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This review is taken from PN Review 173, Volume 33 Number 3, January - February 2007.

PUSHKIN AT A GULP ALEXANDER PUSHKIN , The Gypsies and Other Narrative Poems, translated by Antony Wood with engravings by Simon Brett (Angel Books) £14.95

Pushkin is a superb storyteller, which is why so many of his tales have been seized upon by opera librettists. No surprise, then, that Merimée's translation of The Gypsies should have excited Bizet, or that the wilful defiance of Pushkin's Zemfira fed into his own fiery Carmen. It is the most dramatic narrative in this book and in several ways the test of the whole enterprise.

Written in 1824, during his exile in Odessa, The Gypsies is a daring experiment, which mixes dialogue and songs, first-hand observation of Gypsy life, and wild melodrama. In his Kishinyov exile, Pushkin had visited the nomadic communities living on the Bessarabian steppes, and in spite of the distrust felt towards them by the local populace, enjoyed their music, independence and vivacity. It is a poem altogether outside the range of Byron's high Romanticism, though paradoxically it demands something of the flexibility and facility of a Byron in its translator.

Wood easily handles the tetrameters, which are so often awk - ward in English, and is sensibly lax in rhyming, which enables the verse to flow without strain. In his excellent introduction to this volume, Wood expresses the hope that these versions might convey the distinctiveness of their original so sharply that it might be possible to compare them across to English narrative poets. The reader does so instinctively, whether advisable or no. Pushkin has little in common with the moral universe of Wordsworth or Coleridge. What he does share with them is a love for lucid spoken language, and this comes through.

Apart from The Gypsies, these are light, unpretentious pieces, translated with great charm. 'Count Nulin' parodies the story of Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece. In Pushkin's version of events, a slap is sufficient to cool the ardour of the would-be seducer, who probably takes his unwanted passion to his hostess's maid. Meanwhile, a young good-looking neighbour has his own reasons for laughing at the story when the husband returns.

'The Tale of the Golden Cockerel' is something of a challenge. It was Akhmatova who established that Pushkin had been reading a French translation of Tales of the Alhambra when he wrote it, and that he saw in Washington Irving's story of 'The Legend of the Arabian Astrologer' a way of taking a concealed literary revenge. Tsar Dadon is delighted by his astrologer's present to him of a golden cockerel, which alerts him to approaching dangers, and rashly promises to give the seer whatever he wishes as recompense. Meanwhile, the tsar woos the beautiful Queen Shamakhan. When he returns with his bride, the astrologer demands the Queen as his reward. Tsar Dadon refuses to keep his promise, and the astrologer takes a horrible vengeance.

This last was, sadly, wishful thinking. Pushkin's vision of a tsar as a puffed-up autocrat who breaks his promises was no fairy tale, but as poet and seer he had no destructive powers himself. The poem was written in 1834, when Pushkin's life at court had become a daily humiliation. Weighed down by debt, he would have liked nothing better than to retire to the country, but the tsar insisted Pushkin's beautiful wife must remain at court to ornament the imperial balls. Akhmatova was able to point out several amendments Pushkin made to help the poem pass the censor. Even in 1907, Rimsky Korsakov's opera based on the story was banned as politically dangerous.

There is no question of matching the original's slow, incantatory quality; Russian words can be five or six syllables in length, and a whole line is sometimes taken up by a single word with only one stress. Nevertheless, Wood succeeds in producing a poetic equivalent here; and one that can be read at a gulp. This little book, with its splendid woodcuts and scholarly foot notes, would make an enchanting present.


This review is taken from PN Review 173, Volume 33 Number 3, January - February 2007.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this review to
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