by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
March 20, 2002
WHO'S A RUSSIAN POET? PUSHKIN, ITS GREATEST, WAS AFRICAN
SEATTLE, Wash. -- Some years ago I got into trouble with a reader in "Little Odessa," otherwise known as Brighton Beach, the largest North American concentration of immigrants from the old Soviet Union.
I had referred in print to Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938), a poet whom I had translated and studied, as a Russian poet. My ill-wisher wanted to know whether I was ignorant of the fact that Mandelstam was a Jew and therefore unqualified for the title of "Russian" poet.
When I deemed this not worth a reply, he wrote to the then President of Princeton, Bill Bowen, to inform him that the Slavic Department contained a dangerous ignoramus who, if Princeton valued its reputation, should be cashiered forthwith.
These memories come back to me now because I have lately been re-reading (for the nth time) the greatest novel in the Russian language, "Eugene Onegin," by Alexander Pushkin.
Calling it the greatest novel is slightly deceptive, for one naturally expects a novel to be a work of prose. But Eugene Onegin is at the same time the greatest poem in the Russian language. It is a novel in verse, which is "a devil of a difference," as its author ruefully acknowledged.
Russians know this work, or long stretches of it, by heart. So do I. So does anyone who has ever given his heart to Russian and fallen under the spell of Pushkin. Pushkin was in a way more fortunate than Shakespeare. His language is much closer to the current standard. The ordinary Russian of St. Petersburg can more readily understand and imagine himself saying a line of Pushkin than a Londoner could decode Shakespeare's "he galls his kibe." (Hamlet, V, i, 150)
The French have a phrase for the retort that you would have given at the opportune moment, had it not occurred to you as you were running furiously down the stairs. It is called "l'esprit de l'escalier," the wit of the staircase. Germans call it Treppenwitz, in case you were wondering.
If only I had thought betimes to ask my correspondent: "Do you consider Pushkin a Russian poet?"
Pushkin was not a Jew. Pushkin, the most universally acclaimed of all Russian poets, was, by ancestry, an African. He even speaks of "my Africa" in a famous line of Eugene Onegin.
Portraits of the poet, from childhood to maturity, reveal a skin colorthat did not come from sunbathing in Yalta.
Vladimir Nabokov, while he was teaching at Cornell and writing novels like "Lolita," translated Pushkin's novel into an English that causes one either exquisite pain (if one expected poetry) or grateful glee (if one needs a literal trot to get through the original).
One element of the vast commentary -- the edition comes in a boxed setof four volumes -- deals with Pushkin's African forebear, who was named Abram Hannibal.
He'd been sold into slavery and wound up in Constantinople. There he caught the attention of the Russian czar's ambassador, who shipped him back to St. Petersburg as a novelty gift. Peter the Great forthwith became his godfather and had the child baptized.
Alexander Pushkin was immensely proud of his African heritage, and when speaking of Pushkin, no one, so far as I know, has ever challenged the adjective "Russian" when modifying the word "poet."
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.