It has long been recognized that Pushkin’s brilliance lay not in creation ex nihilo, but in his ability to borrow, adapt, disfigure, and creatively recombine the wealth of material that he encountered (whether literary, subliterary, historical, factual, or simply gossip). Pushkin studies have generally focused on a single aspect of this process. Attempts have been made to understand his work through his life, through the history of his age, through his language, through his politics, through his philosophy. Ambitiously, Gasparov seeks to show how every one of these spheres intersected and contributed to the whole. He studies the genius of synthesis through a synthetic approach.
Literature creates a challenge unique among the arts, for the transport of a great work from one culture to another requires the mediation of a translator. One need not know Italian to love Michelangelo and need not know German to love Beethoven. Literature, however, poses a special problem, and an even greater problem when dealing with poetry. Any English-speaking lover of Russian poetry has encountered the difficulty of explaining the magnificence of Pushkin—how does one explain or paraphrase “The Prophet” or “The Bronze Horseman”? Or, how does one convey the power, drama, and poignancy of the little tragedies? This latter question lies at the center of Nancy K. Anderson’s The Little Tragedies, a new translation of works recognized, as she justifiably notes, “as among the greatest works of Russia’s greatest writer”(9). Anderson’s mission, and labor of love, produces a comprehensive work, and this single volume includes translations of all four little tragedies and a wealth of supporting materials: an introduction, a translator’s preface, four critical essays (one for each work), further commentary, notes, and bibliography.
Paul Debreczeny. Social Functions of Literature: Alexander Pushkin and Russian Culture. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997. 282 pages. Tables. Illustrations. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. ISBN 0804726620. Hardback.
The first time I went to Russia, many years ago when I was an undergraduate, I remember being amazed at the sight of little children walking the cold, snowy February streets carrying cut flowers—and being even more amazed at the news that these children were headed to the local Pushkin monument to commemorate the great poet’s death.
In his study Social Functions of Literature, Paul Debreczeny does a number of things, and does them well. Among his desires is to calibrate the true meaning of Pushkin for those Soviet schoolchildren, for their parents and grandparents, and for their ancestors under the tsarist regime. This impressive work becomes, in its way, a summing up of a lifetime of studying Pushkin, literature, and society, and not merely Russian society. Debreczeny brings to bear in this volume methodologies and approaches gleaned from Russian and American scholarship in myriad arenas—psychology, semiotics, social history and anthropology, among others, in addition to traditional literary analysis. His readings of Pushkin’s poetry are a welcome and perceptive supplement to the main content of the work—a reading of Russian society and of the relationship between society and its literary tastes. Debreczeny’s book is a tour de force of Pushkinistika, humanistic scholarship, and the study of the interaction of Culture and culture.
Angela Brintlinger’s Writing a Usable Past: Russian Literary Culture 1917–1937 is an enjoyable, in places even entertaining, book. No time was spared researching and producing it. The book discusses authors who are seeking answers to the present even as they are engaged in the production of texts on Pushkin in preparation for the one hundredth anniversary of the poet’s death. As Soviets and emitters alike wish to appropriate Pushkin for their own purposes, Brintlinger’s book is an attempt to show that Tynianov, Khodasevich, and Bulgakov typify the Russian literary culture of the time. While all these writers in one way or another failed to produce a successful literary account of Pushkin, they did succeed in writing poignantly about other writers. Thus we have chapters devoted to works by Tynianov on Kiukhelbeker, Griboedov, and Pushkin, by Khodasevich on Derzhavin and Pushkin and by Bulgakov on Molière and Pushkin.