A Very Athletic Person

T.J. Binyon

About half-way through Nabokov’s novel Pnin, the eponymous hero, Professor Timofey Pnin, who teaches Russian literature at Waindell College in New England, enters a sports shop and asks for a football (a present for his son). He is offered one:

  ‘No, no,’ said Pnin, ‘I do not wish for an egg, or, for example, a torpedo. I want a simple football ball. Round!’

  And with wrists and palms he outlined a portable world. It was the same gesture he used in class when speaking of the ‘harmonical wholeness’ of Pushkin.

The idea that Pushkin’s work constitutes ‘a portable world’ has been around ever since the 1840s when the critic Belinsky described Eugene Onegin as ‘an encyclopedia of Russian life’; but the infinite adaptability of this world to any situation – even the description of a football – or to any ideology has been the work of the Pushkin myth. In the Introduction to Strolls with Pushkin, Catherine Nepomnyashchy traces the evolution of the myth from Gogol’s remark in 1834 that Pushkin ‘is an extraordinary phenomenon and perhaps the only manifestation of the Russian spirit’ to the present day. The canonisation was set in train immediately after the fatal duel with d’ Anthès in 1837 – at the funeral service ‘his side-whiskers and the hair on his head were carefully cut off by his lady admirers’ – but it was finally achieved by Dostoevsky, in his famous speech at the ceremonies that accompanied the unveiling of the Pushkin statue in Moscow in 1880. Dostoevsky hijacked the poet for his own ideological ends. Unique among all the poets of the world for his ‘universal responsiveness’, Pushkin, he said, was a prophetic emblem of Russia’s messianic mission, which was ‘to show the way out of European ennui in our universally human and unifying Russian soul ... and finally, perhaps, to utter the ultimate word of great, universal harmony, of ultimate brotherly accord between all tribes according to the laws of Christ’s gospel!’ Screams and cries were heard in the audience. A student fell in hysterics at Dostoevsky’s feet. A hundred women marched onto the stage and put a laurel wreath, five feet in diameter, round his neck.

The centenary of Pushkin’s birth, in 1899, was a more commercial occasion. Pushkin cigarettes, chocolate, knives, watches, vases, shoes, dresses, scent (Bouquet Pouchkine) and a board game (Pushkin’s Duel) were produced. The 1937 celebration (oddly described here as marking the 150th anniversary of his death) lasted a year. The town Detskoe Selo (the former Tsarskoe Selo), where the lycée he attended was situated, was renamed Pushkin, and an editorial in Pravda announced that ‘Pushkin is completely ours, Soviet, for the Soviet power inherited everything that is best in our people ... In the final analysis Pushkin’s creation merged with the October socialist revolution as a river flows into the ocean ... Pushkin long outgrew the boundaries of his Country. All progressive, cultured humanity is on bended knee before his genius.’ Soviet Pushkinography produced, on the one hand, reverential and sentimentalised accounts of his life, typified by A.I. Gessen’s 12, Moika Embankment, which begins: ‘The antique clock on the fireplace in the study of Pushkin’s last apartment shows 2:45. At this moment on 29 January 1837 the poet’s heart stopped’; and, on the other, analyses of his work which attempt to pressgang him on board the ship of realist writers committed to political reform. One example of the latter is Boris Milakh’s ‘Pushkin the Lycéen and the Oppositional Movement of the Pre-Decembrist Period’: the joke is that, years after leaving the lycée, Pushkin was considered too flighty and frivolous by the Decembrists to be admitted to their councils.

In the Fifties Andrei Sinyavsky was a respected Soviet critic who had written a lengthy – and excellent – introduction to a new edition of Pasternak’s verse. Then, under the pseudonym Abram Tertz, he began to publish fiction in the West; he was arrested, together with his friend Yuly Daniel in 1965, and after a famous trial, sentenced to seven years’ hard labour for ‘anti-Soviet agitation’. In prison camp he wrote Strolls with Pushkin and the first chapter of a book on Gogol (In the Shadow of Gogol), sending out passages in letters to his wife. Just as his Abram Tertz stories are examples of what he calls ‘fantastic realism’, so these works are conceived as ‘fantastic literary criticism’: ‘After all, art is the same objective reality as reality is. That means that it can be portrayed in different ways, emphasising some things, exaggerating, sometimes turning them upside down.’ Strolls with Pushkin, in Professor Nepomnyashchy’s words, is written with the aim of ‘circumventing the “wreaths and busts” that enshrine the canonic Pushkin and finding the “beautiful original” ’ in order ‘to shock, entertain, unsettle and ultimately beguile the reader into a new, livelier appreciation of Pushkin’.

As might be expected, this iconoclastic approach to an icon ‘equal to the icons of the Church’, as one critic has called Pushkin, led to a storm of protest, both in Russia and among émigrés in the West. Sinyavsky, they said, was a ‘Russophobe’ who had ‘defiled Russia’s national treasure’: the Russian public should protest against the book’s publication as Muslim fundamentalists had protested against that of The Satanic Verses. The émigré writer Roman Gul saw it as ‘a mockery of that which in human society should not be mocked if society does not want to turn into a herd of orangutans’. Especial fury was aroused by what has become the most notorious sentence in Strolls: ‘Pushkin ran into high poetry on thin erotic legs and created a commotion.’ Professor Nepomnyashchy quotes ‘two rather ludicrous reactions’: ‘Where did Andrei Donatovich get the idea that Pushkin had thin erotic legs? After all, even in the notorious book Pushkin’s Don Juan List there are no instructions to the effect that his legs were erotic.’ And: ‘Andrei Donatovich, where did you get the idea that Pushkin had thin legs? After all, it is well known that he was a very athletic person.’

Ludicrous though these comments might be (the ‘Don Juan List’ is a column of 37 women’s Christian names written by Pushkin in the album of one Elizaveta Nikolaevna Ushakova in 1829), their authors have a point: where did Sinyavsky get the idea? There are certainly plenty of legs in Pushkin’s verse: five pairs of graceful, four of dear, two of tired; single pairs come in a variety of shapes and sizes – goat’s, hen’s, hairy, fettered, weak, unsteady, little, deceitful, hurried and immodest. But no thin ones. The sentence leads into a discussion of Pushkin’s ‘amorousness’: ‘a life devoted solely to a single occupation practised round the clock, an eternal circulation among feminine charms. But the size of the collection and the abundance of the hero’s love do not allow him to concentrate exclusively on a single object nor to go further than simple flirtation, which in essence exhausts his relations with these enchantresses.’

Russian literature wrapped itself in Bowdler’s cloak in the early 19th century; there was an occasional glimpse of a bare ankle in the early years of the 20th; but Soviet literature lengthened and thickened the garment, until even the outline of the feminine form became invisible. And, however iconoclastic Sinyavsky might be elsewhere, here he sticks to tradition: there is no hint of the bawdy strain in Pushkin, of the coarseness moderated by wit, that marks some of his light verse (the bawdiness is censored in Russian editions, where the offending words are replaced by ellipses). One evening, looking out of the lycée library window, he noticed two women coming out of church quarrelling; by the next morning he had produced an explanation in verse: the older woman is reproaching the younger for allowing a man to take liberties with her. He’s only a child, says the younger, what about old Trifon, who comes to see you day and night?

In another’s [cunt] you see the straw
But don’t notice the beam in your own.

Or take his description of an evening in 1819 with the notorious rake Kaverin and others:

The cold stream of champagne
Fizzed in the glass goblet –
We drank – and the Venus with us
Sat sweating at the table.
When shall we four meet again
With [whores], wine and tobacco?

These are hardly ‘thin’ erotic legs.

One of Pushkin’s best-known poems is ‘To –’ (‘I remember a wondrous moment’), addressed to Anna Petrovna Kern (Cairn). Professor Nepomnyashchy calls attention to ‘the discrepancy, which many have found disturbing over the years’, between Pushkin’s manner of addressing her in the poem (‘a genius of pure beauty’), and his reference to her as the whore of Babylon’ in a letter to a friend, and thinks that ‘this subtext might have been on Sinyavsky’s mind in writing Strolls with Pushkin.’ (She does not mention the fact that in another letter, of 1828, he writes of ‘Madame Kern, whom with God’s help I [will fuck] in a day or two’. Slava Yastremski is even more straitlaced: in his note on Anna Kern he states that they only met twice – in 1819 and 1825. Apart from the meeting Pushkin adumbrates in his letter, they continued to be acquainted throughout the 1830s.) But the discrepancy would only appear ‘disturbing’ to those who can’t distinguish between the poet and the man – in other words, to the guardians of the Pushkin myth. Sinyavsky is certainly not of this number: in fact, he devotes much of the later portion of his essay to differentiating between man and poet. He begins with another famous poem, ‘The Poet’ –

When the poet is not called
To the sacred sacrifice by Apollo ...
... among the insignificant children of the world
He, perhaps, is the most insignificant.
But as soon as the divine word
Reaches his keen ear,
The poet’s soul starts up
Like an awakened eagle

– and remarks that this is not ‘a transformation of the one into the other, but ... a complete, uncompromising replacement of the man by the Poet’. Later, he sees the same opposition in the Bronze Horseman between Evgeny, the downtrodden hero, who loses his reason in the St Petersburg flood of 1824, and the Bronze Horseman himself, Peter the Great. But Evgeny represents Pushkin the man and Peter Pushkin the poet, as Sinyavsky thinks they do, how does he square Pushkin the man’s pride in his ancestors – to which Sinyavsky has earlier alluded – with Evgeny’s professed lack of interest in his?

There is much that is brilliant, stimulating, intriguing in the essay, yet the transitions are so vertiginous, the self-contradictions so blatant (they may of course be innate characteristics of ‘fantastic literary criticism’), that the whole seems less than a sum of the parts. At times, too, Pushkin the poet proves too protean even for Sinyavsky’s sudden changes of course. He quotes ‘The Dreamer’ –

Stillness is dear to my heart;
I don’t, I don’t chase after glory

– and comments: ‘At the age when a youth was supposed to be dreaming of a hussar’s pelisse and sword knot, Pushkin ... made himself out to be a hermit, whistling in his hut.’ Had he turned back a page in the first volume of the 1937 Academy edition, he would have found the following lines:

I’ll put on narrow breeches,
Curl the proud whisker in rings,
A pair of epaulettes will gleam,
And I – child of the severe Muses –
Will be among the martial cornets!

In the Introduction Professor Nepomnyashchy points to the similarity between Pushkin jokes and Lenin jokes, taking it as an indication of the kinship between the Lenin and Pushkin cults. Mayakovsky, in Vladimir Ilich Lenin, written soon after Lenin’s death, begins by expressing his fear lest

     processions and mausoleums
an established statute of devotions
should cover with sickly-sweet unction
Lenin’s simplicity.

Despite this, the poem, perhaps inevitably, turns out itself to be an act of unction, unable to preserve Lenin the man behind Lenin the leader. In the same way Strolls with Pushkin, aiming at iconoclasm, turns out to be another sacrifice to the myth, though an odd one. Neither Sinyavsky nor Professor Nepomnyashchy can completely rid themselves of the beliefs of the cult, while in the notes Professor Yastremski reveals himself as an initiate by remarks such as ‘Pushkin’s uncle, Vasily Lvovich Pushkin ... played a very important role in Pushkin’ biography ... [he] introduced his nephew to the literary society Arzamas, which marked the beginning of Pushkin’s literary career’: a fatuous statement which could have been culled from any popular Soviet biography of Pushkin. Vasily was a vain, prosy, sentimental old fool, a less than mediocre poet, with only one work worth reading to his name; Pushkin was indebted to him only because he took Pushkin to St Petersburg for the lycée entrance examination: during the journey he borrowed a hundred roubles from the boy, which he never returned – any debt, therefore, was of the uncle to the nephew. Pushkin was already well-known as a poet before being introduced to the Arzamas society and hardly stood in need of Vasily as a sponsor. As for the society’s meetings, they consisted of roast goose dinners, at which the members wore red caps, followed by the reading of tediously facetious minutes and trivial verse.

Whatever else one may say about the book it seems right to praise Sinyavsky for his determination to make the last part of his stroll a powerful affirmation of Pushkin’s work as pure art: neither the art which was to ‘utter the ultimate word of great, universal harmony’ nor the art which would further political reform, but the art that is an end in itself.