Pushkin, according to my research, was the greatest Russian poet and the founder of Russian modern literature. I don’t know how recent the modern literature is, I certainly haven’t been able to find any older writings in translation. Giving the need for a starting point, for the purpose of this project, Pushkin is the first great Russian writer I’ll be visiting.
Pushkin is best known for poetry and his best known poem is the verse narrative ‘Eugene Onegin’. I’m afraid I haven’t read any other poems by him. My excuse is that ‘Onegin’ didn’t inspire me to. This is not a comment on Pushkin by any means, translation is a difficult art and poetry translation must be the hardest of all, but the verses I read did not do it for me. My edition of the book was a serviceable translation by Roger Clarke, it told the story, but it didn’t sing. I know that Nabokov, a great English writer in his own right, produced a translation, I want to get hold of that before I make any comments on Pushkin’s lauded use of language. I realise there may be bigger issues around the differences between the aesthetics of Russian poetry and Western poetry, as there are between Chinese and European opera. I’m just also aware that I won’t be able to engage with these until I trust the translation I’m reading.
On to the story then. Pushkin was so influential it’s impossible to tell how much he was reflecting on the Russian character and how much he was creating it, whether he was descriptive or proscriptive. It is clear he loves duels, they are honourable, nobel and the best way for gentlemen to behave. There are times when ‘Onegin’ reminds me of Dumas’ Musketeer books, though Pushkin’s style is more tragic than Dumas’s comic-book aesthetic. It was here that I had my first experience of cultural alienation. I really don’t get duels, I think they’re stupid, even in light fiction; the more serious the literature and the more believable the characters, the more angry duels make me. I know I differ from Pushkin here, he fought nearly 30 duels before being fatally wounded in his last. While he is clearly satirising social conventions in his work, this specific tradition appeared to be unquestioned, distancing me from the main characters, the narrative voice and, ultimately the author himself.
I dealt with the flat poetry translation by limiting the rest of my Pushkin reading to prose. The same themes of honour and duelling repeated themselves and tended to leave me cold in the face of tragedy and adventure. On the other hand, it was exciting to see the emerging tropes of doomed love, of bored, facile city life in comparison to the honest emotions of the countryside, of the tension between passion and reason. These are going to be central components of so many of the books I plan to cover and now, like so many readers before me, I can trace them back to Pushkin.