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Book Review May 27, 2004
Pushkin Dulled Down
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 2 of 3
I dare you to tell me you got through that whole dismal grab-bag of a paragraph without drifting off to hum the last pop song you heard, or wondering what to have for lunch. And remember, that's the first paragraph of the book. What an inviting prospect: 627 pages of this! Settle down in a comfortable armchair with this book and a good glass of cyanide.

And please, don't try to tell me that this paragraph is unreadable because it's so steeped in scholarship. The point of scholarship is to impart information, and this paragraph imparts none. Quick: without looking back at the quoted paragraph, state the name of the church where Pushkin was baptized. Or the street where he was born. Unless you're some sort of dullard-savant, none of those details stuck with you.

There's no scholarship here--just bad writing, bad in nearly every way possible. What's most surprising is the appalling prose style. When was the last time you heard someone refer to "the latter"? Yet that's how Binyon refers to Pushkin's nurse, by way of assuring us that it was she, rather than the infant, whom Paul rebuked. With no transition whatever, the sentence on this encounter with the mad Tsar is followed by the news that "In the autumn they moved back to Moscow..." Who is "they"? Pushkin and his nurse? Only on rereading can you make a reasonable guess that Binyon is referring to the whole Pushkin clan, servants and all. This is the sort of thing that gets circled in red pen on high school students' essays.

Nearly every sentence contains some digression or misdirection, and all are vastly overloaded with trivial details. The flood of trivia starts with the "half-brick and half-wooden house" where Pushkin was born. What does the brick/wood detail imply? Nothing, actually; it's simply the sort of architectural detail Binyon can't resist. It doesn't occur to him that burdening the first sentence of his biography with this sort of uncontextualized detail might not be worthwhile. The flood of dross rises; we learn that the neighborhood was the one in which "foreigners had been banished in 1652." If I may descend to the vernacular of the ignorant, so the fuck what? What's the point of telling us that when you're still trying to get your poet born?

I can imagine Binyon rewriting the beginning of David Copperfield: "I am born, in a fetching half-timbered hovel on Pissing Alley, site of a brief visit by Charles II in 1674, who popularized the spaniel of the same name before going on -- the former, that is, not the latter--to die in 1685...."

Somewhere in the flood of details, Pushkin's parents are named and his sister is born. Of course it's impossible that any reader could retain the really important information, their names and dates, tossed as they were among street-names, churches and real-estate patter. This means that Binyon has to introduce all these characters again, which he does a few pages later. So the whole wretched rat-hoard of an introductory paragraph is wasted.

Of course, this book aspires to be a scholarly biography of record, which means that it doesn't actually have to be readable. It has only to be cite-able. Those drudges who need to know where Pushkin was baptized will be able to refer to Binyon's first paragraph, secure in the belief that nothing so numbingly dull could possibly be inaccurate--a common and very dangerous assumption among scholars.

So perhaps there's an appreciative audience for Binyon's Pushkin scrapbook. What I can't accept is the flood of lying praise this doorstop has accumulated. All the top Tory liars weigh in: A. N. Wilson, the Telegraph, the Economist, the Times. Wilson, a man as shameless as Anders Aslund, actually says that this is "...the best biography I have read, not just this year but in decades."

Well, Wilson, you're a liar. And I know perfectly well why you told that lie: Binyon's project appeals to you, because you want all the wildest figures of history shrink-litted to fit the tame suburban landscape you inhabit--the template of your tendentious Milton bio.

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