"Pushkin: A Biography", By T. J. Binyon, New York, 2003
"...made with all the finest British attention/To the wrong detail"
-- Mark E. Smith
Ever wonder if book reviewers actually read the books they review? Well, I usually do, but not this time. I couldn't finish this book. In fact, I only managed to get to about page 50.
It wasn't for lack of time or effort. I started it three times, weeks apart. And I'll read anything--I read the fine print on candybar wrappers. But I couldn't read this new Pushkin biography. Which is especially odd, because Pushkin's life was on the wildest and fastest on record.
It took me a while to realize that dulling down Pushkin was the whole point of this book. What Binyon wants to do is make the savage and alien figure of Pushkin into the sort of tweedy neighbor he and his core readers feel comfortable reading.
Binyon says that his goal is, "...in all humility, to free the complex and interesting figure of Pushkin the man from the heroic simplicity of Pushkin the myth." Neither Binyon nor his many adoring UK reviewers seem to have reflected that this purpose might be suspect, might start from the desire to shrink "myth" to suburban proportions, and that in the biographies of people like Byron or Pushkin, "the myth" was the whole point. Making him the victim of a donnish dulling-down is a craven mutilation.
Binyon, a lecturer at Oxford, has all the stylistic tics of the don, starting with false modesty. He will turn his shrinking-ray on Pushkin "in all humility." Rather than choose the best translations of Pushkin's poems, Binyon re-translates them and uses only his own translations -- ah, but lest that move seem a bit presumptuous, he adds that "No one could be more conscious of the deficiencies of [my] verse translations than I...." But humble is as humble does, and foisting your own translations of a proverbially untranslatable poet on the reader is anything but humble.
Then there's the wordiness. Binyon's prose reminds me of Horace Walpole's description of Samuel Johnson: "All the gigantic littleness of a country schoolmaster." In dulling down the crazy story of Pushkin's life, Binyon resorts to the formula used by Tory biographers since Johnson's time: drown the "myth" in a flood of meaningless, banal trivia -- above all, endless descriptions of architecture. Here begins the transposition of Pushkin out of his own context and into the Tory world, where buildings matter far more than people. (The fact that this makes sense in a stable, tradition-bound Britain, and none at all in the chaotic, slapdash world of Russia, would never occur to Binyon).
Buildings and dates -- you better get used to that fare, because it's all Binyon will supply. He sets the pattern in his very first paragraph. Here is that paragraph, uncut. See if you can make it to the end without allowing your mind to drift to something, anything else:
"Aleksandr Pushkin was born in Moscow on Thursday 26 May 1799, in a 'half-brick and half-wooden house' on a plot of land situated on the corner of Malaya Pochtovaya Street and Gospitalny lane. This was in the eastern suburb known as the German Settlement, to which foreigners had been banished in 1652. Though distant from the center, it was, up to the fire of 1812, a fashionable area, 'the faubourg Saint-Germain of Moscow.' On June 8 he was baptized in the parish church, the Church of the Epiphany on Elokhovskaya Square. And that autumn he and his parents, Sergey and Nadezhda, took him and his sister Olga -- born in December 1797 -- to visit their grandfather Osip Gannibal, Nadezhda's father, on his estate at Mikhailovskoe, in the Pskov region. Most of the next year was spent in St. Petersburg. The Emperor Paul, coming across Pushkin and his nurse, reprimanded the latter [!] for not removing the baby's cap in the presence of royalty, and proceeded to do so himself. In the autumn they moved back to Moscow, where they were to remain for the duration of Pushkin's childhood."