Andrew Kahn, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Pushkin. Introduction by Andrew Kahn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xv + 238. Illustrations. Chronology. Map. Appendix. Index. ISBN-0-521-60471-0. Paper.
This review of Andrew Kahn’s Cambridge Companion to Pushkin could not be more enthusiastic. In this affordable and well-produced volume, Kahn has gathered together top specialists across the English-speaking scholarly world, each an expert in his or her own field, to share their insights about the great Russian author. As an introduction to the poet, this collection presents Pushkin in his full glory by focusing on his every aspect: his life, his writings, and his posthumous fame, reputation, and influence. Each chapter includes brief endnotes, and the book as a whole benefits from the “Guide to Further Reading,” which has both English-language titles—many by the contributors to this volume—and titles in other languages. Beautifully written in fluent, clear, but sophisticated prose, these essays together offer a serious insight into why Pushkin has been so well-loved and valued by students of, and participants in, Russian culture for almost two hundred years.
The essays are grouped in two sections. “Texts and Contexts” features ten articles beginning with David Bethea and Sergei Davydov’s rendition of “Pushkin’s life” and continuing through the genres and fields we associate with the author: lyrical poetry, longer poetry, the novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin, dramatic works, and prose fiction, and then further essays exploring Pushkin within the context of politics, history, letter-writing and networks of correspondence, and the emerging art of literary criticism. The essays are fairly short, on the order of fifteen pages each, and they are carefully organized to illuminate the topics and present several clear examples to illustrate those topics.
The scholarly svetila gathered here include Kahn himself, Marcus Levitt, Caryl Emerson, Michael Wachtel, Irina Reyfman, Oleg Proskurin, Simon Dixon, Mikhail Gronas, and William Mills Todd III. Importantly, they are not just “mailing it in,” though these essays usually represent brief versions of scholarly arguments they have made at length elsewhere. Instead, they take their roles as educators and literary analysts seriously and carefully lay out the main scholarly and historical problems of each topic, explaining traditional and new approaches to texts and genres. The reader comes away newly able to appreciate Pushkin’s own works as well as informed about contemporary and recent debates about his place in literary history.
In the book’s second part, “The Pushkinian Tradition,” four more experts—Boris Gasparov, Robert P. Hughes, Stephanie Sandler, and Evgeny Dobrenko—explore the ways in which Pushkin has fared in new contexts: musical renditions of his lyric poems, plays, and fiction in romances and operas; his reputation in the charged post-revolutionary atmosphere of Russia Abroad; representations of Pushkin and his works in film; and his place, and myth, in Soviet and post-Soviet culture. Again, most of these essays are based on full-length studies of related topics, but despite their brevity, they give the reader serious scholarly arguments to explore while remaining readable. The three illustrations in this section give the visual—if ludicrous—impression of how Pushkin became “Sovietized.” Thankfully, Pushkin survived the Soviet era, and this volume will help solidify the world-wide status that he deserves.
Like other books in this series, The Cambridge Companion to Pushkin could serve a number of audiences. Written accessibly, it will be welcomed by general readers who seek an introduction to the Russian author and who might read the book from cover to cover or indeed dip into it to sample five or six chapters on topics of special interest. The book has certainly already been ordered by instructors of undergraduate courses—surveys of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian literature and culture, or monograph courses on Pushkin—and can also serve admirably for graduate courses. As a basic but high-level “primer” on Pushkin, the collection can be a backbone for initial engagement with the author and as such will be useful for courses on Pushkin and his times, on the Golden Age of Russian literature, and even for specialized courses such as Pushkin in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, or introductory Russian versification. Kahn is to be congratulated on assembling such a wonderful group of scholars and on managing to pitch the book both to the newcomer to Russian verse and to the seasoned scholar. These chapters read as fresh and interesting conversations about Pushkin—conversations with Russian and other scholars, and with traditions of literature and scholarship.
In the final chapter of the book, Dobrenko mentions the perestroika-era joke that “Russia is a country with an unpredictable past.” As we settle into the second decade of the twenty-first century, Russia’s future is equally unpredictable. But there is no doubt that Alexander Pushkin remains central both to Russia’s past and to Russia’s future. Readers of Russian literature and students of Russian culture will use this volume to sort out the rules of Russian life and prosody, which will continue to evoke Pushkin into the third century of his literary reputation.
Ohio State University