Andrew Kahn: Pushkin As A Poet of Ideas

An interesting review of a couple of new books on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin – perhaps the most significant Russian novel in verse – I have to say that Kahn’s book looks interesting, even though I am personally not sure how much one can really learn about someone by looking at their books and marginalia.

Kahn has read systematically many hundreds of the titles in Pushkin’s own large library (in the same editions) in order to understand the nature of Pushkin’s engagement with current philosophical and aesthetic ideas. Of these titles, over 80 per cent are English and French works, in the original or in translation. Using B. G. Modzalevsky’s annotated catalogue of the library, which records the pages cut and the marginal notes and annotations made in them by Pushkin, Kahn seeks not to identify sources as past critics have done, but to trace the poet’s “thinking through lyric”. Kahn’s Pushkin is a poet of ideas, the intellectual heir of “a long eighteenth century”, but one who “suspends judgement”, using his deceptively simple and transparent poems as opportunities for the indirect dramatization of those ideas, and for “creating a lyric speaker who thinks aloud”. Allusive terms in the poems – “imagination”, “inspiration”, “fancy”, “will”, “strength” and “fame” – open up to the reader (the reader who is willing and able to read with Pushkin) the great conceptual framework that holds up their delicate lyric expressiveness.

One thing, of course, is true – everyone seems to be shaped by what they read in Pushkin’s Onegin and it is an interesting interpretive strategy to look at books in order to judge the author, yet I am still quite uncomfortable thinking that someone can glimpse at my books and conclude that I am such and such person – probably because in my case it’s rather easy, since most of the books I own are boring philosophical works…