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#5 - RW 7268
The Observer (UK)
July 27, 2003
Paperback of the week
Poet of the steppe
Mike Holland on Pushkin

Pushkin
TJ Binyon
HarperCollins 10, pp731

When Tim Binyon's much-anticipated biography of Russia's greatest poet was finally published last year, it was roundly acclaimed. When it went on to win the BBC Four Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction earlier this year, the publishers rushed forward with the paperback in time for the holiday reading season.

Not that this is ideal beach reading; better would be a breezy hillside veranda, for you need a cool head to stick with Binyon's meticulous scholarship charting virtually every known moment in the life of Aleksander Sergeyevich Pushkin from his birth in Moscow on Thursday, 26 May 1799 to his painful death just over 37 years later in St Petersburg following a duel to protect his honour and that of his wife, Natalya.

Pushkin is to Russian literature what Shakespeare is to English. But his pivotal place comes not just from the lucid wit of his verse, or from his prose and innovative literary journalism. It centres on the way he shaped Russian literary thought in the early nineteenth century, setting a pattern that lasted 100 years and more.

Following the dbcle of 1812, French mores and traditions which had dominated Russian intellectual life fell increasingly out of fashion. Court and nobility, of which Pushkin was a part, began speaking Russian and cultivating national customs and clothes. Though receiving his early education in French and finding inspiration from favourite authors such as Voltaire, Pushkin used the earthy language of the Russian people in his poetry. It perfectly chimed with the times and became the bedrock of Russian literature even into the communist era.

Binyon's great biography makes fascinating reading not just in illumining his subject but also for the intricate detailing of the then contemporary aristocratic life.

One tip, though: the translations of Pushkin's verse are so leaden (for which Binyon apologises) that readers are recommended to try other interpretations. There is no collected work, but James Falen's rippingly good rendition of Evgeny Onegin comes very close to capturing the original, published in 1831 and written over eight years by Pushkin under the influence of Byron.

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