Liberating Pushkin

Russia’s greatest poet Alexander Pushkin is notoriously hard for non-Russian speakers to appreciate. So Susan Richards welcomes a concise new biography of the poet by his translator Robert Chandler which strips the varnish off
Susan Richards
19 July 2010

Two great obstacles confront the non-Russian speaking reader when reading Pushkin.  The first, famously, concerns his language.  Many is the reader who, after reading a few of his more Byronic poems, or his spare Tales of Belkin, has put them aside thinking: ‘Well, that was perfectly pleasant, but really I can’t think what all the fuss is about. ’ If you have ever felt this impulse, Robert Chandler’s slim biography of Pushkin may contain just the elixir you need.

Alexander Pushkin

Alexander Pushkin. The poet was at his most creative when most confined, the translator reminds us.

This fastidious translator, whose rendering of Pushkin’s undervalued story The Captain’s Daughter will have brought  the story many new readers, has now produced a biography of Pushkin in the Brief Lives series.  While it does not pretend to displace scholarly biographies like  Tim Binyon’s, Chandler’s spare narrative is imbued with the very qualities Pushkin valued: ‘Precision and brevity are the most important qualities of prose,’ Pushkin wrote as early as 1822, before he had written much prose. ‘Prose demands thoughts and more thoughts – without thoughts, dazzling expressions serve no purpose.’ 

Chandler’s thoughtfulness, that of a poet and fine translator, permeates this work. It equips him to tackle the other great obstacle confronting the non-Russian-speaking reader of Pushkin: the dead weight of accumulated reverence which distances us from the poet. Since an entire 200-year literary culture balances on the poor man’s shoulders, it is all too easy for foreign readers to end up trying to embrace a full suit of images-cliches from which the poet appears to have escaped. There is the man- who- ‘almost’- joined- that- stellar- gang- of- aristocratic- Decembrist- rebels. There is the-man-killed- in- a- duel- by- his- frivolous-wife’s- French- lover etc etc.

In order to rescue Pushkin from this ponderous carapace, Chandler throws a lot of information overboard and concentrates on the essentials. He explores that intriguing disjuncture between the apparent emptiness of Pushkin’s external life (the women, the gambling, the drinking culture) and the abundance of his inner life. He gives us back the poet, caught in flagrante delicto, the act of creation, as described by Liprandi. Forced to share lodgings with him, Liprandi wakes up to find the young Pushkin sitting on a divan with his legs up, ‘wearing no clothes at all.. surrounded by his scraps of paper, but holding a pen in his hand with which he was beating time as he read.’

It is the conditions which provoked Pushkin to greatest creativity that really interest Chandler. As he points out, the poet was to a greater or lesser extent imprisoned throughout his adult life – in exile in the south, confined at a family estate, barred from travelling abroad, trapped into court life by his marriage.  Pushkin was at his most creative when most confined, the translator reminds us.  He quotes the wonderful story of  his friend Nikita Vsevolozhsky’s old valet who heard Pushkin complaining that a publisher was demanding that he finish a poem for which he had already been paid. One day when Pushkin dropped round to see his friend, the old valet locked him into Nikita’s study: ‘Write your verses, Alexander Sergeich. I’m not going to let you out as you wish. You have to write – so write!’ And so he did. Pushkin sat down, and got so carried away that he went on writing until next day, telling both the valet and Nikita himself to go away and leave him in peace

Much ink has been spilled, particularly by Soviet ideologues, making out that the man who killed him in a dual, his wife’s admirer d’Anthès, was in some way acting as an agent for a Tsar who wanted Pushkin put out of the way. This is just one  example of the reverence-machine which has spewed out so much of the stuff that stands between us and the poet. Chandler, thoughtful, attentive to detail, cuts through it by reminding us ‘to consider Pushkin’s own role in the shaping of his fate.’ When you look in detail at the circumstances surrounding the dual you can indeed see that his beautiful wife was not quite the worthless flirt history has painted her; that the defence of her honour probably did not require him to fight at all, and certainly did not require him to opt for conditions that would be fatal for one of the parties. Pushkin was a true gambler. It was an essential part of who he was to live close to the edge.

Much effort has also been expended on claiming Pushkin as one of the cornerstones of Russia’s awe-inspiring 19th century radical tradition. But here too Chandler reminds us that the truth is more complex, and much more interesting. He is absolutely right in his judgment that Pushkin shares with Dostoevsky the distinction of being essentially a polyphonic writer. ‘Much of his (Dostoevsky’s) greatness stems from his ability to give expression to points of view opposed to his own; his socialists and atheists are as attractive, and come out with arguments as powerful as the characters who express his own views. This enjoyment of polyphony is a gift Dostoevsky shares with Pushkin and that he could have learned from The Little Tragedies or The Captain’s Daughter.’

Chandler is exploring something fundamental here. Pushkin burned to understand what the world was like from behind the eyes of the characters who interested him. He was so fascinated by the great rebel leader Pugachov that, not content with writing a historical novel about him (The Captain’s Daughter), he also laboured mightily in the imperial archives to produce a work of pure history about the rebellion Pugachov provoked. But his fascination was that of a writer, more than a radical, as we see from his similar obsession with the figure of Russia’s greatest autocrat Peter the Great. During his later years he was collecting material for a historical work about Peter the Great which he hoped would be his masterpiece. Pushkin was utterly intrigued by the notion of absolute power being vested in one man, as his complex relationship with Tsar Nicholas I suggests. The Tsar may have been the figure who placed the constraints on Pushkin’s freedom at every turn. But at times, as Chandler points out, Pushkin’s attitude to him seems almost flirtatious.  

No man is a hero to his valet, as the saying goes. Translators stand in rather the same relation to writers as valets to their masters. This refreshing book is the exception that proves the role. It is an affectionate tribute by a meticulous translator to a writer who appears to have become more of a hero to Chandler the longer he has worked on him.  

The Captain’s Daughter, tr Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, London Hesperus 2007

Pushkin by Chandler

Alexander Pushkin (Brief Lives), by Robert Chandler, Hesperus Press, London, 2009, 112 pages

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