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A sparkling portrait, but the sitter's still sketchy

Pushkin, A Biography; T.J. Binyon; Alfred A. Knopf: 732 pp., $35

October 26, 2003|Monika Greenleaf | Monika Greenleaf teaches Slavic and comparative literature at Stanford University and is the author of "Pushkin and Romantic Fashion" and of a forthcoming book about Catherine the Great.

T.J. BINYON'S "Pushkin," winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for biography in England, has arrived in America. In this handsome volume of more than 700 pages, the reader is greeted by a typical page from one of Pushkin's working notebooks. Caricatured male profiles, stylized female profiles with upswept hairdos, figures in expressive motion, fetishistic legs and feet, historical personages, friends, lovers, enemies and the occasional sword or pistol bloom crazily along the margins and between lines of poetry. If it were possible to photograph an imagination at work and creatively "idling," this would be it. Clearly, this poet lived in a social world that was very much with him when he sat down to write; he thought in visual images and perhaps used these to trigger verbal inspiration; and his poetry's effortless, inventive, mot juste quality was achieved by drafting and revision, solitary daydreaming and hard work.

In Binyon's book, the first two elements, the social and the visual (one might almost say the filmable), far outweigh the evolving life of the writer's mind. As Binyon writes in his brief prologue, "The aim of this biography, however, is, in all humility, to free the complex and interesting figure of Pushkin the man from the heroic simplicity of Pushkin the myth. It concerns itself above all with the events of his life." Somehow Pushkin the writer got lost along the way.

Pushkinists sometimes envy Shakespeareans the bracing brevity of the Bard's known life. Certainly the enormous amount of material that has accumulated during more than 200 years of Pushkin study is daunting to any researcher and far out of proportion to the English-speaking audience's appetite for it. Pushkin's emotional subtlety and multiplying shades of meaning are in the grain of his Russian language, famously untranslatable. Thus Binyon knows his audience won't bring the Dostoevsky reader's passionate involvement with the author's ideas and characters, on which Joseph Frank, author of the celebrated five-volume study of Dostoevsky's life and work, could count. Binyon chooses to write about what is accessible, Pushkin as a social being.

This is also where Binyon excels; his thumbnail sketches of Pushkin's contemporaries and milieu have the sparkling specificity and vividness of the poet's drawings and epigrams. Like Tolstoy's characters, Pushkin's come surrounded by family histories of marriages, patronage, gambling, drinking, dueling and salty jokes that turn the Russian aristocracy into one giant extended family. How do we know so much about the way people looked and talked in the early 19th century? Aristocratic writers, poetry-loving officers fresh from the Napoleonic campaigns, actresses and nobility not only socialized incessantly but also served as eyewitnesses and reporters, recording one another's sartorial and oral sallies in letters, diaries, verse epistles and epigrams.

Young Alexander Pushkin wrote his first epic in French in 1808 at age 9; by 18 he had been tapped by men of letters as Russia's most promising poet and frivolous wastrel. Even when his incendiary political verses earned him Tsar Alexander I's wrath and exile -- to Moldavia, the Caucasus and Georgia, from 1820 to 1824, then three years at his family estate at Mikhailovskoe -- Pushkin was rarely far from a human recorder. His contemporaries chronicled his outlandish outfits (he once attended a birthday party for young girls dressed in transparent white linen pants), eccentric behavior, impulsive dueling, compulsive gambling, slashing epigrams; his hot pursuit, poetic celebration and demotion of ballerinas, superiors' wives, virginal girls and prostitutes; his debauched ill health and his bedridden "fits" of intensive writing -- in short, all that was visible to them.

Does all this physical documentation really free its subject? Pushkin has traditionally been cast as a "rebel" and a "singer of freedom"; the Decembrists who tried to overthrow the government on the tsar's death in 1825 confessed to the secret police that Pushkin's stirring lyrics and narrative poems were recited all over Russia. Under Nicholas I's repressive regime (1826-1856), educated Russia's "spiritual life" went underground, and Pushkin's poetry became denser with meaning. His writings show a process of refining thought and rapid evolution of explosively compact creative forms whose meanings swarm in a reader's head, as Anna Akhmatova put it, "after the curtain has dropped."

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