Tag Archives: duels

A Short Life of Pushkin: Robert Chandler

I like a good biography, but selecting a book, sometimes from dozens written on an individual, can be a challenge. I want it to be the right one. What if the biography skips over chunks of a life? Then I end up reading another book and reading cross-over material.

Then there’s the completist biography. I’ve eyed, for example, the three volume set on Kafka by Reiner Stach. I’m tempted. Sorely tempted, but do I want to read around 1800 pages about Kakfa? Yes, he’s a fascinating man, no argument there, but exhaustive biographies can be just … well exhausting, and it’s often easy to lose the details when there are masses of them.

So when I saw translator Robert Chandler’s A Short Life of Pushkin, I was torn. Is this the Cliff Notes version? Did I want short? What if it was too short? What was the author leaving out and why?

A short life of Pushkin

Chandler examines Pushkin’s life and work in just over 160 pages. By trimming the fat, and I’ll get into more of that later, Chandler, left this reader with succinct details and a strong sense of the path that led to Pushkin’s early, tragic death.

Pushkin’s early life is examined in light of significant, shaping events, including the importance of his maternal grandfather, Abram Gannibal, and Pushkin’s  attendance at the “prestigious Imperial Lyceum, where he was “part of the first intake of thirty students.” Not a great deal of time is spent on Pushkin’s childhood, but we are told the essentials. There are times when the author ‘condenses’ behavior, but still leaves in a few significant details. For example we are told that Pushkin had many love affairs, but only the ones that left a mark on Pushkin, and generated creativity, are explored.

Most of us know, even without reading a biography. that Pushkin, an impetuous man from the sounds of his behaviour, fell foul of the Tsar and censorship very quickly. For this he was sent into exile. Many occasions are noted in which “Pushkin was to be saved by his friends. Unlike many children of emotionally distant parents, he had a gift for finding substitute parents who were affectionate and reliable. This may, perhaps, point to an underlying good sense in him that can easily be overlooked.”

He can’t have been too wild, as he was ‘adopted’ by several families, and yet the propensity to shock, outrage and offend was there, but was perhaps teased into prominence by frustration caused by censorship and lack of funds.

Pushkin’s southern exile began badly. During his first weeks in Yakaterinoslav (now Dnepropetrovsk) he seems to have tried hard to offend people, going as far as to attend one dinner in transparent muslin trousers and without underwear. The wife of the town’s civil governor led her three young daughters out of the room.

It’s choice details like this that pack a wallop.

There’s also a strong sense running through this lean biography of Pushkin’s self-destructive urges: his gambling, his desire to break free from society, his jealousy regarding his young, beautiful wife, and especially towards the end of his life, the duels he fought.

Significantly, the author mentions how Soviet critics, the “creative imagination” of one man and the vilification of Pushkin’s wife, Natalya have collectively impacted the impressions we have of Pushkin’s life.

Pushkin’s tangled relationships with both Tsar Nicholas I and censorship are charted, and in the dangerous political climate, Pushkin was watched, monitored and censored. Author Robert Chandler takes an interesting stance:

A great deal has been written about Pushkin as victim. The difficulties of his last years, and his eventual death, have been blamed on the Tsar–or more generally-on court intrigued. This view is too simple. The relationship between the Tsar and Pushkin was complex, and it certainly included mutual respect and affection. 

Snippets of a letter written by Pushkin to his wife are included, and this serves as a good foundation for the state of Pushkin’s mind when he challenged d’Anthès (his brother-in-law) to a duel. Another decision by the author is not to delve into the various conspiracy theories of Pushkin’s death. Conspiracy is mentioned (as it should be) but rapidly discarded. And instead the author, stating that “the truth is elusive,” follows the known facts and details of Pushkin’s final duel.

When I approached this biography, I was particularly interested in how the author would handle three topics:  Pushkin’s relationship with the Tsar, the behaviour of Pushkin’s wife, and conspiracy theories about Pushkin’s death. These three areas of interest are all tackled efficiently. I’ve read about the conspiracy theories and frankly, reading a biography that just dealt in the facts, while mentioning the theories, was oddly freeing. By concentrating on the known facts, and only mentioning rumour and conjecture, the author leaves us with plenty to ponder and also much concrete information to hang onto.

Review copy.

 

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Filed under Chandler Robert, Non Fiction

The Corsican Brothers: Alexander Dumas

“In a quarrel, the origin is not of any consequence.”

I’ve seen a couple of versions of The Corsican Brothers: The Douglas Fairbanks Jr. swashbuckler version

Corsican brothers

and the crude, hilarious Cheech and Chong version:

Also the Corsican Brothers

And that brings me to the source material: the novella from Alexander Dumas.

It’s 1841. The story begins with our narrator, a Frenchman who is journeying through Corsica, explaining the custom of claiming a night’s free board and lodging just by picking the “most commodious house,” and explaining you’re a traveller. The narrator (Alexander) explains this is seen by the owner of the house, as a honour, since you’ve picked his house out of the entire village.

Sounds like a bit of scam to me. Imagine trying to pull that these days.

Anyway, Alexander travels to Sullacaro, and notices that all of the houses seem fortified. In some of the houses, the windows are bricked up, or “guarded by thick planks , provided with openings large enough to pass a gun through.” The narrator selects the house that looks the finest but oddly enough is the only house that is not fortified. This is the home of the widow Savilia de Franchi, a woman about 40 years old, the mother of 21-year-old twin boys: Lucien and Louis.

Fortunately for the reader, the narrator is the sort of person who is interested in his surroundings. He’s given the room which belongs to the absent son, Louis, who resides in Paris, training to be a lawyer. It’s obvious from the room’s contents that Louis is a great admirer of all things French, and then the narrator meets Lucien, his brother’s opposite. In childhood, it was impossible to tell them apart, but now Louis wears French clothing, reads French books, while Lucien is deeply Corsican.

While Louis’ room is full of French books, Lucien, now an arbiter between warring factions, is more into weaponry. He  has an impressive arsenal which includes a dagger owned by the legendary Sampiero.

The narrator spends a day with Lucien who negotiates a truce to end a vendetta between two families–a vendetta which started over a chicken.

A hen escaped from the yard of the Orlandi, and flew over into that of the Colonna. The Orlandi went over to claim their hen, but the Colonna refused to give it up, claiming it as their own; the Orlandi then threatened to take them to a justice of the peace. The old mother Colonna, who kept the hen in her hands, then twisted its neck, and threw it in her neighbor’s face saying, ‘Well then, if she belongs to you, eat her.’ One of the Orlandi then picked up the hen, and was going to strike the offender with it; but at that moment, one of the Colonna, who, unfortunately, had a loaded gun in his had, took aim at him, and shot him dead on the spot.

And how many lives have now been paid for this scuffle?

There have been nine persons killed altogether.

And that for a wretched hen worth only twelve sous.

No doubt the hen was the cause; but as I have told you already, it is not the cause, but the result you must look at 

Over the course of his stay, the narrator learns that the two young men, Louis and Lucien are deeply bonded, and when one falls ill or is distressed, the other twin feels it, hundreds of miles away. Then the narrator returns to Paris and meets Louis. We see scores settled, and the way two cultures settle those scores:

not after the Corsican fashion, from behind a hedge, or over a wall. No, no, but after the French manner, with white gloves, a shirt frill and ruffles.

Once the stage is set, a fairly predictable course of events take place, and since this is an action-based vendetta story, there wasn’t any room for character development. Still I enjoyed the story for its strong Corsican bent, and the idea that twins possess an unearthly bond.

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Filed under Dumas Alexandre, Fiction