Pushkin’s Button is as compelling as Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot, and deserves to be as widely read. Pushkin’s fatal duel, like Flaubert’s love life, is a subject on which much darkness has settled, and a riddle whose solution promises a revelation about every other aspect of genius. Like Barnes, Serena Vitale has a novelist’s gift for enthralling the reader with what seems to be an arcane obsession. Unlike Barnes, however, she makes nothing up and, when documentation fails, she never lets her fine intuition, however strongly it tugs her, shed false light on the mystery that surrounds Pushkin’s demonic personality and his tragic end.
This year, the bicentenary of Pushkin’s birth, will witness dozens of studies, popular and academic, in all the major languages of the world. Nevertheless, it is unlikely to see a better biographical study than this, even though the original Italian version appeared in 1995 and Vitale’s research for the book stopped around 1994.
Vitale focuses on Pushkin’s last duel, the intrigues around him and the forces in his character and in Russia’s social and intellectual structures that led to this absurdly premature end to a poetic career in its prime. By understanding Pushkin ‘s death – as far as his enigmatic nature and the dishonesty and silences of so many perpetrators and witnesses allow – we can grasp something of his life. The death wish that he had expressed from boyhood and the unaccountable guilt which haunted him form, in Vitale’s account, a connection between his elegiac lyrics and the perverse gaucheries of his relationships. What Vitale has seized on for her title and prevailing metaphor – Pushkin’s missing button at the back of his formal coat – symbolises a refusal to conform, even in minor things and even at the risk of major consequences.
The independence of Pushkin’s temperament is inseparable from the originality and perfection of his poetry, but the latter quality is something that English readers have to take on trust. Few adequate translations of his verse are available for the non-Russian reader, but Vitale conveys so vividly the tortured processes of Pushkin’s mind during his last days that they become convincing testimony to his poetic genius. She begins with the end and takes us back to the middle, which is the only way to unravel a knot. Her study thus has a Nabokovian subtlety of construction, which copes with the mass of information and documentation that previous research and her own massive archival excavations have unearthed. What emerges from Vitale’s handling of this material – including much that was hitherto unknown to Pushkin scholars – is that Pushkin was, like Frankenstein, destroyed by his own creations. His killer, that charming and amoral poseur D’Anthès, was a parody of Pushkin’s own Evgeni Onegin, who came to insult and then kill Lensky, a poet as sensitive and volatile as his creator (if far less significant). In D’Anthès there was something of every bearer of nemesis Pushkin had ever devised, just as in himself there proved to be the vulnerability of his own Mozart, the poor Evgeni of The Bronze Horseman, or the poet of ‘The Egyptian Nights’.
For a hundred and fifty years Russian scholars have given the enigma of Pushkin‘s death intense attention. Anna Akhmatova’s study was transfixed by virulent hatred for Pushkin’s stupid and frivolous young wife, who failed to turn either D’Anthès or her husband away from their fatal collision path. Others have dismissed D’Anthès and his patron, lover and adoptive father, the Dutch ambassador Baron Heeckeren, as wicked foreigners who were heedless of the consequences of their erotic intrigues. Vitale does not exonerate anyone, but she has such a masterful command of the contradictory sources that a full psychological picture of all the main characters emerges.
D’Anthès does not become more loveable, but we can now understand why others loved him for his mixture of helplessness, wit and bravura. Baron Heeckeren is cast in the role of an inverted Mephistopheles, who always wants the good but does the bad, who has sold his own soul and failed to buy his protégé’s. Above all, Nicholas I, a tsar for whom nobody but his chief of police ever wept, and whom dozens of Russian luminaries have dismissed as ‘the gendarme of Europe’, a cold fish and a murderous hypocrite, assumes human form at last. His relationship with Pushkin is an elaborate game between two seekers of immortality. (If Nicholas is to gain his, perhaps Vitale will have to write his biography: to judge by this subtle and profound study, she is uniquely qualified for the task.)
One of the worst aspects of British publishing is a disdain for translators . Here, however, Fourth Estate have at least named the translators on the title page. Ann Goldstein and Jon Rothschild, who enjoyed full collaboration with Vitale, deserve lavish praise. There is not a sentence that does not read as if it had been composed in English – and yet Vitale’s fiery, direct style often seems quintessentially Italian. Furthermore, all the Russian names have survived the double process of transliteration from Cyrillic into Italian and then into English. The copy I am reviewing is in proof form, but all the signs indicate that Fourth Estate have given this work scrupulous editorial attention: the notes and annotated index make it a scholarly edition of the highest standard. Pushkin’s Button should be bought, read and emulated.