Monday Book: A talent that defies translation

PUSHKIN BY ELAINE FEINSTEIN, WEIDENFELD & NICOLSON, pounds 20

"WHAT A devil's trick that I should have been born with a soul and talent in Russia!" Pushkin's bitter comment was widely quoted in the Soviet period, but it was the same kind of state tyranny that had hounded this marvellous poet throughout his short life. As for his death, in a duel at the age of 37, "what killed Pushkin was not D'Anthes's bullet. What killed him was lack of air", said the Symbolist poet, Blok. A "New Russian" would surely recognise the financial pressures, cynical frivolity and deadly gossip of Pushkin's final stifling year.

He was born in 1799 to an old aristocratic family whose fortunes were in steep decline. His upbringing was a dizzy mixture of harshness and permissiveness. His mother disliked him and nagged him relentlessly, possibly because his appearance reminded her of her great-grandfather, Abram Gannibal, an African slave sent to Peter the Great as a little gift from his ambassador in Turkey. Gannibal rose high in the Tsar's service, though, and seems to have had a more cheerful life than most of his heirs.

Pushkin's father, though hardly satisfactory, was a formative influence by default. The boy rummaged freely in the paternal library, reading everything from Voltaire to the latest porn. His grandmother taught him to read and write Russian, and his nurse, Arina Rodionova, both genuinely loved him and nurtured his imagination. But his real family were his classmates at the Lycee in Tsarskoye Selo; most of his childhood recollections begin with school. His poems impressed not only friends and teachers. After hearing him recite at school, the poet Derzhavin announced: "I live on. He is the one who will replace Derzhavin."

Though not directly involved in conspiracy, Pushkin espoused the reformist ideals of the Decembrists. Poems such as his Ode to Freedom were considered rallying cries, and he was accused of "flooding the country with seditious material". He was three weeks short of 21 and had recently completed Ruslan and Ludmila when he was sent into exile in the far south. He would never again be free of police surveillance and the censor's pen.

An aristocratic young man could enjoy himself even under such circumstances. Yet, despite dissipation and romance, Pushkin worked. He embarked on the opening stanzas of his great poem-novel, Yevgeni Onyegin. He earned 3,000 roubles for The Fountain Bakhchiserai and became the first ever professional Russian poet. He began to throw off the French influence and any lingering Byronic affectations. His prose fiction - with its spare, clean style, its absence of moralising - may outshine for some the "great 19th-century Russian novel". He excelled in every genre that he touched.

If, as all critics agree, his genius rarely survives translation, this is because (in the words of an earlier biographer, Ernest Simmons) "form with Pushkin is inseparable from content... It is never a kind of shell but the very essence of poetic expression. He will pare and polish until he has achieved the ultimate degree of simplicity. But when a translator attempts to catch the simplicity, the results are often simple in the worst sense of the word".

Simmons's 1937 biography remains a classic, and Elaine Feinstein draws on it a good deal. Aiming at the general reader, her strokes are broader, and she weaves in accounts of some of the major texts, although the poetic qualities of the translated verse remain evanescent. Some new findings are interestingly explored. There are the letters from Pushkin's wife, Natalia, to her brother, Dmitri, which show a conscientious side to a character usually presented as a pricktease and shopaholic.

Fresh evidence - which seems to corroborate the long-held suspicion that D'Anthes's relations with his patron, Heerecken, were homosexual - makes the character of Natalia's would-be seducer even more difficult to assess. Control-freak, sex-addict: how these crude contemporary terms suit the socialites of old Petersburg! As Pushkin's novel-like story heads to tragic denouement, who cares about D'Anthes anyway?

For all his weaknesses, Pushkin was a man of moral stature. When, having brutally crushed the December revolt, the new tsar, Nicholas I, asked Pushkin if he had associated with the conspirators, the young poet replied: "It is true. I loved and esteemed many of them and continue to nourish the same feelings." And when, on his deathbed, he suffered extreme agony, he fought to restrain his moans for fear of upsetting Natalia in the next room.

Russia has a talent for rubbing out the historical faces it no longer likes. Surely this could not happen to so beloved, so universal, a writer? Already, it seems, there is some sinister revisionism abroad. Feinstein quotes this account of "New Russian" attitudes from a recent Pushkin conference: "The younger generation... is rethinking its relationship to the educated Western gentry who left a legacy of independence and dignity to the embattled intellects of the Soviet period but whose scorn for commerce, its politics of palace rebellion and lack of participation in the liberal professions may have left a more negative heritage for the Russia which finds itself trying to develop a market economy." I feel that a certain menacing "lack of air" hangs over that sentence.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on