BOOK REVIEW / Striptease of a Russian icon: 'Strolls with Pushkin' - Abram Tertz, trs Catherine Nepomnyashchy & Slava Ystremski: Yale, 17.95 pounds

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The Independent Culture
ALEXANDER PUSHKIN's death in 1837 at the age of 37 in a duel with his wife's lover was surrounded by an aura of scandalous heroism, and after wild scenes of grief at his funeral the authorities spirited his body out of St Petersburg at night. Yet Pushkin has survived the collapse of rulers and political systems to overshadow all other poets as Russia's cultural hero.

For Gogol, Pushkin was given to the world to prove by his existence what the poet is. For Dostoyevsky, Pushkin was the messianic embodiment of the Russian national spirit. Before the Revolution, Mayakovsky and the Futurists made Pushkin the butt of their manifesto, 'A Slap in the Face of Public Taste'. In 1921 the poet Khodasevich warned darkly of the need to make sense of Pushkin before it was too late. In 1937, the 100th anniversary celebrations of Pushkin's death hailed the dynasty of Russian classical literature which led in a straight line from Pushkin to socialist realism.

Against this sentimentalised and solemnised Soviet Pushkin, however, sprang up a popular Pushkin of caricatures, obscene limericks and political jokes. It is this space between the official and the unofficial Pushkins that Andrei Sinyavsky, writing under his bolder alter-ego of Abram Tertz, explores here.

A teacher at the prestigious Gorky Institute of World Literature in the 1950s, Sinyavsky was a rising liberal literary critic when he issued his ironic statement against socialist realism and for a new genre of 'fantastic literary scholarship'. Strolls with Pushkin was written in a camp in Mordovia after his arrest in 1965 with Yuly Daniel for 'anti-Soviet agitation', and was later smuggled out in the form of letters to his wife. He was already living in the West in 1989 when the book was published in Russia, where it became the focus for a torrent of anxieties unleashed by the Soviet collapse.

'Some things I simply broke first, the way you break a toy, and glued them together a new way,' he explains. For Russians taught to read literally, Sinyavsky's witty manifesto for 'pure art' and the free play of language challenged the sacred dividing line between art and life. Compared to Salman Rushdie in terms that fell just short of a call to murder, he was accused of violating linguistic decorum and trampling on the icons of the Pushkin canon.

Unconcerned with the evidence that lies beyond the truth as Pushkin presented it, Sinyavsky's text pulses with the poet's primeval joy in naming things. 'His stanzas fly in one ear and out the other . . . The same old stale goods, quick, get it off his hands . . . he has good reason to hurry, progress in literature started with him]'

Pushkin subjects the female sex to a poetic striptease, writes Sinyavsky. 'In the moment of the hunt everything vanishes except the fullness of the moment . . . absorbing the cherished image and quickly passing on to a new meeting, new food for mind and heart.' This skirt-chasing is selfless, he insists; Pushkin's personal needs are satisfied only on the run, as he indulges and humours all women, transforming breasts and lily-white feet into the ethereal body of flesh, 'a fleeting apparition, the genius of pure poetry'.

Sinyavsky explores with magical clarity the vast horizons of Pushkin's longings in his poem 'The Gypsies', the piles of dead bodies which litter his plots, his ability to soar from scenes of mating hens in 'Ruslan and Ludmilla' to the airy melancholy of love, and send the whole 'wonderful barbaric hodgepodge soaring into the air like fireworks'.

'Some people think it's possible to live with Pushkin,' Sinyavsky writes. 'I don't know, I've never tried. But it is possible to stroll

with him.' The poet's fidgety presence, with his walking-stick, frock-coat and tousled whiskers, flashes across Sinyavsky's text like the frames of a silent film. Yet Pushkin's Poet is without a face, and because the places he inhabits are often inaccessible to language, his poems are generally untranslatable. This translation of Sinyavsky's subversive text achieves the impossible; shocking, entertaining and beguiling us into a freer, more lively appreciation of the liberating power of language.