Pushkin has duels every day," remarked Ekaterina Karamzina to Pyotr Vyazemsky in 1820. If this was a slight embellishment of the truth, it was not for want of trying on Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin's part, as the impetuous young poet sought every opportunity to defend his honour as soon as he reached adulthood.
The circumstances of some of his early skirmishes are quite revealing. In January 1822, for example, during his exile in Kishinev, he was challenged by a Colonel Starov for allegedly insulting his regiment - the musicians at a casino one evening played a mazurka Pushkin had requested instead of the quadrille ordered by Starov's fledgling officers. Since the duel was fought in a raging blizzard, the opponents could barely see each other and both missed. The barriers were therefore shortened from 16 to 12 paces, and Pushkin and Starov would have shortened them still further, after missing again, had not their seconds persuaded them to accept a postponement, which led to a grudging truce.
Three months later, Pushkin offered his services as a dueller to one of the many women with whom he was enamoured, promising to avenge her for any offence. When, outraged, she refused, he challenged her husband, and promptly slapped him in the face upon being turned down by him also.
The one encounter not covered in Yakov Gordin's 1996 book on duelling in Russia, Dueli i duelyanty , in which Pushkin features heavily, is the poet's fatal and much-mythologised meeting in 1837 with Baron Georges d'Anthès. A French aristocrat who emigrated to Russia, d'Anthès became the adopted son of the Dutch ambassador Jacob van Heeckeren, as well as his lover, but this did not hinder a prolonged flirtation with Pushkin's beautiful wife, Natalia (a kind of Princess Diana of her day, who also married at 19). Anonymous letters appointing Pushkin as coadjutor to the grand master of the Order of Cuckolds became the gossip of St Petersburg, and a duel became inevitable, particularly after d'Anthès' cynical betrothal to Natalia's sister, Ekaterina.
Gordin rightly claims that the story behind this duel merits a "separate and substantial" publication all on its own and Serena Vitale's gripping account of this event, Il Bottone di Pushkin (1995), more than proves his point. The British publication of this translation felicitously coincides with the 200th anniversary of the poet's birth.
Pushkin's compulsive desire to fight duels (which were of course illegal) partly stemmed from a need to assert independence in a repressive society where even private behaviour was subject to state surveillance. The same rebellious, stubborn streak - symbolised for Vitale by the absence of a button on the back of his overcoat - was also responsible for the circumstances of his needless death, justly elevated here to the proportions of Shakespearean tragedy by the extraordinarily detailed narration of the events that led up to it. Russian duels were far deadlier than those fought in the rest of Europe, as they had to end with at least serious injury to one of the opponents - not difficult when the distance set between the barriers was so short. The average of 25 to 35 paces in France seems rather feeble when compared with the ten paces usually set in Russia. This was the distance set for the duel between Pushkin and d'Anthès, who ironically seems to have owed his survival to the presence of a button (ever alert to matters of haberdashery, Vitale pores at length over Soviet conspiracy theories on this topic).
Drawing on years of painstaking research, Vitale marshals an impressive compendium of hitherto unpublished letters, reminiscences and documents to construct an enthralling story of love, intrigue, death and deception that has a place on the general reader's bookshelf as well as in a scholarly library. The personalities of both antagonists stand out with unparalleled clarity, particularly that of the dastardly d'Anthès, who emerges for the first time from the shadows of Russian obloquy as a three-dimensional human being. Vitale occasionally verges dangerously into Troyat territory ("he froze with fear when he read it"), and her choice of metaphors sometimes seems bizarrely inappropriate (as, for example, when she speaks of "fast-forwarding the tape" of her story), but this is no fault of the translation which overall reads very well. Some of Vitale's more extravagant rhetorical flourishes would make Pushkin's toes curl ("Nicholas I sensed that he and Pushkin would someday stand face-to-face alone, protagonists of the eternal duel between power and impotence, heaviness and lightness..."), but when she sticks to the facts and gets on with the story, her writing is never short of compelling.
Rosamund Bartlett is honorary research fellow in Russian studies, University of Manchester.
Author - Serena Vitale
ISBN - 1 85702 935 6
Publisher - Fourth Estate
Price - £16.99
Pages - 398
Translator - Ann Goldstein and Jon Rothschild