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

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

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.

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen