BOOKS JULY 7, 1926
Pushkin, by Prince D. S. Mirsky. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. 266 pages. $2.50.
Gogol, by Janko Lavrin. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. 263 pages. $2.50.
The Republic of Letters series, under the editorship of Dr. William Rose, was recently inaugurated with Mr. Aldington’s admirable study of the life and genius of Voltaire. Two new additions to this set of semi-biographical, semi-critical volumes deal with the twin pillars of Russia literature: Pushkin and Gogol.
Since Doctor Rose allowed his name to he printed on the title page of Prince Mirsky’s book, it is to be imagined that he read it, in manuscript or in proof, before publication. But he seems to have foregone all the usual privileges of an editor. Apparently he made no effort to correct Prince Mirsky’s solecisms or to control his verbal tics. These are a source of amusement or irritation, according to one’s mood.
The book is presumably intended for readers who, being unacquainted with Russian, cannot read Pushkin in the original, and know nothing of even the most noteworthy critical commentaries on the poet in his own tongue. There are some indications that Prince Mirsky is aware of these facts. But on occasion he ignores them.
At one point the author observes judiciously: “As Pushkin’s art consists chiefly in the fitness of his words and in the absolute consistency of the sounds and rhythms, even the best translation may give about as much an idea of the beauty of a poem of his as a good map of the beauty of a landscape.” This does not prevent the Prince from citing the poet on page after page, in an English as devoid of color, salt and cadence as a deaf-mute of eloquence. The “mellifluous” quality of Pushkin’s verse is attested to with tireless iteration, only to be traduced by intolerable renderings of his lines. Further, the author has made a point of printing, in an appendix, several selections from what he describes, with pleased surprise, as “a whole series of good metrical translations” by a certain Thomas Budge Shaw. Two testimonies to M r. Shaw’s excellence and Prince Mirsky’s taste may be quoted:
Yes! I remember well our meeting.
When first thou dawnedst on my sight . . .
No! for his trump the signal sounded,
Her glorious race when Russia ran;
His hand, ’mid strife and battle, founded
Eternal liberty for man!
The Prince is even more inept as a biographer than as a critic. In an early chapter he informs his readers that “Karamzin’s influence on Pushkin though not immediately apparent, was very deep, and contribuited to change the radical of 1818 into the Imperialist and enlightened Conservative of 1830.” One might expect that the monograph would trace, among other things, the course of this change. But not so. The author merely gives a bare recital of the facts of Pushkin’s life which adds nothing to our understanding of his development, and less than nothing to our knowledge of the Russian scene during his lifetime. There is not a page on which Pushkin comes alive, not a single passage which wins our affection or compassion for him. The book gives ample proof that Prince Mirsky worships Pushkin as a poet, and he seems also—though this is less obvious—to admire him as a man. It has been said that each, after his own fashion, kills the thing he loves. Prince Mirsky has done it “with a kiss.”
Mr. Lavrin’s work on Gogol is in refreshing contrast to the book considered above. If it lacks the distinction of M r. Aldington’s manner, it avoids, on the other hand, the ineptitudes of Prince Mirsky’s. The author was at an advantage over Pushkin’s biographer in that he handled a prose writer, and so found citation easier. He was otherwise assisted by a working knowledge of the language in which he writes, and by an acute intelligence. The only difficulty with the book is that the biographer permitted himself the use of the psychological jargon which belongs to psychopathology more properly than to literature. He may perhaps be excused, since he presents Gogol, very convincingly, as a psychopathic case.
As Mr. Lavrin shows him, Gogol was a sensitive, proud, spoiled child, who grew up unable to fit himself into the world in which he had to live, and without ever reaching sexual maturity. “Being unable to adapt himself to actual life and actual surroundings, he had one alternative left: Either to escape from them into the romantic atmosphere of his childhood, into his own legendary Ukraine; or to describe them in such a way as to expose the given reality, to take revenge upon it by proving that it is unworthy of existence. And the more he wanted to prove this, the more realistic the data he accumulated with which to show that he was right in refuting it. Psychologically, Gogol’s ‘realism’ thus became a kind of inverted romanticism.” The bulk of the volume is given over to proving this very plausible diesis, and the final chapters deal with the tragedy that overtook the novelist when, seeking to comfort himself for the bleak present in a vision of life as it should and could be, he sacrificed his art and himself to a withering religious ideal.
On the last pages Mr. Lavrin indicates briefly the influence of Gogol upon the literature produced in Russia since his death, from Aksakov down to Biely. He concludes: in their best work some of the outstanding Russian authors “are usually more concerned about great life than about great art—a tendency which makes them strive after a plane where art grows not apart from man, but together with him. The ultimate tragedy of Gogol was that he could not attain to such a plane—since Gogol the artist was so immeasurably greater than Gogol the man. And he bad to pay a big price for this discrepancy: entangled in his own inner difficulties, he was wrecked at last both as man and as artist. He was a victim of his own impossible craving—the craving to reach that point where great art and great life meet and merge into one.” The value of Mr. Lavrin’s work lies in the fact that he has shown us at once the power of Gogol the artist, and the fatal spiritual poverty of Gogol the man.
This article originally ran in the July 7, 1926 issue of the magazine.