by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
September 24, 2003
WHO WAS PUSHKIN?
SEATTLE, Wash.--It is almost a tradition that the dons of Oxford and Cambridge should dabble in mystery and detective novels on the side. Being the world's greatest expert on the Pre-Socratics, say, or the arthropoda of the Antipodes, is all very well, but it is also nice to have written something that one's children are not ashamed of. And can live on.
For the reader even of the abstruse scholarly tomes, it is good news if the author can string fluent sentences together into a paragraph that makes sense-something that he has had to master in order to keep his other readers wondering who done it.
T.J. Binyon is a lecturer on Russian literature at Oxford University and a senior research fellow at Wadham College. He is the author most recently of a massive new biography (due next month from Knopf) of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837). He has written admired studies of other Russian writers and topics.
But his rèsumé also includes the book "Murder Will Out," a history of the fictional detective, and also two novels of mayhem and snooping, "Swan Song" and "Greek Gifts."
For anyone, let alone a non-Russian, to undertake a wholesale retelling of the life of Russia's greatest poet demands, to put it mildly, a certain intestinal fortitude. Presuming to outsmart Scotland Yard in his fiction seems to have provided Binyon the necessary hutzpah for this immense project.
One of the things that might intimidate the biographer of Pushkin is that he is dealing with a national poet unlike most of those you might know. Shakespeare, Goethe, and Dante come to mind. Asked to name a great poet, the Anglo-American person in the street would certainly name Shakespeare. Crossword addicts know that he is the "bard" and that his river was the Avon.
Any German in the grubbiest Bierstube, asked to name a poet, would answer "Goethe."
An Italian illiterate, employed on a dock in Haiti, given the same question, would say Dante and might even go on to mumble, "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita..."
But that's about it.
The Russians have an altogether different relationship to their greatest poet. First of all, Pushkin is not the greatest because some schoolteacher announced the fact. He is the greatest of Russian poets because Russians at every level of education and literacy not only know him, and his life, but also great swatches of his actual words.
Suppose one asked President G.W. Bush to recite a few lines of American poetry. Has he even heard of Whitman, Dickinson, or Emerson? One doubts it. But Vladimir Putin could in all probability reel off many lines of Pushkin. Irina, a Russian woman whom I occasionally encounter in a pharmacy here in Seattle, put it this way: "kagebisty ochen' umny." (KGB agents are very smart.)
But the point is that you don't have to be smart or even educated if you are a Russian to know your Pushkin. And not just know him. But love him. That Pushkin's ancestry was African in origin makes his eminence in Russia even more astonishing.
The bad news is that to appreciate Pushkin, you must learn Russian. His art does not survive even the best translation. Binyon seems to have resigned himself to this by translating the poetry into literal, limping prose.
Even without his art, however, Pushkin's life is fascinating, and Binyon deftly conveys this in his splendid biography.
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.