Tea with the Pushkins in Brussels
Sitting down with Alexander Pushkin for tea, as I did recently, is probably as close as I will ever come to communing with a supreme creative mind of the past. This Pushkin is the great-grandson of Russia’s national poet and a man determined to keep the poet’s oeuvre alive in the West.
We sipped his own personal blend of chai from flowered ceramic demi-tasse cups (I was secretly disappointed not to be offered Russian-style tea glasses) and I wondered if habits like this were signs that he has turned into an ordinary Belgian. Indeed, he goes about life in Brussels almost unnoticed. But when he visits Russia, he tells me, he is swarmed by the locals. “Crowds of people assemble and fight for a chance to touch me,” he says.
The last surviving male in the long family line, this Alexander Pushkin, 73, a retired ITT engineer, will take the name with him when he goes, and the Russians know it. He is a virtual saint to them.
Why? Because his great-grandfather Alexander was the fountainhead of Russian letters and lives on today as a near-sacred cultural icon in his homeland. “In poetry, no one else comes close,” an admiring Russian academic tells me. Hundreds of Pushkin scholars throughout Europe and the United States, and latterly from Russia, argue the meaning of his work, sometimes to exhaustive lengths, but they accept his innovative genius as a given.
And now the non-academic world outside of Russia seems to be taking an increasing interest in the poet and his work. A supple and insightful new biography and translation of his poetry has recently been published as My Talisman: The Poetry and Life of Alexander Pushkin, by an amateur Pushkinist in New York, lawyer and poet Julian Lowenfeld. It is a 700-page tribute including dozens of Pushkin’s pen-and-ink sketches and a wide selection of fresh, unfettered translations.
Other moves are afoot. A documentary film for U.S. consumption is under way, directed by Michael Beckelheimer of Los Angeles. He has been traveling through Russia capturing vox pop testimonies from scholars, pedagogues, literary figures and ordinary Russians on the street. When completed next spring, it will be titled “Pushkin Is Our Everything” – a nod to a 19th-century Russian critic who coined the phrase. The Russians actually believe that in some spiritual sense he is just that.
A new adaptation of Pushkin’s play Boris Godunov has opened to critical acclaim at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, and is scheduled to run through the end of March.
The most original concept is headed by Wisconsin’s David Bethea, a leading Slavic literature scholar. He conceived the Pushkin Project, which hand-picks underprivileged U.S. students for long-term Russian language study through high school and university, including sojourns in St. Petersburg. He has two high schools enrolled and hopes to take his project nationwide. His students will be positioned to go on to employment in government or industry where they can use the language – and continue to read Pushkin in the original.
And a Harvard Slavic literature scholar, Stephanie Sandler, sees stirrings of interest in her new seminar on Eugene Onegin and even in Hollywood, where biographical film projects on Pushkin come and go. The most recent Western film of Onegin was produced in 1999 with British actor Ralph Fiennes in the lead. It was roasted by critics, however, one of whom described Fiennes as dragging himself through the role looking like “a dog chewing on a wasp”.
I recently tracked down the Belgian Pushkin and his quick-witted wife Maria (also a Pushkin, a distant cousin) through mutual friends in Brussels, for their view on all this activity. They are delighted to see Pushkin emerging from the shadows. Half-jokingly, we tried communicating with the poet’s spirit that seemed to be wafting about that cozy living room but we only ended up sprouting goose pimples. We chatted about the Pushkin lineage and the responsibilities of a bona fide Pushkin descendant in the modern world. They are devoting their retirement years to the cause. His years as a corporate team-player at ITT seemed on a different planet.
This encounter capped some forty years of Pushkin obsession for me, dating from the 1960s when I was an Associated Press correspondent in Moscow. Pushkin verses were quoted almost daily in the official Soviet press, and Moscow’s Pushkin Square monument was – and remains — festooned with flowers laid by poetry-lovers and just plain lovers. (It also serves as Moscow’s favorite rendezvous for the young and amorous.)
As a reporter, I was too busy covering the Kremlin’s rocket-rattling to study this defining personage of modern Russian letters while in-country. For correspondents, the main notoriety of the Pushkin monument was its focus as a gathering place for political dissidents. Also, I don’t mind admitting, I had barely heard of Pushkin at the time. I was 26.
Only now, as I pursue serious research into Pushkin’s life and works, can I begin to appreciate his legacy – hundreds of gem-like verses, a sturdy collection of crystalline prose and several dramas, including the precursor of “Amadeus” plus story lines for the librettos of four major operas (Boris Godunov, The Queen of Spades, Eugene Onegin and Mazeppa) and literally thousands of songs based on his works.
One ardent Pushkin fan, Vladimir Nabokov, began researching the poet’s best known work, the verse novel Eugene Onegin, as a young writer-zoologist in the 1950s. He wrote to a friend that he could not stop digging into it, so infatuated had he become with the Pushkin style in Russian. He amassed more than a thousand pages of notes for his eventual four-volume Onegin analysis and wrote breathlessly to his friend, “What things I’m finding, what discoveries I’m making.”
And yet Pushkin remains somewhat on the margins of translated verse in the West while native speakers and some foreigners write effusively of his originality, his depth and his broad appeal. I think of him as a Russian blend of Shakespeare and Elizabeth Bishop, bizarre as that may seem.
“A poem by Pushkin creates the impression that what he says could never be said otherwise, that each word fits perfectly,” wrote Slavic scholar Marc Slonim, “and that no other words could ever assume a similar function.”
The contrast between the Pushkin legacy at home and the lesser profile abroad is perhaps unique in world literature. Cervantes, Goethe, Dante, Victor Hugo – all national poets of their homeland — travel well In English translation. To many Americans, however, Pushkin seems to be another Russian enigma. At university level, he turns up mainly in specialized Russian poetry courses, narrow Slavic studies curricula and, because of his African ancestry, in the U.S. black media. But until now he has rarely been included in general poetry seminars where other Russians – Pasternak, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Lermontov, Brodsky — are part of the canon of world verse.
Andrew Kahn, professor of Russian literature, Queen’s College, Oxford, answers my question. Pushkin’s work glitters with a surface clarity, Kahn tells me, and after a pause he adds, “… and it is suffused with connotation and implication.” In other words, for readers lacking familiarity with early 19th-century Russia, the maximum impact just isn’t there.
Yet even foreigners can find themselves beguiled by his poetry, novelettes, literary criticism, historical studies, translations, children’s folk tales, epigrams and personal letters. American critic and Russophile Edmund Wilson wrote that the Russians “are in the habit of comparing him to Mozart, and this is perhaps the nearest we can come to a simple comparison…. One is amazed at the variety of his range.”
And again Slonim was specific in his appreciation Pushkin in the original, praising his “ability to extract poetic resonance from colloquialisms or to instil emotional intensity into the simplest sentences”.
For me, getting close to Pushkin again has turned out to be a voyage of late-in-life learning. A couple of years ago I set out to capture this fragment of education I had somehow missed as a student of Russian and Soviet affairs all those years ago at Columbia University. It was the 1960s, and the academy was more focused on the future of communism than how Russian literature got its start.
I have gone about filling the gaps as a journalist would. Besides seeking out the Brussels branch of the family, I read widely and tracked down the world’s leading Pushkin scholars, profiting from what has become known in the past twenty years as the Pushkin industry. Pushkin-loving academics shared their passion with me by email, telephone, Skype and face-to-face chats as my investigation led to experts at Oxford, Sheffield, Harvard, Paris, St. Petersburg, Moscow, New York, Bordeaux and Wisconsin.
Yes, I can report, the Pushkin academic hothouse thrives, and now he is starting to find a wider readership in the educated public. Lowenfeld, for one, is sanguine about Pushkin’s new prospects. “I’m confident people are waking up,” he tells me.
It is important to understand how Pushkin emerged as such a pivotal figure in Russian literature. He was one of a handful of early 19th-century writers who transformed written Russian from a mix of Church Slavonic and imitative French literary forms into a fresh style based on the language that Russians spoke — the colloquial language of the time. Gogol and Tolstoy credited him as the master who made their voices possible. Dostoevsky went further. Speaking in 1880 at the dedication of the Pushkin monument, Dostoevsky said, “One may say positively that if Pushkin had not existed, there would not have been the gifted writers who came after him – at least they would not have displayed themselves with such power and clarity.”
Russian cultural authorities have at times taken the lead in the selling of Pushkin, drumming his name and his work into the popular consciousness at home. His poetry was sometimes broadcast on street-mounted loudspeakers throughout the USSR. Many non-Russians have been perplexed by the government’s somewhat ham-fisted focus on a mere poet.
In fact, he was much more interesting than even the Soviet cultural guardians let on. Pushkin was born in 1799 into a comfortable aristocratic family. Educated in a new royal school near St. Petersburg, while still a student he wrote erotica and independent-minded verses that worried the watchful authorities. He was exiled from St. Petersburg to the south of Russia, then sent back north to live under supervision on his family estate at Mikhailovskoe, now a shrine to his memory, and finally back to St. Petersburg. He produced many of his lasting works in this exile phase of his life including his long narrative poems Ruslan and Lyudmila, Boris Godunov, and the beginnings of Eugene Onegin, his best-known creation.
I was surprised to learn that Pushkin is mentioned more often in the U.S. black media. The details are strange but true. His great-grandfather, christened Abram Gannibal by the Russians, was born in West Africa, probably of noble descent. In the practice of the time, he ended up as a black page boy, a curiosity, in imperial Russia. Landing in the retinue of Peter the Great, his crackling intelligence was recognized and he was given a proper education, including a stint in France to study military engineering. He eventually rose to the rank of major general in the tsar’s army.
Several Pushkin devotees in Russia have recently accepted that his birthplace was Logone-Birni, now part of Cameroon, not in Ethiopia as previously assumed. Ethiopia is fighting back, however, and today larger-than-life sculptures of Pushkin stand proudly in both countries. The so-called Ethiopian mafia once throttled a black academic, Diendonné Gnamankou, on the streets of Moscow for taking Cameroon’s side.
Pushkin the poet never tried to conceal his origins – far from it. He referred to his “hot blood,” his physical features and sexual appetite as signs of his African heritage. Of course his one-eighth black ancestry was not immediately apparent to outsiders. Contemporary painters portrayed him as white-skinned and somewhat pasty-faced. He left behind seven chapters of his first prose fiction, a story inspired by his great-grandfather titled The Blackamoor of Peter the Great. It was never finished, however, and considering its semi-fictional status, it is treated as unreliable by Pushkin scholars.
Although a free-thinker, he owned serfs and was “not above walloping them,” wrote Nabokov. At least one of his serf girls gave birth to a Pushkin baby but it died in infancy. Conversant in European literature, he was drawn to Enlightenment writers and he read extensively in French and German and possibly English, although Nabokov doubted this.
His free-thinking attitudes were at the root of his troubles with tsarist authorities. Many of the leaders of Russia’s “Decembrist” revolt in 1825 were his friends and carried copies of his forbidden poetry in their pockets. Eventually, five were hanged and more than a hundred were shipped off to Siberia. Several of the conspirators confessed that his writings helped shape their liberal views. Only his exile well away from St. Petersburg had saved him from direct participation and arrest in the coup attempt. He demonstrated his anti-authoritarian position, however, with this private epigram (of uncertain origin, however, translated by Walter Arndt) against Nicholas:
He was made emperor, and right then
Displayed his flair and drive:
Sent to Siberia a hundred-twenty men
And strung up five.
Pushkin yearned to travel abroad but was never granted permission to do so. His 2000-volume library, extensive for the times, served as his window on the West. Scholars periodically analyze his readings for clues to his influences. Nabokov, Oxford’s Kahn and others have read through the list of books Pushkin is believed to have studied in order to gain an understanding of his formative years. It is evident that he read mostly in French – either books by French authors or other foreign works translated into French. Among his favorite writers, they have deduced, were Dante, Shakespeare, Diderot, Voltaire, Heine, Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Alfred de Musset, Stendhal and Prosper Mérimée. His early verses echo European poets such as Evariste de Parny, André Chénier and Byron but he quickly evolved into his own man.
Pushkin’s lyricism emerged in his love poems that appear throughout his productive years — he seems to have been in love with someone most of his life. Writes poet-translator Lowenfeld, “There is something elusive about his love. Much stays veiled behind his glowing state of grace. Yet somehow his verse seems to express that inexpressible, irrepressible, incomprehensible, so beloved and so loving ‘Russian soul’ — and makes it universal.”
In Lowenfeld’s translation of “My Blood is Blazing with Desire,” Pushkin lets go:
My blood is blazing with desire.
My stricken soul for you does pine.
Oh, kiss me now! Your kisses’ fire
Is sweeter far than myrrh and wine.
Incline your head to me but softly,
And tamed, I’ll linger with you calmly,
Until the cheerful light of day
Chases the gloom of night away.
Pushkin’s range took him frequently into forbidden areas. One of his early efforts challenged the tsar’s authority to divine right rather than the rule of law. He was nineteen years old when he wrote “Ode to Liberty,” which he secretly circulated in St. Petersburg. It earned him a royal investigation for subversive views, and he was quickly exiled to the provinces by Alexander. He dodged censors for the rest of his life. His ode included this advice to the tsar (Lowenfeld translation):
Oh, kings! Your crowns and laurels do
Not come from God, but from Law’s hand.
Above the people you do stand,
But ere the Law stands over you.
He was prolific, he was subversive, he was fun. He could even capture the lighter side of “A Russian Winter Evening” as in this version (another Lowenfeld translation):
Snowstorm, gloom-filled, heavens drowning,
Wild the snowy whirlwind flies:
Sometimes like a beast it’s howling,
Sometimes like a child it cries.
Let ‘s just drink, my dear old friend (from even
When I was a poor small boy);
Where’s your mug now? Drink from grieving,
And the heart will feel more joy.
Pushkin was one of the first Russians to live entirely on earnings from his writing, and therefore was perpetually in debt. His erotic verses attracted attention in his early years, and he produced some that combined hilarity with explicit teasing. Tsar Nikita and his Forty Daughters, written when he was just twenty-three, imagines a houseful of daughters, “heavenly angels” all, who were born without what he carefully called “love’s focus — the goal of my desire.” The tsar understands, but swears his servants to secrecy. If they spread the gossip about his unfortunate girls, women servants will have their tongues cut out. If men talked, he wrote, something worse would be chopped off, “a thing that at times gets stiffer!”
Before Pushkin married in 1831, he led an active love life among serfs and Russia’s aristocracy. In marriage, he sired four children. Yet he was far from handsome. One of admirers, Anna Olenina, described him ruthlessly: “God did not reward him with an attractive exterior,” Anna wrote in her diary. He was known for his “terrible side-whiskers, his disheveled hair, his nails as long as claws, his short stature, his mincing manners …” Pushkin was no kinder when describing himself. With his gift for self-deprecation, in the mirror he saw a “dwarf with a monkey’s face.”
Reputational swings reached high points at celebrations of his birth and death. On the 100th anniversary of his death, Soviet authorities mobilized the vast bureaucratic structures at their disposal throughout the country to promote him, “or at least a carefully orchestrated official version of Pushkin,” writes Pushkin specialist Catharine Nepomnyashchy, professor at Barnard College and Columbia University. Although the intelligentsia bridled at this glorification, nothing could stop the campaign, and a range of products appeared on the market carrying Pushkin’s image to the masses – cigarettes, matches, candy, pens, stationery, inkstands, liqueur, knives, watches, vases, cups, shoes, dresses, lamps, fans and perfumes. There was even a board game called “Pushkin’s Duel.”
Slavic specialist Evgeny Dobrenko of Sheffield University, England, notes that Pushkin was trumpeted as the “the glory of great Russia” during the worst period of Stalinist terror and that “the myth of Pushkin had reached its finest hour”.
Pushkin was a risk-taker throughout his life, attracted to resolving conflicts through duels – often symbolic affairs. But in 1837, his twenty-ninth duel, fought in deep snow, left him fatally wounded by French Baron Georges-Charles d’Anthès, a dashing young officer who had made advances to his wife. With a bullet lodged in the lower abdomen, Pushkin was in agony for two days before dying of peritonitis. D’Anthès was at first jailed, then expelled by the tsar’s police. He returned to France where he lived another 58 years, never publicly expressing regret at having killed Russia’s greatest poet.
To be sure, much of his hallowed image in Russia is viewed as myth-making by scholars today. Successive regimes have claimed him as their own by selective promotion of his works and suppression of writings judged unfit. Specialists have clashed over his contradictory politics and identified this as one of the new directions of Western and Russian collaborative research.
His death in a love dispute was a powerful romantic impetus for the Pushkin legend, but most of all he survives in the popular imagination today because he has offered the suffering Russians hope. Harvard’s Sandler writes, “His role has been restorative, palliative, and spiritually enriching.”
Part of the passion in Pushkin studies today is driven by the need to get beyond the false image of him that has been built up to establish a link to Russia’s troubled past. As Sandler put it, referring to Soviet machinations, the “boundaries around the false stories or their reprehensible purposes are not always clear”.
For most of the 20th century he was officially glorified in Russia but artistic control loosened up after Gorbachev. Today Russian scholars have begun to join Western specialists in more free-wheeling studies. Russian scholars are now able to assimilate foreign ideas where work in France, Britain, Germany and the United States has put him in historical context. In general, says Oxford’s Kahn, academic interest in him today is universal: “Pushkin studies are very buoyant.” All this academic ferment will help define Pushkin and bring him to new audiences.
I may be typical of this new interest in Pushkin. In fact I became so swept up by the geographical bifurcation that I returned to Russian language studies after decades of neglect and hired a friend, Igor, to help me tackle Eugene Onegin in the original. I told him I wanted to feel what Russians seemed to be raving about, to hear the music. Igor obliged, and over several weeks we waded through parts of Onegin, Igor declaiming in Russian-style dramatic tones while I retrieved forgotten vocabulary and stretched my tongue and throat to reproduce the unique sounds of the Russian language. Igor smiled encouragingly but kept me going. Anyone who misses the Pushkin music, he said, must be tone-deaf. “A bear has stepped on your ear” (Medved na ukho nastupil), he once told me, quoting a Russian proverb.
But Igor urged me to persevere, promising that the full magic of Pushkin’s original would be worth the effort. And he was right. Discovering the hidden jewels of Pushkin’s wordplay and irony can bring excitement to the very act of language learning.
I chose Onegin for this refresher course because I knew that Russians and Russophiles remain drawn to it. Say “Evgeny Onegin” to any educated Russian and you will trigger the first stanza or two of his great novel in verse. Some enthusiasts cannot be stopped for several more stanzas. In Onegin, Pushkin describes life in the privileged elite, a tiny microcosm in the illiterate Russian society of his day but fascinating in its detail nonetheless. Life was far more grim than those soirées indicate. The popinjay Evgeny was never at pains to find tomorrow’s lunch money. Sheffield’s Dobrenko, a realist and a scholar, notes that Pushkin managed to “create an enchanting fairy tale about this huge, cold, bleak and cruel land.” This delusion, which Russians cling to even today, helps explains why Pushkin remains of such vital importance.
I recently tried my Onegin gambit on random Russians on the streets of Boston, including an émigré gas station attendant, a bank clerk and a group of tourists riding the tram. My opening, without warning, was Pushkin’s first line, “Moi dyadya samykh chestnykh pravil” (“My uncle was a man of most honest principles…”), and without missing a beat they took it from there, smiling proudly. Admittedly Pushkin’s verses are stored up in memory from school days. Students are obliged to memorize him at length. The question of Russian sensitivity to poetry can be attributed as much to rote learning as to refined sensibilities.
As I dug deeper into the mysteries of the great poet’s odd place in the Western scene, the battleground of translation emerged as the crux of this question.
Nabokov put it best in a poem of his own, originally published in The New Yorker. This excerpt captures the conundrum:
What is translation? On a platter
A poet’s pale and glaring head;
A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter,
And profanation of the dead.
But what about Russian prose? Later Russian novelists, influenced by the Pushkin style, are typically read in translation. Readers turn to Dostoevsky and others for their “outsized emotions,” says Harvard’s Sandler, rather than musical prose. But Pushkin’s poetry is different. Chatting with me in her book-lined campus office one recent morning, she insisted that getting to Pushkin’s core “can be deeply pleasurable – and that’s one reason people light up when they succeed.” She has just organized a new seminar for Harvard students focusing on Onegin, with the aim of lighting up her class.
Pushkin’s language may be difficult for non-Russians, but so what? “Even Shakespeare is difficult.” she noted. Pushkin, she explained, is “fantastically simple, not metaphorically rich”. His charm is his simplicity. Translators sometimes fail to appreciate this straightforward quality. A certain flatness hampers Pushkin in various languages, including French. Maria, the diminutive wife of the Brussels great-grandson, raised herself on tiptoes to reach for a couple of books on her shelves during my visit there and showed me translations into French by Alexander Dumas and Prosper Mérimée. “Look at this,” she said, shaking her head. “The French is clear but there is none of the richness, none of the finesse. These versions lack soul.”
David Bethea, professor of Slavic languages and literature at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a leading Pushkin authority, agrees with the past trivialization of most Pushkin poetry in English. The magic is lost, he said in a long Skype chat, leaving us with “something like a pretty good Victorian poet, maybe Tennyson.” Others have compared Pushkin’s translated rhythms as reminiscent of advertising jingles.
But it took a Russian-born academic in Britain to nail the translators. Scholar Dobrenko of Sheffield laments the loss of Pushkin’s panache in foreign tongues. Speaking of the knotty translation problems, he said, “If it’s not in Russian, it is just words, words, words.”
In working out the truest translations, purists argue for strict fidelity to the original. Romantics set out to achieve an effect similar to the original through poetic license. The clashes come in that space between the literal and the liberated. The two camps hardly speak to each other.
Lowenfeld tells me he has concluded that translation is about channeling, about conducting energy. “It is an art, not a science. Therefore, to some extent, de gustibus non est disputandum”. The best translations “capture the feeling from the original language.” He values language “with a punch” over pedantry, and so deliberately avoids the academic attachment to literality and especially to footnotes. “A fruitless quest for arid exactitude is the bane of most scholastic prose,” he said. “If at times I err on the side of liveliness — I make no apologies.”
Lowenfeld’s work, loosened up and finely tuned, has had its fans and its detractors. The prestigious Pushkin Review went so far as to praise him for capturing the magic of the original. It cited his “perfect stylistic pitch” and gave him credit for preserving Pushkin’s “musicality, whimsy and wit”. On the other hand, some academics seem closed-minded to the intrusions of such outsiders. “I’ve been told to shut up,” he says.
Poets and scholars have long tangled over how best to handle Pushkin in English, especially his Eugene Onegin. In one of the bitterest literary brawls of the 20th century, Nabokov squared off against the eminent critic Edmund Wilson. Nabokov was the clear winner, in my opinion. He compared four Onegin translations by English and American academics, recording his reactions and scattering Nabokovian judgments such as “idiotic ejaculations”, “vulgar”, “preposterous”, “impossible”, “disastrous”, “clumsy” “crippled clichés”, mongrel idioms” and “English doggerel” over the work of numerous translators.
It is not enough to “rig up fourteen lines with alternate beats and affix them to seven jingle rhymes starting with pleasure-love leisure-dove,” he wrote in a landmark essay on Onegin translations. As Nabokov’s biographer Brian Boyd put it, Nabokov was saying that “no ukulele can replace a Stradivarius”.
Curiously, most Americans were unaware of Onegin until the 1960s, when Nabokov published a tirade against a new translation by Arndt, then a professor of Russian at Dartmouth College. Nabokov’s demolition of Arndt’s work in the New York Review of Books was all the more ill-tempered for the fact that it beat Nabokov’s massive work on Onegin into print by a few months, stealing the exclusivity he had planned to enjoy. Worse, Arndt won the prestigious Bollingen Poetry Prize for translation and Nabokov did not. In a stinging barb aimed at the Bollingen jury, Nabokov accused Arndt of “inadequate Russian” and questioned the jury’s competence to judge Russian works.
Then came the feud between Nabokov and Wilson. Wilson took Arndt’s side and answered a long list of Nabokov’s complaints, reserving his heavy artillery for what he believed to be Nabokov’s “most serious failure”– his misguided portrayal of Onegin as hating his friend Lensky, who died in their fictional duel. This attack hit Nabokov directly in the ego. He cherished his credentials as a scholarly interpreter of Pushkin and he was up to the task of defending himself. He dismissed Wilson’s charge as wrong-headed, saying it was Wilson who misunderstood Onegin, not he.
Wilson pointed out that Nabokov had a bad habit of rejecting the serious work of others in Russia-related areas, subjects that Nabokov liked to call “my field.” In sarcastic tones rare for him, Wilson wrote that readers must accept Nabokov’s towering self-regard. He believes he is “unique and incomparable and that everybody else who attempted [Onegin] is an oaf and an ignoramus, incompetent as a linguist and scholar, usually with the implication that he is also a low-class person and a ridiculous personality.” Understandably, the clash brought to an abrupt end nearly 30 years of friendship between the two men. It’s a wonder they did not resort to a duel.
At least the feud had the long-term consequence of bringing Onegin to the attention of a wider audience. I count it as the origin of my personal interest in the poet. Over the years, I have collected seven translations, including Lowenfeld’s and the most recent, by English novelist D. M. Thomas, to marvel at the many inventions around Pushkin’s magic. Some passages read as if sourced from different authors. Determined readers have made a mind-game of comparing the efforts. Douglas Hofstadter and his wife Carol used to lie in bed and read various stanzas to each other from contrasting translations.
Whither Pushkin today in the West? The director of the Pushkin Museum in St. Petersburg, Sergei Nekrasov, is despondent. He tells me by email that his visitors are mainly Asians, with some British, a few Germans and French, but virtually no Americans.
This may be about to change. Pushkin lives, and is not going away. Books, films and university courses are materializing around the U.S., and translators are at work on the magic of his verse. Lifelong education has kept me interested in a thousand things, but none of such breadth and depth as the life and work of Alexander Pushkin. My effort to absorb his art in the original, the true path, will continue for the rest of my life. I expect to find more and more good company in this quest. Some of this study will have to be done in private, if only to avoid Nabokov looking down upon me as a “ridiculous personality”.
Michael Johnson is a former AP foreign correspondent and McGraw-Hill veteran of 17 years. He now writes for the International Herald-Tribune, American Spectator, thecolumnists.com, the Washington Times and a couple of specialized classical music outlets.