Books: The Meaning of Recognition — Pushkin's Deadly Gift |
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Pushkin's Deadly Gift

Pushkin was a stoat. There are less vulgar ways of putting it, but they wouldn’t fit a sex drive like his. In his earlier amatory career, which appears to have got under way at about the same time as his chin grew its first whisker, he routinely referred to females, compliant or otherwise, as ‘cunt’. On the eve of his marriage, he described, in a letter to a similarly priapic male friend, the blissful state of wedlock as ‘lawful cunt’, which he further defined as ‘a kind of warm cap with ear-flaps’. That was about as reverent on the subject as he ever got in ordinary speech, and fastidious readers of Pushkin who find his ordinary speech hard to square with his extraordinary poetry are unlikely to thank T. J. Binyon for separating ‘in all humility’ the man from the myth. They should, however.

Separating man from myth is the avowed aim of this sumptuous new biography. Mr Binyon has to be commended for having shirked nothing in achieving it. But the question remains of whether it was the man we were wrong about, or the myth. Admirers of the poise, refinement and balance of Eugene Onegin can’t help thinking of its author as poised, refined and balanced too, a paragon destined by his perfection to be rubbed out by a tyrant. The raw facts say that the man was less than that. He was a suicidal hothead, an indefatigable tail-chaser, a prolific spender of other people’s money, a ranting imperialist, a gambler who could never rest until he lost, and altogether a prime candidate for perdition. But what if less than that means more than that? When genius dies young, it attracts a sentimental sympathy: we tend to think of it as an intensified virtue. Here is the evidence that Pushkin’s genius was the intensification of everything, including vice. In many respects he was as vicious as a cornered rattlesnake. But on his rattles he could play a whole cascade of lyrics in which every line rings true. No wonder we wave away the smell of sulphur.

Mr Binyon has breathed it in. Luckily he has not suffered the common fate of biographers who dig up so much dirt on their subject that they feel compelled to heap some of it on his head. Previous biographers of Pushkin have admired their artist. Binyon admires him no less. But he is undoubtedly disenchanted with his man, having thought it wise to be. From the marketing viewpoint, he might have done better to put some of the enchantment back in. John Bayley’s studies of Pushkin — the monograph Pushkin: A Comparative Commentary and the introductory essay to the Penguin edition of Charles Johnston’s unmatchable translation of Eugene Onegin — must remain the first things to read on the subject, with Edmund Wilson’s essays a close second, although the accumulated commentary in Tatiana Wolff’s magnificent bran-tub Pushkin on Literature is still, after thirty years, the most engaging introduction of all for any prospective student who doesn’t mind getting into the poet’s brain before getting into his poetry. Bayley and Wilson share the elementary merit of keeping the miracle of Pushkin’s poetic expression in the foreground, from which we should never allow it to be dislodged for long. Binyon, designedly not writing a critical biography in the usual sense, has declined to make a priority of crying up the poetry’s uniqueness. To that end he might have done well to take it for granted. Instead, he quotes it for purposes of biographical illustration, but in translations done by himself. Scholars will probably find them faithful, but for an ordinary reader they are bound to seem a bit flat. Binyon gives us irregular, unrhymed extracts that might as well be prose. They are more approachable prose than Nabokov’s bizarre rendition of Eugene Onegin, but they are still prose.

* * *

Nabokov, as one great writer serving another, wanted to give us an interlinear lexicon. Instead he gave us a pedigree dog’s breakfast, but at least there was no mistaking it for anything uninspired. Binyon, providing samples not only of Onegin but of all the other major poetry as well, just wants to give us the sense: an aim less diffident than it sounds. In a text otherwise packed with unpredictable information, the translated extracts stand out only for their lack of pressure. A reader making a start with Pushkin is unlikely to be astonished by this material, and the book thus places itself automatically further down the track, as a tool to be employed after a first acquaintance is well established. This is an opportunity missed, because the book could easily have done a double duty if the verse had been presented with something of the appropriate formal punch. If Johnston’s Onegin was not available for contractual reasons, those of us who admired it so volubly when it came out were often inclined to underplay the substantial merits of the Walter Arndt translation it superseded. The Arndt version sometimes dithers when it tries to dazzle, but falls less often than you might think into the usual trap of a strained sprightliness. Binyon avoids that trap by avoiding formal bravura altogether. As a consequence he can only assert Pushkin’s first attraction without illustrating it. In Pushkin’s poetic forms, language assembled itself as if answering the requirements of the human memory. Nabokov called the Onegin stanza ‘an acoustical paradise’, a term that applies just as well to every other form Pushkin employed from childhood onward. Right from the beginning, people couldn’t take their ears off him. ‘The rascal will crush us all,’ said one of his seniors to another. Army officers otherwise unremarkable for their sensibility were quoting him by heart when he was barely out of school. Had Mr Binyon given us a fair idea of that, he might have had a more convincing back-up for his further assertion — by its nature harder to exemplify — that Pushkin was just as astonishing in real life. A twitching victim of the fidgets, he couldn’t keep still for five minutes, but people couldn’t stop listening either. When Pushkin the socialite was on the case, even the dumber fashionable ladies thought they were in the living presence of poetry, and the brighter ones easily assumed that his unprepossessing outer appearance might be a further guarantee of the flaming genius within.

Pushkin had black blood, but it didn’t make him Denzel Washington. It might have done had he had more of it. As things were, his vestigial negritude gave him a distinct edge in the area of his mouth, traditionally one of the few physical points about a man that interest a woman at a first meeting, an occasion in which Pushkin’s mouth was likely to be saying fascinating things, some of them unwarrantably familiar. From chin to eyebrows, here was a face designed to focus female attention. But the rest of him was miscast. A small man with a tall forehead and long arms, he was convinced that his yellow fingernails would be more interesting if worn as long as possible. He was almost certainly wrong about that, yet if he did not always enslave the frequently altering object of desire, he was never less than in with a chance. And the chance was there for the taking. Though the fashionable world was a marriage market in which there were few deals without a dowry, it reeked of glamorous eroticism. Physical beauty was everywhere: even the young men were peacocks, and the women were birds of paradise. A peacock who married a bird of paradise would have been disappointed if she lost her pulling power, whose continued efficacy was the warrant that he had chosen well. Like the Red Army’s female soldiers in the next century, the belles of St Petersburg were back on duty within hours of giving birth: the ballroom was their front line. To look lovely was their reason for being. The susceptible Pushkin was faced with a multiple revelation every night. He was meant to be. That was the way the system worked.

Pushkin got his first taste of the St Petersburg ballrooms in 1817, when he was eighteen years old. On the road to his stamping ground he had already had plenty of practice at going nuts over a pretty skirt. It was standard operating procedure for young noblemen to get a servant girl in the family way and pay her off. Probably adding heartfelt, if temporary, words of love to the payment, Pushkin did not fail to conform. Later on, with his school years barely out of the way, there were always actresses, ballerinas, the ticket girl at the Shrovetide fair. He proclaimed his overwhelming love to all of them, which might even have helped more than it hindered: only good-looking men can afford to play it cool, and ugly poets do better to come on with a lyric in each hand. When the girls of the footlights did not succumb, there were prostitutes to compensate, and clap as a consequence. We can thank the enforced periods of laying up for some of his best early poems. When he was healthy, or thought he was healthy, he was out on the tiles. One of the many valuable aspects of Binyon’s book is how it shows us that we were wrong to suppose that there was no Bohemian world Pushkin might have inhabited had he chosen to, and which might have kept him safe from the dangers of court society. The literary club that called itself the Green Lamp was not entirely a knocking shop, although much of the surviving written correspondence of its members suggests it was. Poems were written and books discussed, even as the attendant women were passed around the circle like kicking parcels. To that extent, a Bohemian world indeed existed, if in primitive form.

He might have helped make it less primitive had he continued to grace it. There was also the occasional literary salon with its resident grande dame, an aristocrat more interested in the arts than in her noble connections. When Pushkin died in 1837, Liszt was already four years into his liaison with the Countess Marie d’Agoult, who put her position aside in order to share his. I had always thought that Pushkin might have lived longer if the same possibility had been available in Russia. Here is proof that it was. Princess Evdokina Golitsyna, also known as the Princess Nocturne because she was rarely seen in daylight, was twenty years Pushkin’s senior but held his love for months, although the negative evidence is strong that he never held her body. (The negative evidence is that Pushkin didn’t claim the victory: usually his friends were informed by letter of any successful encounter immediately after it happened, if not while it was actually happening.) There was not the range of high-born bluestockings that had kept Goethe comfortable throughout his long career, but there were some. Pushkin might, had he wanted to, have found love and understanding in a life of renunciation and internal exile, although the Tsarist censorship would have had its own opinions if he had tried to publish the results. But the subject never came up, because a more exciting world beckoned.

And he really did think it was exciting. There is no point blaming him for it. If he had not been so enthralled by the radiant young beauties of the court, he would not have been able to show us Eugene Onegin being bored by them. On his first exposure to the official beauty parade, Pushkin scarcely had time to be bored himself. Experts in the Third Section having detected traces of incipient liberalism in his correspondence, he was sent south to cool off by personal order of the Tsar, Alexander I. He was lucky not to be sent east, to a far colder reception, but Pushkin already had highly placed admirers ready to speak for him. (Binyon is dauntingly good at quoting the official documents about Pushkin that Pushkin himself never saw.) Touring in the Caucasus, Pushkin was put up by, and was put up with by, a chain of consuls and highly placed officials who could contemplate, without challenging him to a duel, the spectacle of the visiting poet flashing his fingernails at their wives and daughters. He fell in love all over the map. There was thus no rust on his insinuating eloquence when he got back to St Petersburg. The duck was back in the water. A short period of banishment to his home estate at Mikhailovskoe amounted to no more than house-arrest, and, as Mr Binyon points out, it was a chance to get things actually written, instead of merely planned. Otherwise, apart from the odd sojourn in Moscow, St Petersburg was where he would live out the rest of his short life, in a succession of apartments he couldn’t afford because of the succession of card games he couldn’t avoid. And always waiting for him in the evenings were the gold-trimmed mirrors, the high plaster ceilings, the polished floors and the incandescent women: the million-candlepower milieu that we have been so determined to think unworthy of him. We can still think that, as long as we realize that he did not think the same. If he was broken by the life he chose to lead, he was also made by it. Our disappointment is inevitable but eventually absurd.

* * *

There were intelligent onlookers who were disappointed at the time. Some of them were among his censors. His liberal admirers were appalled by his dedication to frivolity. The facts say that he was never as liberal as they thought. Because his poetry breathed life, they thought it breathed liberty. They were right in one respect: raised as a future owner of the family serfs, and destined to traffic in souls because his debts outran by miles anything his work might earn, Pushkin could nevertheless see that there was something wrong with the system of bondage. In Eugene Onegin Tatyana’s nurse is the voice and picture of the eternal Russian slave. Nabokov tried to deny that, because under the Soviet Union the text was routinely adduced as proof of Pushkin’s proto-revolutionary credentials, and Nabokov was properly contemptuous of the regime’s determination to rewrite literary history along with every other kind. But there is no denying it. Uncannily alert to anything in front of his bug eyes, Pushkin probably had sympathy for everyone he met, even for the merchants he cheated by not paying his bills. But he had little sympathy for people he hadn’t met, especially if they were the inhabitants of strange lands that the inexorably expansionist Russia had designs on. His liberal critics were mistaken to suppose that he might take any strong exception to Russian hegemony. In The Captain’s Daughter, the icily clear portent of the mature prose masterpieces he might have written had he lived, he unforgettably evoked the cruelties inflicted by power but never suggested even by implication that power might be cruel in itself. The censorship wouldn’t have let him, of course: but there is no evidence that there was a secret text he couldn’t publish, or even a secret idea that he could not develop into a text. His view on Tsarist power was to have no view.

He might have been prescient: in the long run it would not matter much what the intelligentsia thought about anything. Autocracy was a word that meant what it said: it would take Alexander II to free the serfs, his assassination to reinvigorate the spirit of absolutism, and Nicholas II’s supernatural stupidity — abetted by his cretinous wife — to deny the granting of a constitution in 1905, thereby making revolution certain. What would matter in Russia, all the way to 1917, was the absence of a political class. Belinsky and his fiery friends, rendered desperate by Pushkin’s conformism, were looking to a hero who had no intention of becoming a martyr. In retrospect he was right, but to those who nursed dreams of reform he looked wrong at the time, and some of his opinions would have seemed nasty at any time, even under the Roman empire. Over the question of Poland, he looked forward to the prospect of its intelligentsia being exterminated if they declined to submit: the dead claim no rights. Not much more than a hundred years later, the Soviet secret police would compete with the SS in fulfilling a vision not very different from the poet’s own. Our conclusion must be that Pushkin, while incomparable at providing a full imaginative equivalent of anything he could actually see, was not especially good at imaging anything he couldn’t see. He was friends with Mickiewicz, already hailed when young as Poland’s national poet. The friendship was generous on Pushkin’s part, because the handsome Mickiewicz, on his visits to St Petersburg, demonstrated powers of charm that were bound to overshadow even Pushkin’s own. Mickiewicz, improvising poetry in French, could wow the ladies with a recitation direct from the brain. Pushkin needed pen and paper. But he loved Mickiewicz’s company, and their boat-ride to Kronstadt — the playwright Griboyedov was along for the trip — is one of the occasions when you can’t help thinking: yes, this is it, this is the literary company you should make your life in: stay with it. But when Mickiewicz went into exile rather than return to his threatened country, for Pushkin it was a case of someone else’s fight. He loved the man and admired the poet, but had no comprehension of the patriot. Pushkin was an imperialist after the Tsar’s own heart.

The Tsar by now was Nicholas I, who shared his predecessor’s estimation of Pushkin’s importance but with different results. Alexander had exiled him. Nicholas drafted him. Binyon is able to show that the draftee was willing enough. In a move meant to be flattering, Nicholas appointed himself as Pushkin’s personal censor. It meant that everything Pushkin proposed to publish was still read by everyone who counted in the Third Section, but a decision was not taken until the manuscript reached the very top, on the desk of the supreme serf-owner, the man who owned every soul in the country. The decisions were not as oppressive as we would like to think. We would like to think of the genius being driven to his death on a short rein. And indeed one of Pushkin’s masterpieces, The Bronze Horseman — Binyon rates it above even Eugene Onegin, a rare instance of an unnecessarily original judgement on the biographer’s part — was never published in its author’s lifetime. But the changes Nicholas had asked for were comparatively slight. Pushkin declined to make them because to do so would have been too much proof to himself that he was the Tsar’s property. There was ample proof already. Apart from the standard blanket ban on any foreign travel, and the frightening prospect of being barred from reading in the Voltaire library that Catherine II had bought and installed in the Hermitage, Pushkin’s greatest suffering under the Tsar was the low rank he had been awarded at court. He was a Gentleman of the Chamber: only a few steps up from a flunky. He particularly hated the unbecoming uniform that went with the grade. Sometimes he would rebel by wearing mufti instead, only to be carpeted by the Tsar and informed in front of everyone that the father of all the Russian people was not pleased with one of his favourite sons. But the miscreant had no objections to the compulsory attendance on the Tsar-blessed circuit of social events. It was where the women were.

If there were debutantes today, the smart ones might dream of Daniel Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans: a man to bring danger into their dainty world. In imperial St Petersburg there were no movie stars. What the girls went for was poetry, and Pushkin was famous for it. (One of the myriad telling moments in Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia trilogy is when a noble daughter kisses her copy of Eugene Onegin as if it were the face of the man who wrote it.) He wrought havoc until it became obvious even to him that he had to settle down or fall exhausted. The girl of his choice was the loveliest in the room: Natalya Nikolaevna Goncharova. At this point the reader might care to supplement Binyon’s story of a lifetime with Serena Vitale’s story of a single year, Pushkin’s Button. The single year was Pushkin’s last, and the way she tells us why gives a better idea of the child bride Pushkin was crazy about, and just how crazy he went. Binyon is unbeatable on the hard details of debts and mortgages, but Vitale has a feel for the fabrics and the furniture, and it was Natalya’s passion for a luxurious ambience that would have sunk Pushkin even if he had not got himself shot. Whether she was a zombie or merely enigmatic is an eternal question. Either way, she was a star, and she was high maintenance. Her family was even closer to bankruptcy than his. Pushkin relished her stardom — the thought that the Tsar himself might be after her filled him with proud outrage — and he wanted her to have the best. The debts piled up like Pelion on Ossa. They would have buried him anyway. The bullet was just a quick way out.

The bullet was fired by Baron Georges Charles d’Anthès, a standard-issue Eurotrash lounge lizard who looked snazzy in uniform: always a sore point with Pushkin. The poet had no good reason to be jealous. Like all the other husbands he placed a high value on his wife’s flirting abilities, and flirting was as far as she went. The notorious anonymous letter that some pest sent all over St Petersburg suggesting the contrary had the same substance as the handkerchief in Othello. Unfortunately it also had the same effect. Lucky to be expelled instead of executed — duelling was forbidden by royal decree, and Nicholas had been foolish to believe that Pushkin had listened when told not to even think of it — d’Anthès lived to a rancid old age, still peddling his well-worn line to the well-born ladies and never expressing a single regret that he had killed one of the greatest poetic talents the world had ever known. But our anger is wasted, because Pushkin killed himself. He had always behaved suicidally. The duel that finished him was not his first. Why, when he had so much to live for, was he like that?

The clue is in the brilliant caricatures scattered throughout Binyon’s book, many of which were scattered through Pushkin’s original manuscripts. Pushkin’s visual faculty was without the inbuilt dark glasses of abstraction: he never saw a type, he always saw individuals, and it is a safe bet that when he saw a beautiful woman he was looking at the Creation through an open furnace door. Binyon accepts too quickly Pushkin’s written opinion that women were mentally inferior. The man who invented Tatyana could have thought anything but that. His denigration was a defence mechanism, and it is probable that his coarse language was the same. A pose of raw carnality staved off the unrelentingly repeated impact of the sublime. He was in love every time he lusted, and he was in love not because he saw less than other men but because he saw more. He could see everything, and he probably got sick of it.

TLS, 27 September 2002


The Soviet Union’s machinery of pseudo-scholarship did such a thorough job of turning Pushkin into a harbinger of proletarian consciousness that Nabokov felt bound to turn him into a reactionary. The truth, perhaps tediously, lay somewhere in the middle. Pushkin knew that there was something wrong with serfdom. On the other hand he saw nothing wrong with running up the sort of debts that only selling serfs could pay off. The life of high society called itself the svyet: the Light. Asking Pushkin to stay out of it would have been like locking Maria Callas in a broom cupboard. What mattered was that when he struck a liberal note he sounded as if he had a choir of angels backing him up. That was what Belinsky admired, and lamented the loss of. When this piece was first published, T. J. Binyon, a justly valued mainstay of the TLS, was still alive. He is dead now, so it is perhaps permissible to state a harsh truth. If his book on Pushkin had carried excerpts from Charles Johnson’s translation of Eugene Onegin, beginners would have had the essence of a great, true story in one volume: and now they are still stuck with shopping around. I find it hard to believe that Binyon could not have done a deal. But like many a translator of Pushkin, he had convinced himself that he alone had the secret access to the central purity. Pushkin can drive people coocoo that way. Under the Soviet Union, nearly all the Pushkin operatives in the scholarly apparat were as mad about him as Akhmatova was: they just lacked her talent. (For readers of Russian, Akhmatova’s long essay about Pushkin datelined 1947, when Stalin was still alive, is a daunting example of what great poetry can mean to another great poet who has an implacable state holding a gun to her head.) In the English-speaking scholarship, the three voices that continue to matter belong to Tatiana Wolff, Edmund Wilson and John Bayley, and especially to Bayley. When young, Bayley was a poet with all of Wilson’s formal skills plus a lyrical element of his own — the ideal equipment for a critic who wants to get somewhere near Pushkin. I don’t see how any critic without inside knowledge of the requirements of assembling a tight poetic structure can get within rocket range, but that might be a prejudice. And anyway, such a prejudice is dangerous, by encouraging the false notion that Pushkin might shut out the ordinary reader. The opposite is true. His music can draw anybody in. Tchaikovsky, in the opera of Eugene Onegin, was careful to leave Pushkin’s music virtually intact in the Letter Scene, thus to accompany his own music in one of the work’s most immediately effective passages. Sing along and you’re reciting Pushkin, as all the young people did at the time, without having a clue about how his stanzas were put together.