Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Portrait Captures Parodoxes of Poet




Several years ago, I spent a long and arduous winter in Moscow trying to learn Russian. My tutor was an exacting woman who was quick to notice the difficulties I had with the devilish case system, the verbal aspects and all those slippery idiomatic tricks the language has to play. So she sent me off each day with a stanza or two of verse to learn by rote. As a result I was able to quote lines of Pushkin long before I could buy a loaf of bread. But I soon learned that if you knew a bit of Pushkin you didn't need to buy bread; everyone was your friend.


It would be hard to overstate the importance of Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin in the Russian literary pantheon. Before him there were a few minor poets, a fund of folk tales, a number of eschatological texts, little more. After him, came Mikhail Lermontov and Nikolai Gogol and Ivan Turgenev and Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy and all the brilliance of the Silver Age.


Not one of these writers would have been possible without Pushkin; not one of them failed to acknowledge their debt to him in panegyric or, more flattering still, in imitation.


In Russian literature he combines the unassailable style of Shakespeare with the exemplary poet's life of Byron. He is a greater national figure than either.


"In Russia," said that literary icon of the 1960s, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, "a poet is more than a poet" ("And," quipped a colleague in response, "a cow is less than a cow").


In a new biography, Pushkin, Elaine Feinstein stresses the poet's pre-eminence by, among other things, quoting a scold well-known to Russian children: "Who do you think's going to close the door behind you - Pushkin?"


There is certainly room for another biography. Pushkin is under-read in the West, and Henri Troyat's engaging account is out of print. Robin Edmonds wrote a commendable, workman-like biography several years ago, but concentrated less on the work than Pushkin's historical context.


Feinstein herself is a poet who has in the past produced perhaps the best translation of Marina Tsvetaeva's poems. In justifying this new book she promises to bring the work back to the fore - a promise she only partly fulfills.


Born in 1799 to an ancient and impoverished noble family, Pushkin lived his entire life in the stifling milieu of the tsarist autocracy. When not attending St. Petersburg's salons, or the theater, or walking at designated times in the park, he was banished to the provinces, his every movement scrutinized and constrained by the tsar's secret police.


Each line of his published work was inspected by the censor, a task which, when his fame grew, Tsar Nicholas I himself undertook. He never went abroad. He once crossed the Caucasus to visit the newly conquered regions of eastern Anatolia; in his brilliant "Journey to Erzurum," he shows the effect of this brief physical flight on his soaring imagination - an interlude which Feinstein does not give the attention it deserves.


Pushkin was, by his own admission, a fat and ugly child. He grew up to be short and ugly and an ungainly dancer. After leaving school, where he did not excel, he fell into a dissolute round of drinking, gambling and brothel-hopping. He behaved badly at the theater, bawling out subversive comments and applauding by slapping bald heads in the audience. He was too indiscreet, too mercurial, to be approached by the plotters of the Decembrist revolt. He was quick to take offense, frequently involved in duels, and often cynical and cutting in his manner.


At 21, his bawdy verses caused him to be exiled to the south, where he languished, playing billiards with himself, flirting unwisely with officials' wives and sleeping with servant girls.


That is one Pushkin. Though lazy at school, he was also recognized as exceptional. His vitality and wit later made him brilliant company, more appealing to women than many a dashing hussar. He was generous, and never let his own unrelenting poverty get in the way of helping friends.


After nights of carousing, he would rise early to compose and correct the verses that are among the finest in any language. Few of his contemporaries were unable to quote lines from them, and his work was found with all the Decembrists. The executions and exiles of these rebels haunted Pushkin for the rest of his life.


In presenting these paradoxes, Feinstein has produced an impressively rounded and compelling portrait of one of literature's great figures. Yet however remarkable his life, however tragic his early death, at age 37, in an ignominious duel, the fascination of Pushkin remains in his work. Like the music of Mozart, his verses leave the uncanny impression of having emerged fully formed.


His plainly put descriptions produce scenes with a cinematic intensity. The lightness of both his prose and poetry belie a profound understanding of human passions, of what makes men and women behave as they do. He was a master of voice and tone, who also produced a number of convincing historical dramas.


Feinstein is right to attribute a large part of Pushkin's personality to a sense of otherness. His great-grandfather was an Ethiopian slave, spotted by the Russian ambassador in a Turkish seraglio and given to Peter the Great as a gift. In Pushkin, this much-traveled man's features appeared more noticeably than in any other member of his family. But nothing can really explain Pushkin's genius.


If Feinstein's biography fails to convey his essential exhilaration, it is perhaps because since that snowy morning in January 1837 when he fell, mortally wounded by his wife's seducer, Pushkin has lived only in his work. The success of her book should be measured in how urgently it drives us all to read and re-read "Eugene Onegin," the poems and the short and perfectly-formed stories.


"Pushkin" by Elaine Feinstein. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 309 pages. pounds 20.00 ($33).


Philip Marsden's books include "The Spirit-Wrestlers" and "The Bronski House."