The Other Pushkin

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Though he is celebrated almost to the point of deification in Russia, Alexander Pushkin is among the less frequently read Russian writers in the West. Those who know Russian have explained that Pushkin is too hard to translate, that his peculiar charms are lost when the original words are traded for foreign equivalents. Paul Debreczeny has taken upon himself a double task, culminating in the publication in 1983 of his critical study of Pushkin’s prose and a separate, complete translation of Pushkin’s fictional writings, Alexander Pushkin: Complete Prose Fiction. Both books will make Pushkin more accessible to readers in the West, but it is the analysis of Pushkin’s prose offered in The Other Pushkin that should go further in reducing some of the mystery around Russia’s first national writer.

The Other Pushkin is an introduction in the best sense of the word; it assumes no familiarity with Russia or with Pushkin’s works, yet it never underestimates the intelligence of its audience. Arguments are not belabored, nor are they shrouded in the jargon of the initiated. It is Debreczeny’s goal to acquaint his readers with the plot, genesis, critical reception, and possible interpretation of each of Pushkin’s major prose works. He covers his material thoroughly and clearly and is not afraid to pose difficult questions. The works are presented in the order that Pushkin wrote them, so that a narrative about Pushkin’s development as a writer emerges implicitly in the book’s discussions. Debreczeny moves easily among different kinds of prose in Pushkin’s corpus, his texts ranging from the barest fragments to richly detailed narratives, from evocative poetic stories to self-consciously restrained historical accounts.

It is this distinction between poetic and objective narration that is at the heart of Debreczeny’s argument. He begins his book with an almost theoretical chapter that is not an account of Pushkin’s overall approach to prose so much as it is a discussion of how Pushkin came to prose from poetry. Debreczeny cites several motivations for this change in Pushkin, including the greater financial rewards of prose and a desire to break away from the accustomed roles associated with Romantic poetry. The latter motivation was far more important, and Debreczeny bases his entire first chapter on the significance for Pushkin of getting away from the conventions of poetry in his turn to prose. Many of the relevant quotations come from 1825, and it is unfortunate that Debreczeny chooses not to discuss Pushkin’s historical drama, Boris Godunov (1831; English translation, 1918) as part of the artistic conundrum which Pushkin was trying then to resolve. Dramatic form becomes a blank space in Debreczeny’s polar opposition between poetic and prosaic genres.

Using the tools of the Russian Formalists, Debreczeny includes comments on the exigencies of literary history, observing that poetic language came to a crisis in the 1820’s. Pushkin, among others, sought a more practical language, one which eschewed the role-playing inherent in poetic forms. Debreczeny surveys Pushkin’s earliest prose fragments and the inadequacies of their formal solutions to stylistic problems; he explains Pushkin’s merely sporadic interest in prose by the difficulties that he encountered in these first attempts. Toward the end of the 1820’s, Pushkin was blurring the boundaries between kinds of prose, although he placed particular value on that kind of narrative furthest from the emotional excesses of poetry.

Debreczeny relies on many different kinds of material to articulate Pushkin’s artistic development in the 1820’s, including quotations from letters (themselves important vehicles for experimentation in prose style) and from Pushkin’s great achievement of the decade, Eugeny Onegin (1825-1833; Eugene Onegin, 1881). If it is a weakness of this first chapter that it fails to differentiate among these sources for the kinds of roles Pushkin might have been playing, then it is also a strength of the book’s opening that it does not overplay its hand. Debreczeny takes issue with the best-known Soviet scholar of Pushkin’s prose, A. Lezhnev, in concluding chapter 1 with the observation that Pushkin did not have an unchanging view of prose throughout his life.

Chapter 2, entitled “Experiments with Narrative Modes,” looks more closely at the fragments of the late 1820’s, beginning with Arap Petra velikogo (1828-1841; Peter the Great’s Negro, 1896). Pushkin’s fascination with blackness, evidenced in other fragmentary and finished works, has clear biographical sources: Pushkin’s own great-grandfather, Abram Hannibal, is the “Negro” named in the title of the work. Debreczeny often makes thematic connections among various works, but he is most interested in narrative mode throughout his book, a tendency that emerges clearly in this first chapter about specific texts. Sources are surveyed, ranging from the works of Sir Walter Scott to those of Voltaire, with an emphasis on the tradition of narrative frames. Debreczeny sees frames as symptomatic of an “overbearing authorial presence” and notes that Pushkin takes risks by appearing as stiff as he does in Peter the Great’s Negro, while reaping the advantage of dispensing with the narrative poses characteristic of the ignorant speakers found in Scott and his epigones. Debreczeny draws excellent examples of complex emotional peripeteias in Peter the Great’s Negro, here pointing to Benjamin Constant as yet another...

(The entire section is 2292 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Choice. XXI, November, 1983, p. 431.

Library Journal. CVIII, April 1, 1983, p. 744.

The New Yorker. LX, May 14, 1984, p. 145.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, March 25, 1984, p. 15.