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My Talisman: Selected verse and biography of Alexander Pushkin, by Julian Henry Lowenfeld 

13 December 2019

Xenia Dennen reviews Pushkin in translation

OFTEN on the point of arrest at dead of night, according to the great Russian poet of the 20th century, Anna Akhmatova, a victim of Stalin’s purges would grab a volume of Pushkin’s poetry as his or her last free act. Pushkin is for most Russians their soul-friend: he is the focus of an almost religious veneration.

Julian Lowenfeld, an American poet and translator, in this book that contains his translations of a large selection of Pushkin’s poetry, has imbibed a similar veneration. For Lowenfeld, his translating was a “sacred sacrifice”; Pushkin is his “high priest”, his “seer” and “sage”, his “talisman”. Indeed, Pushkin’s poetry has a healing effect on him, who, in his own poem dedicated to Pushkin writes, “in my despair I always turn to you” who “cures numbness and soul-blindness”.

In addition to the translations of Pushkin’s poetry, Lowenfeld includes his excellent introduction to the poetry and a biography of Pushkin. He quite rightly likens Pushkin to Mozart: there is an effortless artlessness in his work which is “all the more mysteriously difficult to translate for its simplicity and clarity”; a reader must hear the musicality of Pushkin’s poetry — the lilt and the swing; and then there is the humour; for Pushkin “jokes and winks at us”. Lowenfeld acknowledges what a difficult task he has undertaken and humbly admits that his work is “a feeble rendering” which “can never really do justice to the divine original”.

The reader’s hopes are raised by the panegyric to Lowenfeld on the opening pages of this book written by Vsevolod Bagno, Director of the Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House) in St Petersburg, who claims that “the entire voice and music of Pushkin’s voice is preserved.” Alas, not so. The wonder of Pushkin’s poetry is not conveyed in this collection: why does a simple line in “Elegy” — “I want to live, to suffer and to think” — have to become “I want to live, to ponder, wrack, and pine”?

Among the quotations from his translations which the author includes in his introduction, we suddenly come upon a Shakespeare sonnet. Immediately, the music of the English language charms the ear. Perhaps, in the end, only a Shakespeare could render Pushkin into English and achieve that feat that would enable the English-speaking world to understand Russia’s soul-friend.

Or maybe a more possible solution would be for the English-speaking world to learn Russian!

Xenia Dennen is a Russian specialist, and chairman of Keston Institute, Oxford.

My Talisman: Selected verse and biography of Alexander Pushkin
Julian Henry Lowenfeld
Skyscraper Publications £20

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