Typically Pushkin

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.

Exotic relations

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.

Influences

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.

Translating Pushkin

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.

In short

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.

 

Booklist:

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.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=0hOT2QtLhhk

*******

 

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Pushkin’s Own Duel

Imagine that you’ve shot dead,
a young friend of your own,
because after a drink he offended you
with an impudent look or remark
or in some other trifling way –
or perhaps, his own honour slighted, in a blaze of anger
he challenged you to a duel.
Just imagine him lying on the ground before you
motionless, death spelt out on his brow,
his body slowly rigidifying:
desperately though you call him
he neither hears nor answers…
Tell me: what feeling now
will overwhelm your heart?

On January the 27th of 1836 somewhere in a field close to Saint Petersburg, two shots were fired. The first by Georges d’Anthès, the second by Alexander Pushkin. D’Anthès’s bullet hits Pushkin in the stomach and Pushkin’s bullet pierces d’Anthès’s arm and would have entered his chest, were it not for one of his uniform buttons. Two days later Russia’s ’all’ is dead. A tragic and senseless waste of a huge talent.

Duels were a recurrent theme with Pushkin, and he himself had taken part in more than one. The poet was quite a hotheaded guy. His wife Natasha was known as perhaps the most beautiful woman in Russia. They had four children and were fairly happily married. Pushkin was proud of his pretty wife and would have been disappointed indeed if other men hadn’t paid attention to her.

Georges d’Anthès

Georges d’Anthès was a young Frenchman* who served as an officer in the prestigious Imperial Guard. He lived with his rich adoptive father, the Baron van Heeckeren, Dutch ambassador in Saint Petersburg. Van Heeckeren was a homosexual and it seems more than likely that his relationship with d’Anthès was intimate. There were certainly rumours in that direction. But the biggest gossip in town was van Heeckeren himself, and he cunningly spread a rumour that d’Anthès was the illegitimate son of the Dutch king, William I, apparently preferring to slander his king than himself. D’Anthès didn’t seem to care much and happily spent his rich papa’s money, acting like a dandy and a womaniser.

In May 1834 Pushkin, together with his friend Danzas, met d’Anthès for the first time. The three of them had at that time no idea of the circumstances under which they would meet again in January 1837.

Rejected lover

D’Anthès fell in love with Natasha. He became obsessed with her, his avances quickly became more and more improper. The young and innocent Natasha didn’t know how to deal with him and d’Anthès convinced himself that she loved him too. In letters to van Heeckeren he even begs his adoptive father to try to convince Natasha, to lie to her, saying that d’Anthès is dying of his love for Natasha, begging her to leave or betray her husband**. D’Anthès even told Natasha that he would kill himself if she didn’t give in!***

The anonymous letters

Obviously Pushkin started to get more and more annoyed with d’Anthès and when in November 1835 anonymous letters, suggesting that d’Anthès and Natasha were having an affair, were going around in Saint Petersburg, he couldn’t take no more. The letters were addressed to several friends of Pushkin, but of course, he got to see them. It has never become clear who was behind them, Pushkin blamed van Heeckeren, but it was more likely the work of two well known pranksters from Saint Petersburg.

The challenge

The next morning Pushkin challenged d’Anthès to a duel. Because d’Anthès wasn’t home due to his officer’s duties, van Heeckeren accepted in his name and at the same time managed to arrange a fortnight’s delay. In those two weeks d’Anthès got engaged to Natasha’s sister Yekaterina. This was a big surprise for everyone and no doubt van Heeckeren had instructed d’Anthès to do so. Pushkin, however, thought it was a scheme of d’Anthès and van Heeckeren; by marrying the sister d’Anthès would have unlimited acces to Natasha. Pushkin was probably right. He refused to attend the wedding, but he saw himself forced to cancel the duel.

The duel

In spite of the marriage the rumours and avances continued and Pushkin challenged d’Anthès again for a duel only weeks after the marriage.

On Januari the 27th Pushkin leaves his house to go to the appointed place. Natasha knows nothing. On the threshold he turns around to go back inside and put on a warmer coat, the worst thing he could do; according to Russian superstition the threshold brings bad luck, and Pushkin was extremely superstitious. On his way he still has to find a second**** and finally finds one in Danzas, his old schoolfriend. The duel takes place and a couple of hours later Pushkin is carried over the threshold of his house again, seriously injured.

The death of the poet

He wants to be taken into his study. They lie him down on the sofa and send for a doctor. The first doctor they find is an obstetrician, who can’t do much, but later the tsar’s own doctor, Arendt comes to see him. He concludes that the injuries are fatal. Pushkin writes to the tsar and asks him for forgiveness, and for Danzas too. He also asks him to look after Natasha and the children. The tsar writes back, not to worry, he will look after Natasha and the children as if they were his own. Pushkin kisses the letter. He assures Natasha that she is not to blame in any way, tells her to remarry, but not with a scoundrel! He says farewell to his children and best friends.

For two days he lies on that sofa. It must have seemed an eternity. He suffers tremendously, he can’t bear to have others touch his wound and changes the dressing himself. At a quarter to three in the afternoon of January the 29th 1837 he complains that he is suffocating and dies.

After his death

Natasha and the children were taken care off. Nicholas kept his promise and paid the allowances and even paid off all of Puhkin’s debts. When the period of mourning was over, Natasha became maid-of-honour for the tsarina. She remarried and had four more children.

After an angry letter from Nicholas to William II, van Heeckeren was called back to the Netherlands. D’Anthès had to go to jail and was forced to leave Russia a few months later, his officer’s rank was taken away from him. He went to France where van Heeckeren and Yekaterina were waiting for him. Danzas got away with only a small sentence.

*Technically d’Anthès was of Dutch nationality after the adoption.

**On October the 17th d’Anthès writes a letter to van Heeckeren in which he begs him to speak to Natasha alone and to tell her that his son is dying of love for her and that he fears for his life.

***On November the 2nd d’Anthès tricks Natasha into a meeting alone with him and tries to convince her to betray her husband, threatening to kill himself if she doesn’t.

****Duelling was against the law. Participants and seconds risked even the death penalty. It was the seconds’ duty to not only make sure that everything went according to the rules, but most importantly to try to stop the duel from taking place at all. You could, for obvious reasons, refuse to be a second. Danzas, however, was asked by Pushkin at the very last moment (others had already refused) and as his old schoolfriend, he felt he couldn’t refuse. Because he did not have time to stop the duel, he got off lightly, he wasn’t to blame.

*****http://the-newspapers.com/2016/06/04/pushkins-blood-was-needed-to-confirm-the-authenticity-of-the-sofa

-Quote from Eugene Onegin

-Photos from Wikipedia (the fatal duel, Natasha, d’Anthès and the waistcoat Pushkin was wearing at the time of the duel) and from me

-Literature consulted:

Pushkin, A Biography van T.J. Binyon

and

A blog about Pushkin in the Caucasus

“Pushkin discovered the Caucasus.” – Vissarion Belinsky

Recently someone asked me on Twitter which book by Tolstoy he should read first. I don’t know the man and I haven’t got a clue about his preferences, but I unhesitatingly advised The Cossacks. It’s a short novella, and it was Turgenev’s favourite. Obviously I immediately read it again myself. And that’s how I got the idea to write about the 19th century Russian Literature featuring the Caucasus* here on my blog.

Banned to the Caucasus

As we know, Pushkin has been banned to the south and visited the Caucasus. The writer Lermontov was banned to the Caucasus and Tolstoy volunteered in military service there. For all three of them the incomparable beauty of the landscape and their colourful inhabitants, the Circassians, were a source of inspiration. Pushkin wrote The Prisoner of the Caucasus while he was there, Lermontov wrote A Hero of Our Time and Tolstoy wrote three stories about the Caucasus; The Cossacks, The Prisoner of the Caucasus and Hadji Murat.

Pushkin

We shall start with Pushkin, as he was the first to introduce the theme. Of course, you can read the rest perfectly well without reading Pushkin first, but we know that his influence was such, that the rest becomes better and more interesting if we start with him. No self respecting writer in Russia would even dream of putting a word on paper without having read Pushkin first.

The prisoner of the Caucasus

The Prisoner of the Caucasus is a long poem in the Romantic style. At first sight it’s an adventurous story with famous descriptions of the mountain landscape. The Circassians are described as heroes. The mountains are breathtaking, the men brave and quick, well dressed and they have the best horses. The vibrantly dressed women are attractive with their dark hair and eyes and they sing beautifully. Even the prisoner can’t help admiring them.
One would almost forget, but the story is told from the perspective of a Russian Prisoner of war, who was dragged into the Circassian village and is almost died. His rescue was a young Circassian beauty who regularly brings him food and drink in secret. She falls in love with the prisoner, but he, a true Romantic hero, has been disappointed in love and rejects her. Nonetheless she later helps him to escape and the prisoner, who by now loves her back, asks her to come along. Now she rejects him and commits suicide by jumping into the river in front of his eyes.

The story is followed by a rather surprising epilogue in which Pushkin suddenly announces that he hopes that the Russians will conquer the Caucasus, putting an end to the free lifestyle and culture of the Circassians. This patriotic epilogue can be explained as an attempt by Pushkin to get the poem through the strict censure, that put him there in the first place after all, or as an attempt to get his banishment lifted. But that would be underestimating Pushkin’s genius and self righteousness.

They recall the former days

Of raids that could not be repulsed,

Of the treachery of sly leaders,

Of the blows of their cruel sabers,

And of the accuracy of their arrows that could not be outrun,

And of the ash of destroyed villages,

And of the caresses of black-eyed woman prisoners.”

Violent people

If we take another close look at the poem, we notice how the free and romantic life of the Circassians is full of violence. When they are not fighting, they talk and sing about war. They play extremely violent games in which serfs are beheaded while little children watch excitedly. There is talk of sex slaves. They are one with their weapons and horses, and the horses are also seen as a weapon. Without Russian supremacy it is dangerous to travel there and difficult for Russia to trade with the countries behind the Caucasus.

Russia would benefit from a victory in the Caucasus and in this case Pushkin agrees with the government.

*During the Caucasian Wars from 1817 until 1864 Russia tried, eventually with success, to conquer the Caucasus.

Credit to John Lyles’ Bloody Verses and Pushkin’s The Prisoner of the Caucasus


Next time we’ll talk about the works of Lermontov and Tolstoy about the Caucasus.

A Valentine’s Day Ode to Alexander Pushkin

Last year around Christmas I was in a bookshop looking for presents. It was there that I found, not completely coincidentally, Pushkin’s collected love poems. I could of course have given this little book to my love in a romantic gesture, but he appreciates Russian airplanes more than poetry. And so for him I managed to find the autobiography of aircraft designer Yakovlev. It turned out to be a fine example of communist propaganda, that sent him to sleep after reading just a few lines. Off to dream about tumbling through the skies like a young pioneer in the newest Yak.

Love Poems

The poetry book I kept for myself. It was even more enjoyable than expected. The translator and editor Roger Clarke has made very informative and amusing notes for each of the poems. He has researched when and, more importantly, for whom each poem was written. Pushkin started writing poetry at a young age and continued to do so up to his untimely death.

Pushkin definitely loved women and had many infatuations and affairs before he got married. This collection gives us an amusing overview of his love life. Some of the poems are funny, some are risqué and others are truly beautiful, no doubt in sync with the nature of the addressee.

Pushkin deadly wounded in duel

In 1837 Pushkin died at the age of 37 as a result of a duel with a French officer who threatened his wife Natalya’s honour. Even though he himself had had several affairs with married women, he found it apparently unbearable when he became the deceived husband. He was after all extremely passionate…

Pushkin was one of those brilliant minds to whom writing came naturally. His poetry (and other genres too) just seems to have flowed from his pen effortlessly. There is nothing artificial about it and that makes it a pleasure to read, even in translation. His best known poem is I loved you. The addressee of this particular poem is unknown. Probably the love remained unanswered. Most Russians know it by heart:

I loved you, and a trace of that love’s passion

unquenched within my soul may yet remain;

but my desire is not in any fashion

to sadden you or bring you further pain.

I loved in silence, hopelessly, but dearly,

now shyly, now with jealousy aflame;

I loved you, yes, so fondly, so sincerely –

God grant to you another’s love the same.

1829

Translated by R.H. Morrison

A book to treasure for ever:

Love Poems, Alexander Pushkin, edited by Roger Clarke