Books: Bicentenary of the Russian Byron

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The Independent Culture

by Elaine Feinstein Weidenfeld pounds 20

Next year it will be 200 years since the birth of Alexander . Even those who know little of his work are likely to become familiar with the image of Russia's greatest poet: the portrait by Kiprensky in the Tretyakov Gallery gives a striking similarity to the covers of the most recent biographies in English: Robin Edmonds' , the Man and his Age (published by Macmillan in 1994, but now sadly out of print); and Elaine Feinstein's new life, which has appeared a few months ahead of the bicentenary. The face that stares out of Kiprensky's canvas is almost as familiar to Russians as that of Lenin.

There will be other books in English, no doubt, probably chiding us for our ignorance of this "fountainhead of literature in the Russian language" (Feinstein) - though it is doubtful that there is any more to feel ashamed about in not knowing than in unfamiliarity with Dante, Dafydd ap Gwilym, Lope de Vega, Goethe, Adam Mickiewicz, Mallarme and dozens of others who made the mistake of doing what they did so well in languages other than English. will be less overlooked than Leopardi, whose bicentenary fell this year.

The ignorance is excusable, anyway, since so much of poetry vanishes in translation. With , what we lose is an ease and naturalness and apparent facility of manner that give his work an incomparable charm: it seems to correspond perfectly to Keats's notion of poetry coming "as easily as leaves to the trees". He belongs to that glorious flowering of European literature at the end of the 18th and start of the 19th century: he was the contemporary, not only of those unknowns, Leopardi and Mickiewicz, but of Keats and Shelley, Byron, Hugo and Lamartine. His life, too, was an exemplary one for a Romantic poet: he lived intensely and died relatively young, in January 1837, in a duel.

He also comes down to us, in his poetry and prose fictions, as a delightful man (though his attitudes to women, as Feinstein notes, belonged to his culture and time, not ours). He had a troubled childhood, the son of a well-educated but feckless army officer and the great-grandson on his mother's side of an Abyssinian at the court of Peter the Great. His parents were eccentric and uncaring, but Sergei had a large library of French books, where his son spent a good deal of his childhood reading Racine and Voltaire, and learning to speak and write French almost as fluently as Russian. In 1811, he joined the first intake at the Imperial Lycee at Tsarskoe Selo, near St Petersburg, and began the happiest period of his life.

"In those days, when I was calmly growing to maturity in the gardens of the lycee," he would write later, in his great verse novel, Eugene Onegin. School offered that rare experience: a happy adolescence. Run on the lines of a Napoleonic lycee and an English public school, it combined the best features of both and gave the first real home he had known. Discipline was mild, and the pupils and teachers were a hand-picked elite who would remain friends for the rest of their lives. Several of his fellow-students would be involved in the Decembrist revolt in 1825, and suffer death or exile as a result.

Perhaps it was the combination of a disappointing childhood and a fulfilled adolescence that gave 's poetic voice its exceptional maturity. The first chapters of Onegin, which he was writing, on and off during most of the 1820s, show the clear influence of Byron in their mood of world-weary disenchantment; but, by the end, the poem has achieved a capacity for expressing emotion and a depth of response to life that far surpasses its models in Don Juan and Childe Harold.

If poetry is what gets lost in translation, how much more likely is it to disappear from a biography. Robin Edmonds disclaimed any intention of writing literary criticism and quoted only to illustrate the life; but he did quote in Russian, with a plain prose translation, so that some of his readers could have a taste of the original. Elaine Feinstein makes her own translations (except for Onegin, where she uses the outstandingly good version done by James Falen for OUP); but she provides none of the original text and her own style is so different that she captures only a dim echo of 's voice.

What she does have to offer is a modern perspective on 's relations with women and some recent material throwing light on d'Anthes, the Frenchman whose courtship of 's wife, Natalia, led to the fatal duel. In contrast to Anna Akhmatova and many other writers, who have depicted Natalia as an empty-headed coquette, Feinstein insists that she felt real love for her husband and was in no way responsible for the tragedy; the letters of d'Anthes bear this out. An unlucky shot - d'Anthes was aiming for a flesh wound in the leg - and the Poet entered Eternity, to be hailed as his nation's supreme literary genius by Tsarist and Soviet regimes alike. Indeed, it may be in the new, post-Soviet Russia, on which has fallen the responsibility for celebrating the bicentenary, that meets with the greatest indifference. Feinstein quotes a speaker at a recent conference who condemns the "educated Western gentry", including , who left "a negative heritage" for a society that is only now, belatedly, "trying to develop a market economy, modern professions and a parliamentary democracy". The poet's statue in Moscow faces across the square that bears his name, looking towards McDonald's restaurant, like a duellist squaring up to his opponent.