Pushkin: A Biography by T J Binyon - review by John Bayley

John Bayley

As He Lay Dying, He Called for Cloudberries

Pushkin: A Biography


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As a poet Pushkin is almost too good. By which I mean that, like Dante in Italy, and Goethe for the Germans, he brought a language and the essential or absolute nature of it poetry definitively together. Every literate Russian literally owns him. Not for nothing did a minor Russian poet of the early twentieth century, Valery Bryusov, write a book – and a good book, too – simply entitled My Pushkin. There is no English equivalent of this. We don’t talk about ‘My Chaucer’ or ‘My Shakespeare’, although a character .in Jane Au ten, a rather louche fellow as it happens, remarks that Shakespeare is in our blood, and we don’t actually have to read him to understand and to love him.

Unfortunately, it seems an equally essential part of Pushkin’s absoluteness as a poet that his poetry can’t be translated. In another language it be comes something quite different, and quite banal. ‘I’m afraid he’s just flat, your great poet,’ exclaimed a perplexed Flaubert, when Turgenev tried to translate some wondrously graphic bits of the Russian master for him. The cunning Nabokov solved the problem to his own satisfaction by rendering Evgeny Onegin into Nabokovese – a weird pseudo-simplicity that sounds like nothing else in either language. But Pushkin’s great asset, though he may be untranslatable, is that his own words are marvellously easy to read. His beautiful simplicity is such that after only a week or so of learning Russian a reader can work through him with a crib, and see why he is one of the greatest of poets, and why his words present a language at its very best and most beautiful.

Nonetheless, it is next to impossible to produce a study of his poems in English which will convey how good they are; and Dr Binyon, our leading and outstanding Pushkin scholar, has wisely decided to allow his subject’s greatness as a writer and poet to appear between the lines, as it were, of a biography that is as gripping as it is comprehensive. No other work on Pushkin on the same scale, and with the same grasp of atmosphere and detail, exists in English, or in any other language apart from Russian.

And Pushkin is well worth writing about. Like his younger near-contemporary Lermontov, he was a remarkable man, a man of action as well as a poet, and he lived a remarkable life, dying in a duel at the age of thirty-seven. His father’s family were old-established Russian gentry, more or less impoverished and not distinguished for anything much, although they thought highly of themselves and their illustrious name. His 1nother’s family, the Gannibals, were by contrast much more exceptional, if only because their founder had been one of a pair of little Negro boys presented in 1704 by a Turkish embassy to Peter the Great. The elder brother, christened Aleksey, became a bandsman in the army and vanished from history, but Abram, the Tsar’s special favourite, was sent off to study military engineering in France.

He was clearly a clever and resourceful little fellow. He returned to Russia calling himself  ‘Gannibal’, having no doubt picked up the name from his military studies of the great Carthaginian’s campaigns – and as no H exists in Russian, Hannibal takes on a G instead . Back home, he had a successful military career, married a well-connected woman, and ended up a Major-General, even though the Tsar’s successors did not show him the same favour as Peter had done. The ensuing Gannibals went into commerce – the Russian gentry had no inhibitions about that – but the family of the beautiful eighteen-year old whom the poet was to marry was not much better off financially than the Pushkin themselves.

Pushkin’s mother and father were not interested in the poet; they preferred his sister and his younger brother Lev, but in any case the family was not close. His grandmother and his old nurse were his chief educators (his nurse and the fairy stories she told him are commemorated in some of his mot magical poems), and in youth he had a happy gift for making friends, and for keeping them. He read French poetry, and Byron in a French translation, and was soon writing poems of his own – poems which, like the wonderful prologue and fairy tale Ruslan and Lyudmila, seem to convey the whole scent and succulence of the Russian language, and are at the same time charming fantasies and unseriously sophisticated presentations of Russian social life – they were fabulous gifts for his friends and a growing circle of young admirers.

Binyon is particularly good on the background and social detail of Pushkin ‘s life, which are as full of fascination and of incident as his poems and prose stories. As Binyon observes, ‘his brief life was even more dramatic and turbulent than the figures of his literary imagination.’ Byron is of course similar in that respect – personality and romance were part of the poetic climate of the age; and like Byron, Pushkin was extremely superstitious and believed in the power of fate, indeed was almost obsessed by it. Fate dominates his poetic tale The Gypsies, and the same besoin de la fatalité determined the major events of his life, most notably his marriage, and the duel that resulted from it.

Pushkin spent periods – writing all the time – at Kishinev in Southern Russia and in the Caucasus, acting in a vaguely assistant capacity to various officials and generals. He was always falling in love and writing wonderful poems about the experience, and he was popular not only with the official but also with their wives, who were always charmed by him, even though they might remain ‘just good friends’. His gift for friendship with either sex never deserted him, and in this, as in so much else, he was very different from Byron, who ‘had to get off with women because he couldn’t get on with them’.

Unlike Byron, or any other important French or English poet of the era, Pushkin never invented his own personality, or proclaimed it in what he wrote. Unlike Wordsworth or Goethe, he was emphatically not ‘a traveller whose tale is only of himself’. Evgeny Onegin is in no way a self-portrait, but a masterly study of a type, afterwards to be known in Russia as ‘the superfluous man’, who was to become all too common in Russian upper-class society in the post-Napoleonic era. Peter the Great’s statue and spirit brood over Pushkin ‘s great poem ‘The Bronze Horseman’, his other major poetic masterpiece, a miraculously clear-eyed and objective vision of how power works in Russia, its ruthless achievements, and the tyranny it exerts over the ‘little man’, the poor clerk who in the poem briefly and fatally challenges the greatness of Peter, and shakes his fist at the overwhelming statue.

So, in their own way, did the aristocratic Decembrists, who conspired to challenge the power of Peter’s descendant, Tsar Nicholas I. Pushkin knew most of them, and swore that, if he had not been stationed far off in Southern Russia at the time, he would have been with them on the great square in St Petersburg, on the day of their brief rebellion. After its failure, all were hanged or sent into Siberian exile. But fate had another end in store for Pushkin. His young wife, Natalia Goncharova, who had borne him three children, was genuinely fond of him, but she was as flirtatious as Pushkin was jealous, and her beauty made her ambitious to shine in court circles. Nicholas himself was smitten with her, and to Pushkin’s intense irritation the Tsar made him a junior official at court so that his wife would always be there on display. D’Anthes, a young Frenchman in the Guards, promptly fell in love with her.

Binyon tells the conclusion of the tragic story very well indeed. Pushkin’s friends did everything they could to dissuade him from challenging his rival to a duel, but it was no good. The poet’s African blood was up, and he was determined to kill d’Anthès if he could. He very nearly did, for although mortally wounded by his opponent’s shot, he contrived to fire his own pistol from where he lay and hit d’Anthès in the chest, but the shot was deflected by the buttons on the guardsman’s jacket. Fate had quite a way with its darling poet. As he lay dying in his house in St Petersburg he called for a dish of his favourite dessert, stewed cloudberries, while outside a crowd of readers and admirers from all walks of life was gathering. The Tsar was not sorry to be rid of him, and before her remarriage his beautiful widow probably became for a while the imperial mistress. She received a pension; her husband’s very considerable debts were paid; their children were suitably educated. To the worldly-wise it was nobody’s fault and things ended up quite satisfactorily, except that Russia had lost her greatest poet at a moment when his creative genius was in full flow, and no doubt on the brink of many further masterpieces. D’Anthès lived on for nearly fifty years and ended up as a French senator, never expressing a word of remorse for having killed Russia’s poet.

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