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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 young wife, Natalia, whom he adored, was not at all unamiable. She wanted to appear and even to be a good wife, but she wanted everything else as well. She was mindless, uneducated, and intensely ambitious socially. Quite uninterested in her husband’s literary life, she was emotionally dependent on him. She was not cold or secretive by nature; her childish impulses endeared her to her husband, who had something childlike in his own nature. So far from scheming behind his back she continually asked his advice about how to deal with her admirers, and she seems to have confided her social triumphs and entanglements to him up to the end.

But Pushkin needed to write; and to write he needed the quiet of his little estate at Boldino, where he had been accustomed during his bachelor autumns to produce, at lightning speed, the very best of his great work. Marriage drastically interfered with this arrangement. Not only did Natalia desire above all things to shine at the Tsar’s court, but Tsar Nicholas himself, who had an eye for really pretty girls, had made Pushkin a Kammerjunker, or page, in order that he and his wife would have to attend all grand court functions. The Tsar had his own mistress at the time, and there is no evidence at all that he seduced Pushkin’s wife before her husband’s death, or even wished to do so; but the poet who married in order to settle down and enjoy family life now found himself in an impossible position. He was unable to escape from an environment in which he could neither work nor find that “bonheur dans les voies communes” about which before his marriage he had written with some irony to a friend. It was a quotation from the last sentence of Chateaubriand’s novel René.

Peace and quiet was what he had hoped for. “Any joy,” he wrote, “will be something I did not expect.” Nor was he to get it. Himself a genius of contradictions, the nature of which he could always perceive with the clear and steady eye of an artist, he now found himself beset by them. Yet, for him, to be married to a wife whose looks were universally admired had appealed as much as the prospect of a family and a home. He was enchanted by Natalia’s statuesque silliness; he had no illusions about the probable nature of their life together. Fate, in which the poet fervently believed, could hardly help arranging some disastrous outcome.

It came in the form of a handsome young French émigré, Georges d’Anthès, admitted in 1834 to the Tsar’s exclusive Chevalier Guard through the influence of Baron Heeckeren, the Dutch ambassador, who had adopted d’Anthès as his son. Natalia Pushkin was regarded as the most beautiful woman in the circles he now moved in and of course he paid court to her. She enjoyed his company and his excellent dancing but was not in love with him: she was too much in love with the whole social world of the capital. Treating her with tenderness and good sense, Pushkin was at first amused by the situation, and for a time still more amused when d’Anthès became engaged to his wife’s sister. Natalia, in a pitiable state of confusion, came to her own husband for reassurance that she herself was the real object of d’Anthès’s admiration, and that he only wanted to marry her sister as second-best.

Comical as he first found the situation, Pushkin was soon tormented beyond endurance by the malicious amusement of society—a very different thing—and by insinuation that he had now joined “the Serene Order of Cuckolds.” Society was patronizing what seemed like an increasingly farcical comedy, and Pushkin determined to end it. If he survived a duel it would mean, at best, exile to his estate and an end to the St. Petersburg nightmare. He promptly sent d’Anthès a letter so grossly offensive that it could have only one outcome. The duel took place in deep snow. D’Anthès fired first and Pushkin was mortally hit, dying two days later. Tsar Nicholas wrote to him on his deathbed, expressing his “forgiveness.” His extensive debts were paid, arrangements were made for his children’s education, his widow received a pension. Fate tidied up the matter very nicely. The only loss was Russia’s greatest poet.

Not only is this dramatic story well known but it is well known in every particular, and in Russia it has been endlessly argued about and discussed. Pushkin’s life and death haunts Russian poetry, and his last days, the challenge and the duel, have been rehearsed in detail in a hundred biographies, and echoed more recently in numerous plays and films. Eisenstein himself planned and wrote a scenario about the death of Pushkin. One might suppose there was no more to say, and no further details to be uncovered. In a sense that would be true. But Serena Vitale, professor of Russian at the University of Pavia, has accomplished the remarkable feat of rejuvenating the whole topic of Pushkin’s duel and death. She is an impressive scholar, but, even more important, she has an imagination full of unusual insights. She has brought a fresh vision to bear on a story so familiar to every lover of Russian literature that every detail about it has come to be taken for granted.

Professor Vitale takes her own title from such a detail: one of many that she has herself ferreted out from the immense amount of archival research she has put into her book. Pushkin was a dandy, yes, but the kind of dandy who sports the slovenly touch—there was nothing of the English Beau Brummell about him, however much he admired the English and their Byron and Shakespeare, whom like most cultured Russians he had read in French, the language of St. Petersburg’s high society. (He wrote a poem for an English portraitist living in the capital, titling it “To Dawe, Esquire,” a charming solecism which gets the courtesy rank wrong in just the right way.) He also sported a bekesh, the long winter overcoat trimmed and lined with fur, named after a celebrated Hungarian count and dandy. It is typical of the author’s way with details to deploy an entire “mini-dictionary,” as she calls it, of Russian terms for clothing. The novelist and Pushkinist Vladimir Nabokov would have loved that—though oddly enough she overlooks the famous shinel, the word for an overcoat derived from the French chenille, which is the title of Gogol’s most famous story.

The many folds and pleats of a bekesh were gathered in at the back of the waist by a big button. Pushkin’s bekesh lacked that button. No doubt it had come off, and the poet had not bothered to get another one sewn on. Professor Vitale sees significance in this omission, though just what this may have been she does not make entirely clear. Perhaps the poet’s refusal to fit into Russian high society?

The professor quotes a number of jokes, well-known to Pushkinists, in order to illustrate the highly regimented nature of the new model state and hierarchy that had been founded by Peter the Great. Pushkin’s friend Vyazemsky reported that Count Ostermann told a foreign dignitary, “For you Russia is a uniform you’ve put on and can take off when you like. For me it is my skin.” In Pushkin’s time, much of Russia was permanently in uniform.

And Pushkin himself, as a Kammerjunker, had to have three of them, including a magnificent dress uniform in green and gold. He wore it with reluctance, covered it with his worn old bekesh, and when the Tsar called out to him “Bonjour, Pouchkine!” he replied “Bonjour, Sire,” as Vitale writes, “respectfully but casually, without a hint of awe.” To be the Tsar’s pet poet was a hazardous occupation, and Pushkin loathed it and the permanent affront it made to his always sensitive sense of dignity. But he could not escape from it. The Russia of Nicholas I was far more strictly regimented than Prussia ever was, and the most privileged aristocrats were not let off. They were as much at the Tsar’s disposal as were the serfs on their estates. The only really privileged persons were the top brass of the army and men like Count Benckendorff, who ran the censorship and the secret police’s Third Section, of whose officials the Tsar himself was said to be afraid. Pushkin’s friend Vyazemsky observed that a Moscow humorist had solemnly translated the pious governmental phrase le bien-être général en Russie as “It’s good to be a general in Russia.”

The book jacket advertises Pushkin’s Button as a cultural history that reads “like a thriller.” It might well do so for a reader completely unfamiliar with the story and with the background of Russia’s greatest poet. Since Pushkin’s poetry remains virtually inaccessible to readers without some knowledge of the language, such a popularization might well have the good effect of making some readers learn enough Russian to read the poet as he should be read. But Pushkin was not only a great poet but a man of the world, a humorist who loved to frequent the salons and to gossip with his friends. He loved the glittering capital and its pleasures. Its proud history, too. When the great Polish poet Mickiewicz wrote a bitter satire on St. Petersburg, Pushkin answered him in the most good-natured of ways, but with a fervent patriotism as well. The result was one of his finest and most marvelously ambiguous poems, “The Bronze Horseman,” extolling Peter the Great’s creation and his achievement while at the same time telling the “sad tale” of the flood which ruined the lives of so many of the Tsar’s subjects and utterly destroyed the happiness of a humble young couple.

The poem makes no overt comment on the tyrannic brutality of Peter’s achievement, which forced his citizens to live and work in a dangerous swamp. No comment is necessary, not because of the censorship but because Pushkin’s art does the job perfectly in its own terse way.

Ilove you, Peter’s creation, I love your stern harmony, the majestic flow of the Neva…the transparent twilight and the moonless gleam of your pensive nights… the noise and sparkle and the clamor of voices at the dance; and at the bachelors’ feasting the froth of foaming goblets and the blue flames of the punch…. I love the smoke and thunder of your fortress when the Northern Empress presents a son to the royal house, or when Russia triumphs once more over her foes, or when the Neva breaks her blue ice and carries it exulting to the sea….

There was a bad time once, and the memory of it is all too fresh. I will tell you about it, friends, and mine will be a sad tale.*

Nothing of the measureless metrical energy and vivacity of Pushkin’s verse can come through in a translation of the poem. Only the cardinal fact of a great poet who can both love his world and hate it too.

Serena Vitale makes little mention of Pushkin’s poetry, but in her own gossipy, vivacious manner—and like all good gossips she is brilliantly well-informed—she does suggest in a most graphic way one side of the story, and one aspect of the extraordinary world in which—hating and adoring it as he did—the poet was fated to live. A poem she does quote, “It’s time my friend, it’s time!” expresses very well the naked contrast between the Pushkin who longed above all things for “peace and freedom,” the freedom to write and think and be his own man, and the Pushkin who also loved above all things to plunge himself into the glamorous world of the capital, with its intrigues and amusements, the tittle-tattle of who’s in, who’s out, and the goings-on in high places.

It is this fascinating and potentially lethal society that Serena Vitale makes so vivid to us while also suggesting that she herself has solved many of its mysteries and secrets, and unraveled the elements in a way that makes up the denouement of a thriller. She certainly dramatizes them for the reader in a masterly fashion, although most of the actual secrets were solved and the mysteries unraveled many years ago. It is hard to say whether her excitable and rather overblown manner is her natural style or partly that produced by the translation, although the translators themselves, who have done a good job, are probably not the ones at fault. But the general effect, however animated, is not always happy, as in this attempt to generalize about Pushkin’s character and fate.

The talk [in St. Petersburg] has now curved in on itself, tracing a rapid circle back to that thunderous echo of a laugh. [Pushkin was famous for boisterous peals of laughter in which “he seemed to pour out his guts.”] At its center lies the mystery of the “Pushkin era,” once a radiant dawn and now already a darkening sunset. The mystery of a poet fated never to grow old (d’Anthès’s bullet itself seems like part of some remote celestial plan) but who, in the shining maturity of his art, is widely rejected as an aged useless ruin, a Prometheus chained to the rock of eternal childhood, a Methuselah scorned. Almost as if someone had forced him painfully to embody the tragic hiatus between two ages in his country’s history, compensating him with a lifetime’s harmonious growth in his art.

There are simpler ways of saying that the once dazzling young poet had by now lost much of his appeal to the reading public and had himself grown increasingly cynical and embittered. Pushkin’s own style is so magically and sometimes pungently direct and forthright that this mode of writing about him is bound to make a sometimes painful contrast.

All Pushkinists know that the hidden villains in the poet’s fate were two malevolent and gossip-loving grandees who between them sent Pushkin an anonymous letter. It was this that proclaimed his appointment as “historiographer” to “the Serene order of Cuckolds.” Professor Vitale has done good work in researching the subsequent history of those two—Gagarin and Dolgorukov. The first, who probably merely copied out what was to be the fatal letter, was so smitten with remorse that he left Russia and became a novice in a French Jesuit order. As for Dolgorukov, who bore one of the oldest and most illustrious names in Russian history (it means “long arms”), he too exiled himself to France, where he continued his genealogical hobbies unperturbed.

D’Anthès never expressed the smallest contrition at having killed Russia’s greatest poet. According to the code of honor there was no reason why he should. He had been provoked by his opponent in such a fashion that a guards officer and gentleman had no alternative. He could have fired in the air, but Pushkin, who was a good enough shot though not in the same class as the soldier, would certainly not have done so. By that point his hatred for d’Anthès was uncontrollable. His friend Count Sollogub, who had successfully averted, by means of a timely apology, the danger of an earlier duel, wrote later that Pushkin’s trembling lips and bloodshot rolling eyes were terrifying to witness as he penned the challenges and made him realize for the first time the significance of his friend’s African descent. Pushkin’s maternal ancestor, Gannibal, had been a young page from Ethiopia presented to Peter the Great, and who had later become one of Peter’s generals. Almost childishly vivacious and good-natured as Pushkin usually was, accounts such as Sollogub’s suggest that there was also an Othello in him when he was aroused.

In the duel scene in Evgeny Onegin he had already virtually described the manner and the setting of his own death, just as Lermontov was to do in a prophetic scene of his novel A Hero of Our Time. In spite of the Tsar’s draconic rule against dueling, both poets lived in a military society with its own strict code of honor, which it was second nature for both to abide by. All of Lermontov’s short adult life was spent in the guards, or Uhlans, and Pushkin had greatly enjoyed his excursion to Arzamas with one of the regiments that were steadily subduing the rebellious tribes of the Caucasus. In the society created by Peter the Great, to be “in the service” was the normal obligation of a gentleman. One of Pushkin’s sons as well as his father, uncle, and brother all held high rank in the army.

Both d’Anthès and Pushkin’s second, Colonel Danzas, were at first sentenced to be hanged. This was commuted, and d’Anthès was then condemned to be reduced to the ranks and to serve for life in some remote region. Danzas was let off after a short while, and d’Anthès escaped altogether. Because he had not been born a Russian subject he was escorted by gendarmes to the German frontier and summarily expelled. He returned with his wife, Pushkin’s sister-in-law, to France, where he began a highly successful career, ending up as a senator. Prosper Merimée, the first French writer to translate some of Pushkin’s stories, described the man who killed him as a wonderful orator, “an athletic- looking man with a German accent,… a very crafty sort.” D’Anthès used to say that he owed his brilliant political career to that fortunate duel, without which he would probably have ended up as an officer with a large family and no resources in some godforsaken Russian provincial town. A friend also asked him, now that it was all safely over, whether he had really been Mrs. Pushkin’s lover. He replied, “Of course.”

But was he? Professor Vitale thinks not. She inclines to believe genuine a letter from “Marie,” written to d’Anthès from Moscow in 1845. Was this from Mrs. Pushkin, by then the wife of a lieutenant-colonel and a lady of unimpeachable reputation? “Now we are separated forever,” the letter ends, “you may be sure that I will never forget…that to you I owe the good feelings and sensible ideas I lacked before I met you.” And as a distinguished old man d’Anthès used to muse to his friends that in the course of his life he’d had all the women he wanted except for one, different from all the other women, “and she, supreme mockery, was my only love.” He was referring to Pushkin’s wife.

Pushkin’s ghost might well have flashed his white teeth in a hearty laugh, and remarked that you could never trust a word a Frenchman uttered.

  1. *

    Introduction to “The Bronze Horseman,” my translation.

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