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

by
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
(978-1-911072-25-6)

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Forthcoming Events

21-22 February 2020
Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature
With Sam Wells, Catherine Fox, Mark Oakley, Suzannah Lipscomb and many others. 
See the full programme

26 March 2020
Theology Slam Live Final
Hear three of the UK’s best up-and-coming young theologians as they reflect on the most pressing issues of our time.  Book tickets

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)