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…

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