Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799-1837) has long been considered to be the founder of Russian literature and one of Russia’s greatest writers. In A Short Life of Pushkin, Pushkin’s life and works are explored within the historical and political context of early nineteenth-century Russia. It begins with a brief introduction of Pushkin’s ancestors before examining Pushkin’s life as a writer, lover and public figure. Pushkin’s life itself was certainly a fascinating tale. Those unfamiliar to it may enjoy learning about his time in exile and how his friends and patrons saved him from troubles, his various exploits like eating cherries during a duel, and his relationship with his wife, Natalia Pushkina. A Short Life also draws brief connections between his oeuvre and life and adds a slight depth to our understanding of the meaning of his works.

Robert Chandler, an award-winning translator of Russian literature, brings this biography together. (Chandler’s previous translations include three anthologies for Penguin Classics and works by Teffi, Vasily Grossman, and Andrey Platonov.) This succinct guide is information-packed and far from superficial or full of platitudes. It is well researched, being grounded in the primary material of letters from Pushkin and his contemporaries and quotes secondary material from historians. Chandler also helpfully highlights contentious areas and the unknown gaps within Pushkin studies. This guide is also up-to-date with the latest thinking, such as the theory that Abram Gannibal, Pushkin’s maternal great-grandfather, came from Chad and not Ethopia as previously believed. Importantly, this biography is also self-contained and self-explanatory, providing brief introductions to the individuals and events in Pushkin’s life.

Some readers may find Chandler’s guide disjointed because it moves from key periods in his life, often without a smooth transition between chapters. However, the books raison d’être is brevity, so those expecting a year-by-year account of Pushkin’s life should look elsewhere. This is also not an in-depth analysis of his oeuvre; instead it offers a brief summary of his main works and draws brief connections to the influence of his life to lines within his work. The main strength of this book is its simplicity whilst also providing a strong guiding-hand through Pushkin’s life.

The book was met with critical acclaim. The TLS mentioned it as “an engaging and enjoyable read”, while Russian Life Magazine praised it as “superb” and was more generous with enthusiasm and superlatives for the recently published work characterising it as “a masterwork…a digestible, readable biography”.

At a mere 160 pages, A Short Life of Pushkin makes for an engaging short read. It also provides a good starting point for those inspired to learn more about Pushkin because its succinct nature leaves the reader with plenty of details to investigate further.

 

A Short Life of Pushkin is published by Pushkin Press.