The Pushkin Boom

This is the twenty-fifth anniversary of an essay on Pushkin that Edmund Wilson published in the Atlantic at a time (December, 1943) when one normally began by saying that Pushkin was a Russian poet. The next year Vladimir Nabokov, who was not then so well known himself, brought out a little book of translations called Three Russian Poets (New Directions) and opened the biographical note on Pushkin with a brisk paralcipsis: “It seems unnecessary to remind the reader that Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) was Russia’s greatest poet but it may be. preferable not to take any chances.”

Comparison between the forties and the present warms the heart of a Russianist, for Pushkin, if only by hearsay, has begun to take his place with Goethe and Dante, and it would appear that a small Pushkin industry has sprung up among the scholars. The latter results no doubt from the general boom in Russian studies, but the former must owe a good deal to Nabokov’s monumental edition of the central masterpiece, Eugene Onegin. Where do we stand now?

The best of these books, happily and naturally, is the one that gives us most of Pushkin—his letters. His natural language was Russian poetry — so natural, in fact, that once you’ve learned to hear him it seems as if the Olympians themselves must have spoken his Russian iambics — but it is customary to regard his prose as faintly still. Of his formal prose this may be occasionally true, but if it were said of his letters it would be preposterously wrong. We are much in the debt of J. T. Shaw for what is evidently a heroic accomplishment. He has translated with sensitivity and verve practically all the letters of one of the greatest epistolary artists who ever lived. I belong without apology to those who prefer the letters to the narrative prose — and on grounds of purely subjective human interest. Pushkin himself is a more absorbing and delightful human riddle than any character that he ever imagined, since, after all, his greatest imaginings are conveyed in the form of Russian consonants and vowels: in the texture of his verse. And the letters transmit the man intact, if “intact” be taken to mean “with all his inconsistencies.”

Pushkin’s real life is welded together by one or two iron traits (dignity, an almost Samurai-like pride of ancestry and position, a gay disdain for the sloppy and the sentimental, an irreverence for conventional pieties, coupled with a profoundly Russian reverence for the simplest human decencies—the decencies that highbrows from Pushkin to Virginia Woolf have associated with the common people), but as an artist he was unendingly various. In his letters he was never less than an artist. There are stiff things, painful reading, to officials from the Czar on down upon whose beneficence the greatest poet of Russia depended from day to day for the right to publish and even to move about. There is also a good deal of graceful nonsense and a lot of Russian profanity, from much of which, unfortunately, the editor withdraws into a tepid “good taste.”

The Letters of Alexander Pushkin

translated by J. Thomas Shaw (Wisconsin, $7.50)

The Complete Prose Tales of Alcxandr Sergeyevitch Pushkin

translated by Gillon R, Aitken (Norton, $6.95)

Pushkin: A Biography

by David Magarshack (Grove, $7.50)

Pushkin: Death of a Poet

by Walter N. Vickery (Indiana, $5.75)

Pushkin’s imaginative prose, of which we now have the first complete English version, is in two senses a book of beginnings. The first sense is literal: the poet turned to prose “late” in life, was shot to death at age thirty-seven, and never finished such marvelously promising things as the novel Dubrovsky or The History of the Village of Gorukhino. The second sense is dynastic: from Pushkin’s prose, finished or unfinished, one can derive an astonishing amount of Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. The almost unbearable compression and tension of Dostoevsky, the very confinement of the human stew by the architecture of rooms with four walls and a low ceiling, can be sensed in The Queen of Spades. Among the myriad personages murdered by the bullet of d’Anthes that January day was a certain “little man,” Ivan Petrovich Belkin, a deliciously pathetic and comic character with whom Pushkin’s imagination had been toying. Thanks first to Gogol and then to Dostoevsky, he did not wholly die, and his progeny extended to Olesha and even to Osip Mandelstam. Gillon R. Aitken is not so familiar with Pushkin or with Russian as might have been wished, but his translation is honest and adequate.

Reviewing David Magarshack’s biography in the London Observer, John Bayley, author of an eccentrically brilliant book on Tolstoy, concluded that Pushkin was apparently just not promising material: he had a dull life. That, I am afraid, is a conclusion justified by Magarshack’s biography, but only by that (see the letters). One of the continuing oddities of Russian scholarship is the Jack of any complete description of Pushkin’s life. It is, however, likely that scholars are fazed more by the complexity of the job than by any risk of tedium. The fact is that Pushkin’s life was only too full of the sort of external event that lends interest to biographies, and as for intricacies of the spirit, he offers a challenge that may be many things, but not boring. Magarshack’s biography is a scissors-and-paste confection of translated excerpts, held together by a perfunctory “continuity,” and it manages to be tiresome on a subject of intrinsic fascination.

In the two best known of his characters, the hero and heroine of his verse novel, Eugene Onegin, Pushkin left unexampled portraits of pride — not that this single trait obscures the intricacy of their natures. And it was his own pride that led to his downfall. Alter the standard lighthearted career of multiple amours and a good deal of derisory comment on the whole notion of marriage, Pushkin settled down, with some of the worst misgivings of his life, to domestic existence with one woman, an enchanting and fickle beauty, Natalia Goncharova. His aristocratic pride humiliated by an enforced position as a minor figure at the Czar’s court and his masculine pride outraged by evidence of his wife’s attraction to others, or of theirs to her, Pushkin finally wrote a venomously insulting letter that was meant to evoke a challenge to a duel, and did. The whole squalid story of the court intrigues and the personal sordidness that led to one of the world’s greatest literary geniuses being shot in the abdomen and then dying a lingering death of two days’ duration has been often recounted in the minutest possible detail, but never in English. Walter Vickery has had the happy notion of sifting through the whole mess again, step by step, and with all the precautions against being duped that common sense can provide. What he comes up with is inevitably not new, nor does he suggest that it is, but even familiar narratives acquire a certain novelty when they are purveyed with intelligence and a flair for highlighting the available drama.