In the TLS, Rachel Polonsky (author of a notoriously vicious review of Orlando Figes’s Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia—see this discussion) reviews a new translation of Eugene Onegin and Andrew Kahn‘s Pushkin’s Lyric Intelligence (I hate joint reviews, though I’m sure the authors being reviewed hate them much more—irrelevant comparisons are made, and aspects of each book tend to get neglected). Polonsky calls Stanley Mitchell’s Eugene Onegin “masterly,” but frankly it sounds as full of translationese as any other: “Tatiana saw with trepidation/ What thought it was or observation/ Had struck Onegin, what they meant,/ To which he’d given mute consent” doesn’t impress me. (I was going to complain about “A parody, when said and done,” but googling tells me that people do actually say “when said and done”—is this a U.K. thing?)
But the Kahn book sounds well worth reading:
Kahn has read systematically many hundreds of the titles in Pushkin’s own large library (in the same editions) in order to understand the nature of Pushkin’s engagement with current philosophical and aesthetic ideas. Of these titles, over 80 per cent are English and French works, in the original or in translation. Using B. G. Modzalevsky’s annotated catalogue of the library, which records the pages cut and the marginal notes and annotations made in them by Pushkin, Kahn seeks not to identify sources as past critics have done, but to trace the poet’s “thinking through lyric”. Kahn’s Pushkin is a poet of ideas, the intellectual heir of “a long eighteenth century”, but one who “suspends judgement”, using his deceptively simple and transparent poems as opportunities for the indirect dramatization of those ideas, and for “creating a lyric speaker who thinks aloud”. Allusive terms in the poems – “imagination”, “inspiration”, “fancy”, “will”, “strength” and “fame” – open up to the reader (the reader who is willing and able to read with Pushkin) the great conceptual framework that holds up their delicate lyric expressiveness.
Kahn has taken an exhilarating new direction in Pushkin studies. He draws fruitfully on the great mass of previous scholarship, discovering in the familiar lines of Pushkin’s light and exquisite lyric verse an unfamiliar world of weighty ideas. As his book advances, the exploration of these ideas dilates slowly and magnificently, taking in great reaches of history and philosophy, from the fate and image of Byron and Napoleon to the relationship of the body to the soul, as well as attending to (closely imbricated) matters of pressing daily concern to Pushkin, such as censorship, relations with the Tsar, literary celebrity, the gritty world of the growing book trade, professional enmities, and what Kahn aptly calls “the precarious consolation of friendship”.
I suspect that the “exhilarating new direction” is new primarily for English-language scholarship (the more I read Russian literary criticism, the more I realize how much it anticipates what I had read in English—Nabokov’s interpretation of Gogol, for instance, is based firmly on those of Bely and Annensky), but it’s just the kind of analysis I enjoy reading. At a list price of $110.00, however, it’s definitely something I’ll look for at my local library. Why must academic books be so expensive? (Thanks for the link, jamessal!)