PUSHKIN’S LYRIC INTELLIGENCE.

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!)

Comments

  1. There’s an interesting discussion of this review over at Mikhail’s blog.

  2. “said and done” sounds okay to these US ears, though most specifically in the phrase “when all’s said and done”.

  3. I’m with rdf – “when all’s said and done” or even “when all said and done” sound more natural than just “when said and done”.

  4. mollymooly says:

    “When all is said and done, there’s a lot more said than done”

  5. though most specifically in the phrase “when all’s said and done”.
    Well, that’s the point: I’ve never heard or seen it (as far as I remember) other than in that phrase. To me, it sounds bizarre by itself, but as I say, if you google it you get a few hundred hits (“coming out to about 16 bucks when said and done,” “when said and done all the tools can add up to a big expense,” etc.), so it’s rare but in use.

  6. slawk: I can’t say I find that discussion very interesting; the blogger says the Kahn book “seems like those studies of Hitler library … or studies of Stalin’s library – attempts to discern some special hidden characteristics of a famous person, some secret code,” which is, shall we say, a pretty superficial approach.

  7. Victor Sonkin says:

    After a short-lived aversion, I came to like Mitchell’s translation. It’s witty, true to the original and sometimes exquisitely inventive. You can’t expect to not find examples of translationese (and other crimes) in a translation as long and exacting as “EO”.

  8. Mikhail Emelianov says:

    Actually, superficiality is basically all that I concern myself with but still I was referring to the review, I haven’t read the book, of course – reading books Pushkin read “in order to understand the nature of Pushkin’s engagement with current philosophical and aesthetic ideas” is a noble goal, but if my take is superficial, then Kahn’s take is too abstract and undefined – of course Pushkins will turn out to be a “poet of ideas” – he read books!
    I’m personally going to eat all the kinds of foods that Pushkin used to eat, drink his drinks and smoke his smokes, I am pretty sure that as a result, I will conclude that he was a “poet of excess and pleasurable consumption” plus all the Pushkin sex scandals should work just fine for my new theory of his life and work!

  9. slawk: I can’t say I find that discussion very interesting; the blogger says the Kahn book “seems like those studies of Hitler library … or studies of Stalin’s library – attempts to discern some special hidden characteristics of a famous person, some secret code,” which is, shall we say, a pretty superficial approach.
    He elaborates a bit further down. I don’t think the library-detective approach is valueless–and Mikhail, as far as I can tell, doesn’t either–but it is somewhat overrated. His point is that the premium we place on studies like this one tends to reflect an underlying conviction that linkages of intellectual influence are both strictly intellectual in nature and limited to a certain kind of influence–i.e., I have this idea because I “got it” from such-and-such a book, not because it came to me in a dream or was suggested to me by a small child. In fact, historians are increasingly beginning to figure out that this model of influence is deeply problematic, since it tells us very little about how ideas actually spread, and frequently does so in a misleading fashion. See this fantastic discussion (written in 1932!). All of which, again, is not to say that this book isn’t fascinating and worthwhile–it may well be, I haven’t read it.

  10. Oh, hi, Mikhail!

  11. Greetings, Greg! We must be secretly readings the same blogs, probably buying coffee at the same place and all…

  12. That Becker book is slim yet powerful volume indeed, I read it as often as I feel like recovering from bad prose of present-day philosophy – I would almost memorize some sections of it if it wasn’t such an ultimately nerdy enterprise…
    (Sorry about too many comments at once)

  13. “when all is said and done”– works just fine for me in the American midwest. It’s dated though; now you are more likely to hear “at the end of the day” or the only slightly less grating “that said”.

  14. mollymooly says:

    USA Today agrees with Hat. As do I.

  15. The odd thing is, he’s nearly always right.

  16. You can’t expect to not find examples of translationese (and other crimes) in a translation as long and exacting as “EO”.
    Very true, and I’m obviously not the right audience for a translation of EO; if I didn’t have easy access to the original, I wouldn’t be nearly so picky. But I wasn’t dissing it, just saying (on the slim evidence presented in the review) it didn’t seem to me obviously “masterly.”
    All of which, again, is not to say that this book isn’t fascinating and worthwhile
    Well, exactly. From the review, it sounds fascinating and worthwhile, and I get impatient with an immediate response of “how much can you really learn from studying the books someone read?” Read the book and find out; to dismiss it in advance on such a sweeping theoretical basis would be kind of silly. I realize Mikhail was not actually dismissing the book, just having an immediate reaction, but I was just having an immediate reaction to his immediate reaction!
    Sorry about too many comments at once
    No need to apologize; the more the merrier, and I’m glad you dropped by to join the discussion!
    “when all is said and done”– works just fine for me in the American midwest.
    Nobody’s questioning the validity of “when all is said and done”; it’s the shorter version “when said and done” that’s at issue.

  17. I mean, one could react to the idea of Eugene Onegin by saying “Bah, a novel in verse, big deal, it’s been done” or whatever. It’s the individual example that’s all-important, not some vague generalization. Sure, you could do a lousy and pointless book about Pushkin’s reading, just as you could do a lousy novel in verse (and many have); this doesn’t seem to be such a book.

  18. I guess I mostly just took it as a jumping-off point for talking about this genre of work in general.

  19. it’s the shorter version “when said and done” that’s at issue.
    No, that one doesn’t work for me, but in context it looks like it’s part of a poetry translation, so I interpreted it (as did several others) as a writer taking poetic license by using a shorter phrase to refer to the cliche.
    Slawk’s link might refer to something like psychohistory, an example is Erik Erikson’s book Young Man Luther. If you leaf through the psychohistory “professional” journals you will see Richard Nixon has been a hot topic. Putting writers in the context of other writers and movements of their historical times would be more legitimate; it sounds like the book probably does this rather than merely discuss the contents of a library.

  20. Slawk’s link might refer to something like psychohistory, an example is Erik Erikson’s book Young Man Luther. If you leaf through the psychohistory “professional” journals you will see Richard Nixon has been a hot topic.
    No, I didn’t mean anything having to do with psychohistory. Psychohistory in its Erikson form is, shall we say, out of fashion. What I mean is something closer to the debate between intellectual and cultural historians: do we give preference to explanations that situate the writer in a context of other writers, their books, and their ideas–or do we pay more attention to the experiences and mentalities that drive the writer’s society and immediate social environment? Obviously both are necessary to some extent, but at some point one interpretive strategy must trump the other.

  21. I guess I mostly just took it as a jumping-off point for talking about this genre of work in general.
    Ah, but I have little interest in such general discussions. Or rather, I don’t mind general discussions as long as they focus sufficiently on specific instances. But this is a known difference between us.

  22. I should add, too, that I didn’t mean to dis Mikhail by saying I didn’t find the discussion of interest; he as as much right to yak about random stuff as I do, and much of what I yak about isn’t of interest to most people. It’s just that when you said “an interesting discussion” I was anticipating a discussion by someone who had read the book or had an in-depth knowledge of the subject matter or something. When I got there and found it was just a couple of guys talking in general terms about how much you can learn about people from their reading, I was disappointed.

  23. mollymooly says:

    I tend to yack more than I yak. But most of all, I bull.

  24. Imagine that. Only 23 posts and already the thread has gone off topic.

  25. You’re right: I love glittering generalities, though I pretend not to. Oh well. De gustibus, etc.

  26. LH, getting there and being disappointed is basically the general experience of most readers, I think, I don’t know why anyone even bothers to read our yaking – to be honest, I didn’t take your reference to be an instance of “dissing” plus I think it’s Greg’s duty here to defend the thesis that my exchange was “interesting” – I would say that “bah, it’s been done” could be a valid starting point, not necessarily an argument (well, it isn’t really), i.e. the burden of proof in this case would be on the author to show why his approach is worth our time…
    P.S. Reading books first in order to discuss them with fairly and objectively is overrated – I certainly would but at $110 a pop it’s not very likely.

  27. Hi! I’d like my wedding altered. Please send me $250 so that I can properly arrange the wedding-alterations with you,

  28. Hi! I’d like my wedding altered. Please send me $250 so that I can properly arrange the wedding-alterations with you,

  29. What does ‘East Turnaround’ mean on your site, Ms Alterations?

  30. Ashton Dixon says:

    lol I find yall’s discussion amusing, but yeah i normally say “when all’s said and done”, so it sounds natural to me.

  31. jamessal says:

    Why must academic books be so expensive?
    Tell me about it. For its section on Larkin, I really wanted to buy Philosophy and Literature by M.W. Rowe — but it’s like a $120. (The page I linked to has some fun business about ocean waves and truth in poetry.)

  32. I’m no oceanographer, but I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with that image of the wave forming a wall. It’s often like that when there’s going to be a shipwreck, in the movies, at any rate.
    Amazon UK has that book for $84 (£57.65), by the way. I think those ridiculously high prices are computer-generated and not based on what the book is really going for. I tried to get a guide to chain saws — it wasn’t much more than a leaflet, basically — and they wanted something unbelievable, like $150. I’m sure it was just out of print and the price had never been seen by a human being until I clapped eyes on it. Have you tried Abe?

  33. Sorry, don’t know how those italics got in there.

  34. married dating says:

    I managed to buy Philosophy and Literature by M.W. Rowe for $67 on ebay. Check it out.

  35. Now that’s what I’d call a really considerate spammer. It’s on-topic (in the LH sense of the phrase), useful information. Even if Mr or Ms Dating did pay a little over the Amazon price.

  36. Isn’t “married dating” an oxymoron?
    I think Hat would take out more of this type of trash when he comes by if the LHians weren’t so eager to nail them to the blog by commenting on them so quickly.

  37. Since Language is never going to win a battle to prevent it from emerging on to the comments page someplace or other, I think we feel less like spam victims when we’re manipulating what happens to it. However, I’d be happy to have Language remove spam comments with the spam itself. Or, if they’re by John Emerson and very funny, take away the spam & leave them high and dry.

  38. Don’t worry, any spam you see lingering like that has been defanged, its spam URL removed. Sometimes I just can’t resist a comment like “I managed to buy Philosophy and Literature by M.W. Rowe for $67 on ebay” posted by “married dating.”

  39. Croon: http://www.bookfinder.com will find you the best prices on books. Amazon is occasionally the best price for an out-of-print book, but not usually. Amazon’ advantages are the number of books it lists and the price breaks it sometimes gets on new, popular books. I use Amazon extensively for searching books (and in many cases their reviews etc. are very useful) but always try to buy elsewhere. ABE is my favorite, but Bookfinder will take you there.
    I agree that brick-and-mortar stores are the ideal best, but the closest good bookstore to me is 120 miles away. On top of that, bookstore clerks tend to be cranky introverts, and I’m a very cranky, somewhat agoraphobic introvert, and contrary to what you expect, and contrary to what some straw man might expect, cranky introverts don’t bond readily to one another. So except when I’m in an uncharacteristically jolly mood, my IRL bookstore visits can be not completely fun.

  40. Croon: http://www.bookfinder.com will find you the best prices on books. Amazon is occasionally the best price for an out-of-print book, but not usually. Amazon’ advantages are the number of books it lists and the price breaks it sometimes gets on new, popular books. I use Amazon extensively for searching books (and in many cases their reviews etc. are very useful) but always try to buy elsewhere. ABE is my favorite, but Bookfinder will take you there.
    I agree that brick-and-mortar stores are the ideal best, but the closest good bookstore to me is 120 miles away. On top of that, bookstore clerks tend to be cranky introverts, and I’m a very cranky, somewhat agoraphobic introvert, and contrary to what you expect, and contrary to what some straw man might expect, cranky introverts don’t bond readily to one another. So except when I’m in an uncharacteristically jolly mood, my IRL bookstore visits can be not completely fun.

  41. Sometimes I just can’t resist a comment
    I can’t resist Emerson’s classic retorts to the spambots either.
    I recently became enamored of Russian spambots and stared running them through a translation tool and letting them live on just one thread. It intrigued me how the Russians were using phonetic equivalents for English words like “blog” and “sex appeal”.
    Unfortunately the spam filter is one of those that “learns” and started letting more and more of them through. Perhaps the spambots also somehow learned some of their members could escape the Askimet dragnet by coming over to my place. Now about 95% of my spam is in Russian even though I have shut down their favorite thread.

  42. Thank you, Pete. My memory is getting really bad, but I’ve filed your post and lodged bookfinder in my menu bar thing. Bar menu? The burger and a small green salad, please.
    Likewise on bookstores and on crankiness.

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