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Pushkin's Button

by Serena Vitale, John Rothschild, Ann Goldstein

Buy the book: Serena Vitale. Pushkin's Button

Release Date: March, 1999

Edition: Hardcover


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Buy the book: Serena Vitale. Pushkin's Button

One of the Most Innovative Biographies I've Read

In her excellent _Pushkin's Button_, Serena Vitale doesn't attempt an exhaustive biography of the Russia's most famous poet. She limits herself to describing the puzzling and distressing events of the last year of his life, and in my opinion succeeds wonderfully. From the very beginning, Vitale creates a sense of suspense, excitement, and atmosphere by quoting from contemporary diplomatic dispatches. You'd think this could be dry; instead the effect is electrifying, giving the reader the sense of the scandal and distress that these reports spread to all the courts of Europe (in an age before television and email).

Having shown us how the story will end, Vitale next builds up her narrative piece by piece, sketching out not just a chronology of events but also the culture of the court at St. Petersburg. We feel privy to drawing-room conversations, summer balls that last until the early hours, state dinners and royal ceremonies. We're also ushered into Pushkin's household, a place so real you feel you can see its interior, and whose inhabitants you come to know. But Vitale has not written the kind of history that impinges on fiction's territory. There are no reconstructed conversations here; everything is documented. It is true that she sometimes speculates about the parties' possible motives, but when she does so she clearly indicates to the reader that she is exploring possibilities, offering her opinion and her opinion alone. Indeed, without Vitale's thoughtful insights, the book would be impoverished; having the benefit of her experience and immersion in the material is essential.

I strongly disagree with the previous reviewer about Vitale's style, which is hardly that of "Vanity Fair." Vitale is a serious Italian historian, well-versed in the period and the subject, and she has done impressive original research. The cache of letters she discovers is _not_ intended to reveal to us that Georges d'Anthes was shallow; in fact, Vitale's contention throughout the book is that d'Anthes has been maligned by history, blamed for the death of Russia's great man when responsibility did not lie solely with him, or even with Pushkin's beautiful wife (and d'Anthes purported paramour) Natalia, but also with Pushkin himself, whose actions in those last months troubled and distressed his friends. Luckily, there's no law that says history must be written without verve and flair. Vitale in Pushkin's Button has managed to pull off a nearly impossible task: to write a popular history that's not only an insightful and innovative piece of scholarship, but also a compelling and beautifully-written story.


Potential Interest, but Goes Nowhere

This book is full of interesting subject matter. Pushkin, the founding father of Russian Literature and its most exemplary poet, is a fascinating figure, embodying the enigmatic Russian soul and character. He was the ultimate Romantic outsider. His African descent was the subject of behind-the-back snickering at the court of Nicholas I. He was, however, held in great esteem as a writer by his contemporaries, yet he did not achieve his heroic status until after his death. It is his death (at the relatively young age of 38) in a duel with the French dandy, George D'Anthes, that is the primary subject of Serena Vitale's investigation.

The main drawbacks to Pushkin's Button are stylistic. Instead of marshaling her facts and presenting them in a forthright manner, Vitale instead resorts to a kind of breathy, gossip-laden, Dominick Dunne for "Vanity Fair," type exercise. She also scatters tidbits of information that she claims will have some significant import later in the story, yet in most instances, this turns out not to be the case. If she is trying to write a mystery, there are way too many red herrings. She claims that a series of letters found in a trunk in Paris in 1989 and viewed for the first time by her, reveal some startling information concerning the events leading up to the duel. Written by D'Anthes to his patron Barron Heeckeren (the Dutch Ambassador to Russia, who later adopted D'Anthes and may have had a more-than-fatherly love for his charge), they convey nothing particularly startling. To those familiar with the background behind the main characters, the fact that the letters reveal that D'Anthes and Heeckeren were shallow, supercilious hedonists is hardly news. Though she constantly hints that "all will be revealed," concerning the identity of the perpetrator of the "cuckold letters" that were disseminated amongst the Petersburg aristocracy, and that directly led Pushkin to challenge D'Anthes to the fatal duel, the identity behind the letters is never established. This is but one example of myriad unsubstantial queries the author leaves hanging.

For those looking for a more carefully reasoned, and infinitely better written book that covers much of the same material, I would recommend Henri Troyat's biography of Pushkin. Troyat, unlike Vitale, doesn't engage in empty conjecture and he has a thorough understanding of Russian history and literature, as he has authored several great biographies, ranging from Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Tolstoy, Elizabeth II, Alexander I, etc.

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