Reading Alexander Pushkin
IT was an eerie experience to press the doorbell alongside the nameplate “Alexandre Pouchkine” in Brussels recently, and even odder when the door flung open and there he was. I had been angling to meet him for some time for a monograph I am researching. A booming “Bonjour!” in a Belgian accent got our encounter off to a congenial start.
This Pouchkine – he spells it the French way – is the great-greatgrandson of the renowned Russian poet of the same name, and his last surviving male descendant. He lacks the whiskers, the talent for lyric poetry and the “wastrel” reputation of his famous forebear but he carries the name proudly around Europe and back to Russia. Now retired from a Brussels business career, he is devoting his remaining years to raising awareness of the writer.
Such is the Pushkin legacy in Russia that “they all want to speak to me, to touch me” when he visits, he says. Educated Russians have all read Pushkin since childhood and will not have a better chance to get close to a live one.
Bookshelves in Pouchkine’s cozy Brussels apartment are lined with works by and about Alexander Pushkin and a valued sketch of him adorns the living room wall.
Tea was served and we spent the afternoon piecing together his genealogy (his father settled in Belgium after the Russian revolution).
His wife, Maria, a second cousin and also a Pushkin, kept him honest by chipping in corrections of dates and places.
“I get goose pimples just talking about him,” Pouchkine said, halfjoking that the poet’s ghost seemed to be present in the living room that afternoon.
At one point Maria opened a volume of French translations and pointed out an effort by Alexandre Dumas that she dislikes because it “lacks soul.” She had the same reservations about translations by Prosper Merimee and other writers who have tried to force him into French.
A leading U.S. Pushkinist, David Bethea of the University of Wisconsin, agrees that translations of Pushkin into other languages can be disastrous. Most renderings into English come out like “a pretty good Victorian poet, maybe Tennyson,” he told me by telephone.
That is one of the reasons that Western cultures have been hesitant about the Pushkin despite his godlike position at home. His prose, “famed for a surface clarity, (is) suffused with connotation and implication,” says Oxford University professor and noted Pushkinist Andrew Kahn. Much of the subtlety is lost in translation.
The drama and musical flow of his writing has led to operatic and ballet interpretations, including “Boris Godunov,” “Eugene Onegin,” “Queen of Spades,” “Ruslan and Ludmilla” and “The Captain’s Daughter.” Experts and literary adventurers have often clashed over ways to render him into other languages. No collision, however, quite matches the celebrated duel between Vladimir Nabokov and the critic Edmund Wilson over Nabokov’s 1964 translation of Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin.” That translation followed one by Walter Arndt, which Nabokov had fiercely denounced. Arndt, he wrote, made “idiotic” errors, confusing a husband with a lover and an arrow for a gun. A famous opening line of Onegin, “My uncle has most honest principles” was rendered by Arndt “My uncle, decorous old prune.” When Wilson sprang to Arndt’s defense and assailed Nabokov’s translation, Nabokov rounded on Wilson for his inadequate Russian.
Nabokov recalled trying to teach Wilson how to read Russian aloud but both collapsed in stitches at Wilson’s “endearing little barks.” Despite intractable translation problems, a new awareness of Pushkin’s genius is surfacing in the West. Alexandre Pouchkine’s International A.S. Pushkin Foundation, for example, holds Pushkin events throughout Belgium, including a play, “A Night with Pushkin in St. Petersburg,” that has been performed 60 times.
Others are joining the pro-Pushkin drive in the United States. An American documentary maker, Michael Beckelhimer, is interviewing Pushkin lovers around Russia and finding willing performers everywhere.
“Pushkin’s words just roll off their tongues,” he says.
New York lawyer Julian Lowenfeld recently published a 700-page tribute to Pushkin’s life and works, “My Talisman,” a labor of love that has occupied him for most of his adult life.
Wisconsin’s Bethea is determined to bridge this linguistic gap, and to do it the hard way. He is leading a Russian-language program for Pushkin scholars beginning with high school freshmen and continuing through college years, including periods in St. Petersburg. He hopes to expand the program nationwide.
Pushkin has had to struggle for recognition abroad, and it may finally be on its way.