The decision by the Progress Publishing House to take up the translation of major Soviet literary critics is a very wel¬come one. Recently Viktor Shklovsky’s well-known book on L. Tolstoy appeared in the Indian market, and now we have a work by an eminent Pushkin scholar, Blagoy. This move is all the more welcome as interest in Russian and Soviet literature is on the increase. Simultaneously, the availability of these books might, hopefully, attract those of our literary scholars who have been basing their opinions about Russian litera¬ture primarily on the literary scholarship available to them from the Western world. Whether it is just a remnant of the colonial hangover with its supercilious attitude to¬wards anything coming out of the ‘Eastern bloc’ or due to the paucity of material is anyone’s guess.
Blagoy’s book deals with the life and works of the greatest Russian nineteenth century poet, Alexander Pushkin. Although not well known in India (where he has been to¬tally overshadowed by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov), it was Pushkin who initially put Russia on the map of world literature. He was, to a large extent, not only a pioneer of Russian Romanticism and Realism in poetry and prose but also a path-breaker in developing the Russian literary language.
It was from Pushkin onwards that a peculiarly Russian feature developed, where the writer was not just a creator living in an ivory tower but was to become the con¬science of the people, voicing their innermost sentiments and desires. And finally, Pushkin is one writer who has had an enormous influence, one way or another, on the work of the major Russian writers.
An immense amount of research has been done on Pushkin, in the nineteenth as well as in the twentieth century. Leading critics of the Formalist School such as B. Tomashevsky, Eikhenbaum or Zhirmunsky have taken up diverse aspects of the poet, as have various writers and poets such as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, and others. Among the leading Pushkin scholars of late have been P. Gromov and Dmitry Blagoy—the latter having produced an extensive list of publica¬tions on nineteenth century Russian literature and speci¬fically on Pushkin.
The Sacred Lyre is a collection of independent essays. ‘With the Steps of a Giant’, the first essay, focusses on the stimuli Pushkin received from Western thinkers and literary figures. As Blagoy points out, Push¬kin’s was the herculean task of taking the leap from the spiritual backwardness of Russia to an ‘advanced European level contemporary to him’:
After all, by the 19th cen¬tury, Pushkin’s own time, the most importance national literatures of Western Europe could already look back on many centuries of cultural deve¬lopment, on sources dating back to the great era of the Renaissance, to the period of the formation of nations, the establishment of national literary languages, the foundation of national literatures, the time of such great works as The Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, and Shakespeare’s plays.
Pushkin had to master and absorb the great artistic achievements of the West which spanned five centuries. Although Blagoy points out the influence of Voltaire, Byron, Shakespeare, Goethe and Dante on the Russian poet, in this essay particular atten¬tion is paid to Byron and Shakespeare. Voltaire’s in¬fluence is referred to in the third chapter, whereas just a passing reference is made to Goethe and Dante.
Byron’s was, undoubtedly, the greatest single passion which overcame Pushkin for nearly three years. His first Romantic poems rely heavily on the English bard. Pushkin admit¬ted that his poem The Captive of Caucasus, was inspired by the reading of Byron, (‘because of whom I have been going out of my mind’.) Byron was to influence many other works of the Russian poet. These are dealt with by Blagoy who then goes on to show the poet’s inner development that gradu¬ally led him away from Byron and on to realism. This was especially so of his long novel in verse, Eugene Onegin. Pushkin’s later works, like the play Boris Godunov, were in¬fluenced by Shakespeare.
The title of the second essay, ‘The Union of Magic Sounds, Feelings and Thoughts’ is a quotation from Pushkin’s defi¬nition of poetry. Blagoy takes up each component of poetry, i.e., rhythm, sound, image and content, traces its development in eighteenth century Russia with the introduction of the syllabotonic system of pro¬sody, its assimilation and experiments which were pione¬ered by individual poets and literary movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. References are made to the poets Nekrasov, Blok, Mayakovsky and the Futurists. The author then returns to Pushkin with a detailed ana¬lysis of some of his poems. Blagoy proves that, for Pushkin, the external forms of poetry were not an end in themselves but were intrinsical¬ly linked to the thoughts con¬veyed. It is a difficult task to translate poetry, and the trans¬lator risks destroying not only the image but the rhythm and the sounds which enhance the mood conveyed. By providing the theoretical background of Russian poetry and Russian equivalents, Blagoy’s chapter is able, to a large extent, to overcome the shortcomings of a translation. His next essay deals with the open endings in Pushkin’s works, a device intentionally undertaken by the poet. This was seen as a drawback by many of Push¬kin’s contemporaries, with the exception of the critic Belinsky. Although Blagoy refers to other writers who sub¬sequently developed this method, he neglects to mention L. Tolstoy in whose works this compositional device reached its greatest heights.
‘Great Citizen of a Great People’, the fourth essay, traces the development of Push¬kin’s social and political con-sciousness, the contradictions and complexities both of the times and within the writer himself. Pushkin’s deep links with the Decembrists are also brought out. This is all the more important because the revolt of 1825 was to have an enormous impact on the crea¬tive arts of Russia for the rest of the century.
The last essay, ‘Fatal Happi¬ness’, deals with yet another aspect of the Russian poet—his personal life, his love affairs, marriage and tragic death in a duel with his wife’s paramour. Pushkin’s death has been the centre of contro-versy for over a century. The general consensus arrived at was one that saw in it a well-planned political intrigue by the authorities to rid them¬selves of a poet they consi¬dered ‘politically dangerous’. Simultaneously, however, Pushkin’s friends and well-wishers have accused the poet’s wife who, because of her flirta¬tious nature, was the direct cause of his untimely death.
Blagoy attempts to refute this theory and exonerate Pushkin’s wife, maintaining that ‘the dialectics of life are often far more complex than rectilinear logical constructions’. The author’s aim is to prove that Pushkin’s death was a purely political manouever, with no reference to the family drama. But Blagoy fails to give any new insights, nor has he mana¬ged to disprove the already existing views on the subject.
Notwithstanding certain repe¬titions, this book is based on a very sound scholarship and does full justice to the many dimensions of Pushkin’s life and work. Blagoy’s erudition in the field of Russian and European literature and philo-sophical thought is pheno¬menal and lends great depth to his criticism. And finally, as with all Soviet books, this one too is priced well within the reach of the average reader.
Kaplana Sahni is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Russian Languages, School of Language, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.