Irreverence and praise for the scandalous soul of Russia's sacred Pushkin

June 05, 1994|By Stephen Margulies

Scandal! Russian literature -- despite its long-winded heroism through sordid centuries of tyranny -- is as much known for scandal as for idealism. Gogol scandalized his progressive admirers when he published "correspondence" seemingly supporting the czar. Osip Mandelstam scandalized Soviet writers when he slapped a well-established official Soviet novelist. The revolutionary poet Mayakovsky was a shouting, strutting, garish scandal in and of himself.

For Russians, Alexander Pushkin is not only the Shakespeare of Russia, he is also a combination of Jefferson and St. Francis. His monuments and medals are everywhere, and both Marxists and czarists have bowed down before his image.

His influence on poetry and prose has been unremittingly beneficial, as if the whole future of Russian literature were constantly being formed in Pushkin. Without Pushkin, there would have been no Dostoevski, Chekhov, Akhmatova or Nabokov. But Pushkin's rather jokeless worshipers forget that his own life was scandalous and even humiliating, amid all the music of his genius.

Resembling his near-contemporary Mozart in more ways than one, Pushkin himself admitted that the exhilarating perfection of his art was the product of an "utterly vulgar" heart. It would be fairer to say that Pushkin, though an aristocrat, was earthy, a sadly lucid exuberant human who could let the long tricky breezes of this planet sweep him anywhere through the realms of reality and fantasy.

He was killed in a duel over his wife's honor in 1837, before the age of 40. Before this "romantic" climax, his life was considered by many to be either foolish or scandalous. Political and sexual escapades more than once got him exiled. The czar personally censored the popular poet. After his death, Pushkin became, for most Russians, a hero of liberty and justice, an ardent singer praising the Russian land and its many peoples. As long as they had Pushkin -- who outdid the West in both elegance and energy -- Russians could claim that Russia, after all, was not backward.

Yes, Pushkin is perfect, endlessly effervescent yet as truthful as gleaming mud. All possibilities are contained in him, both for realism and for visionary experiment. But Russians have too often forgotten that part of Pushkin's greatness comes from his naughtiness, perhaps even from his squat oddity, his blessed marginality. Soviet statues of Pushkin pose him like Lenin. He did not look like Lenin.

Vladimir Nabokov did not forget any of this in his translation and commentary on Pushkin's verse novel "Eugene Onegin." Nabokov produced an inspiring scandal of unchained scholarship. Less well known is that Nabokov used Pushkin in what must be one of the great novelist's few moments of political activism.

In 1942, Nabokov lectured on Pushkin in Atlanta at Spelman College, a black college for women. Charmed with the college's president and the student body, Nabokov delighted in emphasizing Pushkin's Ethiopian ancestry: "Pushkin provides a most striking example of mankind at its very best when human races are able to freely mix."

The Pushkin ironies and scandals continue. Pushkin is really too alive even for his admirers. The most recent Pushkin scandal involves "Strolls With Pushkin," a sinfully enjoyable essay by the Russian-born novelist and critic Andrei Sinyavsky, who now lives in exile in Paris.

"Strolls With Pushkin" is a piece of literary criticism -- or, at least,meditation -- though it is signed with Mr. Sinyavsky's carefully outrageous pseudonym "Abram Tertz," the name of a legendary Jewish bandit. In the late 1960s and early '70s, Mr. Sinyavsky was imprisoned in a Soviet labor camp for publishing books abroad without permission, using this pseudonym.

"Strolls With Pushkin," astonishingly, was sent to Mr. Sinyavsky's wife in the form of letters from the prison camp. Apparently, high literary meditation is what soothes Russian writers in jail. Far from using brutality as an excuse to be brutal oneself, Mr. Sinyavsky, in another volume of prison letters titled "A Voice From the Chorus," contends that "when all is said and done, a camp gives the feeling of maximum freedom."

Since the publication in Russia recently of the insufficiently reverent "Strolls With Pushkin," Mr. Sinyavsky has been attacked for nihilistic frivolity and heartless aestheticism. Alexander Solzhenitsyn attacked him for daring to "shake Pushkin's altar," for having the criminal audacity to treat Pushkin like a mere human.

Yet Mr. Sinyavsky, though he adores art and celebrates the triumph of artistic freedom in Pushkin, is neither frivolous nor an "aesthetic nihilist." It is prison, it is near lethal humiliation, that has taught him the redemptively elusive nature of art. Art is where we meet what is not us! And what is not us will save us: "In a fairy tale about beauty and love there is the phrase: 'He was not himself any more.' We long to be not ourselves. This is what matters most."

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