Binyon's 'Pushkin': a sparkling, sketchy portrait

November 09, 2003|By Monika Greenleaf | Monika Greenleaf,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Pushkin: A Biography by T.J. Binyon. Knopf. 732 pages. $35.

T.J. Binyon's Pushkin, winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for biography in England, has arrived in America. In this handsome volume of more than 700 pages, the reader is greeted by a typical page from one of the celebrated Russian poet's working notebooks.

Caricatured male profiles, stylized female profiles with upswept hairdos, figures in expressive motion, fetishistic legs and feet, historical personages, friends, lovers, enemies and the occasional sword or pistol bloom crazily along the margins and between lines of poetry.

If it were possible to photograph an imagination at work and creatively idling, this would be it. Clearly, this 19th-century writer lived in a social world that was very much with him when he sat down to write; he thought in visual images and perhaps used these to trigger verbal inspiration; and his poetry's effortless, inventive, mot-juste quality was achieved by drafting and revision, solitary daydreaming and hard work.

In Binyon's book, the first two elements, the social and the visual (one might almost say the filmable), far outweigh the evolving life of the writer's mind. As Binyon writes in his brief prologue: "The aim of this biography, however, is, in all humility, to free the complex and interesting figure of Pushkin the man from the heroic simplicity of Pushkin the myth. It concerns itself above all with the events of his life."

Somehow Pushkin the writer got lost along the way. Binyon excels in his thumbnail sketches of Pushkin's contemporaries and milieu, which have the sparkling specificity and vividness of the poet's drawings and epigrams. Like Tolstoy's characters, Pushkin's come surrounded by family histories of marriages, patronage, gambling, drinking, dueling and salty jokes that turn the Russian aristocracy into one giant extended family.

The success of Binyon's book tempts me to offer a hypothesis. An alliance is emerging among old-fashioned (even heroic) English empiricism, Soviet positivism and current anti-theoretical (even anti-literary) trends. "I hate a writer who's all writer," said Byron, and it seems that readers and writers of biographies about writers share this sentiment. Binyon's insights into Pushkin the man do not differ much from those of Ernest Simmons, whose very good 1937 biography was equally indebted to Mstislav Tsyavlovsky and Boris Tomashevsky's then-groundbreaking scholarship.

But the world in which Binyon's Pushkin moves sparkles with concrete historical detail and vividly realized personalities, testimony not only to Binyon's much more assiduous culling of Soviet sources and contemporary documents but also to his admirable memory and ability to swirl detail into a lively, novelistic tapestry.

A delightful touch is the scattering of Pushkin's sketches of the dramatis personae throughout the book. And in a paradox of the globalized literary market, I have no doubt that Binyon's book will be translated into Russian, for the racy story gathered here does not exist there and will enthrall everyone who has been subjected to the pious classic version still taught in schools. Yet this time, as in his own incessantly watched lifetime, "the real Pushkin" got away.

Monika Greenleaf teaches Slavic and comparative literature at Stanford University and is the author of Pushkin and Romantic Fashion and of a forthcoming book about Catherine the Great. This review, in longer form, appeared in the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing company.

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