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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

“Pushkin: A Biography”, by T.J. Binyon

768 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., ISBN-13: 978-1400041107

Pushkin: A Biography by T.J. Binyon defies any quick overall assessment: on one level it provides an extraordinary level of detail (for example, one could learn how much the manager of the family estate at Boldino was granted for salt, peas, oatmeal, rice, butter etc.) while on the other hand some basic information of the main protagonist remains unquestioned (i.e., at the age of 7, it is said, Pushkin’s character changed dramatically, but the book chooses not to reveal what exactly that dramatic change was, or how as a child Pushkin is portrayed as having read mostly French books, but by the age of 13 he is assessed by one of his Lycée teachers as well read in Russian literature). The book is interspersed with Pushkin’s drawings of the people from his milieu which, although mostly simple profiles, are good character sketches of their subjects and add a rather touching personal character to the book.

The book is rife with many paradoxical statements, such as the transformation of a boy brought up by French tutors who, moreover, wrote his first poem in French and had a nickname “French” in the Lycée into the preeminent Russian poet in Russian language, or Pushkin’s notorious laziness in the childhood and at school, which nevertheless did not prevent him from being remarkably educated in literary matters and displaying it in such works as Eugene Onegin or Tales of Belkin. Marina Tsvetaeva, a “poet of genius” in Nabokov’s words, in her essay My Pushkin, wrote about the deeply intimate affect Pushkin had on her. Similarly, “My Pushkin” is the epithet that the emperor Nicholas I applied to Pushkin after meeting him in 1826, at the moment when he felt especially close to the poet. By comparison with Tsvetaeva and the emperor, the book lacks certain degree of ownership of its subject. The author chose to stay in the shade, bringing none of his own coloring to the facts of the poet’s life. The reader, as well, is left a bit wanting, not quite able to lay the claim of “His Pushkin” to the sketchy image pieced from the book’s pages.

In the preface, Binyon states plainly that the focus of his book is “the events of his life”, rather than on his works. He scrupulously follows this line and if a book could be, if imperfectly, summarized in one word it would be “Chronology”. The most detailed part of the book, some of the last 90 pages, relates to the fatal duel and the conflict that preceded it; by comparison, very little could be gleaned about the first 18 years of Pushkin’s life from the 42 pages devoted to it. The narration, mostly quite palatable, at times feels like a ride in a city cab: bolting ahead into a gap and coming to a maddening crawl if the traffic gets thicker. True to the form of fact gathering, accounting, in the form of the exact ruble amount and nature of Pushkin’s obligations and revenues, is mentioned on 78 pages. The book would have benefited from more insight into Pushkin’s character and lower granularity of his finances. Consequently, due to the author’s choice of mostly staying away from analysis of Pushkin’s works, the book does not really present a case for why Pushkin occupies the unrivalled place in Russian literature.

What’s left? An eccentric dresser with extraordinarily long nails, who by many was considered ugly; an ardent pursuer of women, from princesses to prostitutes; a proud nobleman who fought in duels at the slightest provocation; an avid reader in several languages; a lover of exquisite drink and food; a gambler with poor arithmetic skills to boot (but an avid chess player!) who accumulated an enormous debt by the time he died; a lifelong friend with many schoolmates; and a poet of genius canonized early in his life. The book does not contain any revelations about Pushkin and at times lacks coherency, but is of interest for its level of detail.

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