HOME       Eng: Х bio Х biblio Х essays Х fiction Х reviews Rus: Х автобио Х книги Х статьи Х мемуары Х рассказы Х пресса Х интервью

PUSHKIN UNDER OUR SKIN

Alexander ZHOLKOVSKY (USC, Los Angeles)

1.

"Pushkin is our everything," goes the ever quotable formulation by a 19th-century Russian critic. In Russian culture, Pushkin is all-important, omnipresent, taken for granted--and often barely noticeable, like the air we breathe. He is a sort of domestic god, always handy for scolding a misbehaver. Therefore, a Russian's first encounter with Pushkin is likely to be as a child: "Who is going to close the door after you--Pushkin?!" It is this proverbial everyday Pushkin that is reified, with the help of A Covetous Knight, as the Soviet State's ultimate argument in coercing recalcitrant citizens to part with their hidden gold in a chapter of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita.

Pushkin wrote in every genre and style, was Russia's paramount poet, publisher, pornographer, rebel, pragmatist, lover, duelist, jokester, victim, Christ figure; he even had the foresight of securing an ethnically correct--African--descent. He effectively transcended literature, passing into "real life" so thoroughly that, in the words of a postmodern poet (Dmitrii Prigov):

Were you to take a close look today,
You would see that Pushkin, the one who is the bard,
Perhaps is rather a god of fertility,
Guardian of herds and father of the people.

In all villages, all nondescript holes,
Everywhere would I install his busts
But as for his verses, I would erase them--
For they do debase his image.

Russians are puzzled to discover that Pushkin is not a household word in the West, in fact, not even the number-one name in the English-speaking intellectual's modest Russian vocabulary. John Bayley has identified two possible reasons for this. One--that the "poetry of grammar" (Roman Jakobson's term and concept, developed with special reference to Pushkin's tropeless lyrics) is especially losable in translation. The other--that Pushkin's Russian greatness consisted to an extent in a successful appropriation--rendering in perfect Russian idiom--of European literary legacy and thus could be of little resale value on the Western market.

There may be a third reason. An important aspect of Pushkin's imperceptible ubiquity is his tacit presence in the work of practically all subsequent Russian writers. Undeclared, in fact, often quite unwittingly used by the authors and most of the time unnoticed--swallowed as "naturally self-evident"--by the readers, Pushkin's images and verbal patterns underlie an uncounted number of later texts, including renowned classics. This implicit pervasiveness of Pushkin in Russian literary discourse both testifies to his indisputable relevance and defies translation even more radically than do his verbal prowess and creative derivativeness.

2.

One of Boris Pasternak's early lyrics begins: "A riddle's mysterious nail has passed here..." (1918). It involves the image of sphinx the riddle-poser, which through other lyrics of the same cycle is associated with Pushkin as a descendant of Hamites and distant relative of ancient Greeks and Egyptians. Thus, the "riddle's nail," nogot' is both that of the lyrical persona marking an enigmatic passage in the margins of a text and that of the somewhat Pushkinized sphinx. A further intertextual link, this time to Velimir Khlebnikov, makes it also the "claw," kogot', of a lion, engaging the classical ex ungue leonem topos.

Literary riddles, indeed, abound in the text. But it all falls into place once we realize that, above all, the nail is Pushkin's own--of Pushkin the historical figure, known for growing an ostentatiously long nail on the little finger of his left hand, and of Pushkin the author of Eugene Onegin, whose title hero's nail-markings are used as a guide to his mysterious character by the heroine, Tatiana, visiting his library. Incidentally, the role reversal--in Pushkin, a woman reads an absent man through his books, in Pasternak, the male speaker reads a book and dreams of embracing his absent beloved--is in accord with the ambiguous gender self-image of Pasternak's lyrical persona in the poem. Pushkin's coy self-identification with Tatiana may well come into play here, if only as a shadow of a marginal trace.

In the finale of another Pasternak poem of the same year, "A Trembling Piano...," the speaker acquiesces in his beloved's leaving him: "I am not keeping you. Go, do good. Get yourself to others". He mentions the possibility of suicide and invokes the appropriate literary figure: "Werther has been written already."

Much of this is quite translatable. What is not, is the unspoken dependence on the prototypical Pushkin lyric about an ambivalent acceptance of rejection: "I Loved You Once..." Pasternak's poem displays the same grudging concession to "others," is written in the same meter, and even features similar grammatical forms and sound patterns.

An additional wink at Pushkin is the exclamation: "In front of music?!...," with which the speaker restrains his beloved's momentary urge, rekindled by his piano playing, to fall into his arms. Both semantically and verbally, this echoes the words in Scene II of Pushkin's The Stone Guest, of Don Guan's old flame, Laura, who stops his attempt to kiss her right after killing a rival: "Wait.. in front of a dead man!.."

Together, the two Pushkinian gestures form an unmistakable, if somewhat Cheshire cat-like, compositional pattern, underpinning the drama of renewed attraction and reluctant separation. Once discerned, they become--for Russians--obvious, indispensable.

3.

Anna Akhmatova cultivated the Pushkin tradition quite openly, but her 1915 poem "In Human Intimacy There Is a Sacred Boundary..." seems to carry no explicit Pushkinisms,--unless we detect a borrowing in the very opening line. The image of an "uncrossable/unattainable boundary" appears in a Pushkin lyric addressed to the memory of a recently deceased former beloved ("Under the Blue Sky of Her Native Land..."). Yet, one would be hard pressed to defend Pushkin's undivided claim on this word-motif, were it not for his second and more startling, albeit subliminal, appearance in the poem.

The boundary motif has as its age-old stylistic icon various run-on effects, which dramatize the conflict between syntactic and verse boundaries. Accordingly, Akhmatova's poem is a consummate exercise in run-ons: the first stanza has none, the second features two, prominent but not extreme, and the third, which treats of reaching, in maddening desperation, the fatal boundary, boasts a series of spectacular enjambements, inversions, and pauses. The two concluding lines:

Teper' ty ponial, otchego moe
Ne b'etsia serdtse pod tvoei rukoiu.

(Now you have understood why my
Heart is not beating under your hand.)

are quite remarkable in this respect. In a most unlikely way, the verse boundary interrupts the (already awkwardly inverted) word sequence after "why my" and before both the main verb ("is not beating") and the subject ("heart").

The dangling--certainly by Akhmatova's neoclassicist standards--phrase "why my" finds, however, a naturalizing support of sorts in a hidden quotation from Pushkin. A similar, if less bold, dangling pattern crowns his famous poem about separation, loneliness, and love, "Upon the Hills of Georgia...":

I serdtse vnov' gorit i liubit--ottogo,
Chto ne liubit' ono ne mozhet.

(And [my] heart again burns and loves--for the reason
That not to love it cannot.)

The similarity is highlighted by the affinities in semantics (ambivalent love), lexicon (serdtse, "heart," otchego/ ottogo, "why/because," ne "not"), syntax (a concluding two-liner), phonetics, and meter. As usual, Pushkin is unobtrusively there, lending a helping hand.

4.

Osip Mandelstam's poem "Do Not Compare:..." was written in 1937, during his forced exile in Voronezh. Under the circumstances and in the spirit of his definition of Acmeism as a "yearning for world culture," Mandelstam has the poem oscillating between a desire to fly to the "pan-human hills of Tuscany" and a resignation to stay amidst the "still young Voronezh hills." This reconciliation of opposites--surprising, in a sense, given Mandelstam's anti-Soviet reputation--is achieved by a plethora of poetic devices but ultimately hinges on a covert Pushkin subtext.

The theme of escape deploys the motifs of an individual's uniqueness, sky, air, travel, yearning for the distant Tuscany. The opposite "no way-out" atmosphere is conveyed by the images of illness and circumscribed sky; the inescapable "equality/ plainness" of the plains and the speaker's "voluntary-coerced," to use a Soviet coinage, consent to this condition (Ia soglashalsia s ravenstvom ravnin...); and the irreal modality of the predicates: the persona is waiting, intending, his travels are non-starters (nenachinaiushchikhsia). Structurally, the sense of impasse is echoed by the circular repetitiousness of the poem's pun-like wording, e. g: ne sravnivai--nesravnim--ravenstvom--ravnin, "do not compare--incomparable--equality--plains."

Both contrasting themes are combined in world-class exilic motifs: Tuscany connotes Dante (especially for Mandelstam the author of the long essay "Conversation about Dante"), while the sky and air beget the figure of the "air-servant," i. e. Prospero's Ariel. The implicit invocation of Prospero, the treacherously dethroned and exiled Duke of Milan, who at the end of The Tempest is poised to regain his freedom and duchy, puts a positive spin on the prospects of the exiled Mandelstam persona. The play's Italian connections also reinforce the Mediterranean dimension of the persona's yearning.

The entire cluster reaches a paradoxical culmination in the third and last stanza:

Gde bol'she neba mne - tam ia brodit' gotov,
I iasnaia toska menia ne otpuskaet
Ot molodykh eshche voronezhskikh kholmov
K vsechelovecheskim, iasneiushchim v Toskane.


(Where there is more sky for me--there I am ready to stroll,
And a clear anguish/yearning does not let me [go]
From the still young Voronezh hills
To the pan-human ones, clear[ing] in Tuscany.)

The skyline broadens (as does the meter) and opens up to include, at least figuratively, the hills of Tuscany. This move, however, is once again hampered by a circumscribing lexical wordplay: toska...ne otpuskaet ("the anguish/yearning does not let [me] go") is an almost exact replica of v Toskane ("in Tuscany") and thus provides an iconic proof, as it were, of the finality of the "non-granting of the leave."

The "forbidding toska" is a virtual oxymoron. Indeed, toska can mean both a static and self-centered "ennui, melancholy, depression, anguish," and a more dynamic and outbound "yearning for something." The second meaning will be spelled out in the last two lines ("yearning... from... to..."), but at first, toska is used in the sense of "depression": it appears as an absolute noun (without the directional "for") and is explicitly barred from evolving into motion by the negation of the verb ("does not let me...").

This negated verb is yet another oxymoron, bringing out the one inherent in toska. If read strictly within the bounds of line 2, ne otpuskaet can also mean "does not let go, relent, let up," as in bol' ne otpuskaet, "the pain won't let up." This covert pun is reinforced by its harking back to the motif of "illness, pain" in the first stanza.

But the final and decisive stabilization of the balancing act between "escapist yearning for Italy" and "depressed staying put in Voronezh" comes from Pushkin. The mysteriously self-evident iasnaia toska, "clear anguish/yearning," is (as I have recently realized, after four decades of agonizing introspection) a periphrase of the famous oxymoron Pechal' moia svetla, "My sadness is [full of] light," from "Upon the Hills of Georgia..." and of other expressions of acquiescence, if not indulgence, in suffering that pervade that lyric. Once the connection has been established, the "hills" too turn out to be on loan from Pushkin.

To Shakespeare and Dante Mandelstam refers if not directly, then at least through the conspicuous intermediary of proper names. As for Pushkin and some other Russians, they are tapped in a consistently anonymous way. Countering the undisguised pull of the European figures, the tacit reference to the "Hills of Georgia" validates the lyrical persona's unavowed resignation to stay. Thus, the Pushkin subtext quietly confers the great classic's authority on Mandelstam's ambivalent reconciliation with the status quo, in fact, it even promotes the Voronezh hills to a more glamorous--Romantic, Southern, Georgian, almost Mediterranean--status.

One almost gets the impression that it is a deeply internalized Pushkin who prevents Mandelstam from leaving. And the more subliminal and thus impersonal Pushkin's presence, the better: the blending of Mandelstam's political submission with Pushkin's lovesick resignation and of the Russian imperial/literary landscape with the dreamt-of Mediterranean one is thus ever more effectively hidden in plain view. As a result, Mandelstam's painful choice of Voronezh over Tuscany, secretly justified by his love of Pushkin, sounds like some kind of inescapable oneness with Russia in general.

5.

For every latent recourse to Pushkin there are scores of explicit ones. Often an overt reference veils, by its very obviousness, an archly subtle second allusion.

In Mikhail Zoshchenko's short story "Personal Life" (1933), the narrator-hero, alarmed by the fact that women have stopped noticing him, goes to all possible lengths to regain their attention. He upgrades his diet, works out, and, trying to dress smartly, buys second-hand a fancy coat. Finally, one day, "a well-dressed lady with still some traces of faded beauty" gives him a "steady look" that he is happy to take for "a woman's long-forgotten approving smile." The encounter takes place in front of the Pushkin monument, Moscow's preferred dating site, and the protagonist circles the monument triumphantly three times and even winks at Pushkin, "as if to say, aha, see, it's working, Aleksandr Sergeevich."

It turns out, however, that what attracted the lady's attention was the hero's coat, one that had been recently stolen from her husband. They go to the police station, and in the course of the deposition the hero has to state his age. "And suddenly, on account of this almost three-digit number, I begin to tremble. '- Ah...,' I say to myself, 'I've simply grown old...'"

The situation with a seasoned womanizer who courts a flirting/resisting married woman, is punished by supreme powers for encroaching on the husband's rights, and ends up virtually dead sounds familiar; the statue towering over all this clinches the resemblance. The shock of recognition is compounded by the original twist added by Zoshchenko's casting of none other than Pushkin as the Commendatore of this Stone Guest-like denouement, complete with the first boastful nod of the Don-Juan-like protagonist and his eventual demise.

The invocation of the Don Giovanni/Commendatore topos is all the more likely as it is not an isolated instance in Zoshchenko. Nor is his play with Pushkin and even his statue itself. Moreover, the story in question is laced with allusions to other literary figures, such as Gogol ("The Overcoat") and Sigmund Freud (Zoshchenko's favorite author at the time), referred to as a "bourgeois economist, or maybe a chemist" big on the role of women in a man's life. These rather transparent allusions, along with the prominently featured monument, obscure the ingeniously playful take on the plot that in Russia is firmly associated with its Pushkin treatment.

Remarkably, the entire Pushkin subplot is omitted from the English translation of "Personal life." What forms the deep substratum of the story's climax, accessible, at least subliminally, to the Russian reader, becomes redundant once outside such congenial purview.

6.

The subtexts' covertness and at the same time perceptibility--intuitive and unconscious with most readers, fully deliberate in the case of literary critics--are crucial aspects of the artistic text. They constitute the integral parts of that flash of recognition, which, in reader and critic alike, is a paler replica of the artist's inspired leap from a subject at hand to a venerable, popular, natural, yet only vaguely identifiable item of cultural heritage.

To buttress the parallel between readers/critics and writers and conclude my argument about Pushkin, here is a true story. In 1985, I was traveling in Spain, driving with a friend from Toledo to San-Sebastian on the way to France. It was late September, some clouds appeared on the horizon, and she started fretting about the possibility of foul weather. I said that there was nothing to worry about so far--it was quite nice and warm where we were, certainly compared with the cold and rain that could await us up north in Paris.

I drove on for about half an hour and then suddenly realized that I had unwittingly reproduced almost verbatim Laura's lines from The Stone Guest about enjoying the fabulous Madrid night, while

Faraway, in the north--in Paris--
Perhaps the sky is overcast with clouds,
There is a cold rain and the wind is blowing.--
But what do we care?...

The lines are famous, not least because of Pushkin's tour-de-force of looking down on the Paris climate from a still more inclement Petersburg by assuming a Spanish point-of-view; they have been written about repeatedly by Pushkinists, including myself. There was no way of claiming unfamiliarity with the subtext, and yet I could swear I had no intention of quoting.

I felt like that mental patient in a joke who says he is writing a letter to himself, but doesn't know what's in it because he hasn't received it yet. Once I received mine, I made a point of stopping and mailing a postcard about it to a colleague in Russia, all the way across the then iron curtain. Theoretically, this could have happened over any major classic. But for the recognition to be really piercing, it just had to do with Pushkin--the most subcutaneous of Russian presences.