Thursday, October 25, 2007

Brushes on thirty different scales - Alexander Pushkin

Something a little different here. Pushkin (1799-1837) is Russia’s greatest poet, almost the founder of Russian literature. In his short life, he wrote in a number of styles, absorbing a range of Russian and international influences. Byron, most obviously, but really everyone he came across. Pushkin wrote a lot of satires, some smutty poems, some character sketches, not so much beeyootiful nature poetry, but some. His eye for detail was superb – here’s the equipment of a dandy (the hero, Eugene Onegin) preparing to go out on the town:

Eugene Onegin, Canto I, Stanza XXIV

Porcelain and bronzes on the table,
with amber pipes from Tsaregrad;
such crystalled scents as best are able
to drive the swooning senses mad;
with combs, and steel utensils serving
as files, and scissors straight and curving,
brushes on thirty different scales;
brushes for teeth, brushes for nails.
Rousseau (forgive a short distraction)
could not conceive how solemn Grimm
dared clean his nails in front of him,
the brilliant crackpot: this reaction
shows freedom’s advocate, that strong
champion of rights, as in the wrong.

Some of this is just a list, but a list that reveals the dandy’s vanity (the crack at Rousseau digs at a different sort of vanity). No surprise that Pushkin also proved to be a great fiction writer. Here’s another list, about Onegin’s country house, which he has just inherited. Here’s what he faces:

Canto II, Stanza III

The rustic sage, in that apartment,
forty years long would criticize
his housekeeper and her department,
look through the pane, and squash the flies.
Oak-floored, and simple as a stable:
two cupboards, one divan, a table,
no trace of ink, no spots, no stains.
And of the cupboards, one contains
a book of household calculations,
the other, jugs of applejack,
fruit liqueurs and an Almanack
for 1808: his obligations
had left the squire no time to look
at any other sort of book.

The boredom will obviously be crushing. Note the writer’s indictment, slipped in – “no trace of ink.” Onegin flirts with a local girl, who falls in love with him. He rejects her, and one of the consequences in an idiotic duel. Here’s the aftermath, a different kind of Pushkin:

Canto VI, Stanza XXXV

Giving his pistol-butt a squeezing,
Evgeny looks at Lensky, chilled
at heart by grim remorse’s freezing.
‘Well, what?’ the neighbor says, ‘he’s killed.’
Killed!... At this frightful word a-quiver,
Onegin turns, and with a shiver
summons his people. On the sleigh
with care Zaretsky stows away
the frozen corpse, drives off, and homing
vanishes with his load of dread.
The horses, as they sense the dead,
have snorted, reared, and whitely foaming
have drenched the steel bit as they go
and flown like arrows from a bow.

A nice mix of reporting and metaphorical language. Just the right mood. It’s hard to read this without wondering about Pushkin’s own death in an idiotic duel not too many years later.

Maybe I will write more about Pushkin later. He’s such a varied writer. I’ve read most of what he wrote, or at least most of what’s in English. All of his prose, his tragedy “Boris Godunov”, a substantial share of his poetry. But he’s like Hugo in this way - hard to grasp whole.

All of the stanzas I mentioned here are from the Charles Johnston translation. Who knows how this compares to the original. It’s lively, light, poetic. One hopes it’s also accurate, and sounds more or less like Pushkin.


  1. Charles Johnston's translation of Eugene Onegin is very good, as are his own poems and his other translations, but it's been replaced in Penguin Classics by an even better one by Stanley Mitchell.
    Continuing in your archive...

  2. All right, it will be Mitchell next time. Good advice.

  3. I've read Onegin in the original, and the excerpts you quote capture Pushkin's tone quite well.