A Short Life of Pushkin by Robert Chandler

As an antidote to all of the fiction I’ve been reading lately, I felt drawn to picking up something more factual; and coincidentally a lovely review copy arrived that fitted the bill! Pushkin Press have just reprinted a slim biographical volume about the father of Russian poetry, Alexander Pushkin, by esteemed translator Robert Chandler, so it was a no-brainer that I’d want to read it.

Pushkin, of course, is an author I’ve read before, mostly notably in poetry anthologies (I have a lot of Russian collections…) and also when I reviewed a nice edition of “Belkin’s Stories” for Shiny New Books. I had a vague idea of the outline of his life, but was keen to fill in the gaps – which this does in exemplary fashion.

The book divides Pushkin’s life up into short, readable chapters and takes us through the various stages. Chandler focuses on the events of Pushkin’s life, but also his poetic responses to it, and the book is laced with excellent quotations from Pushkin’s work which reflect what was happening to him. And certainly the poet did indeed have a colourful life; his heritage was fascinating, as his matrilineal great-grandfather was a Black African Page (Abram Petrovich Gannibal) brought over to Russia as a slave. He was a serial duellist (a fact that would eventually lead to his downfall), associated with the outlawed political group The Decembrists, spent time in exile, met the young Gogol and had a very complex relationship with the Tsar and the authorities. And then there’s the womanising… Pushkin was nothing if not erratic and Byronic in his outlook, and in fact Lord Byron was something of an idol!

Reading about the disordered nature of his life you wonder how the man managed to write any poetry, but he did, and the extracts that Chandler includes are excellent choices which stick in the mind and show just how much Pushkin’s emotional natural found its way into his work. Like many an artist he struggled financially, and the fact that his wife was required to participate in society (ah! Russian society – how much more I know about that after War and Peace!) meant that he was constantly borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, so to speak, and died in much debt.

As for his death – well, that’s still somewhat controversial, but it certainly affected me emotionally and made me wish Pushkin hadn’t been so hot-headed when it came to duelling. Chandler hints also that by that point of his life Pushkin was in a rather fatalistic mental state, which didn’t help, and part of me wishes he had had less terrible ups and downs in his life – but I suppose if he’d lived a quiet and sedate existence, then he wouldn’t have written the works he did! And it often seems that Pushkin spent much of his time restricted in different ways – exiled, confined to an area by the plague – and in each of these settings he responded by producing substantial amounts of work.

Author and subject

Chandler’s book is a brilliant introduction to Russia’s national poet; lucid, readable, erudite and scholarly, yet it has a light touch which conveys much information in an easily absorbed format. The verse quotations are powerful and moving, and Chandler regularly points out the influence Pushkin’s work has had on a diverse range of later works – “Amadeus” by Peter Shaffer and operas by Mussorgsky being just two examples. He also brings out in more detail the links with Gogol and the influence on Dostoevsky, and covers in detail the complexities of censorship and Pushkin’s relationship with Nicholas I.

One aspect that fascinated me in particular was the fact that Pushkin had something of a sideline as a historian; many of his works drew on Russia’s past and one of the reasons he needed to keep in with society and the Tsar was so that he could gain access to the state archives for his research. We take for granted nowadays the access we have to the Internet and so many archives and records that it seems unimaginable that a man would have to make so many compromises to be able to carry out his work.

Chandler is always even-handed in his treatment of the protagonists in Pushkin’s story (I *love* an unbiased biography!!!) and his refusal to condemn Pushkin’s young wife, Natalya Goncharova, is refreshing. I was interested to learn that she was a relative of one of my favourite Constructivist artists who bore the same name; the book is scattered with such interesting facts which I’ve not come across before.

At the end of the book, Chandler looks at Pushkin’s legacy down the years from Gogol shortly after his death and eventually reaching into Soviet times; and the attempts by various people and regimes to claim the poet for themselves. However, Chandler reminds us of Pushkin’s universal appeal and how he was popular with each level of society; his poetry is still alive and vital today, and the poet’s legacy is assured regardless of who tries to claim it.

I can’t recommend this excellent little book enough if you want to discover more about Pushkin’s life and work. There are bigger and longer volumes out there, but this distills all you need to know into 150 pages or so and gives a flavour of the poet’s writing too. For me, I gained a much wider understanding of Pushkin and his place in Russian literature, as well as thoroughly enjoying the journey through the poet’s life. I’ve read many of Robert Chandler’s translations with great pleasure, but I think this is the first book I’ve read which he’s written and it was a great joy – highly recommended!

Many thanks to Pushkin Press for kindly providing a review copy – much appreciated!