The Strange Death of Pushkin

Pushkin’s Button

by Serena Vitale, Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, by Jon Rothschild
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 355 pp., $30.00

Death and poetry have an attraction for each other. Auden writes of the genre of poets as comprising those “who die so young, or live for years alone.” The disjunction was especially marked during the Romantic era. Many, and of the best, died young. Some, like Wordsworth and Coleridge, lived to a ripe age without ever managing to regain that first fine careless rapture which had fired the achievements of their youth. A. E. Housman, one of the last Romantics, continued in the course of a scholar’s life to write poetry at intervals, and poetry of a consistently high quality. But he always yearned, as he had done in one of his early poems, over the happy fate of “the lads that will die in their glory and never be old.”

In the first part of the nineteenth century the Russians lost two of their finest poets and writers to this besoin de la fatalité, as Victor Hugo was to call it. And this happened at a stage of its literary history when Russia had very few such writers and could ill afford their loss. Both Pushkin, Russia’s greatest poet, and Lermontov, who ran him a close second, were killed in duels. Pushkin was thirty-seven when he died in 1837, Lermontov ten years younger when he was killed in 1841. All duels no doubt are rash and foolish and a waste of potentially valuable young lives, a fact recognized by Tsar Nicholas I when he made dueling a capital offense. The deaths of these two poets were particularly unnecessary, and both were fated—by their temperaments and by their need to live wholly on their own terms.

Of the pair Pushkin naturally achieved the most; and at the time of his death it was already being whispered in the malicious circles of the capital that he was a spent force in literature. That is unlikely to have been the case, although it is possible that he would not have written much more poetry. Like Lermontov after him he had turned to prose, and though some of his writing in this form was very good, he had not yet produced a masterpiece such as Lermontov was to do in A Hero of Our Time. Possibly he would never have done so. His later novel fragments are all broken off, while Lermontov was confidently planning an ambitious work whose scale might have rivaled War and Peace. All we can be sure of is that both young writers were still capable of powerful work and determined to continue writing. Unlike Keats and Shelley they had no death wish, no sense that a poet’s death would crown their achievement.

Lermontov nonetheless provoked a stupid quarrel, and allowed himself to be shot in a duel at a cliff’s edge in the Caucasus out of sheer bravado. Pushkin, the older and the saner man, had been placed by fashionable high society in what had become for him an inescapable predicament. His beautiful …

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