Untimely ebb of an ocean of talent

Pushkin
November 14, 2003

One of his contemporaries observed that other poets compare with Alexander Pushkin as rivers to the sea. Yet, despite Pushkin's status as the Russian equivalent of a Shakespeare, Dante or Cervantes, he has never enjoyed widespread popularity in Britain. One hopes that T. J. Binyon's prizewinning biography will prompt further interest in him, as well as generating fresh attempts to undertake the difficult task of rendering his work in English.

In Russia, Pushkin's image has been tailored, often rather cynically, to fit various causes, from Dostoevsky's Russian messianism to the Soviet campaign for universal literacy. Binyon therefore declares that his primary aim is to "free the complex and interesting figure of Pushkin the man from the heroic simplicity of Pushkin the myth". He undoubtedly succeeds, giving a businesslike and detached account that, despite containing no major revelations or unearthing any new sources, does challenge some common misconceptions. While the Soviet myth of Pushkin cast him as a committed progressive, for instance, Binyon shows that, in spite of the state interference that dogged his career, the mature poet was in favour of autocracy.

The biography is conventional in format. It begins with a sure-footed discussion of Pushkin's ancestry, childhood and education, before moving on to chart his subsequent years in St Petersburg. Binyon paints a vivid picture of Pushkin's dissolute lifestyle and - in contrast to more prudish commentators - takes evident delight in reproducing several of his more scatological and sexually suggestive epigrams.

Pushkin's frivolous existence in St Petersburg was brought to an end when he was sent into internal exile, aged only 20, as punishment for writing in a satirical vein. The extent to which his movements were monitored thereafter (even his father was co-opted into informing on him) indicates a paranoia on the part of the authorities about the seditious power of art, which is almost equal to that manifested in the Soviet era.

When Pushkin returned from exile, Tsar Nicholas I appointed himself as his personal censor. The poet was initially delighted with this arrangement, which allowed him to bypass the notoriously strict and often absurd censorship apparatus. But the tsar turned out to be an unsophisticated reader who utterly failed to comprehend the formal innovation of Boris Godunov .

Binyon's account is at its most fascinating in the final chapter, which reconstructs the sequence of events that led to Pushkin's untimely demise.

That this should be the most engrossing part of the book is not surprising, given the inherently dramatic nature of the tale (the real-life story is strikingly reminiscent of the circumstances leading to the duel in Pushkin's own Eugene Onegin ). The villain of the piece is Georges d'Anthès, a Frenchman, who became infatuated with Pushkin's beautiful wife, Natalya, stalking her obsessively. Although previous commentators have alleged an affair, Binyon views Natalya as entirely innocent of any wrongdoing.

A salacious subplot is provided by the extraordinary relationship between d'Anthès and Baron van Heeckeren, minister for the Netherlands in St Petersburg.

Heeckeren passed d'Anthès off as his son, but he was in reality his lover (and just to complicate matters further, d'Anthès also had a mistress). Incredibly, the baron even aided and abetted d'Anthès in his attempts to seduce Natalya and humiliate Pushkin. Binyon gives a lucid, balanced account of the whole sorry affair, which culminated in the duel between d'Anthès and Pushkin in which the latter received a fatal wound.

Binyon confines himself to the facts of Pushkin's life and does not engage in extensive analysis of his works, quite properly viewing this as the "province of the critic, rather than the biographer". His avoidance of the pitfalls of literary biography is salutary, but means that the extent to which Pushkin self-consciously blurred the boundaries between life and art is not discussed. Frustratingly, the peculiarly apposite epigraphs taken from Eugene Onegin , which head some of Binyon's chapters, draw the reader's attention to this neglected angle.

The meticulously precise sifting of the minutiae of Pushkin's life undoubtedly makes this biography invaluable for students and academics.

However, the sheer volume of detail may serve to detract from the casual reader's enjoyment and the vast array of peripheral characters is rather overwhelming (although Binyon's verbal portraits of Pushkin's acquaintances are enlivened by the inclusion of the poet's own sketches of many of them alongside the text).

The somewhat leaden translations of Pushkin's poetry also mar the overall effect. Binyon has undoubtedly succeeded in conveying as far as possible the literal meaning of the original, but those features of Pushkin's verse that make him so distinctive for Russians are entirely sacrificed in the process. A reader without Russian encountering Pushkin for the first time might well have difficulty understanding what all the fuss is about.

Pushkin certainly deserves the praise it has attracted. It is meticulously researched and beautifully written, giving a thorough and often witty account of the life and times of its precociously talented and complex subject. Its publication is in itself a significant literary event: this is the first really substantial biography of Pushkin to have emerged in either English or Russian since the centenary of his death in 1937.

Alexandra K. Harrington is lecturer in Russian, University of Durham.

Pushkin: A Biography

Author - T. J. Binyon
Publisher - HarperCollins
Pages - 731
Price - £30.00 and £10.00
ISBN - 0 00 215084 0 and 637338 0

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