The rake's progress - Pushkin

It is in some ways unfortunate that Tchaikovsky set Eugene Onegin to music, not Rossini, the composer of deep shallows. Pushkin, according to TJ Binyon's remarkable biography, became 'addicted' to Rossini while living in Odessa, where an Italian opera company was visiting, and though Binyon makes nothing of it, it rather blares at us, as writers' tastes in music so often do (Joyce's love of Puccini, for instance, or Auden's dislike of Brahms).

Tchaikovsky, that great melancholy confectioner, has hardly any temperamental affinity with Pushkin's novel in verse. Eugene Onegin's sparkling 14-line stanzas - little private carriages of plush - simultaneously open art and seal it.

On the one hand, they admit with hospitable precision an enormous amount of the prosaic (if not exactly the ordinary) world: 'Strasbourg pies', and beaver collars, and several of Pushkin's old schoolfriends, and the marks that Onegin makes in the margins of his books, and Veuve Clicquot, and English pantaloons. Sylvia Plath once longed to write a poem that might be roomy enough to include a toothbrush. But Pushkin anticipated her: his marvellous picture of Onegin's dandyish bedroom sees brushes 'of thirty kinds -/ these for the nails, those for the teeth'.

Everyone who reads Eugene Onegin delights in the novelistic density of its life, and immediately understands how carefully Tolstoy must have studied it. There is Onegin's Vronsky-like existence in St Petersburg: how he comes late to the Bolshoi Theatre and treads on the toes of those already seated; how his minimal Latin allows him to add 'vale' to a letter and remember two (precisely two) verses of the Aeneid.

And there is his dusty existence on his country estate, where the unopened cupboards contain fruit liqueurs, 'a book of household calculations', 'the calendar for 1808', and where the billiard table is equipped with a 'blunt cue'.

On the other hand, Pushkin once wrote that 'poetry is a fiction and has nothing in common with the prose of real life,' and the paradox of Eugene Onegin is that it is self-confessedly a poem simultaneously of real life and of pure fiction. These stanzas that select so much of the real constantly remind us of the fictive status of those selections - fictive because they have been so carefully selected, so artistically compiled.

Pushkin frequently observes that Onegin and Tatiana are his poetic creations; in the first chapter he enters the poem as a character and recalls evenings spent loitering with Onegin by the banks of the Neva. In Chapter 5, he interrupts a description of winter to point out that two other poets have written much better about winter than he can.

He digresses at will - about the state of Russian roads, about Tatiana's dreadful grasp of the Russian language, about the English word 'vulgar', about how much he loves women's small feet - and then digresses on his digressions: when he comes to write up a country ball, he says that he meant, earlier in the poem, to describe a proper Petersburg ball but got distracted by 'the recollection/ of certain ladies' tiny feet', and promptly chides himself for such digressions.

This high-spirited self-referentiality, so different in tone from the programmatic self-exposés of Postmodernism, performs nevertheless a somewhat similar, alienating function: it is always telling us 'this is a poem,' rather as Rossini often tells us 'this is an opera.' Tchaikovsky would make heavy weather of these feathery cirruses.

If Eugene Onegin begs for Rossini's treatment, then Pushkin's life seems to have resembled a libretto by Stendhal with music by Mozart. The extraordinary wealth of Binyon's research - his biography represents a true lifework, a long simmering of scholarship - only confirms the sense one already had of Pushkin's maniacal libidinousness, his swaggering fondness for duels, his feverish bursts of creativity and his ambivalent love of high society.

Just as his most famous poem is both sincere and arch - or both passionate and ironical - Pushkin himself was both a Romantic and an Enlightenment classicist, born at the very end of the 18th century (1799), and, like Karl Kraus's definition of the historian, something of a prophet facing backwards. Romanticism, properly seen, was 'the absence of all Rules but not the absence of art'. Hence Shakespeare, 'our Father', was a Romantic.

Pushkin certainly came under the sway of Byron, but by the time he was at work on the later chapters of Eugene Onegin, he was having second thoughts. Though by the end of his life he had enough English to read some Wordsworth and Coleridge, his intellectual formation was most indebted either to 18th-century novelists (Sterne, especially, whom he read in French), or classical poets (especially Horace).

Pushkin's intellectual background was traditional; both his parents spoke excellent French, and all his early reading was in that language. His social background was much less traditional. His mother, known in Petersburg as 'the beautiful Creole', was the granddaughter of a black slave, traditionally thought to have been a captured Ethiopian, though Binyon, with customary care, thinks Cameroon the likelier origin. He was a gift for Peter the Great, and rose from servitude to become a general in the Army, responsible by the end of his career for all military engineering in Russia.

Pushkin's father belonged to a family that had distinguished itself in public affairs in the late 16th century, though it had apparently been in gentle hibernation for most of the 18th. He was weak, not very interested in his children, and neglected his finances; perhaps Pushkin was thinking of him when he wrote that Onegin had read his Adam Smith - unlike his father, who 'could not understand him,/and mortgaged his lands'.

Pushkin's father was dilettantish and literary; Pushkin's uncle, Vasily, was an established though mediocre poet, most remarkable, it seems, for his last words, recorded by his cheerful, slightly sardonic nephew in 1830: 'coming to, he recognised me, was melancholy and silent for a little while, then: how boring Katenin's articles are! and not another word. What about that? That's what it means to die an honourable warrior, on your shield, your war-cry on your lips!'

It was Uncle Vasily who took the little Pushkin, in 1811, to his admission interview at the new lycée at Tsarskoe Selo, fifteen miles south of Petersburg, where the boy would make several enduring friendships, and where he wrote 29 poems, five of them published in the newspaper the Herald of Europe.

He was also writing much less lofty verse, however. At school, the milieu he joined was lecherous, aristocratic, boyish, jokey and clever. Pushkin was nicknamed 'the Frenchman' because of his knowledge of French literature, but Binyon speculates that the name might also have honoured his scatological tongue. Binyon helpfully reproduces several of Pushkin's salacious ditties, such as 'You and I', which contrasts the poet with the Tsar, and gets in a dig at Dmitri Khvostov, a talentless and prolific poet:

Your plump posterior you
Cleanse with calico; 
I do not pamper
My sinful hole in this childish manner
But with one of Khvostov's harsh odes, 
Wipe it though I wince.

In the early 1820s, in Kishinev, he fell in love with an innkeeper's daughter, and wrote her a naughty poem, 'Christ is Risen', in which he promised, today, to kiss her like a Christian, but tomorrow, if requested, to convert to Judaism just for another kiss, and even to put into her hand 'That by which one can distinguish/A genuine Hebrew from the Orthodox'.

Some of Pushkin's light verse, especially the poems aimed, Lovelace-like, at women he had fallen for, is unpleasantly crude. Later, there would be people, like the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, who found Pushkin's ribaldry coarse. Everyone agreed that he was conventionally ugly. He was short, just under 5'6", with black curly hair, a broad nose and blue eyes, 'the ugly descendant of Negroes', as he described himself. Some women found his arrogance and the blatancy of his sexual need offensive, though many succumbed, and the woman he eventually married was famously beautiful.

He was the kind of man who, when he started writing Eugene Onegin in earnest, would write to a friend: 'Fuck fame, it's money I need.' He became a heavy gambler, fond of faro (Casanova's favourite game, too, Binyon murmurs), and several times was forced to hand over manuscripts of his poems in payment of his debts; at least two chapters of Eugene Onegin were sacrificed in this way.

There must have been many Petersburg Salieris, envious of the apparently uncouth effervescence of his performance and the quick genius of his creativity, its speedy sublime. (He would write a one-act play, one of his best works, about Mozart and Salieri, in which Salieri, maddened by Mozart's genius and 'idle wantonness', poisons him. One of the four so-called Little Tragedies, it is too brief to have been often staged, and is difficult to find in English. Besides, it has been splashily obscured by Peter Shaffer's Amadeus.)

Binyon's biography has the populousness of Tolstoy. An astonishing number of major and minor characters are introduced - and thickly introduced, with a paragraph or two of data - and kept in patient sight over hundreds of pages. Even very minor figures, who appear only once, get a packed footnote. A French chef called Tardif, for instance, cooks a meal for Pushkin when he is down in the Caucasus. A footnote reads: 'Formerly proprietor of the Hôtel de l'Europe, a luxurious establishment situated at the bottom of the Nevsky Prospect, he took to drink, got into financial difficulty and was ruined when his wife absconded with his cash-box and a colonel of cuirassiers. He fled to Odessa and, after various vicissitudes, ended up in Kishinev.'

Binyon thus honours Pushkin's gossipy style; Pushkin's own published notes at the end of Eugene Onegin contain such gems as: 'A periodical that used to be conducted by the late A. Izmailov rather negligently. He once apologised in print to the public, saying that during the holidays he had "caroused".'

Indeed, Binyon's book, which is full of narrative and almost empty of detailed literary analysis, seems to want to get as close as possible to the world, the insouciant style, even the bright prose of Pushkin. Binyon furnishes his prose with little gleaming antiquities: he uses the old English word 'rout' (for 'dance'; Pushkin used it, too), 'sensible' in the Austenesque way ('to be sensible of something'); refers to Pushkin being in 'a brown study' and suffering from 'the ague'; and mentions that Pushkin and his boisterous mates one night 'kicked up a terrible bobbery'. This is a big book, but it has a rakish, propulsive air, not unlike Pushkin's glittering short novels and stories, such as The Captain's Daughter and 'The Queen of Spades'.

Binyon's style of storytelling also honours the small, tight-knit, highly social nature of the Russian elite in Pushkin's day. Pushkin corresponded with several of his lycée chums until the end of his life. When the Decembrists made their failed coup attempt in 1825, he knew 11 of the ringleaders, and feared that he would be rounded up, guilty by association.

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