alexander pushkin -- 10/12/21

Today's selection -- from Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams by Charles King. Alexander Pushkin is exiled to Odessa.

"A notorious romantic and a writer of fire and dyspeptic spirit, his curly hair fashionably unkempt and a mass of whiskers trailing down his cheeks, Pushkin was a descendant of Avram Gannibal, an African who had been reared in the court of Peter the Great and was later granted landholding rights by the tsar. ... Already a poet and publicist of some note while still in his late teens, Pushkin pioneered the Russian literary genre that mixed lyrical imagery with political radicalism, cloaking calls for reforming the stifling tsarist autocracy in language infused with romantic suffering. When he emerged as one of the most vocal members of the coterie of young writers and artists that swirled through the salon society of St. Petersburg, he increasingly came under the attention of government censors, who ordered banishment from the capital in 1820.

Alexander Pushkin by Orest Kiprensky, 1827

"Pushkin spent the next three years on the southern plains, near the Caucasus Mountains and in the borderland district of Bessarabia, a land of rolling hills, sunflower fields, and Gypsy encampments. The region fueled his imagination and confirmed his self-image as a passionate outsider -- in his own mind, a latter-day Ovid reduced to writing plaintive epistles from the Black Sea. 'Accursed city Kishinev! the tongue would tire of berating you,' he wrote to one correspondent from the Bessarabian regional seat. By 1823 his request requests to be transferred to Odessa had been granted. ...

"When Pushkin finally arrived in Odessa in the hot July of 1823, he came with a literary and public celebrity that made the transfer of his excel something of a public event. He was never at a loss for dinner invitations or drinking partners. He was known to the city's substantial number of prostitutes, who were well acquainted with Greek and Italian sailors but rather less familiar with poets. He had spent the last three years wandering the empire's far-flung borderlands (albeit in a good deal of luxury) and now found himself sloshing through dust and mud to attend a salon or late-evening supper. 'I am again in Odessa and still cannot become accustomed to the European mode of life,' he wrote to his brother, Lev, in August. ...

"Pushkin was still in his early twenties when he moved to Odessa, and he soon began his pursuit -- and occasional conquest -- of the local notables, married and single, young and old. There was the twenty-seven-year-old Karolina Sobańska, still technically married to a wealthy Odessa businessman but living openly with the commander of military colonies in New Russia -- while also working secretly as a government spy to ferret out political radicals. There was Amaliya Riznich, with a pronounced Roman nose and already pregnant when they first met. ... But the most telling record of Pushkin's loves during his days in Odessa comes from an unexpected source: his own doodles. In the marginalia of an early draft of his masterpiece Evgeny Onegin, a work he began in Bessarabia and continued while working for [Mikhail Semyonovich, Count] Vorontsov, tiny portraits of women and men frame the text -- friends, acquaintances, people he saw on the street, and one after another of his obsessive loves."



Charles King


Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2011 by Charles King


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