The 'vast phenomenon'

July 14, 1995

Future historians of cultural relations between Britain and Russia will notice a curious fact: the involvement of British diplomats and diplomacy in the life and work of the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. In the second half of this century, at least two senior British diplomats have contributed to Pushkin's recognition and fame in the English-speaking world. One is Sir Charles Johnston, who produced a poetic translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, published in 1979 by Penguin Classics. The other is Robin Edmonds, the author of the book under review, and of four previous books on the history of international relations in the 20th century, mostly concerning Russia and the West.

Pushkin himself served for some time (1817-20) at the Russian ministry of foreign affairs and on at least one occasion (in 1831) published poetic pronouncements on current international relations. Pushkin's friend (and an extraordinary poet in his own right) Alexander Griboyedov, appointed Russian minister in Tehran, was murdered there in 1829 during a riot. In Russia it is believed that the riot was instigated by a British diplomatic intrigue.

At a deeper level, it is quite natural that any serious study of Russia should lead one to Pushkin. This is what happened to Edmonds over half a century ago, at Oxford, where he was first introduced to Pushkin's writing in the original. Later, as an historian of Russia, Edmonds came to appreciate that Pushkin is not just a great poet and prose writer but also one of the most representative figures of modern Russian culture. If one studies Pushkin's life and work in depth, as well as his posthumous reception in Russia, one obtains unique access to some of the basic problems of modern Russian history.

Nowadays, when we in Russia have to define ourselves and our place in the world anew-and the world has to think anew about Russia - Pushkin must be and will be for us (and presumably for others too) one of the key helpers in this work of reassessment. Edmonds quotes the famous words of Alexander Herzen, speaking of Tsar Peter I: "To the tsar's command to the people to become educated, they replied, after one hundred years, with the vast phenomenon of Pushkin."

Indeed, Pushkin was one of the greatest and finest "products" (or shall we say "by-products"?) of those autocratic endeavours, begun by Peter I, to "Europeanise" Russia; to make Russia a (great) European power. Modern (ie post-Petrine) Russian culture may in general be seen as a not quite desired "by-product" of the establishment's political and military efforts. Hence the tormented, often almost schizophrenic self-consciousness of many creators of Russian culture; and hence, among other things, that "characteristically Russian combination of passionate devotion to Russia as a country with contempt for its regime", which Edmonds observes in Pushkin.

The rulers of Russia, from Peter I to Stalin and his successors, did manage to make Russia a European and even a world power. In the meantime cultured Russians managed often, in spite of the efforts of the establishment, to make Russian cultural achievements an integral and most important part of mankind's cultural heritage. This is true in music and in the visual arts, which do not require translations, but also in literature with writers such as Tolstoy, Dostoievsky, Turgenev and Chekhov.

Pushkin, however, though one of the greatest names "at home" (sometimes even called the founder of modern Russian literature), did not belong to this international list until very recently. No doubt one of the main reasons was the difficulty of translating his works (especially his poetry) into other languages. Edmonds believes that "the problem of translating his poetry remains intractable". But this is arguable, as the English-speaking reception of Johnston's translation of Eugene Onegin shows. This translation inspired an Indian poet, Vikram Seth, to write his own - quite remarkable - novel in verse, The Golden Gate, in 1986.

Edmonds mentions Johnston's translation only once and dismissively. He evidently prefers Nabokov's famous study of Eugene Onegin, a literal prose translation with detailed commentaries, to which he frequently refers (though to the commentaries rather than to the translation). In Edmonds's book the copious quotations from Pushkin's poetic works-almost 30 pieces of varied lengths, more than 400 lines in all-are given in the original Russian (in Cyrillic script), accompanied by the author's own prose translations. I will return to this feature in a moment.

As for Pushkin scholarship in the West, Edmonds is more positive. He thinks that "considerable progress has. . . been made in presenting Pushkin's writing to the West, especially in the last 20-odd years". Besides Nabokov, Edmonds cites such scholars as John Bayley, A. D. P. Briggs, Paul Debreczeny, John Fennell, J. Thomas Shaw and Tatiana Wolff. He does not conceal his indebtedness to their work, and it is in the context of them that Edmonds defines the purpose and approach of his book. Having perceived that there seemed to be a major biographical gap "on both sides of the Atlantic", he set out to fill it. He states at the outset that "this book is in no sense a literary biography", it is "a life of Pushkin, studied within the parameters of his historical context. . . a study of his turbulent but creative life, lived at a critical period of Russian history". Edmonds emphasises how his book differs from the well-known French biography of Pushkin written by Henri Troyat, and reminds us that Nabokov once dismissed that book as a "biographie romancee, tritely written and teeming with errors".

In other words, Edmonds's Pushkin is the work of a professional historian venturing for the first time into the field of literary history. This has certain obvious advantages and also, less obviously, some disadvantages. One wishes that the author was as much at home in the history of Russian literature, as he is in the political history of the country. Quite a number of statements about Russian literary history are not accurate or, at best, incomplete. (And there are slips in non-literary matters too. For instance, the date of the assassination of the Tsar Alexander II is given as February 17 1881 whereas it should be March 1 1881; the portrait of Adam Mickiewicz is ascribed to Pushkin, when it was actually drawn by a German called J. Schmeller.) Above all, the passages in Russian, both in Cyrillic script and in Roman transliteration, are full of misprints. I would recommend readers who do not know Russian rather well to skip the quotations from Pushkin's poems given in the original, because the misprints will seriously perplex them. For them the book's English prose translations will suffice. They are mostly quite readable and reliable, though they contain some inaccuracies too. Nevertheless, I am forced to the conclusion that Russian culture remains alien enough to the West, such that even a major British publishing house could not find editors and proofreaders competent to publish a book on a great Russian poet properly.

Still, Edmonds's book may interest scholars in Russia to a certain extent. The very fact that the book has originated from a different cultural background is of value to us. Here and there it contains some unexpected insights, some telling shifts of accent which might make us think in new ways. It is more difficult for me to judge what might be its significance in the English-speaking world. If there is indeed a demand for a biography of Pushkin, the book will fill that need. Any general reader or student newcomer to the study of Russian literature, wishing to know the basic facts of Pushkin's life, may find this book useful. But if it proves a commercial success and there is a second edition, I suggest that the book be re-edited and, in particular, that all Russian words - names, titles and poems - be meticulously corrected.

Sergei Serebriany is a research fellow, the Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow.

Pushkin: The Man and His Age

Author - Robin Edmonds
ISBN - 0 333 59209 3
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £17.50
Pages - 303

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