Alexander Pushkin: Anniversary and Language

The role of Alexander Pushkin in the development of the Russian language is similar to that of Dante: both men introduced vernacular to literature. The report from Russia Today gives a very quick idea of Pushkin’s life and legacy.

I wrote about Pushkin before; and on the day when literary world and its Russian-speaking part are celebrating the 210th anniversary of his birth I cannot avoid making a contribution.

My discovery of Pushkin occurred, as with many a Russian, in childhood. I read “Eugene Onegin” when I was 8. It was my grandma who prompted me. We were watching a TV programme where the high-school students had to answer a question somehow related to Tatiana’s letter. They didn’t know the asnwer; my grandmother did. Although it didn’t matter much, I was amazed and proud, but she was very modest about this: “My dear girl“, she said, “this is “Eugene Onegin” by Pushkin, every educated person must know it“.

Despite my age, I took this phrase to heart. For the next couple of years “Onegin” was my table book. Suffices to say, I made my own life as a student easier by learning all the key parts long before it was mandatory, according to the curriculum. I was fascinated by language and flow of the verses (each stanza is composed in the form of a sonnet or fourteenliner), and learning those parts by heart was unintentional: it was a direct consequence of falling in love with the novel. When years later I wrote Poem With No End, I could certainly refer to reading “Onegin” as one of examples of this loving reading.

As I went on to discover other poets – first, Romanticists like Byron and Lermontov, then Symbolists (Blok, Rimbaud), Futurists (Mayakovski, Severyanin), Surrealists (Eluard, Prevert) – Pushkin’s glow became less radiant. I couldn’t help agreeing with Mayakovski who co-wrote the Russian Futurist Manifesto that, in order for literature to progress, it was necessary to abandon the classical authority figures. I was beginning to realise that Pushkin wasn’t enough for me, for all the vastness of his work, the importance of his legacy, and the unquestionable influence on the development of my native language. The final stroke was made by a critical essay on literary methods published by one Russian critic in the first half of the 20th c.; the essay was kindly lent to me by an Economics lecturer at school. Looking at several writers and analysing their methods, the critic concluded that there were two main methods: observation (narration) and experiment. Of the Russian writers then available for his critical analysis, Pushkin was an observer, while Gogol was an experimentator. Further, observational works tended to age whereas experimental works were, by the very nature of their method, “geared” towards the future. Not only did this explain to me why, for all my love for Pushkin’s work, I had always found Gogol more captivating; but it also pointed the direction for me as a writer.

Since then – 1996/1997 – I didn’t return to Pushkin much. But as my reading and thinking experience has broadened, I also began to think of things we were barely talked to at school or elsewhere. “Onegin” may be a great example here. The fascination for this work is rooted deeply in Russian conscience for a good reason: comparatively speaking, I cannot imagine an Italian who doesn’t rever Divine Comedy. Yet exactly what fascinates us? We tend to follow the critic Belinsky’s description of “Onegin” as “the encyclopaedia of Russian life“, and it is impossible to disagree with this view. However, now and again I find that we’re more captivated by the mundane side of this life, rather than intellectual. For all the adaptation’s shortcomings, Ralph Fiennes perfectly captured this romantic view of Russian life that many a reader of “Onegin” lovingly treasures: balls and parties, popular rites, romantic letters… but what about these two stanzas from the first chapter of the novel?

Latin is just now not in vogue, /
But if the truth I must relate, /
Oneguine knew enough, the rogue /
A mild quotation to translate, /
A little Juvenal to spout, /
With “vale” finish off a note; /
Two verses he could recollect /
Of the Aeneid, but incorrect. /
In history he took no pleasure, /
The dustry chronicles of earth /
For him were but of little worth, /
Yet still of anecdotes a treasure /
Within his memory there lay, /
From Romulus unto our day. /

For empty sound the rascal swore he /
Existence would not make a curse, /
Knew not an iamb from a choree, /
Although we read him heaps of verse. /
Homer, Theocritus, he jeered, /
But Adam Smith to read appeared, /
And at economy was great; /
That is, he could elucidate /
How empires store of wealth unfold, /
How flourish, why and wherefore less /
If the raw product they possess /
The medium is required of gold. /
The father scarcely understands /
His son and mortgages his lands.

If “Onegin” is the encyclopaedia of Russian life, then we can state, without much ado, that these two stanzas indicate to us the Russian reading circle. And even though what were Homer and Theocritus at the time of Pushkin are now perhaps Dr Johnson and Sartre, the question is yet about our reading circle and habits. How wide is it? Or is it all but focused on contemporary literature?

Similarly, Pushkin tells us about Tatiana:

Romances pleased her from the first, /
Her all in all did constitute; /
In love adventures she was versed, /
Rousseau and Richardson to boot.

What interests me is how this may affect the reading of Tatiana-Onegin love story. To what extent would it be infused by Tatiana’s reading experience? Rather than painting Onegin as a selfish heartthrob who rejected the young woman, perhaps we could find his behaviour mature and “responsible”, so to say? And could Tatiana’s later rejection of him despite the mutual affection be an extension of a vision of a forlorn forbidden love that had itself embedded in her imagination?

What makes Pushkin important for me today is exactly his place in Russian literary discourse. I am interested in how we read and understand his work – and you may cue in The Death of the Author, if you like. But one point that concerns me a lot is the state of Russian language. On the one hand, thanks to the absense of the Iron Wall and the Internet, a huge influx of neologisms is obvious. This is not bad at all, if we consider how many neologisms entered the Russian language in Pushkin’s time and later, thanks to his efforts. On the other hand, there are writers who emulate the style of Pushkin and his contemporaries, as well as of poets and writers of the Russian Silver Age. So, we have a paradoxical situation of two conflicting tendencies co-existing, whereby we have new words and possibly structures entering the language while also clinging to, and replicating, the styles and structures of the bygone times. The question that remains, however, is: what is happening to the Russian language? Is it developing? Or is it caught in between the above two tendencies?

You can read the translation of “Onegin” by Henry Spalding


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s