BOOK: RUSSIAN CLASSICS

Ruslan and Ludmilla: A Novel in Verse by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Nancy Dargel, Bergh Publishing £14.95.

Ruslan and Ludmilla: A Novel in Verse by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Nancy Dargel, Bergh Publishing £14.95.

On its publication in St Petersburg in 1820, when Pushkin was only 20, this verse-novel had huge popular success, not only catapulting its young author to stardom with his first book but providing a literary rallying-point for notions of nationalism. It was an early example of the heritage industry: the country's post-Napoleonic mood made the poem's subject matter - the ancient Russia of the Kiev monarchy (from the 11th to 14th centuries), its hist o ry and folk heritage - of instant appeal to a countrystruggling to define its own identity, and searching for ways to use its mother tongue properly, and to rid itself of the Frenchified ways of the cultured classes.

But Ruslan and Ludmilla also had fashion on its side, in the shape of a Byronic hero (Byron's Don Juan had caused a huge stir in London the previous year); Pushkin's admiration for Byron, which was to shape his life and perhaps even contribute to the attitudes that caused his early death from a duel, was under way.

In 1828 Pushkin added to Ruslan and Ludmilla the part that has become most famous of all: the Prologue. The first line of this - "Beside the sea a green oak stands" - is as famous to Russians as "To be or not to be" is to English-speakers. It is a self-contained poem, a sort of round-up of Russian folkloric dramatis personae: Baba Yaga, the witch who rides in a mortar; the hut that runs around on chicken's legs; the scholarly cat on a golden chain; King Kasha hoarding his gold. In it the poet is first and foremost a storyteller, absorbing the very essence of the Russian soul from the land itself.

Nancy Dargel's curate's-egg of a version doesn't avoid the pitfalls of cute archaism, and she has not Pushkin's ear: but then, no one has. Her book is valuable and enjoyable all the same.

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