Strolls with Pushkin

by Andrei Sinyavsky
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1919

There is little if any dissension among literary scholars, whether Russian or otherwise, regarding the preeminent place of Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin in Russian literary history, and many consider him to be the father of Russian realism. Yet that statement says very little about the reality of Pushkin to the Russian people. The legend of Pushkin, who wrote in the early part of the nineteenth century, continued to grow enormously in Russia after his death (from a pistol wound received in a duel), until his status reached heights normally reserved for more traditionally notable worthies of Russian culture such as generals and statespersons. Indeed, the cult of Pushkin nearly overshadowed the author’s literary accomplishments. Co-opted over the centuries by various groups that claimed that his works represented their particular nationalistic views of “Russianness,” Pushkin is nevertheless regarded as the first Russian national poet and a Russian cultural icon as well. Partly because of objections to this “holy” view of Pushkin, but also perhaps for subtler reasons that become apparent as one encounters his text, Andrei Sinyavsky (writing under the pseudonym Abram Tertz) raised Russian hackles and eyebrows when Strolls with Pushkin was first introduced to the Russian literary intelligentsia in 1989.

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Progulki s Pushkinym was published in Russia in 1975 but was not available outside the Soviet Union until fourteen years later, toward the end of the glasnost period. Sinyavsky had penned most of the work while detained in a Dubrovlag prison camp from 1965 to 1971 (where he had been sentenced to hard labor for “anti-Soviet agitation”), smuggling it out piece by piece to his wife in long letters. The immediate reaction to his work from the émigré Russian press was negative and passionately hostile. Even the noted dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn attacked Sinyavsky’s work. Yet the criticism seemed to be aimed more against how Sinyavsky prepared this critical assessment of Pushkin than with the critical acumen Sinyavsky demonstrated. Indeed, the outrage exhibited by Russians over Sinyavsky’s book is perhaps difficult for the non-Russian reader to understand. Though considered shocking to Russians, Sinyavsky’s text seems rather mild, if taxing in its own way, to non-Russian readers.

Strolls with Pushkin is not an introduction to the works of Pushkin. Strategically and stylistically it can be challenging. It demands somewhat close reading and presupposes a certain degree of Russian literary knowledge; however, the superb introduction by Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy and the text’s excellent annotations are wonderful aids in that regard. It may seem to wander aimlessly from topic to topic with little concern for chronology, yet this may well be integral to Sinyavsky’s overall design. The language Sinyavsky employs is at times offhand and coarse, reminding some critics of the time he spent at Dubrovlag. The apparently whimsical manner with which Sinyavsky first introduces both Pushkin and the antithetical sacred/profane representations of him, for example, had some Russian scholars nearly apoplectic with rage.

“Art strolls,” says Sinyavsky at one point, and to make sense of his sometimes bewildering foray into the world of Pushkin, in all of its evolutions and permutations, one ought to pay attention to that particular trope. The title Strolls with Pushkin symbolizes not simply a figurative walk with the famous Russian poet (as though an arm-in-arm companionable jaunt) but more a free-spirited ramble along unexpected pathways that leads to new associations and connections. Important to Sinyavsky’s objective, it is a walk without apparent purpose (though this itself seems a contradiction), seeming to meander without a concrete goal or destination in mind.

Though this walk with Pushkin appears not to aim for any specific destination, still Sinyavsky exhibits dual purposes in his work: one being to demythologize Pushkin, and another to examine the very view of art and the artist’s function to society that helped to propagate the myth of Pushkin. Yet Sinyavsky is also almost certainly slyly commenting on the nationalistic uses of art that led to his own internment at Dubrov-lag. One should recall that when Sinyavsky wrote this work, the then Soviet Union was a very different place. Accordingly, his partial aim of exposing the co-option of the artist to the service of the state was relevant with regard to himself as well as to Pushkin.

The reader might think of this “stroll” as one that is taken between two borders. On the one side is the sacred Pushkin, revered in Russian culture, more a myth than a reality, a symbol both of the Russian spirit and of all that is the soul of the Russian people. On the other border is the man Pushkin, the mercurial intellectual, the free spirit, the womanizer, the everyman with pretensions to aristocracy, the husband who died in a jealous duel. Sinyavsky sets out between these two borders aiming to find what will remain of the poet in that middle ground. In essence, what remains are the words Pushkin set down and, importantly, their impact on Sinyavsky.

Sinyavsky begins by characterizing the poetry of Pushkin by its “lightness.” He uses a passage from Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin (1833;Eugene Onegin, 1881), describing the deftness of the ballerina Isotima to illustrate the way Pushkin appears to depict himself in his own poetry. Yet Sinyavsky remains aware that this is his own view of the poet, and his evidence alone. He is not necessarily interested in whether this may be a historically accurate view. He seeks to find, aside from the mythical Pushkin, his own Pushkin. It was Pushkin’s personal “lightness,” his image as a “flighty person and a scapegrace, unacquainted with the torments of creation,” that enabled him to write the way he did, says Sinyavsky. This taking of irreverent liberties with the received view of Pushkin is what got Sinyavsky into trouble with Russian critics. The passage that engendered perhaps the most critical enmity says that Pushkin “ran into poetry on thin erotic legs and created a commotion.” Nevertheless, though this impudent characterization appears demeaning (no matter that its essence is accurate), Sinyavsky actually turns around the seeming deprecation in order to show how certain of Pushkin’s qualities actually helped affirm his genius.

In a similar way, Sinyavsky turns about a discussion of the poet’s reliance on fate. “Pushkin professed trust in fate—a banal bit of wisdom.” Seeming at first to demonstrate a certain “laziness” in Pushkin’s early efforts, Sinyavsky ultimately reveals how this reliance on fate was linked to luck and shrewdness—that fate is the protector of the carefree. From there he argues that a belief in chance, in turn, demonstrates a sympathy for all life and a firm belief in freedom, and that the carefree wanderer, trusting to fate, finds artistic autonomy. Sinyavsky argues for “universalism” in Pushkin’s poetry, dubbing him the “Russian Virgil.” To Sinyavsky, Pushkin could identify with any theme and with any person, in effect allowing many people access to his works. This very universality is also a dimension of Pushkin’s cult image. Yet Pushkin’s works, outside of Russia, are often difficult for the non-Russian reader to appreciate, and it is for that reason that Sinyavsky’s treatment—his almost minute detailing of many of Pushkin’s works—becomes extremely valuable. Not only does it help to separate the extreme accessibility of the Pushkin myth from the relative exclusiveness of much of Pushkin’s writing outside of Russia, but it also allows a more truly universal appreciation of the poet.

Sinyavsky’s project includes myriad characterizations of the poet, many marked by the offhand and impious language and style that infuriated staid Russian critics. Pushkin as vampire: “Verily, verily—in fact passion transformed Juan into an angel and Pushkin into Pushkin’s creation. But don’t get too carried away: what we see before us is a vampire.” Pushkin as the ladies’ man: “Meanwhile his carefree, careless speech earned him approval: who after all can remain serious with young ladies, whose every sound prompts you to smile and sets all the members of your body vibrating?” Pushkin as a realist: “Idle chatter defined the genre of Pushkin’s ‘novel in verse.’ . . . In the chatter lack of context was combined with a superabundance of ideas and the maximum number of direct hits per minute on objects scattered any old way and linked by a network of gesticulation monkey-like in its tenacity and nimbleness.”

Yet in each of these examples Sinyavsky skillfully turns around the apparent breezy comment to make a valid point that only affirms Pushkin’s skill. Pushkin the vampire thus becomes Pushkin the eternal youth, creating ever fresh, colorful, and fanciful imagery. His talents at flirtation translate, in his poetry, to nimble grace and wit, an energetic agility with words and ideas. What of the realist, the maker of catalogs and endless lists, the recorder of the commonplace? To Sinyavsky this tendency of Pushkin reveals the mobility and fluidity of his writing. It becomes the “primeval joy of the simple naming of things.” More, it becomes itself a symbol for the “atmosphere of spontaneous, boundless existence.”

Strolls with Pushkin ultimately takes its reader to a crossroad. Down one path is the road to “pure art.” In the other direction lies the artist as social conscience, as revolutionary, as persuader of public opinion. Here the personal paths of both the author Sinyavsky and the poet Pushkin converge as well. Throughout his study, Sinyavsky has carefully, almost surreptitiously, been guiding the reader toward the divergence of these two paths, while at the same time demonstrating the characteristics of Pushkin that eventually led to a disassociation of man from poet. His goal has been to demonstrate that Pushkin’s career as artist had gradually been leading to a renunciation of all the so-called purposes of art that are generally ascribed to it by society. In so doing Pushkin made way for a new understanding of art that Sinyavsky terms “negative to its very core” and that Pushkin stated “must have no other aim but poetry itself.”

Yet Sinyavsky’s words can appear misleading, for pure art is not a call for “art for art’s sake.” Neither should the “negative” nature of poetry be taken as disapproval. The negativity Sinyavsky speaks of is much more akin to how John Keats, the English Romantic poet, spoke with reference to William Shakespeare, coining the phrase “negative capability,” the artist’s ability to disassociate the expression of his or her own personality from his or her work. As for so-called pure art, it is to Sinyavsky more an expression of the divine by Pushkin, or by any modern artist, as it rushes to fill a contemporary void left in the longing for profound reflection and contemplation.

Strolls with Pushkin is both an interesting and a demanding text. Its importance lies in its broad scope and the fresh slant it gives to Pushkin criticism. Sinyavsky, in concluding his study, nods to Pushkin for having achieved a strolling freedom in his work and, much in the manner of Sinyavsky’s own audacity in his text, ultimately eschewing the restraints of imposed conditions and social purpose. He reminds the reader that though some think it is possible to live with Pushkin, he himself has not made that attempt, only gone for a stroll.

Sources for Further Study

Choice. XXI, June, 1994, p. 1586.

Kirkus Reviews. LXI, December 15, 1993, p. 1580.

London Review of Books. May 26, 1994, p. 11.

The New Republic. CCX, May 9, 1994, p. 30.

The Observer. March 27, 1994, p. 20.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, January 10, 1994, p. 51.

The Times Literary Supplement. March 4, 1994, p. 3.

The Village Voice Literary Supplement. September, 1994, p. 5.

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