A living monument. Self-indulgence is all very well when celebrating the bicentenary of a national hero, but a more analytical approach makes a better biography

Pushkin's Button

Serena Vitale, translated by Ann Goldstein and Jon Rothschild <em>Fourth Estate,

During the recent summer celebrations in Moscow to mark the bicentenary of Alexander Pushkin, shopkeepers were reportedly fined for not displaying Pushkiniana in their windows. This may sound excessive, but similar things have happened before in Russia - which has summoned Pushkin frequently over the years to prop up its fragile sense of national identity. The Soviet state, for instance, attempted to project an image of Pushkin as an anti-tsarist freedom fighter, and Dostoevsky proposed his mad notion of Russia as the world's spiritual leader at the unveiling of the Pushkin memorial in 1880. The tsar and Stalin supervised celebrations in 1899 and 1937 respectively. And in this year of his bicentenary, the memory of Pushkin has been manipulated by yet another despot struggling to hide his criminal failures.

There are good reasons why Pushkin's appeal extends to despots and commoners alike. He is, after all, the poet who wrote a poem commemorating the tsar's accession to the throne and also exalted the tsar's opponents in the failed Decembrist uprising of 1825. His great work The Bronze Horseman celebrates the achievement of Peter the Great without ignoring the tragedy of the ordinary man crushed underneath it. As John Bayley has written, the authority of Pushkin's work comes "not from the proper sort of ideology or belief but from the urgent pressures of involuntary experience". It is Pushkin's continuous engagement with his world, the various ways he described, and himself embodied, Russia's perennially unresolved dilemmas, that makes him, in our own distant time, a compelling and relevant figure.

Bayley points out that, had Pushkin become part of the autocratic system or gone into exile, he wouldn't have "achieved that luminous understanding both of power and of sympathy with the oppressed". In this sense it is worth repeating the cliche that Pushkin was truly the father of modern Russian literature: the writer who saw things no one had noticed previously, who gave voice to a mass of lives that literature, as well as history, would otherwise have passed over in silence.

Spirit and talent took Pushkin a long way in his art; but in his life he struggled, and in his struggles he resembles the product of mixed cultures who creatively employs, but also profoundly suffers from, contradictory desires and impulses. Pushkin didn't care much for Stendhal but he often reminds you of those Stendhalian heroes who can only define themselves in extremes of mood and sensibility, whose posturing and rages and ambivalences emerge from lack of a coherent self-image.

It was Pushkin, fittingly, who first discovered the alienated Russian personality, the listless wanderer who feels alien in his native land and who was to turn into the "superfluous man" found in the work of Dostoevsky and Turgenev. It was also Pushkin who first dramatised his society's deeper ambivalences about the relationship between Russia and the rest of Europe. In a poem written as early as 1824 he made his protagonist wonder if "the truth is somewhere outside him, perhaps in some other land, in Europe, for instance, with her stable historical order and well-established social and civic life".

But it is the manner of his death, as much as his life, that continues to fascinate and is the subject of Pushkin's Button. On the morning of 4 November 1836, several leading members of the St Petersburg nobility received an anonymous mock notice. Written in French, it named Pushkin as the historiographer of a "serene order of cuckolds". Few people failed to recognise its malicious intent. For some time there had been rumours of an affair between Pushkin's wife, Natalie, and George d'Anthes, a French rake serving with the Russian army. Pushkin knew of the rumours but had tolerated, even slightly encouraged, his wife's flirtations. "Enjoy yourself, little wife of mine," he had written to her, "but not too much, and don't forget me."

The letter had come at a bad time for Pushkin, who was deeply in debt, his reputation as a poet fading. He was raging as ever against the restricted life of St Petersburg, and now it seemed that Natalie had been enjoying herself a little too much. The letter demanded a response, and an enraged Pushkin sought to re-establish his honour by proposing a duel with d'Anthes. "It's Balzac," a socialite wrote at the time. "It's Victor Hugo. It's the literature of our time. It's sublime, it's ridiculous. A sneering husband publicly gnashing his teeth. A pale and lovely wife destroying herself with dancing that lasts entire evenings. A pale and thin young man laughing convulsively."

The lovely wife and the thin young man are disposed of easily; no hidden depths seem to exist in these creatures of pure frivolity. The poet Marina Tsvetayeva described Natalie, Pushkin's wayward wife, as a commonplace femme fatale, an embodiment of "beauty and emptiness". Serena Vitale is only slightly less severe. Pushkin had badgered Natalie into marrying him and, like many beautiful women who marry men they don't really love, she had continued to welcome, and often seek, the attentions of young men.

One of these was d'Anthes. He had come to Russia in 1833 and been adopted under circumstances still unclear by the Dutch ambassador to Russia, Baron Heeckeren. The baron, himself homosexual, encouraged d'Anthes in his sexual adventures. A large part of Vitale's book is taken up by the long, vilely written letters d'Anthes sent to Baron Heeckeren, which Vitale discovered in Paris in 1989. The inferior moral quality of both men stands exposed in these letters.

Pushkin's response made the duel inevitable. D'Anthes fired first and, when his turn came, Pushkin, though fatally wounded, was also on target. But the cowardly d'Anthes had come well equipped. Vitale provides evidence to support conjecture that he was wearing protective armour under his coat. He went on to live until 1895, whereas Pushkin died two days after the duel.

The chapter describing his death is an example of the skilful reconstruction you wish Vitale had achieved elsewhere in the book. For the most part, her manner is that of the over- enthusiastic, gossipy but moralising academic. She seems dazzled by the ballrooms and salons of St Petersburg, and her excited tone lends her story a certain charm. But she tosses too many clues our way; every character and story is exploited for local colour, and the narrative is clogged with unprocessed archival material. The long excerpts from diaries and letters should have been absorbed into the narrative - as they were, for instance, in E H Carr's The Romantic Exiles, which was created out of similar material and described social scenery as compellingly as it detailed personal tragedies.

Vitale's prose style is not the least of her problems; even in translation it is easy to guess at the overblown nature of the original. "This was a man," Vitale writes of d'Anthes, "who left the ballroom . . . only after the last cotillion, and even then with the energy of one last witticism, one last penetrating glance, the kind of glance that set fans fluttering and filled red morocco diaries with breathless entries of pounding hearts and fainting spells recorded at dawn's first light." This is an unnecessarily long-winded way of saying that d'Anthes was a big hit with the girls. The overheated prose keeps Vitale from asking important questions at the right time. How much of a role, for example, did d'Anthes's French origins play in his success among St Petersburg circles?

Vitale helpfully reminds us that Pushkin had dealt with someone rather like d'Anthes in his novella The Queen of Spades (collected in the Everyman edition), where Hermann, the gambling protagonist, has the "profile of Napoleon but the soul of Mephistopheles". Pushkin, she argues, feared self-made men, "the methodical artisans of their own destinies". But she doesn't speculate long enough about what lay behind that fear - whether it had something to do with Pushkin's own insecure status as a nouveau aristocrat and with his partly African ancestry.

She quotes a passage from Pyotr Chaadaev's Philosophical Letter, a devastating expose of Russia's intellectual and cultural nullity published a few months before Pushkin's death, and tells us that Pushkin thought "long and hard" about it. It would have been useful if Vitale had thought long and hard about what caught Pushkin's attention. For in Chaadaev's expose there occurs a sentence that offers a key not only to Pushkin but also to the age he lived in: "It is man's nature to lose his way when he finds no means of linking himself to what came before him and will come after him."

"It is the devil's fault," Pushkin wrote to his wife a few months before he was killed, "that I was born in Russia with spirit and talent." And Alexander Blok once said: "It wasn't d'Anthes' bullet that killed Pushkin. It was lack of air." The sources of Pushkin's peculiar instability, his rages and deep ambivalences, partly lay in the ersatz nature of the social stratum he inhabited - the elite, first created by the hectic modernising ventures of Peter the Great, that took its cues from western Europe in its personal and public culture and had few links with its fellow countrymen other than those of exploitation. Although a participant in the artificial court culture of St Petersburg, Pushkin was, like all instinctively artistic people, not unaware of its neutered state; the most significant scene in Eugene Onegin is the one in which Tatiana wonders if Onegin is a "parody" - the verse novel, superficially a love story (and coming soon to cinemas near you), is really about the futility of people trapped by their own borrowed self-images, by fantasies and desires imported from the west.

If the Russians seem to be going overboard with their celebrations, they are doing the right thing. Such an achievement as Pushkin's cannot be honoured enough - especially in damaged societies with limited self-knowledge, where a majority of the people remain without the means to link themselves to what came before them and will come after them.

Pankaj Mishra is a writer based in New Delhi and Simla