Slave to passion

Pushkin: a biography

T J Binyon <em>HarperCollins, 731pp, £30</em>

ISBN 0002150840

When Pushkin died, from a pistol wound in 1837, he was the most famous man in Russia after the tsar. Every sleigh driver in Petersburg knew his house, next to the Moika canal, and over two days, at the end of January, 10,000 Russians passed through its candlelit hall to pay their respects to the dead poet. Nicholas I's secret police posted agents in the crowd, listening for murmurs of rebellion. Soon after Pushkin's death, anonymous letters began to circulate, hinting that the duel in which he had been fatally wounded was premeditated murder. And so, in a way, it was.

In T J Binyon's new biography, the picture of Pushkin's last years is a domestic one, of mounting difficulties to be overcome. Difficulties in getting published, because of imperial censorship, and difficulties of household financing, because of his gambling and uncertain income. All this must have contributed to the kind of desperation likely to provoke a duel. But the murder charge still sticks. Not to Pushkin's opponent in the snow, the vapid, bisexual Guards officer Baron Georges d'Anthes (d'Anthes, as the stalker of Pushkin's wife, was merely fate's agent), but to forces that lie in wait for the dignity of men. Mikhail Lermontov wrote, immediately after the death, that Pushkin had "challenged the vices of high society . . . the rapacious crows near the throne" had been his real executioners.

In the 1830s, Petersburg was indeed a meretricious place; the tsar's city was decadent, passing the time in pleasure and gossip. As Alexander Blok said 80 years later about his fellow poet: "It wasn't d'Anthes's bullet that killed Pushkin. It was lack of air." So let us remember Pushkin. Let us forget George Steiner's lament that no one who does not speak Russian can appreciate him, and remember instead Dostoevsky at the unveiling of the Pushkin memorial in Moscow: "It can be said positively that if Pushkin had not existed, there would have been no talented writers to follow him."

In person, Pushkin was contradictory: a friend of both the Decembrists and the imperium, a stickler in matters of honour and a slave to his passions, a dandy and a slob. Binyon describes his "extraordinarily long, claw-like fingernails - often dirty - of which he was inordinately proud". Few Russians deny his genius. But Khrushchev declared: "He is not our poet." He meant, I think, that he was too aristocratic. In western Europe, we probably listen to him more often in Tchaikovsky's operas than read him in print. And yet his vitality and tragic death - the tone of his life - pester us with their importance.

David Magarshack, for all his raciness, communicated this tone in his 1967 biography; Elaine Feinstein failed dismally in her recent slapdash account; Serena Vitale, most recently, in her marvellous account of the fatal duel, Pushkin's Button, did his tone exemplary justice. Binyon's scholarly and detailed book falls somewhere between Magarshack and Vitale.

Binyon, who lectures on Russian literature at Oxford, knows almost everything there is to know about Pushkin. He scrupulously chronicles his life in all its disorder, from his years at the Lycee through exile in the Crimea, Bessarabia and Odessa, for writing liberal verses, and on to the publication of Eugene Onegin and, eventually, after much wrangling with the censor, Boris Godunov.

Binyon is good on the labyrinthine process of courtship and marriage to Natalya Goncharova - a matter of extraordinary delicacy, as Pushkin loathed her greedy disagreeable mother. He is at his best on complicated issues, such as Pushkin's copyright problems. One is also grateful for the contextualising of period details, such as the clarification of d'Anthes's likely relationship with his adoptive father, the Dutch ambassador.

If Binyon's grasp of detail is flawless, the broader picture - the part that relates to tone - escapes him. He describes Pushkin's conduct in Kishinev - the way he dressed as a Turk, a Moldavian or a Jew in a fez, for example - but misses the element of comedy that accompanied much of Pushkin's exile, and constituted one of his few weapons against his situation. Later, he devotes many pages to Pushkin's attempts to manage the family estates, but lets the exhausting effect of his efforts pass almost unremarked.

Always open to influence, Pushkin translated the west for Russia, but he did not succeed in translating Russia for the west. To that extent, any biography remains for us British the account of an outsider. Yet the familiarity of his struggle and zest for life, the democracy of his sense of humour, the disregard for his own safety, offer a ready-made archetype: not the myth of the Romantic poet, but the uncommon reality of a man whose heart was fully engaged in his life.

The truths of that life and death are many. Pushkin knew, to paraphrase Wilde, the value of everything and the price to be paid for it. He said that if one believed oneself to be a man of courage, one should arrange to spend time with one's enemies. Live in the circle of his enemies he did, and experienced the emotional cost of censorship and progressive humiliation, condemned to remain at court on a pittance. Unable to publish freely, his status in free fall with his income, he may have found death a welcome end. Death is not the only agony. His dignity throughout was superb.

That, I think, is what I mean by tone. It is a shame that this new biography gives us the whole face of a great poet, but only half the heart.