7 AUGUST 1964, Page 21

The Romantic Exile


pustuart's letters* have never appeared in English before, and some readers may be Puzzled to find that a commodity labelled `Russian' can be quite so straightforward. To Meet Pushkin after Dostoievsky and Gogol alight seem like graduating from Wagner to Mozart or Verdi. Where are the unnerving dis- cords and the feeling, so characteristic of the Prelude to Tristan or the opening chapters of The Brothers Karamazov, that all is not well? Where are Pushkin's Angst, his Weltschmerz, his agonised probings? Damn it, the man wasn't even respectably neurotic. Still, as with Verdi and Mozart, there are consolations.

Pushkin seems to have been born for happi- hess, but his life was dogged by constant frus- tration and ended tragically. He was exiled (in effect) to south Russia at the age of twenty and then exiled (genuinely) to his father's estate in the Pskov District for two lines of a private letter, intercepted by the authorities, in which he ex- pressed interest in atheism.

When Nicholas I became Tsar in 1825, he released the young poet from exile and declared himself his protector. But the relationship was irk- Some and humiliating to Pushkin. One especially absurd incident occurred when the Tsar forbade Publication of Pushkin's verse drama Boris been on the grounds that it should have Walter written as a historical novel 'similar to Walter Scott's,' One of the Tsar's 'favours' particularly stung Pushkin—his appointment to the junior court office of Kammerjunker, normally held by much Younger men. This meant living expensively in the capital and attending court functions at which the Tsar was liable to flirt with the poet's beauti- ful young wife. Meanwhile Pushkin, the gay seducer and social butterfly of the 1820s, had become the responsible father of a family, more interested in historical archives than in glittering social occasions. 'Now,' this most illustrious Russian of his generation wrote to his wife in 1834, 'they look on me as a flunkey whom they may ay treat as they please.' Pushkin's early death to a duel, fought in defence of his wife's honour, remains one of the most disgraceful and tragic episodes in Russian literary history.

History y has a way of repeating itself, and one still sees Russian writers meeting with similar frustration at the hands of Russian autocrats and their attendant lackeys. Mr. Khrushchev appears as a rather jollier Nicholas (who, incidentally, .4Iso suppressed a Hungarian revolution in his 11,111e). Soviet literary bureaucrats have vied to Play the role of Benkendorf, head of Nicholas's 11. otorious Third Section in Pushkin's ,day. Nor bas there been any lack of candidates for the ...___ *Ti r I THE ..EITERS OF ALEXANDER PUSHKIN. Trans- Thetas with preface, introduction and notes by J. University Shaw. (Indiana, Philadelphia, and Oxford tliversity Presses, three volumes, 110.)

parts of Grech and Bulgarin, those infamous time-servers of Pushkin's day.

Pushkin did not openly defy Nicholas—if he had, he would simply have disappeared into the Nerchinsk mines along with friends of his, implicated in the Dccembrist conspiracy of 1825. In any case, Pushkin's mixed feelings for the Tsar included some genuine devotion. Nor could ill-treatment shake his patriotism. He might refer to his fellow-citizens as orang-outangs, and say that life in Russia was 'like living in a privy,' but he disagreed profoundly with the anti- Russian theses of Peter Chaadayev (father of Russian 'Westernism'). 'I am far from admiring all that I see around me,' he wrote in a notable letter to Chaadayev. 'But I swear to you on my honour that not for anything in the world would I be willing to change my fatherland.'

Obviously this translation was well worth undertaking, and it is hard to think of many com- parably urgent tasks connected with the presenta- tion of nineteenth-century Russian literature to English readers. How well has it been executed?

We live at a time when the bad tradition, set by Constance Garnett's high-speed renderings of Russian literature into her own brand of semi- English, has still not quite died out. According to this tradition, Russian literature in English must above all sound quaint. True, Mrs. Garnett is being slowly superseded, but even in recent years publishers have been bringing out some unbelievably shoddy new translations. Being even quainter than Garnett, such versions have some- times been acclaimed by reviewers ignorant of Russian for their 'faithfulness to the original.'

This is demoralising to serious workers in the field, and if the ghastly syndrome is ever to end, much will depend on scholars like Mr. Shaw who are prepared to set higher standards. As one fascinated by the problem of translation, I have compared extensive samples of his version with the original and found only one, not very im- portant, mistake. How exceptional this is among English translations of Russian classical authors only someone who has studied them in detail can appreciate.

Unfortunately, Mr. Shaw has not quite been able to match accuracy and patience with an en- tirely suitable style—a daunting task when we consider that the letters themselves are not homogeneous in style. Defects of style do matter less in translations of letters than in the render- ing of more strictly artistic material, but they cannot be overlodked. On the whole, the version is too conservative, with its tendency to translate Russian idioms literally. Thus the phrase 'like snow on your head' tends to be used instead of some phrase such as 'like a bolt from the blue.'

This sort of thing would be more defensible if Mr. Shaw had consistently aimed at 'period'

English, but his version suffers also from the opposite fault. Phrases like 'your buddy' and `by golly' jar—not because they are American, but because they are out of key. Though a racy touch is necessary, it should be a touch and not a punch on the ear. Anyway, translation—as Pushkin himself says somewhere in these letters— is the most thankless genre in literature, and on the whole Mr. Shaw's version makes a sound and un-quaint impression.

When we come to the Herculean task of edit- ing this very difficult material, Mr. Shaw seems to have done his job to perfection. His commen- taries are full and clear, answering pretty well all questions that can reasonably be asked. Such problems as what to do with letters written in French (about a quarter) or in a mixture of Russian and French, have been solved with ele- gance and skill. This has been a labour of true professionalism worthy of its subject. The edition is a delight to handle, a superb piece of book production indeed. Perhaps all this points the way to a time when Russian literature will at last be treated more seriously in English-speaking countries and less as the preserve of indulgent amateurs.