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Erwin Wedel, ed. A. S. Puschkin (1799-1837). Beitrage zum 200. Geburtstag des russischen Nationaldichters, 1789-1923.

Erwin Wedel, ed. A. S. Puschkin (1799-1837). Beitrage zum 200. Geburtstag des russischen Nationaldichters, 1789-1923. Schriftenreihe des Osteuropainstituts Regensburg-Passau, Band 17. Regensburg, 2003.114 pp.

The echoes of the two-hundredth anniversary of Pushkin's birth are still to be heard, as collections appear of papers resulting from the many events that occurred to commemorate such an important date. The volume under review is a compilation of five essays by scholars associated in some way with the East European Institute in RegensburgPassau, Germany.

The thread that unites the essays is Pushkin--here glorified as Russia's "national poet"--a slighly panegyric note that seems out of place against the serious, scholarly tone of the artices; but the articles, with the exception of the last, are all of a comparative nature, relating Pushkin to other writers and traditions.

Rolf-Dietrich Keil of Bonn sets the ball rolling with a reconsideration of the question of Pushkin and Goethe. He contributes an interesting discussion of the nature of truth, focusing on the two poets' treatment of the legend of Napoleon in Egypt shaking hands with someone stricken with the plague. Keil suggests, convincingly to me, that Pushkin changed the date of his poem that treats the incident, "Geroi," to flatter Nicholas I, who visited Moscow during the cholera to show there was no danger.

The second, longer paper by Aleksandr Smirnov of MSU, deploys condiderable erudition to discuss the structure of the lyrical "I" in Pushkin's romantic poetry. Smirnov has studied carefully German theory of romantic subjectivity, and applies it to Pushkin. His analysis is interesting as far as it goes; however, it seems to this reviewer that the complex nature of Pushkin's poetry is far from being totally captured: such issues as the metapoetic nature of the poetry, and the near descent into a real, not simply conventional madness, need elucidation in order to obtain a complete picture of Pushkin's frequently paradoxical subjectivity.

Heinz Kneip of Regensburg draws a comparison between Mickiewicz's Dziady III and Pushkin's Boris Godunov, rightly asserting that both works are dramas of ideas that engage issues of the nature of Russian autocracy, each dramatizing in its own way the conflict between authority and opposition, and drawing parallels between the Decembrists and the Polish uprising of 1830-1. Kneip could, however, have underlined more the paradox of Pushkin's relationship to autocracy--for obvious reasons, a more conflicted one than that of Mickiewicz.

A more ambitious project is presented by Alois Woldan of Passau, who draws parallels between Pushkin's "Poltava," Ryleev's "Voinarovskii," and three texts from Polish literature: Antoni Malczewksi's "Maria," and Juliusz Slowacki's "Mazepa" and "Sen srebrenego Salomei." The analysis, which is carefully grounded on a typology drawn from Byron's verse tales, is competently done, and throws interesting light on the themes of Ukraining exoticism in Russian and Polish romanticism.

The final paper in the volume is of different type. In it Erwin Wedel draws an enjoyable and finely detailed picture of the role of Odessa in Pushkin's life and work. The work is heavily footnoted--indeed, not only is half the text made up of footnotes, but the reader is confronted with nine additional pages of "addenda to the footnotes"! (Surely a lot of this material could have been integrated into the text itself--for readability's sake, if for nothing else.) Much of the text is given over to discussions of Pushkin's relationships with different men and women in Odessa: Vorontsov, of course, A.N. Raevskii, but also Vorontsova, Riznich, and Sobanska. Wedel has clearly studied the period inside out, and his paper is a mine of information. One has to agree with his assertion at the end that although Pushkin went through an ideological and poetic crisis in the South, it remained in his work as a memory of a "joyful and painful sojourn" (104) that deeply shaped his work thereafter. As another footnote to be added to Wedel's, it should be noted that the German translation of the last line of Pushkin's epigraph "Budesh' polnym nakonets"--"Dass er ein ganzer werden kann" (95) misses the second meaning of the Russian "polnym"--"complete" (which actually seems a rather lame ending), but also "fat." The experienced reader of the hidden associations in Pushkin will recognize the hint: fat husband = cuckolded husband. As Wedel shows, Pushkin's hope was fulfilled by the poet!

Germany has long had a solid tradition of scholarship about Eastern Europe. The five essays that make up this volume are confirmation of the vitality of this tradition and its strengths--a general knowledge of the broader Slavic tradition, a strong grounding in theory, and a painstaking, detailed study of texts. The fact that they are in German means, regrettably, given that fewer and fewer scholars, whether North American or Russian, are fluent in that language, that they will not obtain the currency they deserve.

J. Douglas Clayton

University of Ottawa
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Author:Clayton, J. Douglas
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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