Pushkin's Novel «The Captain's Daughter» As Fictional Family Memoir
Dedicated to J. Thomas Shaw with gratitude
for his scholarship and generosity of spirit
More often than not at the beginning of the nineteenth century the genre signal “zapiski” was used as the Russian equivalent of the French term “mémoires,” that is, the personal record of the events and experiences of a life. At one point in The Captain’s Daughter, Grinev remarks pointedly that he is not writing a history of the Pugachev uprising but rather “semeistvennye zapiski,” a family memoir. “Ne stanu opisyvat´ orenburgskuiu osadu, kotoraia prinadlezhit istorii, a ne semeistvennym zapiskam” (490). The present essay has two aims: first to consider the significance of the fact that Pushkin chose to cast The Captain’s Daughter as a family memoir and to write it in the voice of its hero, Petr Grinev, secondly to investigate how Pushkin actually shaped the fictional memoir into a novel. If asked about the genre of Pushkin’s book, most would define it as a historical novel, and also a family novel, and add that as a literary prototype in Russia it paves the way to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. But what difference does it make that Pushkin’s book is written as a family memoir where the narration belongs to Grinev? What conditioned Pushkin’s choice, and how did he then work out his task? This was a new departure for him, since his major previous attempts at historical fiction, The Blackamoor of Peter the Great and Dubrovsky, had both been presented in the third person. The first line of approach to motivate Pushkin’s use of autobiographical zapiski is that the novel gained a sense of documentary realism and a historically authentic voice in Grinev. Yet with Grinev’s memoir, there is an interesting interplay of perspectives between the presumably objective fact of the “found document” and its subjective, personalistic presentation. What is genuine is not so much the story that is told as the person who is telling it. The second approach would be that Pushkin enriched the text by means of what is actually a dual-level structure, in which he created the character Grinev, vesting many important things in his zapiski, but ultimately reserved to the invisible author a more comprehensive novelistic viewpoint about values and events. The author does not speak, but of course is present through the artful arrangement of the plot sequence, the sustained thematic fugue on figures like gifts, or acts of pardon, and so on. The third factor that may lie behind Pushkin’s decision to write the book as Grinev’s family memoir is the possibility of oblique autobiographical self-expression through the “I” of another.
Lucid Sorrow and Political Foresight: Simon Frank on Pushkin, and the Challenges of Ontology for Literature
So abounding in its living variety
is the wondrous spiritual reality that
in this world bore the name of Alexander Pushkin.
—Simon Frank, “Lucid Sorrow”
Poetry and Philosophy: The Preamble
Written less than a year before his death in London, these concluding lines of Simon Frank’s last essay on Pushkin (1949) are also his conclusive testament to the existence of spiritual reality. In blatant disregard of Plato, nearly all big philosophers who believe in such existence sought and found their ideal poets. It is impossible, for example, to imagine Schopenhauer without Hesiod, or Heidegger without Hölderlin. Our time “after theory” inaugurates the renewed, rather affectionate, one might say, tug of war between philosophy and poetry. Terry Eagleton’s declaration in 2003 that the God of poetry was not a structuralist, or a post-structuralist, or a deconstructionalist, or a member of any other institutionalized subspecies begotten by critical theory, fell on fertile soil. Since Mark Edmundson’s strongly issued challenge to philosophy in 1995—denying it the right to offer denotative categorical explanations of poetry—the ontological realization that literature merely is began to gain in strength. In literary studies, the continuing popularity of philosophers of being, such as Nietzsche and Heidegger, invites us to think in earnest about the role of ontology in the study of poetry and literature. Consider Simon Critchley’s book on Wallace Stevens (2005), which celebrates the “mere thereness” of poetic things. In the same year Alain Badiou made an equally powerful ontological claim warning fellow philosophers against dissolving the power of language by means of imposing on poetic thought the function of the “thought of thought” and therefore depriving it of the singular mystery of its being of being, its being unnameable. Finally, Stanley Cavell announced in 2006 that the future of philosophical thought, or philosophy “the day after tomorrow,” would be in its passionate utterance, in its momentary lyricism caught in the life of the ordinary.
"Light Breathing": Osip Mandelstam's "First" Poems, Pushkin, and the Poetics of Influence
After 1837, blood and poetry both rang
differently in the ears.
—Osip Mandel´shtam, The Noise of Time
How (even with all hindsight) can we
know the true ephebe, the potentially strong
poet, from the mass of ocean’s nurslings
around him? By hearing in his first voices
what is most central in the precursors’
voices, rendered with a directness, clarity, even
a sweetness that they do not often
give to us.
—Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading
In her memoir of Mandel´stam, Anna Akhmatova famously and perhaps hyperbolically claimed that
Mandelstam has no teacher. That is something worth thinking about. I don’t know of a similar case in all of world poetry. We know Pushkin’s and Blok’s sources, but who can show us the source of this divine new harmony, which we call the poetry of Osip Mandelstam?
Akhmatova’s emphasis on the importance of establishing a poet’s genealogy closely resembles Mandel´shtam’s own views on literary criticism, as expressed both as a general theoretical assumption and with respect to specific poets. For example, in his essay on Blok, “Barsuch´ia nora,” Mandel´shtam asserted that
Establishing the literary genesis of the poet, his literary sources, his ancestry and origin, brings us at once to solid ground. A critic does not have to answer the question: what did the poet want to say, but he is obliged to answer the question: where did the poet come from…
To be fair to Akhmatova, the problem facing the reader of Mandel´shtam is more complex than his advice to the literary critic might suggest, since his verse is so rich in allusions to and traces of other texts. A considerable amount of excellent scholarship exists on the various possible sources of Mandel´shtam’s “divine harmony”: it is generally accepted, for example, that there are a number of important Russian symbolist influences on Mandel´shtam’s formation as a poet. But there are other important sources too, including non-Russian influences; and the relative importance of certain influences can change at different stages—as Mandel´shtam himself suggested with reference to one of his elective affinities, Chénier, a poet may perhaps have various poetic systems at different stages of his career. Increasingly, though, critics and readers alike have decided that, although it is clear that Mandel´shtam was influenced by many poets and learned from or at least quoted many more, and that the discovery of sources does not in and of itself identify a “teacher” or “teachers,” Pushkin was Mandel´shtam’s “ultimate reference.” The past few years in particular have seen the appearance of a number of valuable specialized studies of Pushkin and Mandel´shtam, and the best subtextual studies have long since noted many allusions to Pushkin in Mandel´shtam’s oeuvre. Moreover, for many of these studies it is not simply a matter of linking Mandel´shtam to Pushkin, as all Russian writers are indeed or can be connected, naturally, with “nashe vse” (“our everything,” the best simple definition of Pushkin), as noted mordantly by Nadezhda Mandel´shtam in her overeagerness to dismiss Akhmatova’s own credentials as a Pushkinian poet (and thereby, presumably, increase Mandel´shtam’s chances of being accepted as such). Instead, one witnesses the almost blasphemous near-equating by Russian readers, critics, and above all writers of the two poets.
Another Look at the Poetics of Exile: Pushkin's Reception of Ovid, 1821-24
In 8 A.D., Publius Ovidius Naso was relegated to the far corner of the Roman Empire to a small city on the Black Sea, where he spent the last ten years of his life. Some 1800 years later, twenty-one-year-old Alexander Pushkin followed him there, again to the fringes of another empire. The two poets had little in common, and because both reconciled themselves to exile in such vastly different ways, any similarities between them seem at first glance coincidental. However, Pushkin’s reading of Ovid’s last collections of elegies—Tristia (12 A.D.) and Epistulae ex Ponto (13 A.D.)—and the legends he heard about Ovid in Moldavia not only find expression in various works spanning 1821–24, but also play an integral role in his larger poetic realization of exile.