillating fountain of comparisons that dazzle the eyes and make one’s head spin. Ruslan and Ludmila brings on the much later Fairy Tales, which are totally different in workmanship and inspiration, and these, by way of “The Drowned Man,” “Peter Bell,” and “The Ancient Mariner,” arrive at “The Demons,” which is unlike any of them—all strung together on the tenuous thread of the uncanny and folklore magic. It is possible, of course, to compare anything with anything else, and Mr. Bayley is aware of differences. But what are comparisons worth when the differences far outweigh the similarities?
The book is brilliant, provocative, and confusing. To have the whole of European literature conceived as a unit, with Pushkin’s place in it more or less neatly defined, is exhilarating as well as bewildering. And it is good to have the great poet summed up in the end as one who “could serve art for art’s sake because he was not serving art for the sake of the artist.”