It is in some ways unfortunate that Tchaikovsky set Eugene Onegin to music, not Rossini, the composer of deep shallows. Pushkin, according to T.J. Binyon’s remarkable biography, became ‘addicted’ to Rossini while living in Odessa, where an Italian opera company was visiting, and though Binyon makes nothing of it, it rather blares at us, as writers’ tastes in music so often do (Joyce’s love of Puccini, for instance, or Auden’s dislike of Brahms).
Tchaikovsky, that great melancholy confectioner, has hardly any temperamental affinity with Pushkin’s novel in verse. Eugene Onegin’s sparkling 14-line stanzas – little private carriages of plush – simultaneously open art and seal it. On the one hand, they admit with hospitable precision an enormous amount of the prosaic (if not exactly the ordinary) world: ‘Strasbourg pies’, and beaver collars, and several of Pushkin’s old schoolfriends, and the marks that Onegin makes in the margins of his books, and Veuve Clicquot, and English pantaloons. Sylvia Plath once longed to write a poem that might be roomy enough to include a toothbrush. But Pushkin anticipated her: his marvellous picture of Onegin’s dandyish bedroom sees brushes ‘of thirty kinds –/ these for the nails, those for the teeth’. Everyone who reads Eugene Onegin delights in the novelistic density of its life, and immediately understands how carefully Tolstoy must have studied it. There is Onegin’s Vronsky-like existence in St Petersburg: how he comes late to the Bolshoi Theatre and treads on the toes of those already seated; how his minimal Latin allows him to add vale to a letter and remember two (precisely two) verses of the Aeneid. And there is his dusty existence on his country estate, where the unopened cupboards contain fruit liqueurs, ‘a book of household calculations’, ‘the calendar for 1808’, and where the billiard table is equipped with a ‘blunt cue’.
On the other hand, Pushkin once wrote that ‘poetry is a fiction and has nothing in common with the prose of real life,’ and the paradox of Eugene Onegin is that it is self-confessedly a poem simultaneously of real life and of pure fiction. These stanzas that select so much of the real constantly remind us of the fictive status of those selections – fictive because they have been so carefully selected, so artistically compiled. Pushkin frequently observes that Onegin and Tatiana are his poetic creations; in the first chapter he enters the poem as a character and recalls evenings spent loitering with Onegin by the banks of the Neva. In Chapter 5, he interrupts a description of winter to point out that two other poets have written much better about winter than he can. He digresses at will – about the state of Russian roads, about Tatiana’s dreadful grasp of the Russian language, about the English word ‘vulgar’, about how much he loves women’s small feet – and then digresses on his digressions: when he comes to write up a country ball, he says that he meant, earlier in the poem, to describe a proper Petersburg ball but got distracted by ‘the recollection/ of certain ladies’ tiny feet’, and promptly chides himself for such digressions. This high-spirited self-referentiality, so different in tone from the programmatic self-exposés of Postmodernism, performs nevertheless a somewhat similar, alienating function: it is always telling us ‘this is a poem,’ rather as Rossini often tells us ‘this is an opera.’ Tchaikovsky would make heavy weather of these feathery cirruses.
If Eugene Onegin begs for Rossini’s treatment, then Pushkin’s life seems to have resembled a libretto by Stendhal with music by Mozart. The extraordinary wealth of Binyon’s research – his biography represents a true lifework, a long simmering of scholarship – only confirms the sense one already had of Pushkin’s maniacal libidinousness, his swaggering fondness for duels, his feverish bursts of creativity and his ambivalent love of high society. Just as his most famous poem is both sincere and arch – or both passionate and ironical – Pushkin himself was both a Romantic and an Enlightenment classicist, born at the very end of the 18th century (1799), and, like Karl Kraus’s definition of the historian, something of a prophet facing backwards. Romanticism, properly seen, was ‘the absence of all Rules but not the absence of art’. Hence Shakespeare, ‘our Father’, was a Romantic. Pushkin certainly came under the sway of Byron, but by the time he was at work on the later chapters of Eugene Onegin, he was having second thoughts. Though by the end of his life he had enough English to read some Wordsworth and Coleridge, his intellectual formation was most indebted either to 18th-century novelists (Sterne, especially, whom he read in French), or classical poets (especially Horace).
Pushkin’s intellectual background was traditional; both his parents spoke excellent French, and all his early reading was in that language. His social background was much less traditional. His mother, known in Petersburg as ‘the beautiful Creole’, was the granddaughter of a black slave, traditionally thought to have been a captured Ethiopian, though Binyon, with customary care, thinks Cameroon the likelier origin. He was a gift for Peter the Great, and rose from servitude to become a general in the Army, responsible by the end of his career for all military engineering in Russia. Pushkin’s father belonged to a family that had distinguished itself in public affairs in the late 16th century, though it had apparently been in gentle hibernation for most of the 18th. He was weak, not very interested in his children, and neglected his finances; perhaps Pushkin was thinking of him when he wrote that Onegin had read his Adam Smith – unlike his father, who ‘could not understand him,/and mortgaged his lands’.
Pushkin’s father was dilettantish and literary; Pushkin’s uncle, Vasily, was an established though mediocre poet, most remarkable, it seems, for his last words, recorded by his cheerful, slightly sardonic nephew in 1830: ‘coming to, he recognised me, was melancholy and silent for a little while, then: how boring Katenin’s articles are! and not another word. What about that? That’s what it means to die an honourable warrior, on your shield, your war-cry on your lips!’ It was Uncle Vasily who took the little Pushkin, in 1811, to his admission interview at the new lycée at Tsarskoe Selo, fifteen miles south of Petersburg, where the boy would make several enduring friendships, and where he wrote 29 poems, five of them published in the newspaper the Herald of Europe.
He was also writing much less lofty verse, however. At school, the milieu he joined was lecherous, aristocratic, boyish, jokey and clever. Pushkin was nicknamed ‘the Frenchman’ because of his knowledge of French literature, but Binyon speculates that the name might also have honoured his scatological tongue. Binyon helpfully reproduces several of Pushkin’s salacious ditties, such as ‘You and I’, which contrasts the poet with the Tsar, and gets in a dig at Dmitri Khvostov, a talentless and prolific poet:
Your plump posterior you
Cleanse with calico;
I do not pamper
My sinful hole in this childish manner
But with one of Khvostov’s harsh odes,
Wipe it though I wince.
In the early 1820s, in Kishinev, he fell in love with an innkeeper’s daughter, and wrote her a naughty poem, ‘Christ is Risen’, in which he promised, today, to kiss her like a Christian, but tomorrow, if requested, to convert to Judaism just for another kiss, and even to put into her hand ‘That by which one can distinguish/A genuine Hebrew from the Orthodox’.
Some of Pushkin’s light verse, especially the poems aimed, Lovelace-like, at women he had fallen for, is unpleasantly crude. Later, there would be people, like the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, who found Pushkin’s ribaldry coarse. Everyone agreed that he was conventionally ugly. He was short, just under 5'6", with black curly hair, a broad nose and blue eyes, ‘the ugly descendant of Negroes’, as he described himself. Some women found his arrogance and the blatancy of his sexual need offensive, though many succumbed, and the woman he eventually married was famously beautiful. He was the kind of man who, when he started writing Eugene Onegin in earnest, would write to a friend: ‘Fuck fame, it’s money I need.’ He became a heavy gambler, fond of faro (Casanova’s favourite game, too, Binyon murmurs), and several times was forced to hand over manuscripts of his poems in payment of his debts; at least two chapters of Eugene Onegin were sacrificed in this way. There must have been many Petersburg Salieris, envious of the apparently uncouth effervescence of his performance and the quick genius of his creativity, its speedy sublime. (He would write a one-act play, one of his best works, about Mozart and Salieri, in which Salieri, maddened by Mozart’s genius and ‘idle wantonness’, poisons him. One of the four so-called Little Tragedies, it is too brief to have been often staged, and is difficult to find in English. Besides, it has been splashily obscured by Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus.)
Binyon’s biography has the populousness of Tolstoy. An astonishing number of major and minor characters are introduced – and thickly introduced, with a paragraph or two of data – and kept in patient sight over hundreds of pages. Even very minor figures, who appear only once, get a packed footnote. A French chef called Tardif, for instance, cooks a meal for Pushkin when he is down in the Caucasus. A footnote reads: ‘Formerly proprietor of the Hôtel de l’Europe, a luxurious establishment situated at the bottom of the Nevsky Prospect, he took to drink, got into financial difficulty and was ruined when his wife absconded with his cash-box and a colonel of cuirassiers. He fled to Odessa and, after various vicissitudes, ended up in Kishinev.’ Binyon thus honours Pushkin’s gossipy style; Pushkin’s own published notes at the end of Eugene Onegin contain such gems as: ‘A periodical that used to be conducted by the late A. Izmailov rather negligently. He once apologised in print to the public, saying that during the holidays he had “caroused”.’
Indeed, Binyon’s book, which is full of narrative and almost empty of detailed literary analysis, seems to want to get as close as possible to the world, the insouciant style, even the bright prose of Pushkin. Binyon furnishes his prose with little gleaming antiquities: he uses the old English word ‘rout’ (for ‘dance’; Pushkin used it, too), ‘sensible’ in the Austenesque way (‘to be sensible of something’); refers to Pushkin being in ‘a brown study’ and suffering from ‘the ague’; and mentions that Pushkin and his boisterous mates one night ‘kicked up a terrible bobbery’. This is a big book, but it has a rakish, propulsive air, not unlike Pushkin’s glittering short novels and stories, such as The Captain’s Daughter and ‘The Queen of Spades’.
Binyon’s style of storytelling also honours the small, tight-knit, highly social nature of the Russian elite in Pushkin’s day. Pushkin corresponded with several of his lycée chums until the end of his life. When the Decembrists made their failed coup attempt in 1825, he knew 11 of the ringleaders, and feared that he would be rounded up, guilty by association. Binyon offers detailed biographies of many of Pushkin’s original lycée class, and one can read his book like a novel, watching characters enter, leave and re-enter Pushkin’s life. There is Wilhelm Küchelbecker, for instance, whom Pushkin met at the lycée. In 1818, Pushkin quarrelled and fought an abortive duel with him. Küchelbecker’s second, Baron Delvig, was also an old lycée boy. There is a reference to him in Eugene Onegin: Lensky, reciting his verse, is said to sound ‘like Delvig when he’s dining drunk’. With Stendhalian swagger, Pushkin faced Küchelbecker, and shouted at Delvig: ‘Delvig! Stand where I am, it’s safer here.’ Küchelbecker fired and missed, while Pushkin simply refused to shoot. They were easily reconciled.
Küchelbecker next makes a major appearance in Binyon’s narrative in 1825. He was one of the Decembrists. Binyon, with characteristic control of irony and narrative information, remarks that Küchelbecker ‘would have been better advised, in view of future events, to have taken the post of professor of Russian and Slavonic languages at Edinburgh which he had been offered that spring’. We later learn that when the coup failed, Küchelbecker fled to Warsaw, where he was arrested, and then sentenced by Tsar Nicholas to twenty years’ hard labour. Two years later, in 1827, Pushkin was travelling, resting at an inn. A military convoy arrived, and Pushkin saw a convict in shackles leaning against a post. It was Küchelbecker. They embraced before Küchelbecker was led off. He had been in solitary confiment since 1825, and was being transferred to a fortress at Dünaburg (now in Latvia), where he would remain in solitary confinement until 1835, after which he would be sent to Siberia.
One reason Pushkin was so nervous when the 1825 coup failed was that he had already had his own brush with the law. In 1820, Tsar Alexander had had his attention drawn to various radical poems by Pushkin, and decided that the country would be easier to manage without the troublesome propinquity of this poet, however brilliant. (Pushkin already had a considerable reputation.) He was exiled to Ekaterinoslav in southern Russia. He would spend six years away from Petersburg. Pushkin was bored in this military outpost. Forced to create his own amusements, he turned up to dinner at the civil governor’s house wearing transparent muslin trousers and no underwear. Ladies had to be rushed from the drawing-room. From Ekaterinoslav he travelled to Kishinev, the Bessarabian capital, not far from the Russian-Turkish border (where he wrote the little poem to the innkeeper’s daughter and ate Tardif’s food). In Kishinev he wandered around his rooms naked, wore baggy Turkish pantaloons, and developed his habit of writing in bed, a notebook propped on his knees. More important, he began Eugene Onegin.
He started the poem in May 1823, and wrote it intermittently until September 1830. It was begun in relative juvenility and finished just as the poet was marrying. As late as 1835, Pushkin considered adding to it; years earlier he had apparently planned a chapter in which Onegin travelled to Odessa, and perhaps joined the Decembrists. (A few verses of this fragment exist.) Instead, he closed his poem after eight chapters, consigning his hero and heroine to the gilded cage of 1820s Petersburg and Moscow. Like Stendhal’s characters, the people in Eugene Onegin must fight literature in order to live. As all readers notice, Onegin, Lensky and Tatiana are – like the poem itself – fragile compounds of influences, most of them foreign. Onegin is a victim of English spleen, wears clothes from London, eats Strasbourg pie and reads Gibbon, Rousseau and Pierre Bayle. Even his day is timed by a foreigner – ‘Bréguet’s unsleeping chime’.
In the country, he meets Lensky, a striving poet and recent graduate of the University of Göttingen, still full of Schiller and Goethe. Lensky is in love with Olga, a figure, Pushkin says, you could find in any novel. Olga’s sister, Tatiana, is an early version of Madame Bovary, a woman fed on the fictions of Rousseau and Richardson, who sees herself as a ‘creation’, like Clarissa, Julie, Delphine. Tatiana falls in love with Onegin, only to be rebuffed. He tells her that he is cynical about love, and would not want to betray such an innocent soul. Onegin’s pride, like Darcy’s (and Pride and Prejudice cannot be banished from one’s mind as one reads Eugene Onegin, though there is no evidence that Pushkin knew of it) makes him, at least, honest – though Nietzsche’s comment that cynicism is the mediocre man’s best chance at honesty is perhaps more accurate. For Onegin is thoroughly mediocre, the poor sponge of his times. Just as his cynicism about love seems inevitable, because culturally typical, so too does the way in which he flirts with Olga at a ball, thus inviting Lensky’s challenge to the inevitable duel.
Pushkin’s sketch of that ball is extraordinary. Even in poor smuggled English, the accuracy of the original can be felt. In Charles Johnston’s version:
Here with his wife, that bulging charmer,
fat Pustiakov has driven in;
Gvozdin, exemplary farmer,
whose serfs are miserably thin;
and the Skotinins, grizzled sages,
with broods of children of all ages,
from thirty down to two; and stop,
here’s Petushkov, the local fop;
and look, my cousin’s come, Buyanov,
in a peaked cap, all dust and fluff, –
you’ll recognise him soon enough, –
and counsellor (retired) Flyanov
that rogue, backbiter, pantaloon,
bribe-taker, glutton and buffoon.
Lensky, of course, is killed in the duel, occasioning a formal elegy in which Pushkin parodies conventional literary lachrymosity (‘the bloom has withered on the bough’ etc etc) only to follow it with a passage in which, having mourned the death to poetry that Lensky’s untimely snatch may represent, he revises his judgment, adding that it is more likely that Lensky would have become an idle drunk, with gout and many children.
Years later, Onegin visits Moscow, and sees Tatiana at a ball. No longer the bucolic ingénue, she is now a society lady, married to a general. ‘How well she’d studied her new role!’ He, quite unexpectedly, falls in love with her, only to be rejected. She admits to a strong residual passion for him, and tells him that she would happily give up this ‘tinsel life’ immediately, but she thinks that Onegin desires her now only because she has become so successful in society. So, in a nice irony, Tatiana suspects Onegin’s motives when he is in fact at his greatest pitch of authenticity – for once, he is desperately, carelessly in love. The poem takes its leave of him at this moment, and chooses, apparently arbitrarily, to close. In the final stanza, Pushkin remarks that some friends who heard him read, years ago, from the first chapter, are now dead. Blessed are those, he intones, who died early,
Not having to the bottom drained
the goblet full of wine;
who never read life’s novel to the end
and all at once could part with it
as I with my Onegin.
The poem has an artful, chiastic form: Tatiana falls in love with Onegin, and nothing much happens; and Onegin falls in love with Tatiana, and nothing much happens. Viktor Shklovsky suggested that Eugene Onegin is thus a good example of a work of art which refers not to a grounded reality but merely to itself; it is not a story so much as a game played with a story. John Bayley, in his perceptive book Pushkin: A Comparative Commentary, has faulted Shklovsky’s formalism, arguing that as with Tolstoy’s or Shakespeare’s characters, we are encouraged by artifice to think of Onegin and Tatiana as real people with real motives and surprising actions – who knew that Onegin would fall in love with Tatiana? Or that Tatiana would reject him? Even Pushkin said: ‘Do you know my Tatiana has rejected Onegin? I never expected it of her.’
Nevertheless, pace Bayley, Onegin and Tatiana are not real in the way they would be in a novel. To begin with, a poem, even a long one, necessarily slenderises characters, allowing far less detailed attention to motive and mental thought than, say, Pride and Prejudice allows Elizabeth Bennet. It is such attention that makes characters feel real, makes us feel that they are not the novelist’s characters but ours. Pushkin’s hero and heroine surely remain Pushkin’s at all times, as he is keen to remind us. They are like the celebrated Alfred Jewel, which belonged to the King, and is inscribed: ‘Alfred caused me to be made.’ Furthermore, Pushkin emphasises that these characters are not only his characters but the culture’s: they are the children of Richardson and Rousseau, the offspring of Bréguet’s springs. Self-consciously written by Pushkin and self-consciously written into by other literatures and cultures, they are doubly unreal, and this may explain why, although we read Eugene Onegin with admiration, laughter and passion, we do not read it with much sympathy for its actors. Onegin and Tatiana do everything but move us, that great capacity of true novelistic and dramatic characters. It is very important for Elizabeth Bennet and – we feel – for Jane Austen, that Darcy’s ‘real character’ be revealed (this phrase is repeated in the novel), that life amount to more than a brilliant, proud performance. But having looked at Onegin’s library, Tatiana decides that he is a Muscovite dressed in the clothes of Childe Harold, a ‘lexicon of words in vogue’, just ‘a parody’. We have no cause to doubt her word.
But if Onegin and Tatiana are doubly unreal they are not therefore doubly invisible. They are truly paradoxical – they are unreally alive. Their reality is the aggregate of Pushkin’s wonderful observations and true, lively details – Onegin’s blunt billiard cue, or the fact that Tatiana’s father died ‘just before dinner’, or that Lensky, playing chess with Olga, is so distracted by his love that he moves Olga’s pawn and takes his own rook. No characters, of course, not even Shakespeare’s, are ever real, despite what Harold Bloom likes to tell us; they are only life-like, and the reality we accord them is decided by the depth of freedom their creators allow them. In this sense, Pushkin’s characters are quite unreal because so forcibly curtailed. Always, one feels Pushkin’s playful irony, controlling and observing. When Tatiana marries her general, Pushkin wants us to know that she is performing a role, that love will not enter into it. So he has her look at her husband-to-be and exclaim: ‘Who? That fat general?’ But in the next stanza, here is Pushkin, ironically closing in: ‘But here we shall congratulate/my dear Tatiana on a conquest.’
There is a kind of dialectic at work in Pushkin’s verse, whereby the real enters his poems only to be ironised, at which point the ferocity of the irony seems almost to make Pushkin sad, causing him to elegise the loss of the real. And in Eugene Onegin, Pushkin’s characters think like this too: Onegin is at first ironic and cynical about love, only to become, in Moscow, tearful about his former cynicism. Similarly, Tatiana was happy enough to believe herself acting out a role from Richardson until she actually began to play a role in Moscow, at which point, as she tells Onegin, she longs for the country, for a simple bookshelf, a modest home, and the churchyard where her poor nurse now lies. Pushkin deals with his characters dialectically, too: he keeps them at a remove until he seems to mourn their very unreality, and then desires to fall in love with them – but too late, they are already disappearing from his grasp. Hence the arbitrary leave-taking of the poem’s end, in which Pushkin suggests that life is a novel it is better not to finish. Better, it seems, to abandon one’s characters before one loses one’s heart to them. Blessed are those who can part with life, ‘as I with my Onegin’.
In such poems as ‘Elegy’ and ‘I visited again’, Pushkin mournfully imagines his own death, as if by elegising himself in advance of his own death, he will secure a kind of life after it. Certainly, his fondness for the fragment and the unfinished work (such as Eugene Onegin and The Captain’s Daughter) suggests that he found it easier to abandon than to end. One ensures permanence by incompletion. And this, of course, is what he did to his own life, by wilfully abandoning it in a duel. Binyon narrates the final years of Pushkin’s life as well as he does the earlier ones. We see Pushkin, in 1826, lying to the authorities about the authorship of the irreligious poem The Gabrieliad, and then, having been rumbled, begging the Tsar’s forgiveness for having written it. Dostoevsky’s dynamics of guilt, ressentiment and abasement surely arise in part from the unhealthy relationship with the Tsar forced on Russian writers. Pushkin had to pass all his work through the vile Count Aleksandr Benckendorff, head of the gendarmerie. For years, secret police were keeping tabs on him.
But Pushkin was grateful to the Tsar for releasing him from exile in 1826, and in the last decade of his life he began to research the era of Peter the Great, even at times suggesting generous parallels between Peter and Nicholas. He wrote a historical account of the Pugachev rebellion – Pugachev was a Cossack who, in 1773-74, fomented an uprising in south-eastern Russia. His fictional version of this episode, The Captain’s Daughter, was written in 1834, and is probably his finest piece of prose fiction. It begins with great promise: a young man, Grinev, is posted to a remote fortress. Pushkin takes gentle comic pleasure in disappointing the romantic young man’s hopes: the fortress is just a messy little village, and the fortress’s captain a sweet old man who drills the soldiers in his cotton dressing-gown and nightcap. The real captain is the captain’s wife, a charming but formidable character.
Grinev, Pushkin-like, promptly falls in love with the captain’s daughter, Masha. But Pugachev is on the march, and the fortress is in the end taken by his men. The sweet old captain and his wife are killed. The rest of the novella leaves the comedy and sharp social observation of the early scenes for a quick rattle of adventures: Grinev rescues Masha, obtains safe passage from Pugachev, is arrested by Russians who are suspicious that his safe passage means that he has really turned traitor and gone over to Pugachev, and so on. Masha obtains a pardon from the Empress; she travels to Petersburg and petitions her in person. At which moment, the ‘editor’ of the story breaks in to tell us that ‘the memoirs of Petr Andreevich Grinev end at this point.’ There is an omitted chapter, in which Pushkin was clearly playing around with an alternate ending, which includes an exciting shoot-out at Grinev’s estate. Elements of the story are indebted to Walter Scott, but the bucking adventurism is closer to Fenimore Cooper (whom Pushkin was reading at the time).
Pushkin had great difficulty extending his fictional prose. He had wanted to turn ‘The Blackamoor of Peter the Great’ into a novel (a fictionalised biography of his great-grandfather), but abandoned it after only a few chapters. His directness and lucidity, so influential on both Tolstoy and Chekhov, seem to have thinned his resources. And this is suggestive, because at exactly the moment when his longer fictions might have become novels, they refused to do so. In order for Pushkin to write a novel it had to become a long poem, and its characters had to become poetic properties rather than novelistic lets.
Perhaps Pushkin himself became something of a poetic property? He died in 1837, as Lensky, the poet, had died in verse. And as Binyon observes, the pistol that killed him was made in Paris by Lepage, another echo of Eugene Onegin: Lensky is killed by one of ‘Lepage’s fell barrels’. The handsome French émigré Baron d’Anthès had been paying unseemly attention to Pushkin’s beautiful young wife, Natalia Goncharova, and despite the interventions of friends, Pushkin insisted on avenging his honour. (In the many letters to his wife from which Binyon quotes, a terror of being cuckolded is a regular theme, an ironically fitting anxiety for the committed seducer.) Mortally wounded by d’Anthès, Pushkin died slowly in his apartment, surrounded by his books. A crowd gathered outside, and an irregular bulletin on his state of health was posted to the door of the building. The Tsar, apprised of the news, sent a letter, promising to look after Natalia and her children. Pushkin died in great pain. Unlike his uncle, there were no comic last words, just a functional, imploring, ‘It’s difficult to breathe, I’m suffocating.’
Binyon’s book is a work of exhaustive scholarship. It has the confident air of one who expects no serious rival in his lifetime. Its only fault is its lack of extended literary criticism. But for all that, English’s Pushkin will surely be Binyon’s Pushkin for a long time to come.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.