Serena Vitale is a professor of Russian language and literature at the University of Pavia, Italy. But she writes with the mesmerising narrative skills of a novelist. In Pushkin's Button she has combined an academic's obsessive analysis of diary entries, personal correspondence, newspaper articles, court records, diplomatic dispatches and Pushkin's poetry with a thrilling intuition and flair for drama. All this makes for a gloriously invigorating read.
The metaphor that underpins her account of Pushkin's last months refers to the missing button at the back of his formal coat - an indicator of his reluctance to conform, even in the smallest details, and even at the risk of catastrophic consequences.
On 27 January 1837, Pushkin made his way to the outskirts of St Petersburg to fight an illegal duel with Baron George d'Anthes, a French cavalry officer. Pushkin had been driven to this step to defend his young wife's honour. On the way Pushkin's sleigh crossed paths with his wife's carriage, "but Pushkin's wife was nearsighted and Pushkin was looking the other way". Two days later, the poet died in excruciating pain from his injuries.
But first, Vitale wants to tell us about d'Anthes. In so doing, she re- creates the frantic social whirl of Russian high society during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I - the flirtations and intrigues of court life - with this dashing young Frenchman as its Stendhalian hero. She takes us into army manoeuvres with him, and we find that he was captivating, to women and men alike. He insinuated his way into the affections of the Dutch ambassador, Baron Heeckeren, the latter soon assuming the role of d'Anthes' patron, lover and adoptive father. D'Anthes, we learn, was an amoral poseur with an eye on the main chance but, from his letters, we can see how irresistible his charm was. Vitale compares him, with assured poetic resonance, to Pushkin's own creation, Eugene Onegin, the nemesis of his (less gifted but equally turbulent) alter ego, the poet, Lensky.
More than anything, this is a gripping exercise in literary sleuthing, as Vitale uncovers a cache of letters hidden for generations. Her dedication is matched by her ability to tell an enthralling story that reveals the cause of the duel which robbed Russia of its 37-year-old lyric genius at the height of his poetic powers.
The Town and the City
by Jack Kerouac
Penguin pounds 7.99
Ozone Park is the neighbourhood in New York's borough of Queens in which Jack Kerouac wrote his first published novel, to the backdrop of his father dying from stomach cancer in early 1946. For months, Douglas Brinkley tells us in his introduction, Kerouac had lain awake listening to his father's agonising coughing. Grief inspired "The Wizard of Ozone Park", as Allen Ginsberg dubbed him. His story places the five sons and three daughters of a Massachusetts family into the heaving melting pot of New York. What is revealing here is the mystical theologising and the traditional form of the novel. Already, though, the hepcat's idiom is dying to break through. …