Александр Сергеевич Пушкин
T. J. Binyon
HarperCollins, £30, 688 pp
The poet who was Russia
George Walden reviews Pushkin by T. J. Binyon
Many different styles are viable for biographers, as for novelists. W. Jackson Bate's Dr Johnson is the best biography I have read, and it adopts an empathetic approach. Although T. J. Binyon is a well-known Russian scholar he is far more detached from his subject, and yet his Pushkin is one of the great biographies of recent times.
"Scholarly" and "engrossing" are often antonyms, yet such is Binyon's skill in presenting his phenomenal research, and so patiently does he build up the reader's interest in the man and his era that he ends by captivating us.
For Westerners Pushkin has always been more historical celebrity than poet. (Astonishingly, the first full translation of his works has only recently appeared.) If the life has overshadowed the work to such an extent, it is partly because the old truism about how much is lost in translation is even truer of Russian verse, and truest of all in the supremely musical Pushkin. But it is also because Pushkin's was an almost absurdly romantic life.
From his teens his talent was recognised. He grew up amongst the gilded youth of his day, writing political and atheist verses that got him exiled to southern Russia by Alexander I - which did not prevent him carrying on numerous liaisons with what we would call titled ladies.
Allowed back to Moscow under Nicholas I, he married the beautiful Natalya, who loved flirting but remained faithful. Pushkin's jealousy came to a head when Georges d'Anthès, a member of the imperial guard, fell for Natalya. In a real-life drama that his famous poem Eugene Onegin had uncannily foreshadowed, Pushkin forced a duel, and was killed.
But Binyon does far more than recount this familiar story. What we need is a key to the enigma of a poet whom slavophiles, imperialists, communists and now capitalists have successively claimed as representing the spirit of Russia. And Binyon provides the answer: that the tragedy of Russia and of its national poet are one.
Reading this book is like breathing clean air, unpolluted by loaded or emotive commentary. The myths evaporate under Binyon's scrutiny, leaving a far more complex portrait of the poet than we are used to. The Pushkin that emerges is sombrely as well as dashingly romantic.
Throughout the author subtly stresses the less glittering side of Pushkin. The gilded youth was a minor noble with African (probably Cameroonian) blood in his veins, had little money and was not even thought good-looking. "A Negro profile acquired from his mother did not embellish his face. Add to this dreadful side-whiskers, dishevelled hair, nails like claws, a small stature, affectation of manners, an arrogant attitude to the women he chose to love . . . and boundless self-esteem." The observer could have added that he wrote obscene verses (some juvenile, some hilarious); that he was a drinker and manic gambler, in debt all his life; a cynic who seduced peasant girls and dumped them when they got pregnant; and on occasion the contemporary equivalent of a champagne socialist.
It is here that the myths are most stubborn. It was known that Pushkin accommodated himself to autocracy, in the unattractive shape of Nicholas I. But Binyon gives us the full sordid facts about his dealings with Nicholas, both face to face and through his lugubrious chief of police, Benckendorff. The Tsar's attitude to the poet is dismally reminiscent of Stalin's cat-and-mouse relationship with writers such as Pasternak: he would summon him for admonitory chats (Stalin used the phone), and then, to Pushkin's mortification, made him a "Gentleman of the Chamber".
Sometimes the poet wriggled in the autocrat's malign embrace, at others he appeared to bask in it. Binyon makes no judgment, and you can see why. What do you do if you are a brilliant poet with libertarian instincts and Russia is your prison? (The enormously well-read Pushkin never went abroad). And what if you are not even permitted to travel from one part of the prison to another without the Tsar's permission? How can you write if your work must be submitted to the censorship of a despot who does not hesitate to erase whole lines in your work, as in the case of The Bronze Horseman whose somewhat ambiguous celebration of Russian imperialism made Nicholas nervous?
If you are Pushkin, you compromise. He was no impulsive rebel, except in youth. Binyon is less ambivalent about his part in the 1825 Decembrist uprising than other biographers, using documentary evidence to show just how far he stood aside from it. He also details the number of serfs the poet owned, and how mortgaging them helped to pay Pushkin's gambling debts - an unromantic thought, especially when it emerges that their reformist-minded owner could be harsher than others.
In addition Binyon brings out the full extent of Pushkin's pan-Slav imperialism and Great Russian chauvinism, which horrified his liberal friends, especially when he wrote in support of the crushing of the Poles.
Everything we thought we knew about Pushkin becomes more shaded by Binyon's tireless elaboration. D'Anthès turns out to have been a seductive but slightly disturbed individual who virtually stalked Natalya; but in the end it was Pushkin who precipitated a denouement that was not inevitable. Binyon leaves the impression that the poet had a death wish, and that the political pressures and duplicities of his life had taken their toll.
But it was never simply a case of a poet of genius pitted against a loathsome autocracy. As Binyon shows, it was a case of a very Russian poet enmeshed in a very Russian system. For all its imperial glitter - the court and the balls - Russia was a squalid country, and Pushkin's life had its share of moral squalor. The endless tragedy of Russia was echoed in his life.
Only a biographer of the first rank could show how the poet's brilliant spirit was extinguished, not just by a regime, but by elements in that regime that to some extent reflected his own personality. That is true tragedy, and that is Russia.
· George Walden's 'Who is a Dandy?' is published this month by Gibson Square.
The philandering poet
Alan Marshall reviews Pushkin by T J Binyon
'Imagine," wrote the 33-year-old Pushkin to a friend, "my wife has been maladroit enough to give birth to a little lithograph of me. I am in despair at it, in spite of my self-conceit." Russia's greatest poet was no oil painting. With the conventional prejudice of the day, he and his contemporaries blamed his Negro blood - but "dreadful side-whiskers, dishevelled hair, nails like claws, [and] a small stature" can't have helped.
In truth, Pushkin revelled in his ancestry and liked to exaggerate its importance, referring to himself in a fit of pique as "a nobleman of 600 years standing". He was born in 1799, and was descended from minor aristocrats on his father's side, an African great-grandfather on his mother's - a "Blackamoor" who was given to Peter the Great and became his favourite. In a way, it was an omen. As T J Binyon's superb new biography demonstrates, tsars would play a critical and even intimate part in Pushkin's own life.
The 1800s in Russia were an age of imperialism, autocracy and revolution. Revolution took the form of the Decembrist uprising of 1825. Binyon concludes that, while Pushkin had "close friends" among the Decembrists, his work reveals no "deep involvement with Decembrist ideas", although he boasted to the tsar that he "would have been in the ranks of the rebels" if he had been at liberty.
Apart from his attacks on serfdom, his youthful political verse was hardly revolutionary. "Liberty: an Ode" expressed an abstract "conservative liberalism" and defended the monarchy. His epigrams and satires were potentially more disturbing, with their bountiful scatological imagery and delightful energetic irreverence. In Binyon's rather good alliterative translation, the poet addresses the tsar: "Your plump posterior you / Cleanse with calico; / I do not pamper / My sinful hole in this childish manner, / But with one of Khostov's harsh odes, / Wipe it though I wince."
No surprise, then, that Alexander I sent him into exile before he reached his 21st birthday, when he was already being spoken of as Russia's most gifted poet. Eugene Onegin, a "pocket mirror" of fashionable St Petersburg youth, was mostly composed in the provinces, where he lived under intermittent surveillance for the next six years. "The devil take Onegin!" he wrote to his publisher. "It's myself I want to publish or release into society."
Apart from poetry, Pushkin liked to occupy himself with duelling, gambling and women. He arrived for one duel "with a hatful of cherries", which he ate while his opponent fired. "Instead of writing the seventh chapter of Onegin," he complains to a friend, "I am losing the fourth at shtoss" (a card game). His philandering could get in the way of composition. Waiting impatiently for him to finish his first book, the mock-heroic epic Ruslan and Lyudmila, a friend commented that "if he were to have three or four more doses of clap, it would be in the bag".
Pushkin lived permanently beyond his means, but writing was the only work that he was willing to countenance. Binyon writes drily that for the duration of his appointment to the foreign office, Pushkin had to "reconcile taking a salary with doing nothing to earn it".
It was Nicholas I who eventually summoned him back to St Petersburg. Just three years older than Pushkin, he doesn't come out of this book too badly. He took a coolly sympathetic interest in the poet's impassioned career, and doesn't seem to have taken advantage of Pushkin's beautiful wife. He also tried to protect him against the habit of impetuous belligerence that led to his death. On the other hand, he tied Pushkin to the royal court, refused to let him travel abroad and, worst of all, when he didn't take it upon himself to interfere directly (as he did with Boris Godunov), left his work at the mercy of self-serving bureaucratic censors.
"Blessed is he, who was youthful in his youth," Pushkin writes in Onegin, "Who did not shun the fashionable crowd, / Who at twenty was a fop or a rake, / And at thirty advantageously married."
Marriage, jealousy, frustration and despair all played a part in Pushkin's death on a wintry January day in 1837. Binyon relates the events in extraordinary detail, while handling the action with an urgent economy. This is his method throughout.
Apart from one incongruous reference to "stalker syndrome", he wisely spares us any superfluous psychological speculation, building up instead a richly complicated portrait from an enormous cast of characters and sources. It all amounts to a grippingly entertaining and magnificently authoritative account of the poet's life, which is, almost unbelievably, the first to appear in any language since 1937.
September 25, 2002
No foreign biographer has yet conveyed the full complexity of Russia’s greatest poet to the English-speaking world, says Orlando Figes
A crime against rhyme
by T. J. Binyon
HarperCollins, £30; 731pp
ISBN 0 0021 5084 0
Pushkin is a hard subject for the foreign biographer. None has yet conveyed the full complexity of Russia’s greatest poet to the English-speaking world. Language is the obvious barrier — the playfulness and easy rhyming elegance of Pushkin’s sparkling verse is lost in translation. And his great achievement was to shape the literary language through his poetry.
Another obstacle is the thick texture of Russian intellectual history (readers who have been to see the new Tom Stoppard play will know exactly what I mean). In 19th-century Russia poetry was closely intertwined with politics and history; it played a crucial role in fashioning the national identity, in setting moral values and ideas; and in ways that English readers may find hard to understand, it was a cultural space, an imaginary shadow of the real Russia, where the intelligentsia lived.
Tim Binyon’s long-awaited life of Pushkin is by far the most important to appear in many years. It is a magnificent achievement, a monument to a life of scholarship, but at 700 densely-printed pages it is not an introduction to the poet’s life and work. One really needs to be a specialist to get the most from this deeply learned book.
Binyon follows in the best traditions of Russian Pushkin scholarship, on which his work is squarely based. The attention to detail is painstaking. When the poet travels, when he appears at court, when he makes a new acquaintance or simply writes a letter to a friend, it is duly noted by his biographer.
In general the effect is to create an intimate portrait of Pushkin’s character. The poet comes alive when Binyon gives the details of his endless flirtations (Pushkin claimed that the point of life was “to make oneself attractive to women”); when he cites examples of his brilliant (if coarsely sexual) wit; or when he catches him in the process of writing — sitting up in bed surrounded by paper, pen in hand and beating it in time “as he recited, nodding his head in unison”. Broader themes are also well captured by Binyon’s watchful eye — Pushkin’s life-long struggle to break free from the service obligations of his noble class (there is a wonderful account of Pushkin being sent to the Kherson district to report on an infestation of locusts) or his deep ambivalence towards the Tsar.
Pushkin was a monarchist. But Aleksander banished him to exile in the south (from 1820 to 1824) for his freedom-loving verse; and then, following the supression of the Decembrist uprising in 1825, Nicholas I became his personal censor and kept him at the court.
Binyon gives important details on Pushkin’s final months. There is no better account of the poet’s dispute with d’Anthès, who had flirted with his wife; nor of the duel which took his life, at the same age as the century, in 1837.
But otherwise it is a case of the proverbial woods and trees. There are just too many details for the general reader to cut through: too many lists of places visited; too many portraits of minor characters; too many unnecessary facts (from the history of theatre buildings to the rules of card games Pushkin played).
Yet there are many instances where Binyon does not give sufficient explanation of the historical or cultural context for the non-specialist to find his way. He never really stops to analyse the qualities of Pushkin’s verse; nor to explain why his use of the language was so original.
Without an explanation of the undeveloped state of the literary language in the 18th century — when the writer’s lexicon was basically adapted from French — it is hard to understand the breakthrough Pushkin made when he began to write in the language of plain speech.
Equally, one cannot understand why Pushkin wrote like this, unless one sees his writing (and not just the verse but the histories and the folklore) against the background of a national reaction against the intellectual empire of the French following the War of 1812.
Noblemen like Pushkin switched from speaking French to their native tongue; they russified their customs and their dress; and they sought to shape a literary language that could reach a national readership. Pushkin’s Russian did just that: it combined the gallicized or “salon” language of educated thought and sentiment with the crude colloquialisms of the village and the inn.
This relates to my other main complaint about this book: one does not really get a sense of Pushkin’s verse. There are lots of references to the major works that assume specialist knowledge; but when Binyon comes to discuss them in their own right, he does not help the English-language reader to imagine what they are actually like. Neither of the poet’s two great masterpieces (the verse novel Eugene Onegin and the long poem The Bronze Horseman) receives more than a couple of pages — just enough for an outline of the plot and one or two comments, but not for a larger discussion either of their literary qualities or their impact on society.
Moreover, as with all the cited works, Binyon has provided his own translations. I understand the reasoning: there is no English translation of Pushkin’s complete works and this way, as Binyon puts it in the preface, “Pushkin would at least speak with a single voice”. But Binyon’s translations are so literal and wooden that readers may well wonder what the fuss is all about.
Here is Binyon’s version of an epigraph he cites from Eugene Onegin:
Blessed is he, who was youthful in his youth, Bless who at the proper time matured, Who gradually the chill of life With the years was able to withstand; Who was not addicted to strange dreams, Who did not shun the fashionable crowd, Who at 20 was a fop or rake, And at 30 advantageously married. . .
And here — courtesy of the Oxford translation by James Falen — is how it ought to sound:
Oh, blest who in his youth was tender; And blest who ripened in his prime; Who learned to bear, without surrender, The chill of life with passing time; Who never knew exotic visions, Nor scorned the social mob’s decisions; Who was at 20 fop or swell, And then at 30, married well.
Orlando Figes’s Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, will be published on October 3 by Allen Lane
15 September 2002 12:09 BDST
Whatever Russia's ruling ideology during the last 100-odd years, Aleksandr Pushkin has been its icon. Dostoevsky, at the belated unveiling of the poet's memorial in 1880, gave a eulogy driven by his own impassioned nationalism and, from then on, the poet's reputation soared. For the centenary of his birth (1899), children were given free copies of his works and chocolate bars stamped with his picture: Pushkin was now, in his biographer's words, "a solid, upright, moral citizen ... and a loyal supporter of autocracy". Later, the Soviet State claimed him as a poet of the people, made a cult of him almost comparable to Stalin's, and co-opted him to the campaign for national literacy. Recently, Coca-Cola purloined a line from the famous lyric, "I remember a wonderful moment". But, yes, Pushkin is still an icon in capitalist Russia.
There is a certain irony in aiming a revisionist biography at British readers. For us, it's easier to understand the man than the literary icon. The facts of Pushkin's life are easily available. T J Binyon's publishers claim that there has been no full biography since 1937, but biographies there have been: Elaine Feinstein's, for example, in 1998, an equally down-to-earth portrayal, more evenly balanced between life and work. As for his reputation, what may seem romantic hype is literal truth: Pushkin is the father of Russian literature, a poet who speaks for all readers and seasons. Imagine Shakespeare writing modern English in near-contemporary genres, and it gives you a little idea of his living potency.
But the reputation is largely a matter of hearsay. We have vigorous translations of Yevgeny Onegin (Charles Johnstone's and Nabokov's are both indispensable), a good, if incomplete, Penguin selection by D M Thomas, The Bronze Horseman and Other Poems, and, recently, Carcanet's anthology of contemporary poets' translations, After Pushkin. Critics such as John Bayley have broached chasms to bring the writing near for English readers. But this is still not near enough. The biggest myth – that Pushkin's poetry sprang into being fully formed out of nowhere – is still too rarely challenged.
Binyon's book is extraordinarily detailed. If you want to know the history of the Lycée at Tsarskoye Selo, or how to play Faro (the card game in The Queen of Spades), you can find out here. Historically, the times were, indeed, "interesting". And Pushkin's family background is fascinating (his great-great-grandfather on his mother's side was an African slave, purchased for Peter the Great, whose favourite he became).
Binyon's documentation is scrupulous. However, sometimes the encyclopaedic context-filling reaches a distracting level of clutter. In the final chapters, the narrative tension sharpens: we can almost smell that explosive temperament (manic-depressive, Binyon suggests) gradually heating up in the sealed alembic of court life.
Pushkin's tragedy begins with his marriage to Natalya Goncharova, the 18-year-old naif whose identity centred on cutting a charming figure in a ball-gown. Her family was almost as impoverished as Pushkin's, and debts mounted as he strove to support these relatives and his young household, largely through "the killing work" (his description) of researching the life of Peter the Great for a history commissioned by the Tsar. He died, owing, by Binyon's calculations, 138,988.33 roubles.
This death – at 37, after an almost-cancelled duel with Natalya's absurd "suitor", D'Anthess – was horrible and unnecessary. But it is clear that Pushkin was creatively drained, perhaps near to breakdown. His mood lifted conspicuously when the plans for the duel were pegged in place. Death, perhaps, offered a solution.
It was no easy way out. His abdominal wound took more than two days to kill him, and he was conscious much of the time. He endured the pain heroically, curbing his screams so as not to upset Natalya, who was sleeping in the next room.
Binyon, as a biographer, takes nothing for granted – except, inevitably, the poetry. In the interest of consistency, he uses his own translations, accurate but uninspiring. His decision, as he says, was not to attempt literary criticism, and his penetrating scholarship and calm sympathy serve "Pushkin the man" very well. But, of course, the reason why a dissolute, witty, chaotic minor courtier deserves our attention is not because he was humanly interesting. It is because he was a poet, a genius, who, as a boy, ingested whatever literature he found (French, English, Spanish) and assimilated and transformed it into something utterly his, and utterly Russian. A book as meticulous about the work as this one is about the life would be a revelation indeed.
Carol Rumens' new volume of poetry, 'Hex', is published by Bloodaxe next month
Turbulent poet and femme fatale
Absurd claims have been made for Pushkin's intellectual and moral pre-eminence, but Catriona Kelly is impressed by TJ Binyon's intelligent study of the Russian poet's life
Saturday October 5, 2002
by TJ Binyon
751pp, HarperCollins, £30
Compared with Shakespeare's, the life of Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) is abundantly documented, ruling out the crazier forms of speculation. For example no one has argued that Pushkin's works were written by Tsar Alexander I, though the legend that the latter did not really die in 1825 would make him a likelier double for Russia's national poet than the alternative authors who have been suggested for the plays allegedly not written by "the man of Stratford". Myth-making, in Pushkin's case, was of a different order, making this brilliant but troubled writer into a vessel for national supremacy.
Celebration reached its peak at times when Russia's geopolitical ambitions were strongest - as in the jubilee years of 1899, 1937, and 1949. Inspired by the prevailing hysteria, otherwise reputable scholars made absurd claims for Pushkin's intellectual, moral, and even social pre-eminence: one Soviet Pushkinist asserted in all seriousness that the writer knew 14 languages, while another believed his African great-grandfather Abram Hannibal to be a direct descendant of the Carthaginian general.
TJ Binyon's new biography of Pushkin proclaims that its aim is "to free the complex and interesting figure of Pushkin the man from the heroic simplicity of Pushkin the myth". As a de-mythologiser, Binyon is well qualified on several counts. Unlike some previous English biographers of Pushkin, he knows the Russian sources thoroughly. Yet he does not subscribe to the didactic impulses and national pieties that have shaped the work of even the most detached Russian biographers, making them ignore, or explain away, supposedly unedifying elements of Pushkin's psyche - his social climbing, irrational rages or penchant for scurrilous epigram.
Russian biographers have also vehemently taken sides over the alleged affair between Pushkin's wife Natalya Pushkina and the Alsatian Guards officer Georges d'Anthès, the provocation for the poet's fatal duel in January 1837, arraigning D'Anthès, Pushkina, and St Petersburg high society in general for the social murder of the national genius.
The poet Marina Tsvetaeva described Pushkina as "absolute beauty" and hence "absolute nullity", while the emigré critic Dmitry Sviatopolk-Mirsky, the author of what has to date been the best biography available in English, condemned her as an empty-headed spendthrift intolerant of her husband's literary endeavours.
Binyon's method lies at the opposite extreme from euphemistic evasion or sententious aphorism. His book works by accretion. Material from Pushkin's own writings and from the letters and memoirs of his contemporaries is carefully pieced together in strict linear sequence. We see Pushkin's progression from silly, but precociously gifted, young rattle, a thorn in the side of authority (as he was during the late 1810s and early 1820s), to reflective, committed, but also dangerously harassed, mature writer and family man in the 1830s.
This method comes into its own in the depiction of the events leading up to Pushkin's death. Where some have suspected conspiracy - a plot by Pushkin's enemies, perhaps including Tsar Nicholas I, to rid society of this turbulent poet - Binyon argues for a mundane explanation.
D'Anthès was genuinely obsessed with Natalya Pushkina and pursued her relentlessly. Pushkin in his last months was to become equally obsessed with the possibility of his wife's infidelity, falling sometimes into what Binyon describes as "a state bordering on lunacy". Pushkina, a devoted wife, was at first flattered by the attention of a suitor who was a favourite in aristocratic society, but was soon placed in an intolerable position by the competing fantasies of her increasingly unhinged husband and his claustrophobically devoted rival, whom she dared not offend by too open a rebuff. Binyon's depiction of the whole squalid business, and of Pushkin's agonising death after a bullet smashed into his sacrum, is both plausible and moving.
The book is equally assured when narrating earlier sections of Pushkin's adulthood - his roistering exile in Kishinev and Odessa, for instance, or his expedition to Erzerum to watch the Russian colonial armies at work. The engaging intricacy of detail - recalling sections of Pushkin's own Evgeny Onegin - doesn't obscure broader patterns of political and social development.
Soviet literary history saw Pushkin (like other great writers) as committed to progressive causes. For Binyon, though, Pushkin's rebellion was never more than social, and in his middle years he became convinced that autocracy was historically essential and that Russian imperialism was a civilising force. All in all, he was closer to Walter Scott (whose Rob Roy inspired The Captain's Daughter) than he was to Byron or Shelley.
Producing such a detailed yet absorbing chronicle of Pushkin's adult life is a remarkable achievement, considering the fragmentation of the materials, and the self-interested and dubious character of some of them. Treatment of the subject's childhood and schooldays is thinner, but it's fair to say that Pushkin was not much interested in the details of these either, preferring to evoke them vignette-style: the baby whose nurse was rebuked by mad Tsar Paul I for not removing his cap in the royal presence, or the schoolboy reading Apuleius and encountering his muse in the park at Tsarskoe Selo.
Yet completeness itself has some costs: the image of Pushkin presented is so minute that it in some respects distorts the sitter. Uncomfortable with life-writing of a direct kind, Pushkin presented many of his most emotional meditations on human existence in the form of mini-narratives: the hypochondriac town-dweller who yearns for rest in a country cemetery, or the Greek poet who survives the shipwreck when rowers and helmsman have drowned.
Conversely, at important moments of his life, he had a tendency to vanish into the plots of his own literary works. The salon hostess Sofya Karamzina, a hostile but sharp-witted observer, overheard Pushkin discussing the gossip about D'Anthès and his wife "as if he were narrating to her a drama or a novelette which had absolutely nothing to do with him".
This sense of a personality divided between actor and watcher, of Pushkin's unremitting self-consciousness, and of the way in which literariness kept leaking into his everyday life, should have been brought closer to the centre of discussion. Moreover, as with Donald Rayfield's comparable life of Chekhov, Binyon avoids extended critical commentary on Pushkin's writings, which he considers the task of the critic, not the biographer - though pointed observations on the major works give tantalising hints of what might have been said had he taken a more flexible view of genre convention. And, while the translations of Russian texts display a welcome sense of appropriate register and sensitivity to exact phrasing, the absence of rhyme and euphony strips the excerpted verse of what a Russian reader would consider their most "Pushkinian" features.
But extended consideration of Pushkin's literary side would not have been practicable in a single-volume book, even one as substantial as this. With luck, before too long someone will publish a complementary study of "Pushkin the writer", tracing his literary roots in 18th-century Russian poetry, French literature, and not least Russian translations from the French (which began being composed in "Pushkinian" Russian decades before the poet was born).
In the meantime, the publication of this biography is a real event. Certainly, anyone expecting startling revelations may be disappointed. Binyon doesn't dig up, say, homosexual shenanigans in the dormitories at Tsarskoe Selo (instead, Pushkin is shown yawning over his acquaintance Vigel's "constant talk of buggery"); even the traditional list of his female lovers is diminished, rather than augmented. Nor is there an archival coup to match Serena Vitale's discovery of a cache of D'Anthès's letters for her Pushkin's Button (Binyon works exclusively from published materials). However, Binyon's sober, occasionally acerbic style stands in welcome contrast to Vitale's weakness for three-star prose in the vein of Cold Comfort Farm. A weighty biography in every sense, Binyon's book is poignant, brisk and at times downright funny: the best possible tribute to the changeable and elusively fascinating character of its subject.
· Catriona Kelly's books include Refining Russia (OUP)
September 19 1997 N° 4929 Supplement
Letter to the Editor
I was pleased to read T. J. Binyon's review of my book, Abraham Hanibal, l'aïeul noir de Pouchkine (July 18). Though it was an objective and informative account, he made some critical observations based on information which is now out of date. In his review, Binyon wrote that the information given by Pushkin saying that Abraham Hanibal's first wife, "Evdokya, "gave birth to a white daughter is supported by no evidence and rejected by most scholars". He is wrong because Pushkin was absolutely right: towards the end of September 1731, as stated in my book, Evdokya Hanibal gave birth to a daughter, who was named Evdokya. We have known this since 1974, when the Russian scholar Malevanov discovered in the archives a document dating from 1746 mentionning the names and the ages of the children of the then major general Abram Petrovitch Hanibal: << Evdokya - 15, (years) , Anna - 9, Elizabeta - 8, Piter - 6. We know that after the birth of Evdokya, and in spite of the uproar it provoked in the small provincial Estonian town of Pyarnu, Hanibal decided to bring her up.
As for my account of Hanibal's marital problems, I referred only to contemporary testimony: in 1737, Evdokya accused Hanibal of torturing her in 1731 (p 116-17). I also quoted Opatovitch (1877) who supported her accusations (p 116-117). But I also informed my readers that the same Evdokya wrote in 1746 that she had lied in 1737 and that she acknowledged her adultery and her attempt to poison her husband (p 153). I don't agree with scholars who wrote that Hanibal, having an affair with Christina at that time, wanted to get rid of his first wife, accusing her of adultery and torturing her to make her acknowledge it. Simply because it was impossible: the birth of the white daughter in 1731 was enough to prove to the court that Evdokya was unfaithful. If there was no adulterous child, this could be plausible provided that you prove that Hanibal knew Christina at that time. And no one can prove that Hanibal knew nor that he had an affair with Christina just after his marriage in 1730. The scholars who made this contention thought that Ivan, the elder son of Christina and Hanibal, was born in 1731 (Vegner, 1937). But we know now that Ivan was born in 1735 on May 5.
Friday July 18 1997
The rise and fall of Hanibal
ABRAHAM HANIBAL. L'Aieul noir de Pouchkine.
By Dieudonne Gnammankou. 251pp. Paris: Presence Africaine. 155fr. ISBN - 2 7087 0609 8
Towards the end of November 1704, Count Golovin, Peter the Great's Minister of Foreign Affairs, was pleased to learn that the present for the Tsar he had ordered some time earlier had been delivered to his mansion in Moscow. It consisted of two young negro boys, brothers, whom a merchant, Savva Raguzinsky, "with great fear and danger to his life", had acquired from the Turks in Constantinople. Golovin presented them to Peter in December. The elder, baptized as Aleksei, received a musical education and played in a regimental band; he then vanishes from the pages of history. Peter took a liking to the younger boy, Abraham, who was probably then eight years old and who was to become, in time, great-grandfather to the poet Pushkin.
In 1705, after taking Vilnius from the Swedes, Peter had Abraham baptized in the cathedral, standing as his godfather. Abraham accompanied the Tsar to France in 1716 and remained there to study military engineering. Returning to Russia seven years later, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Preobrazhensky Guards. But Peter died in 1725, and Abraham's sub-sequent career waxed and waned with the rapid changes in regime which followed. Still in favour under Catherine, Peter the Great's wife, he taught Peter's grandson geometry and forti-fication, and presented the Empress with the manuscript of a long work on these subjects. After her death, however, he was suspected of political intrigue and posted to Siberia, where he built a fort at Selenginsk, on the Chinese border; it was at this time that he took the surname Hanibal.
In 1730, now a major, he was transferred to Pyarnu in Estonia, but, beset by marital difficulties and again out of favour, retired from the service for seven years. Called back in 1740, he was promoted to lieutenant-colonel and given a command in Reval. His fortunes bounded upwards with the accession of Elizabeth, Peter the Great's younger daughter. Made a major-general and governor of Reval, he was given a large grant of land in the Pakov province. In charge of military engineering throughout Russia, he oversaw the building of the Ladoga canal and the fortification of Kronshtadt, but with Elizabeth's death Abraham's career came to an end; retired without promotion or gratuity, he lived on his estate at Suida, near St Petersburg, until his death in 1781.
One of Abraham's sons, Osip, an irrespon-sible and dissolute junior naval officer, married Mariya Pushkina. Their daughter, Nadezhda, married a distant cousin, Sergei Pushkin; the couple's first son, Alexander, born in 1799 and killed in a duel in 1837, was Russia's greatest poet; among his works is an unfinished novel, entitled The Blackamoor of Peter the Great: his great-grandfather.
Dieudonne Gnammankou takes us through Hanibal's life in a brisk and lively manner, but, like his Russian predecessors, he never really manages to penetrate the stiff eighteenth-century exterior and reveal the man behind. Hanibal was obviously talented, energetic and strong-willed, but was he also, as some have made out, cruel, despotic and arbitrary, or, as Gnammankou prefers, "genereux, tolerant, solidaire, et d'une moralite irreprochable"? As this suggests, Abraham Hanibal displays some partiality towards its hero: the degree of Peter's intimacy with Abraham in the latter's youth is perhaps exaggerated, while its account of Hanibal's marital problems is decidedly one-sided.
In January 1731, he married Evdokiya Dioper; against her wishes, since she was engaged to a young naval officer, Kaisarov. Hanibal took her to Estonia, where he was then stationed, but soon, accusing her of adultery and attempting to poison him, began proceedings for divorce. Gnammankou resurrects the canard, first put about by Pushkin, but supported by no evidence and rejected by most scholars, that Evdokiya gave birth to a white daughter (supposedly Kaisarov's) after arriving in Estonia. While she probably did commit adultery, that she attempted to poison her husband is less certain. The author dismisses out of hand the contemporary testimony that Hanibal hanged her by her wrists from rings in a cellar and beat her until she confessed to the crime. He also glosses over the fact that Hanibal had probably already begun an affair with Christina-Regina von Schoeberg, whom he married, illegally, using a forged certificate, in 1736, after the birth of their first son.
As far as Hanibal's life in Russia is concerned, this biography contains nothing new, but it does put forward an interesting and original hypothesis on his origins. Petitioning Elizabeth for a coat of arms in 1741, Hanibal wrote: "I am a native of Africa . . . was born in the town of Logon, in the domain of my father, who besides had under him two other towns." A manuscript biography, written in German in the 1780s, presumably by Hanibal's son-in-law, states that he was "by birth an African blackamoor from Abyssinia", that his father was a "powerful and rich prince", a Muslim and vassal of the Ottoman Porte, who after an unsuccessful revolt was forced to send his son as a hostage to Constantinople. Although, as Vladimir Nabokov pointed out in his essay "Abram Gannibal" (appended to his translation of Eugene Onegin), this is wildly at variance with the situation in Ethiopia at the time - and though no town in the region can be identified with Logon - Ethiopia has been generally accepted as Hanibal's birthplace.
Gnammankou, however, has discovered in the extreme north-east corner of the present state of Cameroon, on the border with Chad, the town of Logone, situated on a river of the same name. Towards the end of the seventeenth century Logone was the capital of a minor kingdom, which, unlike the neighbouring state of Baguirmi, had not converted to Islam. His contention is, therefore, that, around 1703, during a raid by the forces of the Sultan Abd El Kader of Baguirmi on Logone, Abraham, the son of the prince, Brouha, was taken prisoner with others, transported north along the slave trails to Libya, and then by ship to Constantinople. This is a seductive conjecture, which certainly is more in agreement with the sparse evidence on Hanibal's origins than the Ethiopian hypothesis. But since the evidence is not only sparse, but to some extent untrustworthy and contradictory, and is based on the memories of a six- or seven-year-old child recollected between forty and eighty years later, it is difficult to say any more than that this is a highly plausible solution to an insoluble question.
T. J. Binyon is a Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford and the author of Murder Will Out: The detective in fiction, 1989.
London Review of Books
Vol. 25 No. 4 dated 20 February 2003 |
The rake's progress
A lecher, heavy gambler and committed seducer with a terror of being cuckolded, Pushkin's life and death bore more than a passing resemblance to the fictions he created in Eugene Onegin, writes James Wood in this latest essay from the LRB
Thursday February 20, 2003
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By JOHN LEONARD
PUSHKIN A Biography.
By T. J. Binyon.
Illustrated. 727 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $35
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'Pushkin: A Biography' by T.J. Binyon
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