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Chameleon Genius

As a poet himself W.B. Yeats felt the need for a poet to make his choice. He could not single-mindedly both pursue his gift and become a man of action and of the world as well. “Perfection” must be sought in one sphere of living or another. This was by no means the opinion of the poets of the Romantic Revival a hundred years before. It was not the belief of Shelley or of Byron, and neither was it that of Russia’s greatest poet. Pushkin passionately believed in what Dostoevsky was to call Zhivaya Zhizn, “a living of life,” and living it to the full. Byron, whose work Pushkin knew in a French translation, would certainly have been in full agreement. Byron also had what his French admirers called un besoin de fatalité. Pushkin, too, was a great believer in Fate and in a poet’s need to acknowledge and pursue his own individual destiny.

Writing for an English-speaking audience, Pushkin’s biographer has to contend with a problem which could be compared to that suggested by Yeats. Is he to concentrate on the life or on the art? Pushkin’s poetry is notoriously difficult to translate. In its native Russian, it is by turns simple and sublime, humorous and witty, often transcendentally beautiful. In another language the sense of the lines can be there, more or less, but this same sense has mysteriously become something almost commonplace. His friend Turgenev once attempted to demonstrate to Flaubert the superlative beauties of a Pushkin lyric. The novelist listened in puzzled silence to the French rendering and then exclaimed, “But he’s just flat, your great poet!” It was an honest reaction. In French or English Pushkin can and often does sound flat.

A really skillful poet-translator can produce a kind of animated version of Eugene Onegin, as Charles Johnston so brilliantly managed to do,1 but the old truism still holds good, and nowhere more so than in Pushkin’s case. The poetry, like some delicate and volatile essence, has somehow evaporated from the translation.

One way of tackling the problem is to compare Pushkin’s work freely with other poetry and other writers, not necessarily his contemporaries, as I tried to do myself in a comparative commentary on the poet.2 For this purpose it is best to render quotations and examples from Pushkin quite literally into prose, and this is what T.J. Binyon has also done in his superb biography. But he is more concerned, quite rightly, with the man rather than with his art, for Pushkin’s brief and brilliantly crowded career—he was thirty-seven when he was killed in a duel—is a fascinating study in itself, and tells us a very great deal about the literary eye and the Russian culture of his time. It is impossible to imagine the story of Pushkin’s life being recounted more tellingly, and in more gripping detail, than Binyon has done here. His biography is unquestionably a masterpiece.

And it is a masterpiece which, although it does not discuss Pushkin’s works in detail, puts them in a perspective in which the reader can see all of them clearly and begin to understand them. The reader interested in coming closer to Pushkin will probably already have some knowledge of the novelists who followed him—Gogol or Turgenev, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. Even so he cannot apprehend, as a Russian does, the relation between these writers and Pushkin, whom Russians absorb in adolescence, before reading the novelists, and for whom his verse is the fullest and most natural expression of the Russian language in art. In his essay “In Honor of Pushkin” in the collection The Triple Thinkers, Edmund Wilson found an effective analogy in French literature:

Reading Pushkin for the first time, for a foreigner who has already read later Russian writers, is like coming for the first time to Voltaire after an acquaintance with later French literature: he feels that he is tasting the pure essence of something which he has found before only in combination with other elements.3

And what about the tribe of Pushkins who produced this remarkable prodigy? They were an old Russian gentry family, proud of their name and their descent, although unlike the Orlovs or the Tolstoys they had never achieved anything much at court or in the service or army. On Pushkin’s mother’s side, however, the case was very different. She was directly descended from the little Negro or possibly Ethiopian boy who had been presented by some Turkish grandee to Peter the Great. Impressed by the boy’s intelligence, Peter had him sent to the military academy in France to learn the trade of a soldier and an engineer. It was here, presumably, that he began to call him-self “Gannibal” after studying during his classwork the career of the great Carthaginian general. (“G” substitutes for a nonexistent preliminary Russian “H”—Russians during the war referred to the German dictator as “Gitler.”)

In time Gannibal became a general himself, married a Russian lady, and founded a family. Pushkin was proud of his lineage on both sides and proud of the dusky features and sharply defined physiognomy inherited from his great-grandfather Gannibal. To the same source he attributed his strong sexual appetite, jealousies, and occasional fits of pride and rage.

But Pushkin, unlike Byron, was also the most good-natured of men. Few people disliked him, and girls with whom he had a love affair usually remained on terms of warm friendship when the affair was over. As a national civil servant he was sent on government business to various parts of the country, notably South Russia and the Caucasus, and there he wrote his early stirring and picturesque narrative poems like The Fountain of Bakhchisaray. He repudiated these romantic outpourings later, when his Byronic period was over; but like the earlier and charmingly delightful Ruslan and Lyudmila, they became wildly popular with his younger readers; so much so that a friend noted with amusement that no youthful army officer could light his pipe without automatically quoting a line from The Fountain: “The amber fumed between his lips.”

Back in the capital, and frequently more or less in disgrace with the authorities, Pushkin gambled and had affairs, but was always at pains to spend the autumn, his favorite season, at his little estate at Boldino in the Russian countryside, where he scribbled from dawn to dusk, producing an extraordinary quantity and variety of work, and some of his very best writing, in both prose and verse. There The Little Tragedies were written, brilliant dramatic vignettes of character, like Mozart and Salieri. And there too most of Pushkin’s wonderful late poem The Bronze Horseman was written: a brilliant panegyric to the glittering capital created by Peter but filled with somber overtones and meditations on power and the sacrifices it demands of those under the tyrant’s will. These demands are embodied in Falconet’s masterful statue of the Emperor reining up his great bronze steed that stands on the embankment of the Neva, whose flooding is the “sad tale” the poet has to tell.

The story of Pushkin’s marriage and death might have formed the subject of one of his own “little tragedies.” Meeting a sixteen-year-old beauty, Natalya Goncharova, Pushkin was determined to make her his wife. He was very much in love, and Natalya, flattered by the attentions of Russia’s famous poet, had social ambitions of an equally determined kind. For Pushkin the idea of a wife whose beauty was universally admired appealed as much as the prospect of a family and a home. Natalya was an amiable girl who wanted to appear and to be a good wife, but she also longed for everything else that high society had to offer. Pushkin himself had no illusions about her character, nor about the difficulties that lay ahead in their life together. Natalya was extravagant, and he already had extensive debts. Although his work was popular, the market for literature in Russia was not large, and he was failing to make money from the quarterly review he had started, The Contemporary.

He determined to write more prose, for poetry, he felt, was going out of fashion: people were demanding “clear water” instead of the artifices of rhyme. Nevertheless he looked ahead with his usual tough optimism. “There’s no happiness except in ordinary domestic life,” he wrote to a friend, quoting the last sentence of Chateaubriand’s well-known story René. “Trials and tribulations will not astonish me. They are included in my family budget. Any joy will be something I did not expect.”

Tribulations soon arrived. Natalya quickly had children, in whom Pushkin delighted, but she was soon longing to return to the balls and the fashionable society of St. Petersburg. Unfortunately for Pushkin, the Emperor Nicholas had a roving eye, which was soon cast on her. No scandal was involved, although Natalya may for a short period have become the imperial maîtresse en titre after Pushkin’s death. But to the poet’s fury, Nicholas made him a Kammerjunker, or gentleman of the chamber, in order that Natalya could be invited with propriety to every ball that was given at the palace. Pushkin was bored to distraction, but worse was to follow.

In 1834 a young French royalist émigré, Baron d’Anthès, had been admitted to the select Chevalier Guards through the influence of the Dutch ambassador, Baron Heeckeren, who had adopted d’Anthès as his son. The young man was highly attractive: tall, good-looking, and an excellent dancer. Natalya was flattered by his attentions and enjoyed his company, but, as Binyon makes clear, there is no likelihood that she fell in love with him. She was too much in love with the whole social ronde d’amour of the capital. Present in Pushkin’s house, however, were Natalya’s two elder sisters who had come to St. Petersburg to find husbands. D’Anthès paid court to one of them, making this a pretext for frequent visits to Natalya; and these continued even after d’Anthès’s engagement and subsequent marriage to her sister Ekaterina.

Binyon describes the last act of the drama brilliantly, and in graphic detail. Its resemblance to the world of stage tragedy is indeed almost overwhelming. Natalya was not exactly a Desdemona, but she had not been technically unfaithful. Nor did Pushkin suppose she had; what infuriated him beyond measure were the sneers and jeers of St. Petersburg society at what was becoming, in its eyes, an increasingly farcical situation. In real life, tragedy and farce are not so far apart. Pushkin began to receive facetious and anonymous notes informing him of his election to “The Serene Order of Cuckolds.”

It was this situation that Pushkin determined to end, one way or another. Under Nicholas I, dueling had been made a capital offense, but in practice the law was seldom invoked. If he survived a duel Pushkin might pos-sibly get away with banishment to his estate, away from the nightmare which the capital had become for him. He chose to believe that Baron Heeckeren was behind the gossip and the anonymous letters, and contemptuously refusing to call out the old man he challenged his adopted son as a doubly convenient proxy. Through the good offices of friends the quar-rel was at first patched up, but Push-kin was not going to let matters rest there. To avoid further intervention by friends, he secretly sent the Baron a letter so offensive that d’Anthès immediately challenged him. A meeting was arranged for the following day.

It took place in deep snow in a suburb of the capital. As the duelists approached the barrier d’Anthès fired first and Pushkin was hit. Prostrate, he managed to fire his own shot and slightly wound his opponent, but his abdominal injury was severe and there was little hope for his recovery. He died two days later, after receiving a note from the Emperor promising to look after his family. His extensive debts were paid and his widow received a pension. Later she married a general more or less selected for her by the Emperor. D’Anthès was expelled from Russia and returned to France, never expressing up to his death in 1895 any regrets that he had killed Russia’s greatest poet. This would have amused Pushkin, who, like some other geniuses—Shakespeare, for instance—had never taken himself and his work all that seriously.

But of course it has been taken very seriously ever since. Although a strict utilitarian about the function of literature, the critic Belinsky praised Pushkin highly, as did Gogol, whom Pushkin had published and befriended; as did Turgenev and, later, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. The latter particularly admired the abrupt simplicity with which Pushkin began a story, even though, as not infrequently happened, the story itself might remain unfinished. For like many writers of an earlier romantic period, Pushkin had a weakness for the fragment, either because he liked the “form” for itself or because he became engrossed by some other project and broke off what he was at work on. A charming instance of the former sort is his poem about autumn, his favorite season; of the latter, the highly promising novel Dubrovsky, now published in a new translation,4 which if completed might have marked a decided advance on Pushkin’s excellent but conventional historical novel, The Captain’s Daughter.

A good part of the artistic success of The Little Tragedies is that they are, so to speak, completed fragments, virtually a new form which Pushkin developed and perfected, having originally borrowed it from—of all obscure pseudo-dramatists—the English writer Barrie Cornwall. The last and most successful—they were all written in three weeks at Boldino—is The Stone Guest, a retelling of the Don Juan legend which departs radically from its treatment in Mozart’s opera and is probably inspired by Pushkin’s idea of Byron and his relations with women—his own relations with them, too. Pushkin’s is the only version of the story in which Don Juan and his last love go down to Hell together, although when the composer Alexander Dargomizhsky later made an opera from The Stone Guest, he seems to have reverted to the dénouement in which retribution befalls the hero alone. In any case he followed the Pushkinian precedent of abandoning the opera unfinished, leaving its completion to his friend Rimsky-Korsakov, who along with Mussorgsky and others wrote several operas based on Pushkin’s plays and stories, the best known being Boris Godunov, while Tchaikovsky composed Evgeny Onegin and The Queen of Spades. It is an aspect of Pushkin’s chameleonic and Shakespearean genius—singled out for special praise in the commemorative eulogy by Dostoevsky—that so many different kinds of writers, artists, and composers were later able to make so rich and varied a use of his work.

But Binyon wisely confines himself in his immensely scholarly and detailed “Life Study” to his hero’s story, as the greatest of Russian poets. Pushkin’s prodigious legacy to Russia’s culture would have required another volume, and with Binyon’s valuable section of notes this one already runs to more than seven hundred pages. And yet it is a biography as easy and as fascinating to read as is the poet’s own prose.

In addition to his many other gifts, Pushkin was a talented draftsman and cartoonist, and Binyon’s pages are embellished with a wonderful collection of sketches—the poet’s wife, his relations and colleagues, his many friends and girlfriends—all gazing vividly out at us, as if we might have known them, in their habits as they lived. They are, as it were, real-life equivalents of the many characters Pushkin created in his poetry and in his prose. Binyon also provides us with family trees of the Pushkin and Gannibal families, a chart of the fourteen civil and military ranks into which Peter the Great had divided the ruling class—a hierarchy which remained in place up to the Revolution—and a map of Pushkin’s journeys, official and unofficial, through Russia. To Binyon’s credit, he makes it possible for a reader to visualize Pushkin on his travels.






















  1. 1

    Penguin, 1977.

  2. 2

    Pushkin: A Comparative Commentary (Cambridge University Press, 1971).

  3. 3

    Harcourt, Brace, 1938.

  4. 4

    Translated by Robert Chandler (Hesperus, 2003).

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