A few years ago Isaiah Berlin's book choice for Desert Island Discs was The Complete Works of Pushkin. To many it came as a surprise, since outside Russia Pushkin is usually regarded as a rather lightweight figure in world literature. In England he is known as "the Russian Byron", a hot-tempered, libidinous roue who died in a duel at the age of 37.
Yet things could change with the bicentenary of his birth, in 1999. Pushkin- mania, it seems, may be about to sweep through Britain. A new film of his epic poem, Eugene Onegin, starring Ralph Fiennes, is due for release next year. Before that, several books will appear, following a recently published biography by Elaine Feinstein, which will emphasise Pushkin's importance as a writer of international stature. There is even a Pushkin Bicentennial Trust, chaired by his great-great-great-granddaughter - one of several Pushkin descendants living in this country.
In Russia, however, Pushkin's importance as a national figure has never been in question. The author of poetry, fiction, plays and non-fiction, he is a staple feature of every Russian syllabus. Every Russian schoolchild learns some of his poems by heart. His status there is equivalent to that of Goethe in Germany or Shakespeare in Britain.
If the test of a canonical writer is his ability to appeal to different generations for different reasons, then Pushkin must certainly qualify as a genius. Anthony Briggs, the editor of a forthcoming collection of essays entitled Why Pushkin? (Hazar Publishing), explains: "Pushkin is so protean that every person or group can appropriate him for their own interests. For instance, in the Pushkin celebrations of 1881, Dostoevsky portrayed him as a great Russian nationalist; whereas in the Soviet era he was portrayed as a great proto-revolutionary because of his tenuous connections with the Decembrist revolt of 1825." Now, ironically, it is the Russian Orthodox Church that is championing him as a devoted Christian, despite his having written a number of blasphemous, even heretical, poems.
In modern-day Britain, however, Pushkin appeals directly to our sensibilities because of his complex perspective on race and gender. Much can be made, for instance, of the fact that his great-grandfather was an African slave who was adopted by Peter the Great. Indeed, Pushkin inherited some of his family's pronounced African features, as seen by his dark skin and frizzy hair.
But while his mother was known as the "beautiful Creole", Pushkin was less physically attractive, and in his early French poem, Mon Portrait, he even describes himself as having "a proper monkey's face".
In her new biography, Feinstein argues that much of Pushkin's greatness stems from the sense of otherness that his looks, among other things, engendered. Feinstein argues that "Pushkin, well aware of the strand of rashness and passion in his make-up, ascribed it often and proudly to his black ancestry". This was evident not only in the poems about himself, but in those where he identified with other ethnic groups, such as the gypsies and the Jews.
Yet his attitude towards race, as with everything else, was paradoxical. Having initially boasted of his ancestry, he became disillusioned with it when it became the subject of mockery by members of the Tsar's court. His confusion can be seen in a poem about the vicissitudes of sexual attraction, called To Yurev: "While I, always an idle rake/Ugly descendent of a Black/Reared in a wilderness, can take/No pleasure in the pains of love. Whenever I have won a beauty/It is through shameless, hot desire." Indeed, if Pushkin's attitudes towards race were complicated, his feelings about sexuality were no less puzzling.
Pushkin is usually thought of as a Don Juan figure, seducing his way through the Russian aristocracy in imitation of his hero, Byron, whose portrait hung on his wall. He even, notoriously, compiled a "Don Juan list" of sexual conquests, and composed bawdy verses reflecting his fascination with erotica.
Again, there is a paradox, for while his attitude towards women was often derogatory, he appears to have idolised them in equal measure. Many of his relationships followed a familiar pattern, whereby his respect for them diminished as intimacy increased. He once said: "The less one loves a woman, the surer one is of possessing her." In his treatment of them it was, as Elaine Feinstein comments, as if he had taken to heart Alexander Pope's dictum that "most women have no character at all".
Perversely, however, he appears to have made a distinction between his views of them in real life and in his work. Recently on Radio 3's Private Passions, Claire Tomalin described Eugene Onegin as a work with clear feminist sympathies. In it, the heroine, Tatyana, falls in love with the hero, Onegin, and sends him a letter propositioning him.
Flummoxed by this act of female assertiveness, he rejects her, but then subsequently falls in love with her; by which time it is too late and she has married someone else. As Tomalin says, "There is no question that Tatyana emerges as the dominant force in the story".
In a sense, Pushkin's schizophrenic attitude towards women can be related to the culture in which he lived. The atmosphere of the Tsarist court in the early 19th century was a very laddish one, where women were primarily valued for their beauty, and men fought duels over them, sometimes for the most trivial of reasons. Pushkin fought at least six that we know of, and they usually involved someone else's wife. Ironically, in the one which killed him he was the innocent party.
A psychoanalyst would, of course, explain his eagerness to fight in terms of insecurity about his masculinity. He was, after all, only five feet tall, and remorselessly neglected by his mother as a child. But there were other factors, too, such as the acute sense of impotence that he suffered under the Draconian censorship of Tsar Nicholas I. There was also what Anthony Briggs describes as the "cultural aridity" of the court, and Pushkin's growing financial humiliation caused by his father's refusal to give him any money. Yet, despite or perhaps because of a wealth of insecurities, he continued to write poetry of wisdom and maturity.
Naturally, in interpreting it thus, there is a danger of ascribing too many of our own values to an age which was fundamentally different. But with so many modern parallels it is surprising that Pushkin's work has so far remained largely unfamiliar to the Western reader. With the publication of a new collection of his verse by the Folio Society next year, a major obstacle may be overcome. With new translations by, among others, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland and Carol Ann Duffy (the one by Ted Hughes being his very last work), perhaps now at last we may be offered a glimpse of the true subtlety and versatility of Pushkin's work. For when Isaiah Berlin chose him for his Desert Island he said that Pushkin's genius stemmed from being "not a man who tries to interpret everything in the light of some single all-embracing system... he expresses himself in many directions, as the spirit takes him". Pushkin, then, could indeed be the perfect emblem for our own, chaotic age.
Elaine Feinstein's `Pushkin', Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 20
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