Pushkin by Pushkin: Cloud 2
After a decent interval - to allow my imaginary wounds to heal - I was able to exploit my newfound celebrity as a gelded poet. Everybody wanted to dance with me. I indulged my penchant for big girls with small feet. Married matrons showed me their calves. I discovered that fleet-footed ballerinas were deformed when they removed their dancing pumps. I sat at the feet of Princess Eudoxie Golitsya, and fell for them. My devotion was rewarded.
I don’t wish to be ungallant but, since we’re both dead, discretion is hardly necessary. I must say sucking the toes of this fierce Polish radabarbara was akin to having your fire stamped out in hell. Afterwards she kicked me to my feet and crushed me like a great she-bear would a cub. I ran to safety and got myself an official fiancée. Little Anika Blok.
The match had the blessing of both families. The Bloks were landed, but not gentry, and aspired to enter society. The Pushkins had slightly soiled visiting cards. The lure of a generous dowry animated my parents, and I was not adverse to the idea: with private means I could settle down and write seriously.
I stayed with the Blok family in the country. Anika was just a child. She loved nature, though the birds and the bees were a mystery to her. I respected her buttoned up boots. Her girlish effusiveness meant never a dull moment. She drew me into playing Krylov’s Ass, a creature of Honest Principles, to her Kyrlov’s Peasant, a shy maiden with flowers in her hair. Alas her father lost the dowry in a crop failure.
On the rebound I sat at the feet of Princess Potocky, another Polish woman of uncertain age. She displayed a rather public passion for me. As a great beauty, she didn’t need to make overtures. I was commanded to her boudoir. Her husband resembled a bellhop. Every time I tried to kiss her feet a telepathic gong went off and Prince Polo appeared. My frustration shows in the pomposity of my farewell note. ‘You won’t be beautiful for ever, and you are not beautiful just for yourself’. I distracted myself with the young wife of a retired General. It wasn’t serious, but it inspired my best love poems. Where they come from is nobody’s business. But complicity helps. Anna Kern was to be a friend, on and off, for the rest of my life.
Czar Nicholas arranged a sinecure in the Foreign Office, all the better for the police to keep an eye on me. I was unsuited as I couldn’t stand sitting down. Moreover, all this watching made me think it was time to watch myself. I retreated to the backwaters of Odessa. This annoyed everybody, but pleased my political friends, who could say I was forced into exile.
The trigger was a letter I wrote to a friend abroad. An Englishman passing through St Petersburg amused me with the remark ‘I am taking lessons in atheism’. I repeated it in a letter. The police opened it and released the safety-catch. The blasphemous fellow, regarded as a risk to Holy Russia, was a divine called Wilkinson. On his return to England he became a bishop.
Retiring to the country made me a man of letters. Letters became my main contact with the world. I had a triple-tier readership. My friends, the police and, sometimes, the Czar himself. I made sure the letters were of interest to all three. This I think proved to be the basis for my subsequent success.
In my rustic retreat I found back numbers of English quarterlies, and I studied the art of ‘boredom’, a new word (and experience) for me. I broadened my vocabulary to include other fashionable English words such as ‘spleen’, ‘bluestocking’, “rout’, not to mention ‘the polite sin” (homosexuality) and ‘so on’. Such terms have entered the Russian language through my writings.
I became the Baltic Byron overnight. Cultivating a ‘stiff upper lip’ (difficult with my fat kisser), and very bad manners in bucolic drawing rooms. Scarcely admitting the presence of other people, except to avoid like misplaced chairs. I developed the art of being ‘stuck-up’ (an English expression I learned later).
It worked a treat. Polite rural society likes nothing better than to be insulted by a literary young man of mysterious means. But free suppers, even if they included buckwheat pie, were insufficient to sustain me. I began to publish my rural rides in St Petersburg. Roubles and readers resulted. My hitherto suspicious political friends took to quoting more outrageous sallies. Mocking the kulaks was acceptable to them, and indeed to the police and the Czar. I became an indispensable literary figure. But not completely at the expense of the rural polite. I came to love them in my fashion. Eugene Onegin is the longest billet deux never sent.
The work didn’t exactly flow. I was seasonal. Autumn was harvest time. Poems and plays tumbled out. But nine months of the year I just twiddled my thumbs, and idling means boredom and boredom breeds follies. I started making mistakes with my life to divert myself.
Gambling, for instance, which I could ill-afford. I befriended Ogan Doganofy, a clerk of works, but his true profession was manipulating chance. I don’t believe I ever saw Doganofy’s hands. He always wore immaculate grey gloves. Otherwise he was a dowdy dresser as befitted his day-job. He pokered me out of my literary gains, but was patient about payments. And so my debts to Ogan Dog accumulated. He even played me for the interest on them, and always won.
He made me sweat , but he wiped it off with tender solicitude. Dog really believed in my future as the Russian Walter Scott, cherishing IOUs, waiting patiently for immenent success. Come to think of it, investments from my royalties are probably still supporting his descendants. Posterity certainly owes something to him: he made me work, occasionally out of season.
A Wife At Last
My worst mistake - marrying Natalya- was less productive. Friends begged me to think again about the engagement. ‘There are others, not uninterested or uninteresting. Why nasty little Natty with her silly ways and tiny intellect? You’re old enough to be her father’. Defending my little beauty became a matter of pride. ‘I’m fire, she’s ice. I’ll melt her’. I said to shut them up. They sloped off, shaking their heads. Their exits showed real affection. I was moved, but not to change my mind.
What I couldn’t tell them was the simple truth. It was an easy mistake to make because it was an obvious one. I was tired of swooning matrons , complicated blue-stockings, and feared what I could do to real innocents like Anika Blok. I looked around the locality for the most unsuitable young lady, and Natalya stood out. Too beautiful to be true. But her feet met with my specifications, and her family had the crazy idea I had money.
They courted me. I didn’t have to do anything. I just stood there, allowing them seduce me.
Natalya was something else. She flirted with herself, as though before a mirror in which I was framed in mock gold-leaf. Like a good daughter she was merely fulfilling her duty in showing her prettiness to advantage. Precocious in the art of pleasing, her indubitable charms had a hard selfish edge which I admired, being sick of melting matrons and soggy sentimental bitches. I was also a mite flattered by her clockwork deference to me. But it was the Perugino touch that sealed the deal, and a deal it was.
An artist friend who trafficked in Peruginos copies showed me a particularly coy Madonna. Her resemblance to Natalya was uncanny. Self-reflecting eyes conscious of her own beauty, the butterfly mouth on the point of a simper. As the feet are cloaked I had to imagine them: each toe a twitchy token of the sitter’s impatience. She is itching to kick the hand that paints her. But is just about keeping her pose as a delightful creature. The infant on her lap looks as though he is about to fall off.
My letter of proposal was sent back by her mother. It was illegible. My ‘drunk’ with happiness could be misread as ‘devoid’, but it literally reflects the state I wrote it. After the wedding, Natty’s dowry bounced. My in-laws were in the hands of the receivers. I married their debts. There was no honeymoon, only a money-moon. Natalya’s mother took over the finances, and the availability of Natty.
Marital rights could be procured when I was bringing in the roubles. I tossed off an epic poem, and Natty sacrificed herself. When my credit was low she was taken away by her mother. Not that she seemed to mind. I was just a slight interruption in her beauty sleep, a call to duty. For me the withdrawals were an incentive to work. My nuptial bliss became dependant on the tumescence of my art.
I played my part as a husband to the full. When my flight to the country was formalised as exile (the Czar’s censor, Aksakoff, said it was good for my writing) I wrote her daily letters before she, and her family, joined me. They are affectionate, even uxorious. I did not patronise her with playfulness. I acknowledged her beauty and kissed her feet with the signature. My literary talent did not go wholly unappreciated. She wrote, ‘I don’t miss you because of the letters’.
In our domestic arrangements I observed the niceties. There was enough unpleasantness' elsewhere to distract me. I buried the little private hell where one’s pride prevails, and took to liking Natty for what she was. I found to my surprise I could. The pleasure this gave me may have been moral. But the pimbĕche and me got used to one another, and produced three babies.
She was more ‘school of’ Perugino’s simpering Madonna than the real thing. In a rare letter in my last years I wrote, ‘When I am bored I am drawn to you, just as you are drawn to me when you are frightened’. It was heart-felt. Although the mother of my children handed them over to wet nurses as soon as she could, she wasn’t indifferent to them. But the children were only briefly a bond between us. I had my literary babies and she had herself.
The Silver Slipper
My formal exile ended as suddenly as it was imposed. Word came that I was pardoned. Why? I was perplexed. I had become increasingly daring in my letters, addressing the Czar directly ( ‘As Your Highness will well know etc‘). I was hoping for a posting in Paris ‘to get me out of the way’. And, damn it, here I was being called to Court instead.
The why was Natalya. Her reputation as a provincial beauty had reached St Petersburg, courtesy of the Police. The Czar took one look at Natty and I was back in favour. He offered to become my personal censor and bestowed on me a Court decoration, the Silver Slipper, usually reserved for the youngest sons of minor nobility. State duties included holding up the Czar’s cloak when there was mud on the carpet.
Natty came into her own at Court balls, insatiable little feet, insatiable little flirt. The Czar wasn’t alone in delighting in her. Though a mite jealous of her success, I was not worried. I knew my darling wife did not melt for anyone except herself. The smitten provided just enough flutter in her décolletage for self-adoration when unpinning the rose.
Neither did I see the Czar as a threat. He was a voyeur. While others touching her ice with their fire would be extinguished and, if they persisted, would end up with frostbite. I saw Natalya as Diana, and the Court as the hunt. The more she was pursued the faster she went. But I was compromised. It was fairly clear to Court observers that she wasn’t running to me.
My Diana ran on admiration. She had already used up all mine. I was out in her cold, stumbling around. True, my troubadour charms brought in money for mother. Otherwise I was an encumbrance. But still I wasn’t resigned to be the eunuch in the Czar’s extended harem, keeping the cold-storage below freezing point for an ice-maiden. The whip of concurrence makes every man a fool. I still had ambitions to thaw her. Even if it meant burning down the nuptial home.