Pushkin (1799-1837) is the Mozart of the literary world. He is light footed, crystal clear and highly musical. Everything is just as it should be. Even his sporadic imperfections are charming. Pushkin is from the Romantic era, like Byron, Scott and the Russian Lermontov.
On his father’s side of the family he stems from ancient Russian nobility. His mother’s side of the family is exotic: his great grandfather, an Ethiopian, was given to Peter the Great as a present in 1704. Peter took a liking to the little Abraham, and gave him the patronymic Petrovich, after himself, and a proper military education. Abraham eventually became a general and took on Hannibal as a last name, a definite sign that he was no slave. The Empress Elizabeth gave him a country estate to thank him for his services, Mikhailovskoe. Pushkin would get banned to it at some point in his career. Abraham married a Swedish woman, and that makes Pushkin just as much Swedish as Ethiopian.
Father of Russian literature
Pushkin is generally considered to be the father of Russian literature. He adjusted the archaic Russian language to his own needs and created a modern language, suitable for both modern poetry and prose. With this modernised language he expressed himself in a wide variety of literary genres: stories, drama, narrative poems, poetry, novellas, fairy tales and a novel in verse. The novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, is typical for Pushkin’s innovative style.
Style and works
His stories and novellas are sheer perfection, everything is right: the subject choice, they are light, there is humour and there is mystery. Many Russian writers took them as a starting point for their own writings. As I have written before, that is considered a big compliment in Russian literature. As a result there are numerous stories that are called The Snowstorm, but Pushkin wrote the original. The novellas Queen of Spades and The Captains Daughter are true masterpieces.
His poetry is legendary. He started to write poetry at school, with a preference for patriotic, satirical or amorous subjects. These subjects remained with him throughout his career. Most Russians know at least one of his poems by heart. Pushkin’s own favourite work was Eugene Onegin. A unique work with an innovative rhyme scheme that became known as the Onegin Stanza. It’s a cheery tale, thanks to this rhyme scheme, in spite of the romantic subject. Tatyana is a typical romantic heroine, a pale and dreamy girl, who spends her nights staring out the window at the moon. Onegin is one of those superfluous men, a poet who is bored with life. Pushkin infused the story with a rich humour, folklore and fantasy.
His work did not only influence other writers, but also numerous composers. Tchaikovsky turned Eugene Onegin into an opera that is, at least in the western world, probably better known than the book. Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov and Rimsky-Korsakov were also inspired by the works of Pushkin.
So who was Pushkin influenced by? His dear old nurse, Arina Rodionovna, apparently. She narrated all the fairy tales and legends she knew to him, and even when he was already grown up, he loved to listen to her (she stayed at Mikhailovskoe until she died). His maternal grandmother, who looked after little Alexander and his sister more than their mother, told him all about the origins of his family and sparked his interest in history.
Because his works are so playful and musical, he is notoriously difficult to translate*. Nabokov wrote two fat volumes about the translation of Eugene Onegin, and still his translation doesn’t work for me. The two volumes themselves are super informative, though.
Debt and exile
Like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Pushkin had to write to pay his debts. The lifestyle that was required of him was more expensive than he could afford. His often razor sharp pen earned him a couple of banishments.
It’s not difficult to recognise Pushkin, like Mozart he has a unique style. Seemingly effortless, fluent and happy. He likes to converse with his reader too. Because he was not a Realist like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, there are no moral issues that he wants to force upon his reader. Almost two centuries later his work does not appear outdated in the least. You can pick up any of his works at any time of the day and enjoy it like listening to Mozart, or a fantastic wine. So lean back in a comfortable chair and enjoy, perhaps even all three simultaneously.
Pushkin by T.J. Binyon
Photos © by me, the illustrations are from a old book that I picked up at a book market.
*Before you buy, it’s probably wise to read the first page to see if the translation works for you. In English I really like Roger Clarke, he seems to hit the right balance and gets the right feeling across. His comments and notes are also very entertaining.