Radio: When Pushkin comes to shove

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The Independent Culture
It is said that it is impossible to capture the feel and spirit of Pushkin's poetry in English, that you have to read him in the original to understand the extraordinary grip he has on the Russian imagination. That's fine - for his life was extraordinary enough. Hence Pushkin Night on Radio 3 last Thursday.

The point about Pushkin, as the evening's host, Gerard McBurney, put it, is that he is to the Russians what Shakespeare is to us, or Goethe to the Germans: a touchstone and a kind of national soul, a poet whose phrases are used in everyday life by people who haven't necessarily read anything by him.

I suspect that this is one of the reasons the British are so interested in biographies of writers; we are driven mad by the fact that we know next to nothing about the life of our own national poet, and have a consequent craving for detail.

And there is plenty of detail in Pushkin's life. We know what his favourite meal was, and how atrocious his gambling skills were; we can make an intelligent guess as to how much he drank or how often he went to brothels, or tried to seduce other men's wives (answer to all three questions: a fantastic amount). We can second-guess, too, the precise level of anguish he must have felt when his wife was being flashily courted by Baron Georges-Charles d'Anthes, the man who eventually killed him in a duel. You feel that there could never have been a dull moment while Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin was around.

There were one or two dull moments during this three-and-a-half-hour extravaganza, however. You might have wondered, for instance, what precisely was the contribution to our knowledge of his work in the extract of Russlan, the opera by his friend Glinka. The extract from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin was predictable, but mercifully quite brief. And the dramatisation of Pushkin's Russlan and Lyudmila, a work whose success eventually embarrassed its author, gave few clues to his genius.

But on the whole, the evening was terrific, and by the end of it, as we heard about Pushkin's agonising death, we may have been as tearfully moved as the most ardent Russian devotee of his works - notwithstanding McBurney's surprisingly infelicitous phrase at the end of the programme, when he talked about his "journey through Pushkin", which made one think of the bullet that had made its own rather more damaging journey through Pushkin's abdomen.

It was a programme that made you want to learn Russian. More importantly, it shed a properly baffling light on the kind of questions that arise when we try to fit the facts of a writer's life - in particular, those dealing with womanising and general debauchery - to the contours of his evident genius.

The Russians' view, as expressed by one interviewee, was that Pushkin "could never be as perfect as his poems", and they leave it at that. Even the extracts from the letter he wrote to his friend, Kriustov, a week before his marriage - and this to a woman he was madly in love with - sounded wearily poignant rather than selfishly petulant.

"Until now I have lived differently from the way people live, as a rule; I have had no happiness; I am past 30; at the age of 30 other people get married. I am acting like other people and probably I shall not regret it. Moreover I am marrying without enthusiasm and without childish infatuation. Any happiness would be an uncovenanted bonus."

The programme didn't mention - perhaps understandably, since it had a lot to get through in the time - that this was written in the immediate aftermath of the death of his second-closest friend.

Everything else that was on the radio this week was bathetic by comparison. So let us now contemplate the definitively antipodal position to genius - James Whale. This man, hired by Talk Radio for his so-called shocking views (means, saloon-bar bore), works on the late shift, where the people who call in howl like Morlocks over the deserts of the airwaves. There was a bee in Mr Whale's bonnet on the night I listened to him, which, for all I know, he is trying to swat still.

He kept moaning about cricket. It's boring, he said, and moreover watching the game is boring, as you are obliged to sit too far away from the action - an observation that reminded me a little of the Viv Stanshall line, "that was inedible muck and there wasn't enough of it".

He made everyone who called in agree with him on this. This got tiresome after a while, but then you might have wondered whether it was wise for a man to rubbish a sport which is going to be covered, at some expense, by his employers.

It struck me that the overseas Test match coverage will, of course, take place at the same time of night as Whale's delightful programme, and so will presumably shunt him off the air for long stretches of time.

I have misgivings about Talk Radio's future cricket coverage - it will, I hear, involve Geoff Boycott - but this aspect of it is mildly cheering, as such things go.