Arts: Sex, size and schizophrenia

Pushkin was a poet of paradoxes. Misogynist or feminist? Heretic or Christian? One thing is certain: he wasn't a tall man.

A few years ago Isaiah Berlin's book choice for Desert Island Discs was The Complete Works of Pushkin. To many it came as a surprise, since outside Russia Pushkin is usually regarded as a rather lightweight figure in world literature. In England he is known as "the Russian Byron", a hot-tempered, libidinous roue who died in a duel at the age of 37.

Yet things could change with the bicentenary of his birth, in 1999. Pushkin- mania, it seems, may be about to sweep through Britain. A new film of his epic poem, Eugene Onegin, starring Ralph Fiennes, is due for release next year. Before that, several books will appear, following a recently published biography by Elaine Feinstein, which will emphasise Pushkin's importance as a writer of international stature. There is even a Pushkin Bicentennial Trust, chaired by his great-great-great-granddaughter - one of several Pushkin descendants living in this country.

In Russia, however, Pushkin's importance as a national figure has never been in question. The author of poetry, fiction, plays and non-fiction, he is a staple feature of every Russian syllabus. Every Russian schoolchild learns some of his poems by heart. His status there is equivalent to that of Goethe in Germany or Shakespeare in Britain.

If the test of a canonical writer is his ability to appeal to different generations for different reasons, then Pushkin must certainly qualify as a genius. Anthony Briggs, the editor of a forthcoming collection of essays entitled Why Pushkin? (Hazar Publishing), explains: "Pushkin is so protean that every person or group can appropriate him for their own interests. For instance, in the Pushkin celebrations of 1881, Dostoevsky portrayed him as a great Russian nationalist; whereas in the Soviet era he was portrayed as a great proto-revolutionary because of his tenuous connections with the Decembrist revolt of 1825." Now, ironically, it is the Russian Orthodox Church that is championing him as a devoted Christian, despite his having written a number of blasphemous, even heretical, poems.

In modern-day Britain, however, Pushkin appeals directly to our sensibilities because of his complex perspective on race and gender. Much can be made, for instance, of the fact that his great-grandfather was an African slave who was adopted by Peter the Great. Indeed, Pushkin inherited some of his family's pronounced African features, as seen by his dark skin and frizzy hair.

But while his mother was known as the "beautiful Creole", Pushkin was less physically attractive, and in his early French poem, Mon Portrait, he even describes himself as having "a proper monkey's face".

In her new biography, Feinstein argues that much of Pushkin's greatness stems from the sense of otherness that his looks, among other things, engendered. Feinstein argues that "Pushkin, well aware of the strand of rashness and passion in his make-up, ascribed it often and proudly to his black ancestry". This was evident not only in the poems about himself, but in those where he identified with other ethnic groups, such as the gypsies and the Jews.

Yet his attitude towards race, as with everything else, was paradoxical. Having initially boasted of his ancestry, he became disillusioned with it when it became the subject of mockery by members of the Tsar's court. His confusion can be seen in a poem about the vicissitudes of sexual attraction, called To Yurev: "While I, always an idle rake/Ugly descendent of a Black/Reared in a wilderness, can take/No pleasure in the pains of love. Whenever I have won a beauty/It is through shameless, hot desire." Indeed, if Pushkin's attitudes towards race were complicated, his feelings about sexuality were no less puzzling.

Pushkin is usually thought of as a Don Juan figure, seducing his way through the Russian aristocracy in imitation of his hero, Byron, whose portrait hung on his wall. He even, notoriously, compiled a "Don Juan list" of sexual conquests, and composed bawdy verses reflecting his fascination with erotica.

Again, there is a paradox, for while his attitude towards women was often derogatory, he appears to have idolised them in equal measure. Many of his relationships followed a familiar pattern, whereby his respect for them diminished as intimacy increased. He once said: "The less one loves a woman, the surer one is of possessing her." In his treatment of them it was, as Elaine Feinstein comments, as if he had taken to heart Alexander Pope's dictum that "most women have no character at all".

Perversely, however, he appears to have made a distinction between his views of them in real life and in his work. Recently on Radio 3's Private Passions, Claire Tomalin described Eugene Onegin as a work with clear feminist sympathies. In it, the heroine, Tatyana, falls in love with the hero, Onegin, and sends him a letter propositioning him.

Flummoxed by this act of female assertiveness, he rejects her, but then subsequently falls in love with her; by which time it is too late and she has married someone else. As Tomalin says, "There is no question that Tatyana emerges as the dominant force in the story".

In a sense, Pushkin's schizophrenic attitude towards women can be related to the culture in which he lived. The atmosphere of the Tsarist court in the early 19th century was a very laddish one, where women were primarily valued for their beauty, and men fought duels over them, sometimes for the most trivial of reasons. Pushkin fought at least six that we know of, and they usually involved someone else's wife. Ironically, in the one which killed him he was the innocent party.

A psychoanalyst would, of course, explain his eagerness to fight in terms of insecurity about his masculinity. He was, after all, only five feet tall, and remorselessly neglected by his mother as a child. But there were other factors, too, such as the acute sense of impotence that he suffered under the Draconian censorship of Tsar Nicholas I. There was also what Anthony Briggs describes as the "cultural aridity" of the court, and Pushkin's growing financial humiliation caused by his father's refusal to give him any money. Yet, despite or perhaps because of a wealth of insecurities, he continued to write poetry of wisdom and maturity.

Naturally, in interpreting it thus, there is a danger of ascribing too many of our own values to an age which was fundamentally different. But with so many modern parallels it is surprising that Pushkin's work has so far remained largely unfamiliar to the Western reader. With the publication of a new collection of his verse by the Folio Society next year, a major obstacle may be overcome. With new translations by, among others, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland and Carol Ann Duffy (the one by Ted Hughes being his very last work), perhaps now at last we may be offered a glimpse of the true subtlety and versatility of Pushkin's work. For when Isaiah Berlin chose him for his Desert Island he said that Pushkin's genius stemmed from being "not a man who tries to interpret everything in the light of some single all-embracing system... he expresses himself in many directions, as the spirit takes him". Pushkin, then, could indeed be the perfect emblem for our own, chaotic age.

Elaine Feinstein's `Pushkin', Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 20

Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
    Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

    They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

    A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
    David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

    Hanging with the Hoff

    Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
    Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

    Hipsters of Arabia

    Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
    The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

    The cult of Roger Federer

    What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?
    Kuala Lumpur's street food: Not a 'scene', more a way of life

    Malaysian munchies

    With new flights, the amazing street food of Kuala Lumpur just got more accessible
    10 best festival beauty

    Mud guards: 10 best festival beauty

    Whether you're off to the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury or a local music event, we've found the products to help you
    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe

    A Different League

    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe, says Pete Jenson
    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey - Steve Bunce

    Steve Bunce on Boxing

    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey
    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf