Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0008913, Sat, 15 Nov 2003 10:35:21 -0800

Fw: mentioned in Nabokov's eccentric translation of ''Eugene
Onegin,'' ...
EDNOTE. This new biography of Pushkin is of interest to Nabokov readers. Nabokov was born in 1899 exactly a hundred years before Russian's most famous poet and writer and identified closely with him. Anyone who reads Nabokov without knowing something of his glamorous forerunner is missing a vital dimension of the Russo-American writer.

----- Original Message -----
From: Sandy P. Klein
Sent: Saturday, November 15, 2003 4:58 AM
Subject: mentioned in Nabokov's eccentric translation of ''Eugene Onegin,'' ...



November 16, 2003
'Pushkin': Aleksandr the Great
A Biography.
By T. J. Binyon.
Illustrated. 727 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $35.

Book cover of "Pushkin" by T. J. Binyon.


First Chapter: 'Pushkin'

(November 16, 2003)

n the winter of 1837, after the bullet, the opium, the sacraments, the convulsions and the coffin lined with crimson velvet, the Russian Orthodox metropolitan of St. Petersburg refused to conduct a funeral service for Aleksandr Pushkin in St. Isaac's Cathedral, ''on the grounds that a death in a duel was tantamount to suicide.''

It will seem to many readers of T. J. Binyon's magnificent biography that the metropolitan was right -- that the poet might just as well have shot himself. Always quick to take offense; delusionally jealous of his dim but beautiful young wife; forever in debt from gambling, exorbitant household expenses and the care and feeding of a wastrel brother and loathsome in-laws; unable in the social whirl to find time to finish any of his longer writing projects; ''harassed and persecuted'' by the czar's own censors whenever he did jot down something about, say, Pugachev, Peter the Great or Boris Godunov; subject to mood swings that today, says Binyon, ''would cause him to be classed as a manic-depressive'' -- Russia's first pop icon/literary superstar, who by the vivacity of his own example had turned art into a substitute for politics, was a nervous frazzle and a burning fuse.

He was also, of course, short -- a ''small, swarthy, apelike poet,'' 5-foot-6, with pale blue eyes, unsightly side whiskers and clawlike fingernails, sometimes to be seen wearing a black frock coat and silk top hat like Bolivar's, sometimes with a fez and Turkish pantaloons -- and a surprising snob, boasting that his father's boyar side of the family went back 600 years. (On his mother's side, notoriously, there was that ''blackamoor'' great-grandfather from Cameroon, purchased in Constantinople's slave market as a gift for Peter the Great, who grew up to marry a Swede and become a general.) None of which interfered with Aleksandr's inordinate fondness for smoked sturgeon, Rossini operas and women with small feet. ''In such cases,'' he confided to a friend, ''I usually write elegies, as another has wet dreams.''

Nor, as we'd expect from someone given to hissing at actors onstage and accusing strangers of cheating at cards, was his last duel his first. During his exile from the capital, he kept himself in fighting trim by shooting off a hundred rounds a day. There seem to have been three duels in the early 1820's, mentioned in Nabokov's eccentric translation of ''Eugene Onegin,'' not counting challenges not accepted, or finessed by tactful intermediaries. Binyon alludes to several more that stopped short of the firing line in the spring of 1836 alone, a period of ''sullen rage'' during which Pushkin ''became incapable of rational thought or action, and lashed out indiscriminately at anyone or anything, caring little -- on the contrary rather hoping -- that he might, like Samson at Gaza, bring the whole edifice of his life crashing about him.''

Which is not to say that Georges d'Anthes, the Alsatian reprobate who couldn't stay away from Natalya Pushkin, didn't deserve rough justice, maybe even a horsewhip. (Binyon characterizes his ''distasteful'' behavior toward Natalya -- who may have flirted but was never unfaithful -- as clear evidence of ''a classic case of the 'stalker' syndrome.'') Yet everyone agrees that after making sure he picked a second who wouldn't talk him out of the duel, the poet was more relieved than anxious. From ''a state bordering on lunacy,'' he became almost cheerful: ''free,'' reported Zizi Vrevskaya, ''from those mental sufferings which had so terribly tortured him.'' On his way to his wounding he even stopped for a lemonade, at a cafe where, today, a Madame Tussaud wax replica with his risible side whiskers keeps a pale blue eye on Nevsky Prospekt.

If you are reminded of Eugene's duel with Lensky in ''Onegin,'' so is Binyon. Lensky, a reader of Goethe rather than Rousseau and therefore a much nicer person than Eugene, falls victim in the verse epic to ''fell barrels'' hand tooled in Paris by Lepage. So, too, did Pushkin insist on Lepage pistols for his appointment with d'Anthes, pawning some table silver to pay for them. And as if to salt this open sore, the all-knowing and all-telling Binyon informs us that the pistol d'Anthes used to kill Pushkin was borrowed from the French ambassador's son, who would use it four years later to kill Mikhail Lermontov. It is apparently not sufficient that the autocratic Russian state tries so hard to crush its poets by sitting on them, as Nicholas I sat on Pushkin and Stalin on Pasternak; for touring foreigners, they were target practice.

''It's difficult to breathe, I'm suffocating'' were Pushkin's last words. And we know exactly how he felt because Binyon, a lecturer in Russian literature at Oxford, a senior research fellow at Wadham College and the author of a history of detective fiction as well as mystery novels of his own, invites us in, sits us down and opens the closets and the veins. He has practically inhaled all of 19th-century Russian culture, from school curricula to court etiquette to book publishing to adultery. Thus, though he disavows ''literary analysis,'' he is not above pointing at Ossian and Ariosto, at Byron, Milton, ''Rob Roy'' and ''Tristram Shandy,'' as well as Chateaubriand (''Atala''), Stendhal (''The Red and the Black'') and Voltaire (whose refusal to fight a duel over Joan of Arc was the subject of one of Pushkin's last sketches). He has read every diary, letter, memoir, report card and dossier, attended every late supper, masked ball and febrile seduction, counted every ''dead soul'' serf whom Pushkin inherited as property and every ''free peasant'' he ''mortgaged'' to pay his brother's debts, and exhumed every body of every Decembrist the poet might have met at school before they plotted their abortive coup without him. (An unfinished 10th chapter of ''Onegin,'' Binyon tells us, would have explained Eugene's involvement with the Decembrists. Pushkin burned it. )

And because the biographer likes to gossip as much as the biographee, he follows some of these characters out of Pushkin's story into beguiling digressions on Freemasonry, Bulgarian archimandrites and stewed cloudberries. So while it isn't strictly necessary to know that Count Fedor Tolstoy, before he slandered Pushkin, had been so obnoxious as a member of an embassy to Japan that the Russian Navy dumped him on an Aleutian island together with a pet ape that he probably ate, I'm glad I do. Likewise, even though the poet's heavy-breathing relationship with Princess Evdokiya Golitsyna ended in 1817, it's nice to hear that in the 1840's she campaigned against the introduction of the potato as an infringement of Russia's sovereignty.

Still, the substance and sinew are the nervous wreck of a great poet, with a czar like a monkey on his back. He was a plump and clumsy child who hated exercise and often sat down in protest in the street. His hot-tempered father wept a lot, maybe to make up for being incompetent. His ''beautiful creole'' mother not only loved his younger brother best but went months not even speaking to Aleksandr; and when he departed for the new imperial lycee at Tsarskoe Selo, where vacations and holidays were not allowed, she let two years go by without seeing him at all.

Graduating from the lycee into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as a collegial secretary of the 10th rank, he was paid 700 rubles a year to do nothing whatsoever. And if anyone actually did ask him to do something, he considered it a ''gross affront'' to his dignity. For a people's poet, he was full of an aristocrat's entitled resentment. It's a wonder that such a ''dissolute young rake'' had time between brothels, faro and the theater to become so famous, as much for his satires and obscene epigrams as for his revolutionary odes, before his 21st birthday. Really, he should have been French.

This giddy period drew to a close in 1820, when several of his anti-authoritarian poems came to the unamused attention of Czar Alexander I. He was exiled to to the south instead of Siberia only upon his promise to refrain from writing verses against the government. In muslin trousers on the Black Sea coast, attended by his faithful manservant, Nikita, he imagined himself both as Ovid, exiled by Augustus, and Childe Harold, the doomed Byronic outcast. Nevertheless, between quadrilles, mazurkas, gunfights, police spies and fast women, including a serf girl he got with child, he wrote like an e-mail maniac. As, earlier, the clap had been good for his work ethic, so were these six years of durance vile away from the Big Onion action. All of a sudden, from mornings in bed with a notebook on his knees, he produced ''Ruslan and Lyudmila,'' ''The Prisoner of the Caucasus,'' ''The Fountain of Bakhchisaray'' and ''The Gypsies,'' with ''Boris Godunov'' and ''Eugene'' waiting in the wings. Of course, mention must also be made of Aglae, Olga, Karolina and Ekaterina. ''Everything on earth,'' he was paraphrased by a friend as saying at the time, ''is done to attract the attention of women.''

Czar Alexander died in November 1825, probably from typhus, after which, against the succession of his younger brother Nicholas, the Decembrist liberals revolted -- and were crushed, executed or exiled. At least 11 had been friends of Pushkin's. Several, in the dock, professed admiration for his freedom poems. Yet none had breathed a word to him of their conspiracy, probably because they didn't trust him to keep his mouth shut. But the Pushkin permitted by Nicholas to return to Moscow and St. Petersburg, with strings attached to his mouth and hands, was not the protorevolutionary or the militant atheist he had appeared to be before his forced sabbatical.

Not even Binyon knows exactly what happened. Somewhere in the south, a Byronic sympathy for Greek independence somehow metastasized into imperial bloodlust. He no longer identified with the Circassians, Chechens and Ingush, ''the free mountain peoples,'' but celebrated instead their pacification even unto genocide. Like Isaac Babel a century later, he wanted to ride with the Cossacks. At Erzerum in 1829, he wanted to stick Turks. It isn't possible to imagine a Byron writing praise songs for what the Russian army did to Warsaw after the Polish rebellion of 1830. Upon reading Pushkin's jingoistic ''To the Slanderers of Russia,'' his old friend Vyazemsky almost snarled, ''Go and hymn the government for taking such measures if your knees itch and you feel an irresistible urge to crawl with the lyre in your hands.'' Moreover, this unlikely apologist and cheerleader for autocratic empire, between chats with Nicholas, not only returned to the Orthodox faith of his boyhood but also decided to get married.

She was tall and beautiful, he was short and not; the rest is too much drinking and dancing and 100,000 rubles' worth of debt. Gogol will be quoted: ''One meets Pushkin nowhere, except at balls. So he will fritter away his whole life, unless some chance, or rather necessity, drags him into the country.'' Never mind that no one ever invited Gogol to these parties, so how did he know? Maybe when a tyrant gets his sticky hands on your intimate mind, you no longer trust your thoughts. But ''The Bronze Horseman,'' the greatest poem in the Russian language and perhaps the best poem about power since the ''Iliad,'' remained unpublished in Pushkin's lifetime. It predicted for St. Petersburg a flood. And then the bloodtide came.

John Leonard's books include ''Lonesome Rangers,'' ''When the Kissing Had to Stop'' and ''The Last Innocent White Man in America.''


The New York Times

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