without talent do you found a literature. Dante in Italian, Pushkin in Russian: others wrote before them, and in their languages, but their respective, respected countries have elevated them to singular, originary positions in the history of their literatures. And not only that, but if you talk to your average Muscovite or Tuscan, they are likely to tell you Pushkin or Dante invented the languages themselves. Nice business card: Alexander Pushkin, language founder. Of course he didn’t, nor did Dante. Each, in fact, mention earlier writers in their great works. Florentine became the preferred Italian dialect for many reasons that had nothing to do with Dante, and modern Russian evolved slowly from Old Church Slavonic a number of centuries before Pushkin’s birth. Yet the point remains that each wrote better in their language than anyone had before them (and most anyone after), and in more diversified manners. Like his English hero, Lord Byron, Pushkin wedded high styles and low, dipped the combination in satire and infused it with his personal verve and wit. Tsar Nicholas, when not hitting on Pushkin’s luminous wife, Natasha, called him the greatest wit in Russia. And he was.
He was also one of its greatest womanizers (again, following the example of the rakish Byron). During his young life, Pushkin slept with as many women as possible (and many were possible), keeping notebook entries on all his encounters. This practice more or less continued after his marriage, with him seducing not only his wife but all her sisters, and, if one believes the Secret Journal, having advances made on him by the mother-in-law, who he spurned. Naughty, naughty Pushkin.
Yet these shenanigans would prove the end of the poet. Pushkin died in a duel with his brother-in-law a duel not over the sister, but over Natasha herself. The French-born provocateur, Baron D’antes, flirted shamelessly with the great beauty, and, in the opinion of most historians, married Natasha’s sister only to be closer to her. Pushkin’s jealousy continued to stew. Finally, after receiving a certificate designating him “Coadjutor of the International Order of Cuckolds,” the irate Pushkin swapped pistol rounds with his all-too quick drawing rival. Though Pushkin got off a shot, he was mortally wounded and died two days later. He was thirty-seven.
In Pushkin we have, then, an inordinately great spirit. Like Ovid, Marlowe and Byron before him, he was a consummate ladies man with vast literary talent. He lived well (if not wisely), loved, lost and loved more, revolutionized his mother literature (even if imitating writers from abroad) while never compromising his commitment to nookie. So, in celebration of the second centenary of Pushkin’s birth (June 6, 1799), I’ll be excerpting two of Pushkin’s sexiest stories as well as portions of his ultra-scandalous, possibly spurious, Secret Journal. Welcome to Naughty Pushkin Month at Nerve.* * *
From Tsar Nikita and His Forty Daughters by Alexander Pushkin
Translated by Walter Arnd (modified slightly)
Tsar Nikita once reigned widely,
Richly, merrily, and idly,
Did no good or evil thing:
So his realm was flourishing.
He kept clear of toil and bother,
Ate and drank and praised our Father.
With some ladies he had squired
Forty daughters had he sired
Forty maids with charming faces,
Four times ten celestial graces,
Sweet of temper, full of love.
Ah, what ankles, Heaven above!
Chestnut curls, the heart rejoices,
Eyes a marvel, wondrous voices,
Minds enough to lose your mind:
All from head to toe designed
To beguile one’s heart and spirit;
There was but a sole demerit.
Oh? What fault was there to find?
None to speak of, never mind.
Or at most the merest tittle.
Still, a flaw (though very little).
How explain it, how disguise
So as not to scandalize
That cantankerous old drip,
Help me, Muse your poet begs!
Well between the lassies’ legs . . .
Stop! Already too explicit,
Too immodest, quite illicit . . .
Indirection here is best:
Aphrodite’s lovely breast.
Lips, and feet set hearts afire,
But the focus of desire,
Dreamed-of goal of sense and touch,
What is that? Oh, nothing much.
Well then, it was this in fact
That the royal lassies lacked.
Sternly Tsar Nikita summoned
Courtiers, mummies, nannies, “Come and
Hear the stricture I impose:
Any one of you who sows
In my daughters’ minds suggestions
Or provokes unseemly questions,
Or so much as dreams to dare
Hint at that which is not there,
Deal in doubtful words and notions,
Or perform improper motions
Let there be no shred of doubt:
Wives will have their tongues cut out,
Men a member more essential,
Intumescent in potential.”
Our Tsarevnas grew apace.
Sad their lot! Nikita’s Grace
Called his Council, put his case:
Thus and so not unavowedly
But in whispers, not too loudly,
Pas devant les domestiques . . .
Mute the nobles sat and wondered
How to deal with such a freak.
But a gray-haired Nestor pondered,
Rose, and bowing to and fro,
Dealt his pate a clanging blow,
And with venerable stutters
To the potentate he utters:
“May it not, Enlightened Sire,
Be accounted wanton slyness
Or offend your Gracious Highness:
Sunken yet in carnal mire,
A procuress once I knew,
(Where’s she now? What does she do?
Likely in the same vocation.)
She enjoyed the reputation
Of a most accomplished witch,
Curing any ache or itch,
Making feeble members sound.
Pray let my advice be heeded:
If that witch could just be found,
She’d install the thing that’s needed.”
Envoys were despatched who fleetly
Sped by special courier post,
Searched the realm from coast to coast,
Scampered, scurried, faster, faster,
Tracking witches for their Master.
One year passes, nothing’s heard,
And another, not a word.
Till at last a lad of mettle
On a lucky trial did settle,
Rode into a forest dread
Just as though by Satan led;
There he found the little cottage
Where the witch lived in her dotage,
Boldly passing gate and bar
As an envoy of the Tsar,
He saluted the magician
And revealed the Tsar’s commission:
What the quest was all about,
What his daughters were without.
Three-score hours she brewed her spell,
Conjured up the Prince of Hell,
And so soon as she could ask it,
He produced a brassbound casket
Stocked with countless feminine
Wherewithals of men’s sweet sin.
Curly beauties, choice examples,
Every size, design, and shade,
What a marvelous parade!
Sorting out her wealth of samples,
Soon the sorc’ress had arrayed
Forty of superior grade
All in damask napkin dressed,
And had a locked them in the chest.
This she handed to the willing
Envoy with a silver shilling,
And he rides . . . till in the west
Sinking sun commends a rest.
What was hidden in the casket
That the witch was sending him?
Just that oaken lid mask it
For the journey’s interim . . .
Tightly grooved, though . . . all looks dim.
Terror of the Tsar’s decree
Yields to curiosity,
The temptation’s too delicious:
Ear laid close against the fissures,
Long he listens but in vain;
Sniffs —: familiar scent . . . Egad!
What profusion there, what wonder!
Just a glimpse could not be bad;
If one pried the lock asunder . . .
And before he knew, he had.
Whoosh! The birdies, swarming out,
Light on branches all about,
Tails aflirt. In vain our lad
Loudly calls them back to casket,
Throws them biscuit from his basket,
Scatters morsels all no good.
(Clearly such was not their diet);
Why return if you could riot
Sweetly chanting in the wood,
To be cooped in gloom and quiet?
Meanwhile in the distance stumbles,
All bent double by her load,
Some old woman down the road.
Our poor envoy up and bumbles
Quite distracted in her wake:
“Granny, help, my head’s at stake!
Look, there sit my birdies scattered,
Chattering as if nothing mattered,
How can I entice them back?”
That old woman craned her neck,
Spat, and with her crook did beckon:
“Though you asked for it, I reckon,
Do not fret or worry so:
If you your thing to them do show —:
They’ll all come back, of that I warrant.”
Our young fellow thanked the crone,
And the moment he had it shown
Down they flutter in a torrent,
Swarming off their firs and birches,
And resumed their former perches
In the envoy’s box; and he,
To forestall some new disaster,
Clapped them under lock and key,
And rode homeward to his Master,
Thanking God he had retrieved them.
When the princesses received them,
Each one promptly found its cage;
And the Tsar in royal glee
Graciously was pleased to stage
A gigantic jubilee.
Seven days they spent in fêting
And a month recuperating.
The entire House of Lords
He allotted rich rewards,
Nor forgot the witch herself:
On the Art Museum’s ladders
Reaching for the highest shelf,
They brought down to send the elf
Skeletons, a brace of adders,
And in spirits in a jar
Half a candle, famed afar.
And of course the envoy bold
Had his prize. My tale is told.
Some will ask me, eyebrows climbing,
Why I wrought such fatuous rhyming,
What reason for it was?
Let me answer them: Because.
Excerpt taken from Pushkin Threefold: Narrative, Lyric, Polemic and Ribald Verse.
© Ardis Press, 1993. Reprinted with permission.