The Fourth King

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

THE FOURTH KING is a novel about the great Russian poet Pushkin, who was killed in a duel at the age of thirty-seven. It focuses mainly on Pushkin’s marriage to Natalya Goncharov, seemingly the cause of all his woes.

The Goncharovs, an ancient and respected Russian family, have lately fallen on hard times. Natalya’s parents have adjusted to their reduced circumstances in the traditional Russian manner, by going completely insane. Her father languishes in a catatonic stupor, roused every now and then to violent fits of rage. Her mother is a religious fanatic who strides about in a cloud of sherry fumes and conducts increasingly indiscreet affairs with the stable hands.

Natalya herself is a stunning teenage beauty when Pushkin, already a famous poet and the veteran of countless love affairs, first catches sight of her. He proposes almost immediately, even though he has barely spoken to the girl. His friends advise him against such an impulsive move, pointing out that a child can hardly be a proper companion for an intellectual, but Pushkin is caught up in the manly fantasy of educating the girl himself. She turns out to be an intractable student, and instead spends most of her time attending elaborate balls, where she is always the center of attention. Here she falls victim to the sleazy attentions of Georges d’Anthes, the adopted son (and, it is rumored, the homosexual lover) of the Dutch ambassador. An affair is nurtured and encouraged by the conspiratorial Idalya Poletika, a notorious sapphist who has already had her way with Natalya. When Pushkin learns of these sordid goings-on, he challenges d’Anthes to the fatal duel. The final irony is that this confrontation may have been choreographed by Tsar Nicholas, who has lecherous designs on Natalya himself, and wants to eliminate both his rivals at once.

Petrie notes in an afterward that Tolstoy modeled Anna Karenina on Natalya Pushkin, and it should be clear from this synopsis that THE FOURTH KING has more in common with that great romantic novel than with the average work of historical fiction. No doubt Pushkin scholars will find some distortion in Petrie’s presentation -- not much is made of Pushkin’s own infidelities, after all--but the good news for the nonspecialist is that this is simply a great story.