The elusive poet of Russia

Russians of all stripes revere Pushkin, but his work remains little known outside the motherland

You don't have to read Spanish to love "Don Quixote," but when it comes to appreciating the genius of a lyric poet, translations sound somehow inadequate. Yes, readers who know neither German nor French may have some sense of the genius of Rilke and Baudelaire, but this has certainly not been the case with the man whom Russians regard as their greatest poet: Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837).

Indeed, the closest that many non-Russian speakers have come to appreciating Pushkin may be through hearing the splendid music his fellow-countryman Tchaikovsky composed for an opera based on Pushkin's most famous work, his verse novel "Eugene Onegin."

Thus, a biography of Pushkin is something to be welcomed because it offers us another way of coming to know this important yet elusive figure. For years now, T.J. Binyon, who lectures on Russian literature at Oxford, has been working on this project, drawing on reams of scholarship in Russian, sifting through and weighing all the evidence to provide us with the most accurate and reliable information. But to what extent does this biography enable us to grasp the true nature of Pushkin's achievement?

In his prologue, Binyon begins on just the right note, vividly conveying a sense of Pushkin's centrality to Russian culture: " 'Pushkin is our all,' declared the critic and poet Apollon Grigorev in 1854. His famous remark is perhaps the best expression of Pushkin's significance, not merely for Russian literature, or even for Russian culture, but for the Russian ethos generally and for Russia as a whole." Turgenev, Binyon reminds us, credited Pushkin with creating "our poetic, our literary language." Dostoevsky, with typical extravagance, went even further, lauding Pushkin as a "miraculous" incarnation of genius whose "universality and panhumanity" made him greater even than Shakespeare.

An ardent spirit whose bold satirical pen often got him into trouble with the authorities, Pushkin became a hero to Russians of every political stripe: liberals, conservatives, czarists, revolutionaries, nationalists, Marxists, and, in recent decades, capitalists. Indeed, what we learn from Binyon's book is that all of these people had good reason to consider Pushkin their hero.

He was a freethinker, deeply sympathetic to the cause of freedom and to the sufferings of the poor and downtrodden. Yet he was also imbued with a strong feeling of patriotism, was sympathetic to his country's imperial expansions, and often expressed feelings of loyalty to the czar.

Binyon has done an enormous amount of research, and his book is crammed with lively portraits of and quotations from Pushkin's friends and contemporaries. We learn that Pushkin was a brilliant, witty, impulsive fellow, who even as a teenager amazed his friends and teachers with his stunning gift for writing poetry. Hot-blooded, charming, and often rather foolish, he was in some ways like a character in a Russian novel: convivial; impetuous; fond of food, drink, and gambling; and even fonder of the company of women. He was usually in love with one or two ladies at the same time, not to mention his frequent close encounters with ladies of the night.

He also had a penchant for becoming embroiled in quarrels that led to duels. In fact, in 1837 he was killed in one at the age of 38. He left behind a beloved wife (whose honor he was defending), four children, and who can say how many unwritten masterpieces.

But with so much material, there can be a problem with integrating it all. Like more than a few biographies being written these days, this one is somewhat lacking in the kind of narrative drive that transforms the moments of a life into a compelling life story. Binyon's portrait of Pushkin and the world in which he lived is certainly colorful, knowledgeable, detailed, and textured, but it can be hard to see the forest for the trees.

Moreover, what Binyon's account does not convey is a sufficient sense of how Pushkin saw himself: There is little sense of the poet's interiority. Nor does Binyon devote enough time to analyzing or discussing his poetry, although he does at least quote from it copiously. This biography will clearly be of inestimable value to anyone looking for a solid and thorough account of Pushkin's life. But it does not quite manage to enable us to experience the splendors of his work.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor and The Wall Street Journal.

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