Passionate Poet Who Died for Love

By Wilson, A. N. | Daily Mail (London), September 20, 2002 | Go to article overview

Passionate Poet Who Died for Love


Wilson, A. N., Daily Mail (London)


Byline: A.N. WILSON

Critic's choice

PUSHKIN: A BIOGRAPHY by T.J. Binyon

(HarperCollins, [pound]30)

ALEXANDER Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799-1837), the greatest of Russian poets, is to many non-Russianspeakers no more than a name.

Perhaps they know Eugene Onegin, but almost certainly in the operatic version by Tchaikovsky rather than as the verse-novel on which the opera is based.

Beyond that, it is hard for foreigners who do not know Pushkin's own language to see why, for Russians, he is not merely their greatest poet, but the founder of their literature. More than that, he is beloved of Russians, a national hero.

Some, from reading the translations, imagine that he was a bit like Byron, or a bit like Sir Walter Scott, but he is really like no one but himself.

You have to imagine what it would have been like if Mozart had been a writer, and written in Russian.

T.J. Binyon belongs to that glorious generation (Michael Frayn, Alan Bennett, not to mention many a spy and professor of literature) who did the Russian course as part of their national service. They emerged fluent in the language, and though the idea was, presumably, that they could beat the KGB at their own game, the consequence was often more civilised.

T.J.Binyon has been a distinguished Russian scholar ever since and this stupendous biography is the crown of a life's work. There has been no serious biography of Pushkin since 1937, and Binyon's book plunders nearly 70 years' worth of Russian scholarship, most of which is unknown in England.

Nearly all the books to which he refers are Russian.

HKIN, who for Dostoyevsky was the embodiment of the Russian soul, was for the Soviets a sort of protocommunist, so they puritanically censored all his bachelorlove of prostitutes, his sparkling letters full of sexy jokes or his stupendous love poem to his dazzling wife Natalya, describing the difference between bringing a cheap woman to climax, and making love to the chaste one he loves, at first chilly, then passionate.

All that is now here. Binyon describes the tender, but always slightly uncertain, relations between Pushkin and Natalya with particular sensitivity.

Binyon is brilliant at setting Pushkin in his (pretty terrifying) historical setting. Falling foul of the regime was an easy thing to do, even if you were a wit and a charmer as was Pushkin, this curly-headed, tiny man. …

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