‘Who do you think will close the door after you? Pushkin?’ The question, which Elaine Feinstein quotes in her introduction to this excellent biography, is one which apparently might still be asked by a Russian mother of a careless child. No British mother would say anything like it, if only because she could not think of a figure with comparable evocative power: writers here are hardly household names. She would certainly not use that of the greatest Russian of them all. Some of us call our cats Pushkin but that is about as far as it has gone.
Our shortcomings as readers seem not to be entirely our fault. Feinstein makes it clear that there was a dearth of accessible books in Britain about Pushkin at the time she started to write hers; the classic biographies were out of print and seldom to be found on the shelves of public libraries although some might well lurk in the stacks. In a good working bibliography she lists what is available in the rest of the world. A considerable proportion comes from the USA, and the rest, largely and predictably, from the scholars of Moscow and St Petersburg.
In a substantial note to the introduction Feinstein recommends, though with reservations, books which would instruct us, if we could get hold of them – or if they were translated into English. One piece of guidance given in a book she recommends has important implications: in his biography, Pushkin: The Man and His Age (1994), Robin Edmonds strong-mindedly refrains from even attempting to introduce Pushkin’s poetry to readers who have no Russian, and helpfully fobs us off with the diplomatic and historical background of Pushkin’s life. Feinstein also mentions David Magarshack’s biography respectfully for what was at the time – 1967 – its up-to-date research but reprovingly for its lack of notes and references. (In fact notes do often appear in Magarshack’s book, as parentheses in the text, and there is an efficient index.)
One other reference Feinstein makes leads to questions of style. In 1950 there appeared an English translation of Henri Troyat’s Pouchkine, which, though commendable in some ways, is, she tells us, ‘written like a popular novel with freely invented dialogue’. And it was most probably not only the dialogue that was invented: Pouchkine is clearly the product of the ever-popular school of biography immortalised by one author’s comment in a Life of St Teresa of Avila that ‘St John of the Cross bit his lip.’ If Feinstein has ever come under the influence of this school, which I doubt, she has long since renounced it. When she wishes to give us a telling visual detail she selects, if not from actual documents then from very strong probabilities: when Natalya Goncharova and Pushkin were betrothed she ‘gave him her cold timid hand’. This is more plausible than St John of the Cross biting his lip: a formal betrothal would have involved the extending of hands and made most girls timid, while Moscow in April would have made their hands cold. It is not a banal comment.
Though there is a suitable detachment about Feinstein’s style in general, her tone has considerable variation. Her indignation at the unkindness with which Pushkin’s mother, Nahdezhda Osipovna, consistently treated him makes the reader’s blood boil too and it goes on simmering until, on her deathbed, Nahdezhda says ‘sorry’ to her son, at which point it boils up again. (Pushkin, a generous man, was quite touched by her penitence.) When she describes historical events, however, Feinstein keeps calm. In her account of Tsar Paul’s overthrow in 1799 (the year of Pushkin’s birth) in favour of his son Alexander, her tone is neutral. Alexander had apparently been assured that no harm would come to his father but ‘in the event’ Paul happened to be strangled amid the confusion. Easily done.
Pushkin’s looks are an important part of his story. This of course is the case with all of us, but Feinstein works his appearance into her narrative with particular deftness. He was a great-grandson on his mother’s side of an African slave who had become a protégé of Peter the Great. He inherited several African characteristics, such as hair, features and skin colour, and this seemed to annoy his mother, though perhaps no more than everything else about him. He himself was, or appeared to be, proud of his African features, and they clearly caused no annoyance to the women with whom before his marriage he was a marked success. His allusions to God’s help in his sexual exploits were either a manner of speaking or a ribald joke, or perhaps a sign of how little he needed it.
Whatever his real opinion of his own looks he was certainly obsessed by the subject. He perpetually doodled sketches of a male profile. All the drawings were alike: looking to the left and with a firm outline from the top of the brow to the tip of the nose, which suggested a ski-slope. The details of the heads show many variations – a tonsure, a patch of natural baldness, side-whiskers, a professional collar, a cravat – but the profile, checked against authentic portraits, is always his. His height, specified by his brother Lev as being ‘no more than five feet’, was what seemed to bother him most. It bothered others, too. A highly suitable girl whom he wished to marry refused him partly on the grounds that he was not tall enough. When it was a question of fame not marriage people were tactful. In a well-known group portrait of Russian writers, the composition is diplomatic. Pushkin stands fairly well back and the ground seems to slope up in his favour; and he is placed next to the fattest of the writers so that he looks slender rather than short.
Of the sketches that Pushkin drew in the margins of his manuscripts, most harrowing are those of the hanged Decembrists, mostly his friends. By name at least the Decembrists are probably better known in Britain than Pushkin himself. They were failed revolutionaries, always popular. Hanged men look tall. Not for nothing did the dreadful word ‘stretched’, meaning hanged, enter the English language in the 16th century. The pitiless bungling with which these particular executions were carried out – some of the ropes broke and the process had to be repeated – would have made the word more horribly accurate. Pushkin put his heart into the drawing of these men and for the rest of his life mourned their fate and that of the other conspirators, again mostly his friends, who were sent into exile.
The helmsman perished and the crew.
But the abating tempest threw
Me, the mysterious bard, ashore,
Of all that ship the only one;
I dry my wet robe in the sun
And sing the songs I sang before.
The lines are from the poem ‘Arion’.
Any account of Pushkin’s life has to make much of the Decembrists. At many points he came very close to them. Feinstein traces this association with due emphasis, starting from the days when, still not twenty years old, he wrote poems such as ‘Ode to Freedom’, which the burgeoning movement for political reform used as rallying cries.
Fallen slaves, take heart like men
Listen to these words and rise.
These were also the days when he freely alluded to tyrants and the voice of history and, though his friends tried to shut him up, had a habit of shouting anti-Tsar jibes in the theatre.
For such seditious behaviour he was, unsurprisingly, sent into exile, and was only too thankful that it was to South Russia and not Siberia. After that he was to become more or less a professional exile. (To lose one’s liberty more than once looks like carelessness.) In the course of the next five years he met fully-fledged Decembrists and consolidated his links with old school-friends with whose ideas, approaching those of the Decembrists, he had always had great sympathy. These friends, old and new, appreciated his support and felt that he would be a good person to have beside them in a coup – he was no coward. But he was a dangerously indiscreet conspirator at the planning stages. His friends all said so and he was never taken into anyone’s confidence.
The military coup so long anticipated took place on 14 December 1825. Pushkin was at that time at Mikhailovskoe, his family’s estate. He had set out for St Petersburg two weeks before, nobody knows why, but turned back in mid-journey, again nobody seems to know why. He said it was because his path had been crossed by two hares and a priest. As he was known to be superstitious this story was taken quite seriously. In any case the auguries of disaster proved to be reliable. The coup failed miserably. As Pushkin later scrawled near the relevant sketches in his notebook, ‘I, like a clown, might have hanged’; ‘clown’ was an odd word in the circumstances.
When readers come across a poet who was five feet tall they are bound to think of Keats. Feinstein does, and could have developed the theme further, for there are other similarities between the poets. There are also striking differences, two in particular: first, class and background, and secondly, taste in poetry. Pushkin, who had been introduced to the work of Byron in his South Russian exile, initially and for a long time adored him. Keats, though he spoke enthusiastically about Byron and quoted him with ease, did not. He had to endure the irritation of being mentioned in the same breath. As he wrote to his brother and sister-in-law, ‘You speak of Lord Byron and me. There is this great difference between us. He describes what he sees. I describe what I imagine. Mine is the hardest task.’ Rather a good way of calling a fellow poet facile.
Neither Pushkin nor Keats thought that his own appearance disqualified him from demanding exceptional beauty in the woman of his choice and neither expected, or apparently wished, her to be intelligent or capable of appreciating poetry. Pushkin, generalising about women and literature, jotted down a few eloquent reflections. ‘Poetry slides over them without touching their souls; they are insensitive to its harmony ... Listen to their literary judgments and you will be surprised by the distortion and even the crudeness of their understanding ... Exceptions are rare.’ Feinstein comments: ‘He did not woo any of the exceptions as a wife.’ Neither did Keats. Fanny Brawne did notice that he loved her only for her beauty and made a ‘half-complaint’ about his attitude. But she was never able to put it to the test: Keats died much younger than Pushkin.
A final similarity between the two poets is the way in which Natalya and Fanny were discussed in later years, as having been frivolous, irresponsible, silly and a drag on their talented menfolk. Fanny came out of this better, having turned into nothing worse than a mildly derogatory legend, which was finally dispelled by the publication of some of her letters. Well into the 20th century, however, Natalya has been the object of considerable contempt: Anna Akhmatova, for example, often became vituperative about her. Comparatively little has been said about either Pushkin or his wife in this country, but in a recent broadcast Gwyn Williams described Natalya as a ‘good-natured bimbo’, not a very fierce comment but not a tribute one would choose to have on one’s tombstone. Well-informed about the problems of Natalya’s upbringing, Feinstein is balanced in her presentation of her importance.
The Pushkin marriage started off with impeccable behaviour on both sides, apart from her lack of interest in his work, which was no surprise. As time went by, however, her main, almost her only, ambition was to shine in society: to receive an invitation to every prestigious ball and to attend them all, sumptuously dressed and universally desired. She succeeded, and danced her way through several pregnancies, though Pushkin begged her to stick to quadrilles else she ‘might miscarry on the 105th step of the Tsar’s staircase’. All this sounds innocent enough and quite possibly was, but it led to trouble, and by stages which Feinstein skilfully examines, to the duel in which Pushkin was killed. She has cast considerable light on these circumstances by making use of the substantial collection of letters discovered earlier this decade and published in St Petersburg in 1995. The writer of the letters was d’Anthès, the duellist who shot Pushkin and who had been accused of being Natalya’s lover.
Unlike Robin Edmonds, Feinstein does not shirk the challenge of introducing Pushkin’s poetry to readers who know no Russian, though she is able to deal with many topics relevant to the poems, such as Pushkin’s sense of history, without necessarily referring to his poetic techniques. In the chapter entitled ‘The Bronze Horseman’, for example, she sets out the historical and political issues involved in the great flood of St Petersburg, briefly outlines the story of the poem, and then, for the greater part of the chapter, returns to pure biography. The Tsar comes into it, interfering with Pushkin’s work as usual, and so do Pushkin’s domestic affairs, with the arrival in Moscow of his two sisters-in-law, one of whom is to play a strong part in the action. There appears to be nothing about the style of the poem or what it sounds like.
There is, however. It is in the translation. Feinstein presents a great many English versions of Pushkin’s poems, or extracts from them. Some of them are her own translations, others are by Antony Wood, A.D.P. Briggs and D.M. Thomas, all experienced and with idiosyncrasies of their own. The considerable variety in the way the translators work suits Pushkin’s own versatility. The lines Feinstein quotes from her own rendering of The Bronze Horseman demonstrate how plainly he could write, without any figures of speech, and convey a strong impression that we are hearing Pushkin’s tone. Here is poor Evgeny looking for his sweetheart when the flood is beginning to die down and finding that her house and she herself have been swept away.
Here is the place where their house stands.
Here is the willow. There was a gate.
That has been swept away. But the house?
The epilogue to Feinstein’s biography first rouses indignation at the spiteful refusal of his country’s authorities to honour Pushkin’s death or allow others to do so, but goes on to evoke feelings of triumph at the establishment of his reputation, which has survived, and at times even seemed to dominate, the Soviet era. Anna Akhmatova is given the last word. With her usual animation she points out that the people who in the days of Pushkin’s greatest popularity considered themselves to be major figures compared with him are now identified, if at all, as ‘contemporaries of Pushkin’. Those characters who thought so much of themselves are now to be found, probably with their dates wrong, in the indexes to editions of Pushkin’s work.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.