By Kevin Rabalais
“Who do you think will close the door after you—Pushkin?”
The question seems too good to be true. I first read it more than a decade ago, in Elaine Feinstein’s biography of Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), the writer who forms, so believed Andrei Sinyavsky, “the golden section of Russian literature.”
Over the past decade, I’ve done my own research into the matter of this supposed adage. I never tire of asking Russians I meet about their writers because they never tire of speaking about them. They know about their great figures, and not just the kind of skeletal fact that permits them to retrieve mangled information such as “Mark Twain wrote a book called Huckleberry Sawyer and had a whopper of a mustache.” No. The Russians I’ve had the pleasure of meeting speak at length—and with passion—about their country’s writers. And every one of them has confirmed Feinstein’s detail: when a child leaves the house in Russia without closing the door, the parent—or whomever that child leaves inside to confront the cold—will say, “Who do you think will close the door after you—Pushkin?”
I’ve written it twice, now, but anything about Pushkin deserves repeating, much as anything he wrote deserves rereading.
Pushkin did everything perfectly, a wise octogenarian non-native Russian speaker once informed me. To prove his point, he gave me several volumes of Pushkin’s work in the original language. This man received his Ph.D. at age eighty, so it came as no surprise that he also had the stamina and dedication to learn the language of Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva.
I put the books, beautiful hardcovers, on the shelf and admired the Cyrillic on their spines. Then I returned to the translations. I read Pushkin’s fiction over and over. I became obsessed with his dramatic but brief life. In the thirty-seven years he lived, Pushkin tried his hand at just about every literary form he knew. He wrote one slim novel and part of another (The Captain’s Daughter and The Moor of Peter the Great), a novel-in-verse (Eugene Onegin), lyric poetry (one line: “My wish is granted: God has shown your face”), narrative poetry (“The Bronze Horseman”), fairy tales (Ruslan and Ludmila), drama (his play Mozart and Salieri inspired Peter Schaffer's Amadeus), book-length nonfiction (The History of Pugachev), novellas (The Queen of Spades and Dubrovsky) and short stories, among them the five “Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin,” each of them an exemplar of the form.
On top of the work, Pushkin lived an epic life. He achieved great fame as a poet and became the first in Russia to make money from his work. He underwent multiple exiles. In one, the czar banished him from the cultural worlds of Moscow and St. Petersburg, an experience that kept his roving eye from the women (unmarried or not; he was flexible) of those cities and proved fruitful for his literary productivity. Then the czar allowed his return. Before long, Pushkin fell in love with the sixteen-year-old Natalya Goncharovoa, the most beautiful woman in Moscow, the writer’s biographers tell us.
From early on, Pushkin was obsessed with his family history, particularly the detail that led many writers of the Harlem Renaissance to regard him as a hero. For them, Russia’s greatest poet wasn’t Russian at all: he was African.
Pushkin’s critics used his ancestry against him. Some stated that the writer’s great-grandfather, Abram Petrovitch Gannibal, had been exchanged for a bottle of whiskey. But members of the Pushkin clan claimed that Gannibal had been an Abyssinian prince before he was stolen, at age seven, and brought to Europe, where he became a favorite—and later adopted son—of Peter the Great. (Pushkin imagines details from Gannibal’s life in his unfinished novel, The Moor of Peter the Great.)
Pushkin had several spats with writers who questioned the legitimacy of his family’s version of Gannibal’s story. That, however, is not what led to his final duel. On January 27, 1837, he kept the good Russian literary tradition and challenged an offender. He accused the French officer D’Anthes of seducing Natalya. She had no interest in literature or her husband’s work, biographers tell us, only that he continued to earn money, but this was Russia, and Pushkin called for pistols.
One imagines that Tolstoy, despite his staggering imagination, would have never pondered the size of Pushkin’s bank account. When he began writing Anna Karenina, however, Tolstoy returned to the prose of the earlier Russian master.
The other day, after my work, I picked up this volume of Pushkin and as always (for the seventh time, I think), read it from cover to cover, unable to tear myself away, as if I were reading it for the first time… Never have I admired Pushkin so much, nor anyone else for that matter. The Shot, Egyptian Nights, The Captain’s Daughter!!!
This work—indeed, four hundred fifty pages of the writer’s work—has been newly translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky as Novels, Tales, Journeys: The Complete Prose of Alexander Pushkin. If all those years ago I could have read those Russian editions, the beautiful gifts that I still treasure, perhaps I would be able to judge whether these are the best English translations of this work. Then again, I’m not sure it matters. Give me anything by Pushkin, and before long the hours have passed, and I’ve forgotten that there’s anything else more important.