'A Sun, the Shadow of a Magnitude'
Pushkin : Selected Verse. With an introduction and prose translations by John Fennell. (Penguin, 7s. 6d.)
NEARLY everything of importance that Dos- toievsky and Tolstoy ever wrote has now been translated into English and their influence has been immense abroad. However, Pushkin, the most original, the most civilised and the most universal of Russian writers, has not yet been felt as a powerful influence in English-speaking countries, in spite of the fine essays on him by Edmund Wilson and Sir Maurice Bowra, among others. This is not because of lack of translations of his main works, for these have been numerous since the time when his name was introduced to this country by George Borrow and to France by Merimee. It is more a matter of changing needs and appeals; Pushkin accepted Western civilisation in a way that Tolstoy and Dostoievsky did not.
To a Western society More assured of its own civilisation, Slavophilism and primitive Chris- tianity seemed more exotic and more interesting than a writer who could be dismissed as a Russian Byron. Pushkin also wrote at shorter length and far more concentratedly, so that he was more open to superficial judgments. It is, in fact, as though music-lovers confined all their adoration to Wagner and Brahms, but paid no attention to Mozart. Therefore, the lover of Pushkin must be especially grateful to Penguin for following up Dmitri Obolensky's anthology of Russian verse with this edition of Pushkin, which also has prose English versions of each poem.
The selection includes nearly fifty of the shorter poems; long extracts from Boris Godunov and Eugene Onegin; the whole of The Gipsies; the short play Mozart and Salieri; The Golden Cockerel; and The Bronze Horseman. Mr. Fen- nell has obviously taken pains to display as much as possible of Pushkin's incredible ver- satility. There are increasing numbers of people in this country who can read Russian, if only slightly, and they will assuredly welcome this edition with delight.
Why should Pushkin be of such interest to writers and readers today? There are many reasons, among them an obvious desire to give pleasure to his readers and to arouse them by the skill of his art rather than by preaching. But what is of the greatest value is, as in Eugene Onegin, the perfect balance he keeps between factual description and the inner life of the mind. We are still divided into Naturalist or Symbolist camps; Pushkin had no need of what he called 'isms.' He possessed a knowledge of the many sides of human nature, which explains his versatility, watching himself and life with an intensely critical and mocking eye.
I hope that soon an English publisher will bring out a translation of his letters and also of some of the records of his conversation, since his contemporaries often felt that he was even more remarkable when talking than in his writing. These would help to show how great a mind lay behind his writing. Unlike Dante or Goethe, there is no philosophy that can be ascribed to him, but, like Shakespeare, he had the gift of using everything that came into his experience and turning it into art. Shakespeare, too, was a far greater influence upon him than Byron. The latter he felt as 'the thunder's roll,' but to Shakespeare he owed the Nulin, his Angelo and for ' the concentrated dramatic style of his short plays.