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Douglas Fetherling - Duelling Poet
by Douglas Fetherling

This year is the 200th Anniversary of the birth of the famous poet, Alexander Pushkin, whose works most ordinary Russians, including children and factory workers, can quote from memory in a way that isn't true of any English writer, Shakespeare included. To mark the occasion, a number of new biographies are appearing, among them three in our own language. The first one to hit the bookstores, Pushkin, by Elaine Feinstein (McArthur & Company, 309 pages, $45 cloth), is an excellent mixture of the biographical and the critical, a particularly difficult balance to achieve, especially when dealing with a figure so remote from our own time and culture.

Feinstein's Pushkin comes through most vividly as the type of person we've all met at one time or another: the bohemian of enormous talent who behaves disgracefully yet wishes to be treated with exaggerated respect. Reading this book, I was reminded of how Tom Hulse portrayed Mozart in the film, Amadeus, as an undeniable genius with abysmal social skills-a combination of facts that always seemed to rankle with his contemporaries. In Pushkin's case, his attitudes may have had something to do with the social disadvantages he felt as a person of mixed race: he was a direct descendant of an African slave who had been adopted by Peter the Great. In any case, while Pushkin behaved outrageously, Feinstein writes, he "was quick to take offence if anyone criticised his behaviour". The result: he was a frequent participant in duels.

Personally, I've long believed that duelling should be reinstated as a way to clear the backlog in the courts, heighten courtesy, and keep the legal profession in check. After all, one reason duelling was finally forbidden in most jurisdictions during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was that the antagonists had begun hiring professional marksmen as proxies. The contestant who could afford the most expensive pistoleer usually won, just as in our justice system today. But the story of Pushkin is actually a strong counter-argument, for he was an immature, unstable character who put other people's lives needlessly at risk.

His heckling and bad manners in a theatre led to a duel with a major in a guards regiment. "There is also a charming account of a duel with [an old schoolfellow] who called him out after Pushkin had written an unkind epigram about him." The offended party "shot first and missed, and Pushkin dropped his weapon and rushed to embrace his friend," who insisted instead that Pushkin take his shot; "but Pushkin claimed that snow had got into his weapon." Once, after losing at cards to a member of the army general staff named Zubov, "he implied that the officer had cheated. This led to a duel, and legend has it that Pushkin brought cherries to the field outside the city where the duel was to take place. He ate these while his opponent took aim. Zubov shot and missed." Another duel was fought in a blizzard. Yet another took place while an orchestra, engaged for the occasion, played soothing music at the edge of the carefully paced-off ground.

"The same need for drama which led Pushkin into foolish duels," Feinstein writes, "was more nobly excited by the first stirrings of the Greek War of Independence" against the occupying Turks in 1820. But Pushkin was no Lord Byron, whose books, in French translation, were immensely popular in literary Russia. (Pushkin learned English in order to read them in the original.) Pushkin did not act on his liberal convictions and soon grew weary and dismissive of the cause of democracy. Closer to home, matters were different.

Pushkin was friendly with many of the Russian officers who took part in the Decembrist Uprising of 1826, an attempted mutiny that failed because mutineers are not, as a rule, good committee-people by nature. Tsar Nicholas I, on his first day on the throne, dispersed the plotters. Pushkin was sobered by his proximity to danger. From that point on, his notebooks are full of sketches of five officers he saw hanged. (They had first been sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, but the tsar, in a merciful mood, reduced the sentence to simple hanging-though the executioner botched the job and three of the poor devils had to be hanged twice.) Pushkin also had close friends among the nearly 300 aristocrats and officers sent to Siberia to a hard labour camp so remote that to get there from St. Petersburg required a year's march. He also knew some of those who received the lighest punishments and were merely crippled or maimed.

Yet, Pushkin himself was never part of the coup plans because, in Feinstein's words, he was considered "too volatile in temperament for secrets to be confided in him. Pushkin's friends felt they could not rely on him. They did not doubt his courage, but his discretion." All the same, he lived in fear of arrest because he had been, again in the author's phrasing, "an inspiration to liberal thought." In the end, however, all that happened was that the tsar subjected Pushkin's writing to strict censorship. Thus we find Nicholas telling the author of the magnificent poem, Yevgeny Onegin, that his poetic drama, Boris Gudunov, should be more like the novels of Sir Walter Scott.

Pushkin's end seems to be an echo of the plot of Yevgeny Onegin (whose hero moves to the country, falls in love with a friend's daugher, whose elder sister falls in love with him, which leads to a duel in which Onegin's opponent, a poet friend, is killed). In his last years, Pushkin settled down, relatively speaking, and married a beautiful seventeen-year-old named Natalya Goncharova. She began flirting with a dashing Frenchman. This led, inevitably, to a duel, but one that Pushkin lost, mortally. He was thirty-seven.


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