Young Pushkin

by Eric Byrd


For me the most ominous chapter in Young Pushkin – the first volume of Yury Tynyanov's unfinished “epic on the origins, development and death of our national poet,” serialized in Soviet journals 1937-43 and recently translated by Anna Kurkina Rush and Christopher Rush, the other Russian-to-English connubial translating team – is the valedictory debauch staged by Pushkin's maternal grandfather, Osip Abramovich Gannibal. The Gannibals – that unlikely Afro-Baltic family of artillerists and siege engineers. The founder, the “dark star of the Enlightenment” (said Voltaire), was emancipated and experimentally educated by Peter the Great, and the sons born to him by a Swedish noblewoman were pillars of Catherine's establishment and heroes of her wars with the Turks. The mingled blood of Cameroon and Sweden, fighting for the Romanovs against the Ottomans – what a world! Peter conferred the surname – for what else would you call a family of African soldiers?

Once a naval officer, Osip Abramovich had “sacrificed everything to his passion” – in the translator's (and presumably Tynyanov's) terse, resonant style that means not simply his passion for the mistress for whose sake he abandoned his family, but his violently sensual nature. When Tynyanov's novel opens, Osip Abramovich is ailing and obese, wheezing out his last days on his dilapidated estate at Mikhailovskoe – where his grandson will later live under house arrest – amid a sloppy harem of barefoot peasant girls. In one scene, which Claire Denis directed in my head, five sweating servants carry him in his chair out to the banya. A few nights later this provincial Sardanapalus decides to end it all:

Masha danced for him without a stitch on. He wanted to get up but couldn't move. Only his lips and fingers trembled like Masha's gyrating hips. The musicians performed his favorite song more and more loudly and rapidly, the servant-boy beat the tambourine without stopping. Masha's feet moved faster and faster.

“Ah, white swan!” the old man groaned.

He waved his hand, grasped a big fistful of air, closed his fingers tightly and burst into tears. His hand fell down, his head dangled. Tears were rolling down his face onto his thick lower lip and he swallowed them slowly.

He then orders half his wine distributed to the serfs, the other half mixed with oats in a giant tub and fed to the horses he's set loose.

The wind was blowing into the living room. He sat by the open window and took in the chill night air through his open mouth. It was dark outside. Tossing their manes with loud neighs, throwing up clods of earth with their stamping hoofs, the drunken horses galloped past the windows.

He answered them with silent laughter: “All ours, all the Hannibals'! My father's, Peter the Great's! Farewell to it all!

Osip Abramovich's daughter Nadezhda Osipovna, the poet's mother, married into the Pushkins, another noble family that had outlasted its patron. Pushkin's parents are a subtly different study in superannuated nobility, shabby where Osip Abramovich is squalid. Where Osip Abramovich is an outlandish ogre, Sergey Lvovich, Pushkin's father, is slippery, vain, forever sneaking out, bluffing, cutting corners, trying to be grand on a budget, desperate to convince the world – and above all himself – that he is a rakish dandy of unlimited means, of perfect taste and ancient lineage, a gallant man of lighthearted letters, when in fact he is a henpecked wage-earner whose musty title means nothing when each Tsar ennobles a new generation of grateful and obligated sycophants.

Pushkin's mother, Nadezhda Osipovna, sleeps so late as to seem depressively bed-bound. Like her husband she funnels her short attention and meager resources to the upkeep of appearances. She and her husband ride off well accoutered to balls, leaving in their wake filthy rooms, abused servants and ignored children. Aleksandr is left for years in the care of the émigré Montfort, the shambles of a French nobleman held together by the excitement of intrigues with the maids and by reviving doses of his mysterious “balm.” Young Pushkin doesn't drop a tear when he leaves home for the Imperial Lyceum, where a meritocratic mixture of boys is educated under the eyes of the Tsar in the palace at Tsarskoe Selo – “Tsar's Village” – an eerie little theme park of autocracy and official glory where one can “unexpectedly come upon a statue or a sentry among the trees, or feel somebody watching you.”

In Tynyanov's novel Pushkin's mother is a nonentity, except as the channel through which the Gannibals' “passionate” African blood reaches the poet (he saw it that way, and said it proudly; remember his was the age of Byron, exoticism, fatality), and the book is really about how the poet was formed by his father and his uncle. In this bio-aesthetic hunt Tynyanov was far from alone. In diasporic Paris, among younger poets some of whom refused to feel the heat of Pushkin's “long, life-giving ray,” Vladislav Khodasevich (“the greatest Russian poet that the twentieth century has yet produced,” said Vladimir Nabokov clearly and loudly, in the forward to The Gift, so someone – Dalkey, NUP European Classics, NYRB Classics – commission an English translation of Necropolis and slap that blurb on the cover; Calasso's Adelphi made an Italian translation in 1986) struggled to write his own life of Pushkin (episodes of which, scattered through émigré newspapers and archival collections, have been fascinatingly summarized by Andrea Brintlinger), while convinced that Pushkin's creative process, his “psychic metabolism,” was accessible “in those cases when we suddenly discover a point, or a series of points, simultaneously positioned on the plane of art and the plane of life.” For Khodasevich, writes his biographer David Bethea, one such point was the Countess' boudoir in “The Queen of Spades,” behind it the boudoirs of the older ladies with whom young Pushkin conducted affairs. Tynyanov rifled boudoirs as well, but he was interested in the formative force of the male boudoir, the gentleman's locked library of anti-clerical satires, ribald verse and curious engravings. In Tynyanov's telling Pushkin is the unnoticed spectator of his father and uncle in their libraries, in their fragile citadels of masculine pride. He witnesses the advance and retreat of their vanities, their preparations for presentation; their attempts at Parnassus, or at least topical fame, and their sallies into literary controversies. Sergey Lvovich repairs to his library to mull over his verse, nervously count his short cash, and, in moments of self-doubt, to verify and gratefully fondle the old parchments of the Pushkin title. Sergey Lvovich's pride has a bounded refuge, a room in the family house; his father-in-law Osip Abramovich, in a reckless, blatant, and ultimately doomed assertion of pride, had taken the entirety of Mikhailovskoe as his domain, had made it a house in which the concubines and dancing girls were real, not just figments of secreted manuscripts; a house which, bereft of all civilized amenity, of every graceful modulation of pride, displayed over the table “big elk antlers, a hunting trophy.”

Tynyanov died of multiple sclerosis in 1943, having imagined Pushkin up to age 21, when he was relegated to an army outpost on the Caucasian frontier. Tynyanov said he conceived his project, of which Young Pushkin was to be the first volume, “not as a fictionalized biography, but as an epic on the origins, development and death” of Pushkin. One can only speculate how — with what Proustian arcs — Tynyanov planned to connect the male boudoir to Pushkin's poetic development, or Osip Abramovich's passionate self-destruction to Pushkin's fateful marriage and death drama, when his reckless pride broke its bonds and demanded satisfaction – even from a symbolic, deputy evil. After the duel, shot in the abdomen, he was carried to his library, and placed on a couch. He died slow. His library was a panoptic perch of 1,500 volumes, from which he had surveyed ancient and modern letters. Serena Vitale, in Pushkin's Button, her study of the poet's last year and death, writes that he “waited for death stretched out on the sofa, one knee raised, the back of her head propped on his forearm – the position in which he had created poems in other days.”

The style of the translation is easy, anecdotal, sharply scenic. The sentences and the chapters are short. The Rushes call Tynyanov's Russian style “cinematic” but you could just as easily say Franco-epistolary. I thought of the letters of Madame de Sévigné. (I like reading about Russia in this era because it was such an interesting Northern copy of French fashions in thought, manners, and dress.) I felt I was reading letters from a friend recounting the vanities and mishaps of mutual acquaintances. The characterization is elegant, gossipy – superficial in the best sense, that of letting someone's surface – their reported action, situation, manners – suggest their deep nature. After the interlude of Napoleon's occupation of Moscow, we check in with Pushkin's parents:

Sergey Lvovich and Nadezhda Osipova had not returned to Moscow. A vacancy had turned up in Warsaw and Sergey Lvovich was going to take it. The experience of the journey, the remoteness of the place from the capitals that had failed to appreciate him, Warsaw itself with its great number of charming Polish women – all aspects of his new appointment appealed to him. Although his rank remained the same, the move to such a remote province was an attractive enough prospect in itself. He was in no hurry, however, to go off to the outskirts of the Empire and had been finding pleasant uses for his traveling expenses.

And there you have him. Anna Kurkina Rush even claims that Tynyanov's portrait of Sergey Lvovich is superior to that of the pure biographers because he is shown in the midst of his failures, when those failures could be dismissed as minor setbacks, or were still hopeful schemes. That is very high praise, and it feels just. Young Pushkin is the work of one of those scholars who are said by Russians to know Pushkin “better than he knew himself,” and we readers without Russian should be grateful for this translation.