By D S Mirsky.

What an excellent biography. When I was searching for a good description of Pushkin’s life and work this volume, written in 1926, was recommended and I found it detailed and well-written. Since it was published there have been numerous biographies which probably take the scholarship of certain aspects of Pushkin’s life further – but this is a concise and fairly objective analysis. Mirsky didn’t seem to have an axe to grind in a particular direction – though he is very dismissive of Belinsky and the other critics of the 1830s and 40s. What does come through loud and clear in the biography is the subjugation of Pushkin’s genius by the authorities. Pushkin wanted to travel extensively but wasn’t allowed, everything he wrote had to be given to the Tsar and his officials to be read before they could be published. Sometimes, as in the case of the play Boris Godunov, the consent was not given unless changes were made and so Pushkin simply didn’t publish his play. How different Pushkin’s life and art could have been if he had decided to rebel and leave Russia to find his own way. The problem was that Pushkin seems to have been a very likable and passionate man but a person that deep down wanted to please others. As a result, apart from a brief sojourn to the army in Caucasus, he never really acted against the wishes of the authorities after his banishment as a young man.

What makes this biography even more interesting is the story of the biographer DS Mirsky. Mirsky was a prince and member of the aristocracy and fought for the Russian army against the Germans in WW1. After the revolution he fought for the Mensheviks against the Bolsheviks but managed to escape as the Bolsheviks took control. Mirsky ended up in London and wrote several books while lecturing at the University of London. More detailed information is found on his wikipedia page. Mirsky then converted to Communism and returned to Russia in the 30s. In 1937 he was arrested and died two years later in a labour camp. His History of Russian Literature was much admired by Nabokov – and his biography of Lenin is considered definitive.

I have always considered Pushkin a genius, but after reading this biography I believe that he may not even have achieved his full potential due to the situation he was placed in by the Tsarist authorities. Imagine what a Pushkin could have written if he had roamed Europe in the same way that Byron did? A very thought-provoking biography.

Here is a link to Lermontov’s poem about the death of Pushkin, which in turn displeased the Tsar and as a result Lermontov was exiled to to the Caucasus. And so the cycle continued.

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Uncle Vanya

By Anton Chekhov.

Following on from my last post I downloaded and read Uncle Vanya on a whim – and loved it. And lo and behold it was on at the Arcola theatre until 4th of June and I missed it. There are some great lines in this play and while the setting is unfamiliar everything else is still relevant. People haven’t changed that much, really, in 150 years (roughly when the play was set – not written). This one of my favourite quotes from the play:

You are not mad; you are simply a ridiculous fool. I used to think every fool was out of his senses, but now I see that lack of sense is a man’s normal state, and you are perfectly normal.


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Russian Sketches, Chiefly of Peasant Life

By Leskov, Grigorvich, Nekrasov, Lermontov.

The Leskov story ‘The Sealed Angel’ is the longest story here and it really is very intriguing. It follows the tribulations of a group of old believers and their dealings with the religous orthodoxy. There is much description of the iconography and the story is well told. I have been considering reading some Leskov for a while – I did once see the Shostakovitch opera ‘Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk District’ which was brilliant. Grigorovich also had a few stories here and they didn’t really do much for me. A little too heavy on the description and not enough substance.

The poem by Lermontov was excellent as were the ‘poems’ by Nekrasov. I put ‘poems’ in quotes because they seemed prose to me – but that may have been the translation. I had wanted to read something by Nekrasov previously, due to his associations with both Belinsky and Dostoevsky, but he is known more as a publisher than a poet and works were difficult to find. Again this collection was read on kindle and downloaded from openlibrary.org – the advent of ebooks have opened up millions of novels and collections which were difficult to source and read previously. The ease of access means things can be read on a whim due to some random association – that has to be good.

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The Devil’s Pool

By George Sand.

I almost gave up on this novella due to George Sand’s preface. She seemed too eager to try and justify the telling of a simple story that didn’t mean anything big and profound. There was no need – the story was good and it was well written, and i’m glad I persevered. The end also grated with more authorial instruction and intrusion into the story. So, I am of two minds about George Sand based on this short novel. She could tell a story very well and the story was interesting and perspicacious – but there was a lack of judgement (or some ego) with her framing. It seems I will have to read more by her  because it was good and hopefully her artifice was just a one-off. This was free from the kindle store – definitely worth it.

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