February 23, 2015 by AK
…I’m rather at a loss as to what to say. It’s a brilliant and brilliantly written book… and ordinarily I’d urge you to read it, but 1) it’s heavily allusive and ironized… 2) it’s about a forgotten figure who’s never going to regain even the modest prominence he deserves, so why bother… and 3) it’s sad, sad, sad — it’s one thing to read fiction about pathetic characters ground down endlessly by fate, but when it’s a real person with real kids he’s trying to support, it leaves you feeling miserable.
Lurie’s work, in two words, is about the editor, writer, and translator Nikolai Polevoy getting crushed by the reactionary minister of education Sergei S. Uvarov and the progressive, rebellious critic Vissarion G. Belinsky. The former was a highly controversial character, a classicist in the service of a despot as it were.
Pushkin called Uvarov a “great villain”: see this comment by Language Hat for more details on the meaning of the Russian word podlets. It was not Uvarov’s homosexuality per se that angered Pushkin. My feeling is that Russian high society of Pushkin’s time was only mildly homophobic and not sanctimoniously Victorian in its attitudes to gay relationships. But it did not go well with people like Pushkin when Count Uvarov had his reputed paramour, Prince Dondukov-Korsakov, appointed Vice President of the Academy of Sciences: the Prince, in contrast to the Count, was not qualified for the post.
In 1835, Pushkin called Dondukov “an idiot and a bardache” in his private diary. Pushkin’s ire was inflamed not by Dondukov’s “deviance” but his insistence on censoring the poet’s work. Also in 1835, Pushkin penned a famous epigram against Dondukov, asking “why is the man occupying a seat at the Academy?” and explaining, “because he has a butt.” The next year, 1836, Pushkin apparently made piece with Dondukov, who nonetheless went down in Russian history as “Prince Dunduk,” pronounced “doon-dook.”