Pushkin: a biography, by T J Binyon

Carol Rumens on the eternal appeal of Russia's poet-idol

Friday 27 December 2013 05:32

Whatever Russia's ruling ideology during the last 100-odd years, Aleksandr Pushkin has been its icon. Dostoevsky, at the belated unveiling of the poet's memorial in 1880, gave a eulogy driven by his own impassioned nationalism and, from then on, the poet's reputation soared. For the centenary of his birth (1899), children were given free copies of his works and chocolate bars stamped with his picture: Pushkin was now, in his biographer's words, "a solid, upright, moral citizen ... and a loyal supporter of autocracy". Later, the Soviet State claimed him as a poet of the people, made a cult of him almost comparable to Stalin's, and co-opted him to the campaign for national literacy. Recently, Coca-Cola purloined a line from the famous lyric, "I remember a wonderful moment". But, yes, Pushkin is still an icon in capitalist Russia.

There is a certain irony in aiming a revisionist biography at British readers. For us, it's easier to understand the man than the literary icon. The facts of Pushkin's life are easily available. T J Binyon's publishers claim that there has been no full biography since 1937, but biographies there have been: Elaine Feinstein's, for example, in 1998, an equally down-to-earth portrayal, more evenly balanced between life and work. As for his reputation, what may seem romantic hype is literal truth: Pushkin is the father of Russian literature, a poet who speaks for all readers and seasons. Imagine Shakespeare writing modern English in near-contemporary genres, and it gives you a little idea of his living potency.

But the reputation is largely a matter of hearsay. We have vigorous translations of Yevgeny Onegin (Charles Johnstone's and Nabokov's are both indispensable), a good, if incomplete, Penguin selection by D M Thomas, The Bronze Horseman and Other Poems, and, recently, Carcanet's anthology of contemporary poets' translations, After Pushkin. Critics such as John Bayley have broached chasms to bring the writing near for English readers. But this is still not near enough. The biggest myth – that Pushkin's poetry sprang into being fully formed out of nowhere – is still too rarely challenged.

Binyon's book is extraordinarily detailed. If you want to know the history of the Lycée at Tsarskoye Selo, or how to play Faro (the card game in The Queen of Spades), you can find out here. Historically, the times were, indeed, "interesting". And Pushkin's family background is fascinating (his great-great-grandfather on his mother's side was an African slave, purchased for Peter the Great, whose favourite he became).

Binyon's documentation is scrupulous. However, sometimes the encyclopaedic context-filling reaches a distracting level of clutter. In the final chapters, the narrative tension sharpens: we can almost smell that explosive temperament (manic-depressive, Binyon suggests) gradually heating up in the sealed alembic of court life.

Pushkin's tragedy begins with his marriage to Natalya Goncharova, the 18-year-old naif whose identity centred on cutting a charming figure in a ball-gown. Her family was almost as impoverished as Pushkin's, and debts mounted as he strove to support these relatives and his young household, largely through "the killing work" (his description) of researching the life of Peter the Great for a history commissioned by the Tsar. He died, owing, by Binyon's calculations, 138,988.33 roubles.

This death – at 37, after an almost-cancelled duel with Natalya's absurd "suitor", D'Anthess – was horrible and unnecessary. But it is clear that Pushkin was creatively drained, perhaps near to breakdown. His mood lifted conspicuously when the plans for the duel were pegged in place. Death, perhaps, offered a solution.

It was no easy way out. His abdominal wound took more than two days to kill him, and he was conscious much of the time. He endured the pain heroically, curbing his screams so as not to upset Natalya, who was sleeping in the next room.

Binyon, as a biographer, takes nothing for granted – except, inevitably, the poetry. In the interest of consistency, he uses his own translations, accurate but uninspiring. His decision, as he says, was not to attempt literary criticism, and his penetrating scholarship and calm sympathy serve "Pushkin the man" very well. But, of course, the reason why a dissolute, witty, chaotic minor courtier deserves our attention is not because he was humanly interesting. It is because he was a poet, a genius, who, as a boy, ingested whatever literature he found (French, English, Spanish) and assimilated and transformed it into something utterly his, and utterly Russian. A book as meticulous about the work as this one is about the life would be a revelation indeed.

Carol Rumens' new volume of poetry, 'Hex', is published by Bloodaxe next month

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