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.

Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

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.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project