Robert Chandler. Brief Lives: Alexander Pushkin. London: Hesperus Press, 2009. 152 pp. ISBN 978-1-84391-912-4. Paper.
As we all know and often lament, those who cannot read Russian ordinarily esteem Alexander Pushkin’s works less than they merit, largely because so much of the poet’s ingenuity and lyrical brilliance is lost in translation. Resting on such a conclusion, however, oversimplifies the problem. Even for those who can read Pushkin in Russian, a full appreciation of his genius benefits from knowledge of his life, his role in the development of Russian culture, and his place in the history of European literature. A biography that works in tandem with the translator’s mission of serving as a “post-horse of enlightenment” is thus a welcome supplement to international literature on Pushkin and his legacy. Robert Chandler’s concise biography achieves just that.
Brief Lives: Alexander Pushkin does not include an introduction or preface; it begins promptly with the poet’s birth and childhood. The back cover of the book explains the overarching goals of the Brief Lives series: it “offers short, authoritative biographies of the world’s best-known literary figures. Both informative and entertaining, each title introduces the modern reader to the early life, writing career and literary legacy of the author.” Hesperus Press has also published a number of works written by Pushkin: Chandler’s own translations of Dubrovsky (with “Egyptian Nights”) and The Captain’s Daughter, as well as Roger Clarke’s translation of Ruslan and Lyudmila. Both publisher and author are thus to be commended for their efforts in enabling a better understanding of Pushkin’s life and works for those who must read him in translation.
Remaining true to the introductory goals of the Brief Lives series, Chandler provides a bibliography consisting entirely of secondary literature available in English (he does cite Russian-language sources in his notes). In narrating the major events of Pushkin’s life, he relies heavily on T. J. Binyon’s 2002 biography, particularly for information about contemporary memoirs and correspondence with or about Pushkin. This is a strength rather than a weakness, because Binyon’s biography is a natural next step for readers who become captivated by Pushkin, and Chandler describes the perspectives offered in other prominent critical and biographical works with a similar motive. Chandler also includes important examples of Pushkin’s poetry, gracefully Englished by himself, Stanley Mitchell, and Antony Wood.
Nevertheless, Brief Lives: Alexander Pushkin could have further supported an appreciation of Pushkin’s works through ancillary information as well. Pushkin’s profound impact on the Russian language, for example, especially his innovative blend of diverse stylistic registers, poses an excruciating challenge to even the best translators, and delineating this further might have improved the book somewhat. Chandler attaches a useful epilogue entitled “Pushkin’s Legacy: My Pushkin or Yours?” wherein he summarizes the reactions of subsequent major Russian writers to the poet, although he might have given more emphasis in the earlier portions of the biography to the state of Russian literature before Pushkin’s arrival on the scene.
There are other facets of Pushkin’s writing that a biography can reasonably convey in order to enhance readers’ interactions with translations of his work. One of these is the intricately encoded, multivalent language and imagery that Pushkin employed in many of his greatest works, the result of his being intensely scrutinized by the government for much of his career. Chandler aptly and informatively addresses this aspect of the poet’s biography without encouraging excessively elaborate conspiracy theory interpretations. In comparable fashion, Chandler outlines the most important of Pushkin’s interests in Western European literature, although he does not go quite far enough in elucidating the means by which the poet not only adapted genres, plots, and devices from foreign authors, but also perfected them, thus establishing his own work as a point of departure for future writers. For instance, Chandler compellingly describes Pushkin’s synthesis of archival research and first-hand, oral accounts of events in composing A History of the Pugachev Rebellion, but his readers might also appreciate knowing that in so doing Pushkin was in part responding to and improving upon the historiographical techniques employed by Voltaire in L’Histoire de Charles XII and Histoire de l’Empire de Russie as well as Russian historians such as Nikolai Karamzin and Dmitrii Bantysh-Kamenskii. Similarly neglected opportunities to highlight Pushkin’s amazing ability to adapt the best foreign writers to the Russian tradition include more extensive discussion of The Captain’s Daughter as respectful commentary on Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels, of the complex relationships between Pushkin’s “Oriental” narrative poems and those of Byron, and of his penchant for reworking Shakespearean plot-twists in his prose, narrative poetry, and dramas. Chandler does touch on some of these literary relationships, but a more developed treatment of them would have been valuable.
In summary, I would certainly recommend Chandler’s biography of Pushkin to interested readers who cannot read the poet in the original: the book works quite well as a starting point for those who wish to cultivate a more substantial appreciation of Russia’s greatest poet but are unaware of (or intimidated by) critical literature in English. The shortcomings that I have pointed out in this review should be viewed as minor blemishes at worst. On the whole, Chandler covers nearly all of the most important ground that one expects from a biographer of Pushkin, and he does so with remarkable thoroughness, especially considering the brevity required by the series in question. Brief Lives: Alexander Pushkin should by all means serve as an effective supplement to the translations of Pushkin produced by Hesperus Press as well as other publishers, and thus it admirably does its part in contributing to the poet’s international legacy.