Monday Book: A talent that defies translation


"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.

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