Russian literature virtually begins with Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), a writer as much loved as revered still in Russia. Born into an aristocracy speaking French, Pushkin taught himself Russian and was barely out of school when his Ruslán and Ludmíla attracted attention.

Politically, he was trouble from the start, and was repeatedly exiled to the provinces and refused permission to travel abroad. His private life was not edifying, and his private letters often worse, but Alexander Pushkin the writer was a wonder. His huge popularity vanished with the 1825 Decembrist uprising, but the output afterwards showed the range and accomplishment of a supreme master. Though never a court dandy, he married the vain and beautiful Natalia Goncharova, and through her was provoked into and killed by an unnecessary duel.

Pushkin came as a breath of fresh air: self-opinionated, mercurial and irreverent. Everything he touched — poetry, short stories, plays, fairy tales — were set on new paths and given unrivalled expression. Alexander Pushkin brought together natural speech and foreign influences to create modern poetic Russian. From him derive the folk tales and genre pieces of Esénin, Leskóv and Górky. From him too come the deep introspection of Lérmontov, Tyútchev and Dostoévsky. And then there are the dream sequences of Gógol, Bély, Blok and Mandelstám. And the belief that the writer must be the moral and political conscience of his age: Akhmátova, Pasternák, Solzhenítsyn, Yevtushenko.

Only Pushkin had such a range of verse styles: lyrics, elegiacs, lampoons — all of them original and infused with deep feeling, brio and the unexpected. Alexander Pushkin's protagonist in Evgény Onégin owes much to Byron's Don Juan, but the story is wholly Russian, and has inspired countless imitations, operas, films and translations.

Russian is not as daunting as first appears, certainly not as taxing a learning an oriental language. Bibliographies for Alexander Pushkin and Russian literature can be found in the Russian Poetry section of the The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1993) and the Cambridge History of Russian Literature (1989).

Good introductions include R. Lord's Russian and Soviet Literature: An Introduction (1972), V. Nabokov's Lectures on Russian Literature (1981), V. Terras's A History of Russian Literature (1994), S. Mirsky's A History of Russian Literature: From its Beginnings to 1900 (1999) and C. Kelly's Russian Literature: A Very Short Introduction (2001). There are many biographies of Alexander Pushkin, mostly in Russian, but try H. Troyat's Pushkin (1970) or E. Feinstein's Pushkin: a Biography (1999).

Suggestion: Eugene Onegin : A Novel in Verse James E. Falen. O.U.P. 1998. $8.95.

A version in a contemporary idiom, racier than Charles Johnson's 1977 rendering, but still preserving Pushkin's irony and verse style.

C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.