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Pushkin: A Biography
by T J Binyon
London, HarperCollins, September 2002, 731 pages, hardback, illustrated, £30
Review by Anna-Maria Leonard

Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin (1799-1837) is considered Russia's greatest poet. He is the author of a large body of lyrical verse, narrative poems, plays, a novel in verse, prose writings and historical works, and is credited with reforming both Russian literature and the literary language. He was also a notorious philanderer, gambler, and dueller, and an associate of many of the plotters of the 1925 December uprising. He was married to a woman acknowledged as one of the most beautiful in Russia, and died in a duel to defend her reputation at the age of 37. Numerous works, both Russian and foreign, have been devoted to his writing and to the story of his life. In Russia, he has long held the status of a national myth.

Binyon's Pushkin aims "to free the complex and interesting figure of Pushkin the man from the heroic simplicity of Pushkin the myth." It claims to be the first full length biography of Pushkin to be published since 1937. It is a detailed, comprehensive, thoroughly researched account which sets out the historical and literary context in detail. In addition to being a personal biography of the poet, it is also a factual and anecdotal history of life in Russia during the reigns of Alexander I and Nicholas I. Pushkin moved in the highest social circles, and through the narrative of his life, Binyon also gives a perspective on the major political and social events of the time.

Pushkin's talent was acknowledged from an early age. While still at school, he was noted both for his brilliance as a poet, as well as for his laziness. His first poems were published at the age of 14, and at 15 he recited his poem Recollections in Tsarskoe Selo to Derzhavin, one of the greatest poets of the time. By the age of 20, his first long poem, the mock-heroic epic Ruslan and Lyudmila, had secured his position among the literary elite.

However, he was also, according to Binyon, a "a crackbrained, giddy, intemperate and dissolute young rake." He was a man of excesses, an inveterate gambler and womaniser, who made conquests of a long list of society beauties. And although forbidden, Pushkin's touchiness, pride, and provocative behaviour resulted in numerous challenges and duels.

His thoughtless pranks and epigrams against the government led to difficulties with the tsarist authorities from early on. Many of his early poems, such as Liberty. An Ode, which circulated only in manuscript form at the time, were considered politically subversive. In addition, his association with known liberals led to his being viewed with suspicion. Ironically, although banished from the capital to the southern regions of the Russian Empire by Alexander I for his anti-governmental verse, it appears that he was never initiated into the plans of liberal political groups, such as those responsible for the 1825 uprising, because he was considered too flighty and not fully trustworthy.

His political leanings and relationship with authority were to remain ambivalent throughout his life.

After Nicholas I acceded to the throne and recalled him from exile, granting him a salary and undertaking to act personally as his censor, Pushkin was accused of betraying his principles by proclaiming allegiance to the tsar who had many of his close associates executed or sentenced to hard labour following the Decembrist uprising. Pushkin was particularly criticised for his poem To the slanderers of Russia on the surrender of Warsaw to Russia in August 1831 and for his imperialist chauvinism that many viewed as an attempt to ingratiate himself with Nicholas I. At the same time, however, he continued to be viewed with suspicion by Nicholas I's notorious Third Department. His letters to his wife were intercepted. He was refused permission to join the 1827 Turkish campaign because of his allegedly subversive views, and he was never granted permission to travel abroad. Even his funeral arrangements were changed at the last moment, in an attempt to disperse the crowds that had gathered and to avoid the possibility of popular disturbances.

Pushkin moved in the highest aristocratic, intellectual, military and diplomatic circles of the day. But that was only one side of the picture.

His writing was subject to censorship that meant he could not even read his works to his friends before they had been approved by the authorities.

Ever fearful of cutting a ridiculous figure, he was in some ways his own worst enemy. He naively imagined that he would get away with denying his authorship of a scurrilous poem The Gabrieliad and had to suffer being reprimanded by Nicholas I after confessing to having lied. When, at 34, he was made a gentleman of the bedchamber, a position usually awarded to men in their early 20s, he took the appointment as a slight and made matters worse by failing to acknowledge the honour and refusing to wear the uniform on the appropriate occasions. He then demonstrated a singular lack of judgement in his relations with Nicholas I, resigning his position at court and immediately retracting the resignation.

He made farcical attempts to outwit the authorities. While banished to Mikhailovskoe, he concocted a far-fetched plan to escape abroad. He invented an aneurysm which, he claimed, could only be treated abroad. His friends and mother, genuinely concerned about his state of health, laboured on his behalf for permission for him to leave Russia, only to receive the blame when the plan misfired.

He was caught up in numerous wrangles with aspiring rivals, such as with Faddey Bulgarin, whom he suspected of plagiarising his play Boris Godunov, or with Sergey Uvarov, minister of education, whom he lampooned in his poem On Lucullus' Recovery.

He made a number of unrealistic attempts to start a literary journal, believing this could be a way out of his financial difficulties. His dire financial straits were principally due to his own gambling debts and general extravagance: in his early years he lost numerous poems at cards, and later in life would sell his prospective works to publishers at a huge discount because he was desperate to get money upfront.

Annette Vulf, who rejected him as a suitor, noted in her diary that he had "dreadful side-whiskers, dishevelled hair, nails like claws, a small stature, affectation in his manners, an arrogant attitude to the women whom he chose to love, the peculiar nature both of his natural and assumed character, and boundless self-esteem."

The character that emerges is admittedly brilliant but also very human, often presented in a less than flattering light. He is, at times, selfish, frivolous, vain, and not particularly likeable, caught up in mundane concerns, to a large part of his own making rather than tsarist oppression.

Binyon's intention is to write a biography that "…concerns itself above all with the events of [Pushkin's] life: though the appearance of his main works is noted, and the works themselves are commented on briefly, literary analysis has be eschewed, as being the province of the literary critic, rather than the biographer."

Pushkin's life was indeed dramatic enough to be a story in its own right. But without an appreciation of the poetry, any picture of Pushkin is incomplete. Binyon's stated aim may be to avoid myth, but the greatness of Pushkin's poetry is fact. Binyon quotes from Pushkin's verse, and includes some of his most notable poems, but in translation it is impossible to give the verse its due. In addition, a large portion of the quoted verse is used to illustrate historical or biographical reference, for example, in relation to his infatuations with various women, or as an ironic or witty epigram. This conveys the flippant, witty side of Pushkin, but does little to explain his greatness.

This is the inevitable, albeit regrettable result of a biography of a foreign poet. This aside, while in some respects it may go into too much detail for the general reader - there are factual details that appear to have been included because they are available, rather than because they are necessary for the narrative, and they will mean little to the non-specialist - Binyon's biography of Pushkin is a lucid, gripping account of the life of a remarkable man.
Anna-Maria Leonard

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