Books: A poet killed by destiny and lack of air

Pushkin's Button by Serena Vitale trs Ann Goldstein and Jon Rothschild Fourth Estate pounds 16.99
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At five o'clock, on the morning of 28 January 1837, on the northern outskirts of St Petersburg, Georges d'Anthes, a French officer from the Russian imperial guard, fired the shot that mortally wounded Alexander Pushkin; the poet died two days later. There is no mystery about the immediate circumstances. The duel was fought over d'Anthes' relationship with Pushkin's beautiful wife, Natalya Goncharova, a celebrated and much- admired society beauty. In the conventional account, d'Anthes is the murderer of Pushkin and Natalya the flirtatious, empty-headed young woman, whose foolishness was responsible for the tragedy.

This version is neat and will satisfy those for whom the poetry is what matters. But some of the charm of the poetry derives from the personality of the man, the voice that we hear so clearly in it; and Pushkin's death raises a host of questions about his life. For a start, he was undoubtedly fascinated by duelling, as he was by gambling and risk-taking in general. One of the most famous duels in literature occurs in Eugene Onegin, when the hero kills his friend Lensky. In Lensky's death in the snow, Pushkin anticipated the scene of his own end, but it was also one that he had played out in real life several times before: Serena Vitale lists four or five previous duels in which he was involved, and a further seven challenges which were resolved without shots being fired, usually with a joke or a sneer. It was the height of dandyism to jest about matters of life and death, passing the night before at the theatre and calmly eating cherries on the field, while the pistols were being loaded.

So the meeting between Pushkin and d'Anthes on 28 January was not a unique occurrence in Pushkin's life; nor did it take place on the spur of the moment. Indeed, the duel itself was the climax of a drama that had its first act in September 1835, when d'Anthes began his pursuit of Natalya. The final act of this drama had opened in November 1836, when Pushkin received an anonymous letter, copied to some of his friends, facetiously appointing him a leading member of the Order of Cuckolds (though without naming d'Anthes). This lampoon set in motion an implacable mechanism which seems in retrospect to have proceeded with tragic inevitability towards the duel, despite the efforts of friends, family and even the Tsar, Nicholas I, to halt it.

It is this deadly mechanism that Serena Vitale sets out to analyse in her highly readable book - an absorbing piece of historical detection. Given that the events took place more than a century and a half ago and that so many of those involved may have had reason to cover up their actions, she finds a surprising wealth of material. In particular, the correspondence of d'Anthes with Baron Heeckeren, his rather sinister adoptive father, the Dutch ambassador to the imperial court, allows us to follow the progress of his pursuit of Natalya and gives an insight into the characters of two major actors in the events. In addition to this, there are letters from other sources, diplomatic dispatches, memoirs and police reports, all of which contribute to the story, perhaps throwing in vital information, or a red herring, a misleading theory or a downright lie. The tragedy, which everyone could see coming, was played out at the front of a well- lit stage.

Some central mysteries remain. Firstly: who wrote the anonymous letters? Vitale examines the case against the Foreign Minister's son, Dmitry Nesselrode, Prince Pyotr Dolgorukov and others, before drawing her own conclusions. Another question is whether d'Anthes actually had a physical relationship with Natalya; on different occasions, much later in life, he directly contradicted himself, once saying "of course", and then the opposite. Natalya has had a bad press, being dismissed at least as unworthy of her great husband, but there is now a reaction in her favour (for example in Elaine Feinstein's recent biography of Pushkin). Vitale tends to follow the traditional line. "Poor thing," Pushkin said as he was dying. "She's suffering, even though she's not to blame, and may suffer even more in the public's judgement."

Does it all matter? Well, Pushkin himself liked "anecdotes about the daily habits, vices, weaknesses, comic sides, temper tantrums" of famous people; there is plenty of all that here. What the book reveals, in minute detail, is the life of a society where young men like d'Anthes had nothing much to do in the daytime except to march up and down on the vast parade grounds of the imperial capital, and spent their evenings drinking, gambling, intriguing and trying to seduce beautiful women. This vacuous life was the one to which Pushkin himself was condemned in Petersburg after the Decembrist revolt of 1825, when he wrote a letter affirming his loyalty to the Tsar and was put under constant police surveillance. If Vitale's book proves anything, it is the truth of Alexander Blok's remark that it was "not d'Anthes' bullet that killed Pushkin, but lack of air".