This post is a part of the inaugural week of the Russian Library, a new series that seeks to demonstrate the breadth, variety, and global importance of the Russian literary tradition to English-language readership through new and revised translations of premodern, modern, and contemporary Russian literature.
Enter the Russian Library Book Giveaway here
Anglophone readers, and perhaps Americans in particular, have a hard time understanding the centrality of Pushkin to Russian culture. The most tempting comparison is to Shakespeare: after all, Pushkin and Shakespeare are the generally acknowledged “great writers” of their respective languages; both wrote not only lyric poetry but also longer, more complex works; both popularized plots that continue to energize the writing of others; both are taught in schoolrooms and authored phrases that have entered everyday speech. And, Pushkin really liked Shakespeare, a fact that seems to give an added imprimatur to the comparison. But to me, at least, Shakespeare has never felt as immediate as Pushkin. He’s much further removed temporally, of course, having been born in 1564 to Pushkin’s 1799, and that makes his language more removed from the modern idiom as well. And I suspect that Shakespeare’s Englishness contributes to this sense of distance for me as an American. But more than anything, it’s Pushkin’s ubiquity in Russian life that lacks an appropriate analog in the Anglophone world.
This ubiquity both motivates and makes possible Andrei Sinyavsky’s book Strolls with Pushkin. Sinyavsky wrote the book while in Dubrovlag, part of the Soviet gulag system (the “lag” in both words in short for “lager’” or “camp”). He explains that while politics and camp conditions were proscribed topics, it was entirely permissible to fill his bimonthly letters to his wife with musings on Pushkin. After all, what could be more innocent? Nevertheless, the resulting book would prove to be Sinyavsky’s most controversial, as Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy explains in her masterful introduction. Following a biography of Pushkin that begins with his birth and continues, in the form of an overview of the cult of Pushkin, past his death and up to the time when Sinyavsky was writing, Nepomnyashchy offers the following invitation to the text:
It is precisely the boundary between the revered and the irreverent Pushkins that Sinyavsky transgresses from the very beginning of his Strolls with Pushkin. He sets off on his meanderings through the “sacred verses” of the poet with the Pushkin of pushkinskie anekdoty as his companion in hopes of circumventing the “wreaths and busts” that enshrine the canonic Pushkin and finding the “beautiful original.” This initial border violation defines the course of Sinyavsky’s strolls throughout. At every step he challenges accepted dividing lines—between writer and critic, author and character, sacred and profane, art and life—in order to undermine the commonplaces of the Pushkin myth as well as the understanding of literature as a reflection of reality that the myth entails. His project, moreover, rests on an internal contradiction. If strolling is by definition aimless motion, how can one stroll in search of something? This paradox is ultimately resolved when Sinyavsky reaches his goal only to discover that it is “zero,” that it lies in the very imposture embodied in the anecdotal Pushkin with whom he began. His strolls have both attained their object and gone nowhere and thus become a paradigm for “pure art”—art that transcends purposes external to it and becomes an end in itself. As Sinyavsky observes, “Art strolls.”
To read more:
later this week now for an excerpt from the main text of Strolls with Pushkin.