- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2003

PUSHKIN: A BIOGRAPHY

By T.J. Binyon

Knopf, $35, 727 pages

REVIEWED BY PETER ROLLBERG

Listening to Russians praising Pushkin sometimes feels like watching a miracle drug commercial: The effects of the poet are touted like those of a unique cure-it-all that will relieve both personal depressions and societal maladies. Indeed, there are some who claim that they cannot physically survive a long period of time without enjoying some Pushkin, be it a poem, short story, fairytale, or a chapter from “Eugene Onegin.” What are those unique pleasures that distinguish Pushkin from, say, Turgenev, Gogol, or Tolstoy?

And why do these pleasures seem to remain foreclosed to foreigners? Surprisingly, many Western scholars proficient in Russian often will agree with Pushkin’s native devotees — the aesthetic effect generated by this poet’s magically poignant language is indeed unique. Befuddled readers with no knowledge of Russian, however, who are trying to make sense of the quasi-religious Pushkin veneration will be at a loss, for there seems to be no genuine equivalent in other cultures.

Even Shakespeare, who played a comparably groundbreaking role for the English-speaking world and has proved a lasting source of inspiration, is no exact match: After all, the power of Shakespeare’s word has been persuasively transferred to all major languages, whereas Pushkin by and large remains accessible to Russians only, despite the untiring efforts of translators to change that.

Of course, “The Queen of Spades,” “Boris Godunov” and “Eugene Onegin” maintain a respectable presence in opera houses worldwide, yet the literary originals do not convey much of their mystique when sung on stage. Similarly, floods of secondary literature may have added to the myth-making surrounding the poet rather than explaining what lies at the heart of his supreme status.

T.J. Binyon, an Oxford scholar who has spent many years researching the Pushkin phenomenon, clearly holds great admiration for the Russian classic. Luckily, he has also retained the necessary degree of analytical sobriety and common sense. As a result, his “Pushkin: A Biography” turns out to be a delightful eye-opener both for the layman and the specialist. Indeed, Mr. Binyon’s affectionate and meticulous approach makes this volume worthy of the attention of anybody interested in Russia and her culture.

The 37 years of Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin’s life (1799-1837) were eventful enough to justify such a weighty tome, the more so since the author clarifies important societal specifics related to Pushkin’s trials and tribulations. Raised in a stale aristocratic environment, the curious and self-willed Alexander received much of his education from the books of French Enlighteners, and later meandered between the extreme poles of a romantic revolutionary spirit and proud support of Russia’s imperial prowess.

Pushkin was a mediocre student interested more in fencing and poetry than Latin or religion, yet he entered the diplomatic service after graduating from a new, state-of-the-art elite school, the Imperial Lycee, in 1817. Exiled to the Crimea in 1820, he empathized with the Decembrist revolters of 1825 but was spared their harsh fate. Nikolai I, a paternalistic tsar with a notoriously limited intellectual vision, repeatedly censored and reprimanded the poet who soon became the object of malicious gossip and humiliation among courtiers. Thus Pushkin’s death in a duel, provoked by a shady French officer who openly pursued Pushkin’s wife, came in handy for his numerous enemies.

Given his status as the founder of Russian classical literature, Pushkin’s tumultuous life and tragic death could not but inspire an entire mythology of its own. The intricacies of his biography soon became an embattled territory for conservatives and liberals, Westernizers and Slavophiles, romanticists and realists; Pushkin’s oeuvre as such, once it was established as the eternal gold standard of Russian letters, remained uncontested.

Rather than following the trampled paths of Pushkin hagiography, Mr. Binyon has organized the wealth of important information clearly and cohesively; none of the facts has been listed for the sake of the misbegotten “completeness” from which so many biographies suffer these days. It is through richly provided relevant details — from salaries and expenses to censorship trouble and family dysfunctions — that the author tells the bittersweet story of Pushkin’s life in a fluent and utterly believable manner.

No doubt, the biographer’s honesty and human insight will endear Pushkin the man and the genius much more to skeptical Western readers than any emotional hyperbole ever can. On the other hand, the conscientious truthfulness that distinguishes this biographer may not be to every Pushkin lover’s liking; some may object that certain pieces of information are not essential and have been kept out of the public discourse for good reason. Financial matters in particular are commonly denounced as trivial and negligible for the comprehension of a creative genius.

However, only grasping the ratio between royalties, book prices, and the rent for an 11-room apartment in St. Petersburg (which Pushkin and his wife occupied) will allow an understanding of the artist and his epoch in their complex interaction. For example, learning that just one night of gambling at times cost Pushkin an amount equalling twice his annual salary, sheds important light on the poet’s behavioral patterns. Rather than blaming the tsarist establishment for his financial woes, as generations of Soviet scholars did, Mr. Binyon points to an inherent self-destructiveness in the poet that needs to be taken into consideration.

While never doubting the artistic superiority of Pushkin over his contemporaries, Mr. Binyon does not shy away from mentioning the less appealing sides of his personality as well: an unpredictable bad temper, excessive and sometimes cynical womanizing, a predilection for brothels, or his hapless entrepreneurial initiatives. In many ways, the Pushkin family’s maddening inability to adjust their luxurious consumption to their actual means was typical of Russia’s entire aristocracy and eventually made its demise inevitable.

This story of Alexander Pushkin’s times offers a solid foundation to those who want to get a better sense of his work and of Russian culture in general. T.J. Binyon successfully avoided the pitfalls of hollow glorification, which reached its peak during the 200th anniversary celebrations in 1999, with Pushkin chocolate and Pushkin vodka filling the shelves of Moscow supermarkets.

The biographer made a wise decision to delay the publication of his book until the media hype had settled; otherwise, his truly extraordinary work could have been misunderstood — and overlooked — as a mere jubilee contribution. Far from the latter, it is a masterpiece in its own right.

Peter Rollberg teaches at The George Washington University.


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