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Golden Age and Twilight

ISSUE:  Summer 1937

Pushkin. By Ernest J. Simmons. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. $4.00. Anton Chekhov: The Voice of Twilight Russia. By Princess Nina Andronikova Toumanova. New York: Columbia University Press. $3.00.

Of pushkin it has been said that he ushered in the Golden Age of Russian literature, and now Princess Toumanova in her singularly illuminating critical biography of Chekhov aptly describes the latter as “the voice of Twilight Russia.” In the background of the epochs represented by these two writers we had two Nicholases, Nicholas I and Nicholas II respectively, insidious monarchs both, to whom, if Russian literature prospered, no thanks are due. Somehow, when one thinks of these two Tsars one thinks of Chekhov’s story, “Volodya the Great and Volodya the Small”; one remembers, too, what small chance the heroine, Sofya Lvovna, had of saving her self-respect between the two. That Russian literature did save its self-respect despite these vain autocrats is a tribute to Russian genius and to its power of overcoming the most distressing incubi. It is quite certain—and indeed Professor Ernest J. Simmons stresses this prominent feature of Pushkin’s character — that the great Russian poet had a superabundant sense of life, “a joy of living” as they say with us. It is equally certain that but for Alexander I (the same Tsar who treated with Napoleon), who sent Pushkin to the provinces, and his successor Nicholas, who recalled him to St. Petersburg in order to torment him for his own pleasure, the poet might have lived a long life and continued to produce masterpieces of poetry and prose. As it was, he was hounded to a duel and to death; and one suspects that the vile Tsar put the poet in the mood of being ready to die. After a life full of amorous exploits —his own Don Juan’s List offers the names of only the more choice of his “victims”—Pushkin had the misfortune of marrying a beautiful but silly woman who seemed to have no other purpose in life but to run him into debt, which made the poet beholden to the Tsar for patronage, for which he paid dearly. Tsar Nicholas had a gift for refined cruelty, which he combined with no little histrionic ability, as readers of Merejkovsky’s “December 14” will remember; he handled the conspirators of the Decembrist revolt of 1825 personally, and played with the poet Ryleev as a cat plays with a mouse. He doubtless never forgave Pushkin for his sympathy with the distinguished conspirators who, indeed, considered Pushkin their poet, though because of his ardent temperament he was not allowed to have a share in the revolt. The intrusion of the French royalist exile, Baron d’Anthes, on the scene only added fuel to the flame; he made love to Pushkin’s wife, Nathalie; the vicious gossip of the Court did the rest. Pushkin implored the Tsar to be allowed to go abroad or to the country; even this was forbidden him by the malicious auto-I crat. Little wonder that the full-blooded, liberty-loving poet got tired of his existence. Proud, he would stand no humiliation. The duel was inevitable. And he was cut off in his prime, but not before he had created the forms and direction Russian literature was to take, and had left behind the most imposing work of any Russian writer, a labor acknowledged by all and in particular by Dostoevsky in his famous speech at the unveiling of the Pushkin monument in 1880, in Moscow. In this speech the author of “The Brothers Karamazov” stressed the fact that Pushkin was not only the most national but also the most international of all Russian writers; the poet’s gift of universal comprehension was, he said, a gift peculiarly Russian. In connection with this year’s centenary commemoration of the poet’s death, the literary critics of Soviet Russia are making a great ado about his sad lot under the Tsars, and they claim him for their own on the ground that he would have fared very much better under the Soviets. This, however, is very questionable. I greatly doubt if Russia’s Shakespeare could have taken orders from despotic doctrinaires. Just before his death he was getting more than a little bored by his existence in Russia, and he would have died from ennui today in a country which forces its creative writers to write according to a formula that excludes so many of the factors that make up the spectacle of life.

As for Anton Chekhov, the last of the great line that began with Pushkin, he was not only bored with life as he saw it, but more perfectly than any one else he expressed the epoch which began with the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 and ended with the reign of Nicholas II. Princess Toumanova ascribes the tedium of the epoch to political repression and to the general disillusion that prevailed among the disappointed liberal elements who expected a Constitu- j tion and got a reaction instead. She might have added an even more important factor: the belated industrialization of the country then in progress and the creation of a numerous middle class, of which Chekhov was the laureate. And, incidentally, if Pushkin’s Tsar was actively vicious, Chekhov’s Tsar was passively so. It was political viciousness gone to seed, and Chekhov’s stories undoubtedly reflect the spirit of the class most affected by it. Chekhov was bored in his own life and he expressed the boredom of life generally in stories and plays, but these were never boring, because they were endowed with sympathy, tenderness, and consummate art, lyrical in its undertones. Princess Toumanova understands Chekhov and she writes of him with sympathy in a prose that is singularly competent considering that she was not born to English. As a critical biography of a charming man and exquisite writer, her book is well-balanced and is all that it should be, though she has by no means exhausted all the available materials. Her interpretations of Chekhov’s plays are particularly good. Critically, it is a better book than Professor Simmons’s, which, however, is more full-blooded as a life, and readable as a life regardless of his subject’s achievement. This, of course, is not Princess Toumanova’s fault. Chekhov’s life was integrally less interesting than Pushkin’s. Indeed, Chekhov may be said to have had scarcely any life at all. But, undoubtedly, he was a charming personality, and the writer conveys it with no little skill. Both books should be read by all who want to understand Russian literature and, above all, that intangible thing that used to be called the “Russian soul.”


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