Alexander Pushkin’s lifelong engagement with French literature, language and culture is a well documented fact of Russian literary history. It has been investigated from many angles and by many Pushkinisty, including some of its most eminent practitioners (to name but a few: A.N. Veselovsky, B.V. Tomashevsky, B.G. Reizov and A.A. Akhmatova). One of the essential merits of the book under review is that it has so many new things to say about a subject about which so much has already been said.
Pushkin v roli Pushkina, written by V.I. Vol′pert, Professor of Russian Literature at Tartu University, is in fact comprised of two books, written over a twenty year period. The first, entitled Tvorcheskaya igra po modelyam frantsuzkoi literatury, takes up Pushkin’s relationship to several seminal works of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century French literature. The second, entitled Pushkin i Stendal′, attempts to establish typological connections between Pushkin and Stendhal. The two monographs, however, are connected not only by their shared subject — Pushkin’s relationship to French literature — but by a common thematic thread: the importance of “play” (igra) and “playful behavior” (igrovoe povedenie) in the creation of Pushkin’s prose. It is this that justifies the two works being separately titled but presented as Part One and Part Two of a single monograph, Pushkin v roli Pushkina.
What does Professor Vol′pert mean by “play”? Relying largely on the definition provided by Johan Huizinga in his Homo Ludens — action that is “free,” “disinterested,” “plentiful,” “spatially delimited,” possessing its “own individual order” capable of producing an “oasis of hope” — Vol′pert sets out to describe the complex relationship between Pushkin the man and Pushkin the artist, between his life and art. Going beyond a narrowly intertextual approach, she develops what can be called a dialectical model in which literary works read by Pushkin are applied first to life before being reborn, transformed, in a new work of art. Her most compelling examples of this process concern Pushkin’s creative process during the Mikhailovskoe exile (1824–1826): here she carefully and creatively interprets Pushkin’s correspondence with the likes of Anna Kern and Anna Wolf as a form of “play” with the epistolary novel — and its psychological premises — that becomes a preliminary act to the writing of Roman v pismakh. The key French text in this process is Choderlos de Laclos’s Les liaisons dangereuses, itself full of play. Vol′pert discovers the same process in Pushkin’s reading of French “psychological prose,” especially Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe: here Pushkin’s letters to Sobanskaya (“the Unknown One”) serve to bring Adolphe into “real life” preliminary to his literary re-creation in The Moor of Peter the Great, The Stone Guest, and other works. Subsequent chapters take up Pushkin’s appropriation, from life into literature and then back to literature, of the worlds (and words) of La Bruyère, Louvet de Couvray (here she documents the Frenchman’s influence on the creation of not only Eugene Onegin but Count Nulin and The Little House in Kolomna), Marivaux, Nivelle de la Chausée, and others. Two excellent chapters take up the importance of the French comedy, especially that of Beaumarchais, for Pushkin’s development of a non-aristocratic model of character, situation and language. An especially productive chapter takes up Julie de Krudener’s epistolary novel Valérie (1803), a strategically marked up copy of which was found in Pushkin’s library: Vol′pert reads it quite convincingly as an unsent love letter, probably “addressed” to Anna Kern.
Like the essays collected in Tvorcheskaya igra po modelyam frantsuzkoi literatury, Pushkin i Stendal′ is rich in close intertextual readings and a deep knowledge of Pushkin’s life and art: however, both monographs suffer from inadequate conceptualization. For instance, Vol′pert’s discussion of play, which is central to the entire enterprise, does not proceed further than the Huizinga quote and the literature-life-literature model of Pushkin’s creativity; neither Kant nor Schelling, for whom the concept of play is central to the very idea of aesthetic activity, are even mentioned. This weakness generates another, which partially undermines Tvorcheskaya igra po modelyam frantsuzkoi literatury and Pushkin i Stendal′ to an even greater extent: this is the discussion of the role of Pushkin and Stendhal in the development of literary realism. Vol′pert uses the term frequently and unreflectively: Pushkin-realist, zakonomernost′ puti k realizmu, and allied concepts structure many of her theoretical pronouncements; yet the results of her research, in all their richness, tend to undercut the adequacy of the idea of “transitional figures to realism” as applied to Pushkin and Stendhal. This is not to deny that both authors manifest many elements of “incipient realism”; but this is true only in part and only if one insists on finding only “realism.” It is true that by violating the codes of romanticism and especially sentimentalism (through parody, irony, self-mockery and other forms of deformation), Pushkin moves the boundaries of Russian literature, but by no means only toward realism. Indeed a more profound discussion of play itself could have led to a more full and satisfactory discussion of Pushkin’s prose as such. By so doing, she could also have more satisfactorily addressed the fascinating subject of Pushkin and Stendhal.
The search for an analogy between Pushkin and another figure in world culture is a natural one for the comparatist. Pushkin has of course been compared both to Shakespeare and Goethe as “lawgivers” of their nation’s modern literary languages and models of national literary thought and technique. He has also been productively compared to Mozart as a Protean figure, both neo-classical and romantic. Professor Vol′pert attempts to add to this approach by suggesting a fundamental similarity between Pushkin and Stendhal. To her credit, she does not try to disguise or cover up the difficulties: to begin with, Stendhal wrote no poetry, and his approach to the writing of psychological prose, stylistically speaking, has very little in common with Pushkin; she also clearly sees that their lives were fundamentally different. However, she does identify other important points of convergence, “typological similarities,” the first three of which would have to be considered most important: Stendhal’s diaries exhibit the same spirit of “play” as do Pushkin’s letters; both Pushkin and Stendhal are, as literary figures, “transitional figures,” bridging the gap between romanticism and realism (to quote her, in my translation: “ … like the Romantics, they seek to depict intense passions; like the Realists, they seek to uncover their social determinacy” 237); they shared tastes and aesthetic positions; both were “writer-thinkers,” with a lively interest in social, political, and scientific questions; both were raised on Enlightenment ideas of sensualism and rationalism; both were free thinkers; both felt themselves constantly watched; both were debt ridden; both felt unappreciated at the end of their lives.
Although the spatial limitations of this review make a thorough critical examination of these claimed similarities impossible, it should be pointed out immediately that many of the above-mentioned characteristics were shared by other writers of the period. Also, the claim of shared tastes and aesthetic positions has several gaping holes in it: Stendhal, we know, worshipped Rousseau while Pushkin did not; Pushkin loved Chénier and Parny, to whom Stendhal was largely indifferent; Stendhal regarded both Prévost and Diderot highly, Pushkin did not. While it is true that both Pushkin and Stendhal cast a jaundiced eye on the excessive subjectivism of much romanticism, this is hardly proof of an identity of views.
Just as with the first part of this book, Pushkin i Stendal′ is filled with penetrating readings of Pushkin’s works and stimulating interpretations of his life; the subjects range from the Napoleonic myth in Pushkin and Stendhal, the theme of adultery in both (Vol′pert has discovered the source of Pushkin’s sketch Svetskii chelovek in Ancelot’s novel L’homme du monde), Pushkin’s (and to a lesser extent Stendhal’s) “historicism” and the role of Shakespeare in its conceptualization, and a very good article on The Queen of Spades and Le Rouge et le Noir. Unfortunately, Pushkin i Stendal′ suffers from extreme schematization. Taking on a subject considerably more complex than that explored in Tvorcheskaya igra po modelyam frantsuzkoi literatury, she writes half as much. The most telling example is her crucial assertion that Pushkin’s reading of Le Rouge et le Noir was the prime catalyst for a major shift in Pushkin’s approach to prose writing (266): unfortunately, this provocative assertion receives very little demonstration.
Even more unfortunate, this schematism tends to provoke a growing feeling that the writer, rather than reading Stendhal openly, is forcing a preconceived notion onto the texts. For example: as a reader of French literature, Professor Vol′pert has surely noticed that Pushkin’s prose has much more in common with Voltaire’s limpid, spare style than with Stendhal’s self-consciously non-harmonious, complex, “polyphonic” one. Also, Pushkin’s rebellion against convention, which can be read as a cry for freedom, is more deeply encoded in literary allusion and metaliterary discourse than Stendhal’s alternately more direct and considerably more interior play with psychological masks. Finally, Pushkin’s “turn toward prose” was a turn to the prosaic, to the everyday, to the “novelistic”; while this is clearly part of Stendhal’s projet, it is but a part, and perhaps a lesser part: Stendhal’s lyrical exaltation cannot be swept under the rug. In the end Professor Vol′pert herself comes to concede the conundrum:
Unlike Pushkin, who values stylistic harmony (“noble simplicity,” “measure,” “proportion”), Stendhal does not seek it; his prose is full of “unnecessary” auxiliary words and lexical repetitions. He is not at all concerned with a finished style, consciously allows unevenness and awkward constructions … And yet there is one area where there is a striking similarity between Stendhal and Pushkin: in their autobiographical prose (correspondence, travel writings, notebooks), where, to use Pushkin’s words, “the charm of free, unconstrained story telling” reigns. In all other genres, there are notable differences between Pushkin and Stendhal as artist-stylists. However, what is essential is not this difference but what unites them: both writers were the first in European and Russian literatures to create a theory of realistic style and to give a model of it in their artistic practice. (317)
Once again, we are back to the “realism” solution, which ultimately is unsatisfactory for explaining the achievements of either writer (for now we will leave aside the question of whether Vol′pert’s genealogy of realism through Pushkin and — especially — Stendhal is convincing). Also, by largely limiting herself to French examples, she must skirt — or at least significantly underplay — two English authors whose role in Pushkin’s process of self-definition as prose writer is crucial: Walter Scott and Lawrence Sterne.
In spite of these reservations, Pushkin v roli Pushkina is an important book, filled with innumerable stimulating insights and new paths of potentially productive research. In this sense, the work has just begun.