Yahoo News Onegin Article

November 15, 1999

Pushkin gets birthday makeover in West
By Lyndsay Griffiths

LONDON (Reuters) - The father of Russian literature is being given a birthday make-over in the West with leading poets and Hollywood heartthrobs all jumping on the Pushkin bandwagon.

This month sees the release of ``Eugene Onegin'' the movie, based on Alexander Pushkin's classic novel in verse, and the publication of a collection of his poems reworked by top writers of today.

Better late than never, say Pushkin devotees, who this year celebrated his 200th birthday.

Indeed, descendants of Pushkin -- who was so prolific he gave plots away to Gogol and inspired more than 4,000 pieces of music -- are relieved the master is finally winning the respect in the West that is routinely accorded him back home.

``There is not a man, woman, child or taxi driver in Russia who cannot quote Pushkin, and usually with tears in their eyes. This couldn't be more different from how Germans treat Goethe or we treat Shakespeare,'' Marita Crawley, Pushkin's great-great-great-granddaughter, told Reuters in an interview.

``Pushkin virtually single-handedly created the Russian literary language, so it really is about time that people discovered him in the West and actually read him,'' she said.

Fiennes To Recapture Pushkin Magic

Realistically it will be Ralph Fiennes the movie star rather than Ted Hughes the late poet laureate who spreads the word. While American actress Liv Tyler is the leading lady, ``Onegin'' the movie is very much a Fiennes family affair.

Starring Ralph, who won fame in ``Schindler's List'' and ``The English Patient,'' the film is directed by his sister Martha, the music is written by their brother Magnus, and Ralph's girlfriend Francesca Annis has a cameo role.

He says he has been ``haunted'' by Onegin since discovering it at drama school in 1984 and even tried to learn Russian so he could get to the heart of the bighearted man. He failed, but his Onegin remains a serious interpretation of a classic that should continue to captivate modern audiences.

``I do not speak Russian and I do not understand it but ... a dead writer can still be a contemporary writer,'' Fiennes said. ``Changes of time, place, custom, manners and language can alter our perspective on a great writer but they cannot extinguish the power of his words on the page. Our film, however wayward, is a response to that power.''

Fiennes has the looks and the languor to play Onegin but some purists do not like his sister's spin on the old classic.

``As an outsider, I can't afford to be inhibited by the cultural baggage of the work,'' she said of her award-winning film debut. ``I have to look at the bigger picture. Of course people will have criticism, but this film must be appreciated by people who have never heard of Pushkin.''

Man Of Paradox In Pantheon Of Bores

Unknown to many, Pushkin is all but a god in his native Russia, which celebrated his birthday with rapture in June.

``He is the father of Russian literature. All the poets and prose writers who came after him acknowledge their debt,'' Elaine Feinstein, an acclaimed Pushkin biographer and herself a poet, told Reuters.

``What an amazing man he was. What a dramatic life he led. Most poets lead rather boring lives but his was immensely exciting. This was an intriguing, paradoxical figure.''

Now the poet has won a new lease on life from 19 of the world's best contemporary poets, from Britain to New Zealand and the United States. They have come up with a contemporary slant on the Romantic master, mixing translation with interpretation as they rework tender lyrics and bawdy romps.

Ranjit Bolt's version of ``Czar Nikita'' captures all the lewd humor and ingenious rhyme that Pushkin deployed when he first told the tale of 40 princesses born without sex organs.

The 1999 remix of the classic ``I Loved You Once'' conveys pure Pushkin passion, while two poets join forces to tackle his powerful paean to St. Petersburg in ``The Bronze Horseman.''

There was no shortage of takers. Nobel Prize-winning writer Seamus Heaney, for one, said he could not resist taking a stab at reinterpreting Russia's greatest poet for the anthology.

For Hughes, who was Britain's poet laureate until his death last year, the ``After Pushkin'' collection was payback time. ``We owe Pushkin so much,'' he said.

Only one of the 19 poets knew Russian -- translations and transliterations were supplied -- but language does not appear to be a major barrier. Indeed, those who speak with the loudest voice capture Pushkin's spirit without drowning out their own.

``Pushkin is very, very hard to translate, so the idea was to do something risky in the spirit of the man himself,'' said Feinstein, who edited the anthology. ``What I hope is that they would write their own poems. Quite appropriately, many voices blend together to suggest a man of many faces.''

Carol Ann Duffy, one of Britain's finest poets, has no problem capturing Pushkin's tart tongue in her work ``Style,'' showing in just four lines that dead poets are not dullards.

``Grace in anything eludes you.
Style and you are worlds apart.
When you're clever, thought deludes you.
When you're beautiful, you fart.''

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