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Pushkin's Button [Paperback]

Serena Vitale , Ann Goldstein
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

2 Mar 2000

The dramatic true story of the love affair between Russia’s greatest poet, his wife and her lover, french hussar George d’Anthes – and the tragic duel that followed.

Pushkin’s Button is an astonishing tour de force, a riveting account of the last few months of Pushkin’s life before his death on 27 January 1837.

It is also the story of the French soldier who killed him, Georges d’Anthes, a man in love with Natalya Pushkin, the poet’s wife, the most beautiful woman in all St Petersburg. Vitale’s extensive archival detective work has unearthed a mass of fascinating written material about this famous love triangle – journals, letters, scraps of gossip by those in their circle – that brings the indulgent world of 1830s St Petersburg, with its salons and imperial balls, vividly into focus.

Sparkling throughout with Pushkin’s own genial wit, Serena Vitale’s book is, as George Steiner says, ‘almost impossible to put down’.


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Product details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate; New edition edition (2 Mar 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1857029372
  • ISBN-13: 978-1857029376
  • Product Dimensions: 19.3 x 12.7 x 2.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 746,099 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

In telling the story of the duel that killed Alexander Pushkin, Russia's greatest poet, Serena Vitale is trying to do something more exciting than simply put together a biographical chronology of the man's life. In place of the usual dull plod through life and works, Vitale focuses on the extraordinary events of the end of Pushkin's life, and works backwards and sideways, as it were, to provide a quirkily rich portrait of the great man. Partly she is able to pull this off because she writes like a novelist instead of an ordinary biographer; partly it is the connections Vitale makes, connections worthy of the lively mind of Pushkin himself. Take her title: an anecdote about Pushkin's clothing noted by a contemporary ("Pushkin's bekesh was missing a button at the back, at waist height...clearly they were not looking after him") leads Vitale not into obvious contemplation of the adequacy of the many servants who attended the poet, but rather into the way the missing button "resembles the stress accent that suddenly breaks loose from the iamb and vanishes into the void" in a typical Pushkinian line of verse. Pushkin's Button is bursting at the seams with surprising and illuminating perspectives such as this. --Adam Roberts

Review

'Not only an enthralling portrait of imperial St Petersburg in the 1830s, it qualifies the usually idealised, radiantly pathetic image of the poet.' -- George Steiner

'Serena Vitale has invented a new literary form somewhere between biography and detective story . . . Beautifully written, and crammed with exquisite detail, this book is the work of an artist and a scholar.' -- Elaine Feinstein, The Times

'Vitale conveys so vividly the tortured processes of Pushkin's mind during his last days that they become convincing testimony to his tortured genius . . . Pushkin's Button should be bought, read and emulated.' -- Donald Rayfield, Literary Review

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars When Pushkin comes to shove 20 Jun 2001
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
I ignored this book when it first came out. I thought: not another one of those Wittgenstein's Poker, Galileo's Daughter, Nathanial's Nutmeg (fill in at will) sort of books that are supposed to signal:
1)middlebrow intentions 2)lots of anecdotes 3)non-serious "serious" books for the non-reader
but... I was wrong. It's very good, minus a slight whiff of purple that has got into the translation. What happened in 1836/37? Well, we don't really know: Vitale turns the available sources in her hand like a crystal, facets briefly catch the light then disappear. Truth? Who knows? The past remains multivalent, fluid, and the characters in the drama refuse to hold their poses for history's final snapshot. Compelling, and it got me reading Pushkin: Eugene Onegin is brilliant!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
The story of Pushkin's death is riveting enough however you tell it. The mixed-race subversive single-handedly forges not only a conscience but a poetry for the Russian people, marries a beautiful dimwit who just loves being queen of the ballroom, and meets his nemesis in a blond blue-eyed dancing boy from well-spoken France. It's Othello rewritten for real: how patriotic can a Russian be when his skin is swarthy and his blood's part African? Pushkin the dark poor outsider becomes the father of his nation's poetry, laying down the foundations on which all modern Russia from Dostoevsky and Tolstoy to Lenin and Ahmatova were to build. But the cannibalistic aristocracy of his day preferred to go weak at the knees for a charming Frenchman with nimble feet and a few dirty jokes. Even barracks humour - provided it was in in French - sounded more civilised to their francophiliac ears than Pushkin's Russian prose and poetry (alhough their age uncannily presages our own in its sudden ability to recognise its heroes the minute they're dead).
Serena Vitale more than does this story justice, and you certainly don't need to know anything about Pushkin or Russia in order to enjoy it. She unearths new materials that let the dead speak. She unravels the plot as if she's writing a thriller, piecing together Pushkin's insane but seemingly unstoppable drive towards the fateful duel. She lets some of her materials speak for themselves, like Pushkin's roundtrips to the pawnshop versus the unecessarily bountiful gifts from Danthès' repressed and obsessive sugar daddy.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not The Author to Turn To 30 Nov 2002
Format:Hardcover
This book is full of interesting subject matter. Pushkin, the founding father of Russian Literature and its most exemplary poet, is a fascinating figure, embodying the enigmatic Russian soul and character. He was the ultimate Romantic outsider. His African descent was the subject of behind-the-back snickering at the court of Nicholas I. He was, however, held in great esteem as a writer by his contemporaries, yet he did not achieve his heroic status until after his death. It is his death (at the relatively young age of 38) in a duel with the French dandy, George D'Anthes, that is the primary subject of Serena Vitale's investigation.
The main drawbacks to Pushkin's Button are stylistic. Instead of marshaling her facts and presenting them in a forthright manner, Vitale instead resorts to a kind of breathy, gossip-laden, Dominick Dunne for "Vanity Fair," type exercise. She also scatters tidbits of information that she claims will have some significant import later in the story, yet in most instances, this turns out not to be the case. If she is trying to write a mystery, there are way too many red herrings. She claims that a series of letters found in a trunk in Paris in 1989 and viewed for the first time by her, reveal some startling information concerning the events leading up to the duel. Written by D'Anthes to his patron Barron Heeckeren (the Dutch Ambassador to Russia, who later adopted D'Anthes and may have had a more-than-fatherly love for his charge), they convey nothing particularly startling. To those familiar with the background behind the main characters, the fact that the letters reveal that D'Anthes and Heeckeren were shallow, supercilious hedonists is hardly news.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Account of a Tragedy 11 Jun 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I enjoyed this and would recommend it, despite the flowery style (this may be a fault in translation; not speaking Italian I wouldn't know if what is purple prose in English comes across differently in Italian).

The research is very good and the author is far more objective than T J Binyon in the last chapter in his biography, who seemed to detest d'Anthes for daring to pursue Natalya Nikolaevna, Pushkin's lovely wife (as Pushkin himself did with married women so many times before getting married, an irony which no doubt didn't escape him).

Sadly, as Natalya's letters have been lost and so many accounts of her are biased one way or the other (such as that of her daughter by her second marriage, who was anxious to clear her name)our knowledge of her is very limited. We don't even know what she felt for Pushkin himself, though it is obvious that he was besotted with her; perhaps she had grown to love him (as he said he hoped she could before their marriage) but couldn't resist the romantic allure of the dashing d'Anthes.

Pushkin is an intrigiuing study, a mass of contradictions though finally very much a man of his time and of Tsarist Russia; his courage during his last two days of terrible suffering was remarkable. You feel for him in his mortification and anguish, but feel that in insisting that Natalya felt nothing but contempt for d'Anthes after his marriage to her sister, he was putting about the version o fthe story he wanted to come down to posterity. There is that intriguing snippet of information from Vyazemsky that Pushkin asked her apropos that fatal duel for whom she would weep, and she replied 'The one who is killed'.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the Most Innovative Biographies I've Read 7 Aug 2003
By Beth Johnston - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
In her excellent _Pushkin's Button_, Serena Vitale doesn't attempt an exhaustive biography of the Russia's most famous poet. She limits herself to describing the puzzling and distressing events of the last year of his life, and in my opinion succeeds wonderfully. From the very beginning, Vitale creates a sense of suspense, excitement, and atmosphere by quoting from contemporary diplomatic dispatches. You'd think this could be dry; instead the effect is electrifying, giving the reader the sense of the scandal and distress that these reports spread to all the courts of Europe (in an age before television and email).
Having shown us how the story will end, Vitale next builds up her narrative piece by piece, sketching out not just a chronology of events but also the culture of the court at St. Petersburg. We feel privy to drawing-room conversations, summer balls that last until the early hours, state dinners and royal ceremonies. We're also ushered into Pushkin's household, a place so real you feel you can see its interior, and whose inhabitants you come to know. But Vitale has not written the kind of history that impinges on fiction's territory. There are no reconstructed conversations here; everything is documented. It is true that she sometimes speculates about the parties' possible motives, but when she does so she clearly indicates to the reader that she is exploring possibilities, offering her opinion and her opinion alone. Indeed, without Vitale's thoughtful insights, the book would be impoverished; having the benefit of her experience and immersion in the material is essential.
I strongly disagree with the previous reviewer about Vitale's style, which is hardly that of "Vanity Fair." Vitale is a serious Italian historian, well-versed in the period and the subject, and she has done impressive original research. The cache of letters she discovers is _not_ intended to reveal to us that Georges d'Anthes was shallow; in fact, Vitale's contention throughout the book is that d'Anthes has been maligned by history, blamed for the death of Russia's great man when responsibility did not lie solely with him, or even with Pushkin's beautiful wife (and d'Anthes purported paramour) Natalia, but also with Pushkin himself, whose actions in those last months troubled and distressed his friends. Luckily, there's no law that says history must be written without verve and flair. Vitale in Pushkin's Button has managed to pull off a nearly impossible task: to write a popular history that's not only an insightful and innovative piece of scholarship, but also a compelling and beautifully-written story.
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Potential Interest, but Goes Nowhere 3 July 2002
By Bruce Kendall - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book is full of interesting subject matter. Pushkin, the founding father of Russian Literature and its most exemplary poet, is a fascinating figure, embodying the enigmatic Russian soul and character. He was the ultimate Romantic outsider. His African descent was the subject of behind-the-back snickering at the court of Nicholas I. He was, however, held in great esteem as a writer by his contemporaries, yet he did not achieve his heroic status until after his death. It is his death (at the relatively young age of 38) in a duel with the French dandy, George D'Anthes, that is the primary subject of Serena Vitale's investigation.
The main drawbacks to Pushkin's Button are stylistic. Instead of marshaling her facts and presenting them in a forthright manner, Vitale instead resorts to a kind of breathy, gossip-laden, Dominick Dunne for "Vanity Fair," type exercise. She also scatters tidbits of information that she claims will have some significant import later in the story, yet in most instances, this turns out not to be the case. If she is trying to write a mystery, there are way too many red herrings. She claims that a series of letters found in a trunk in Paris in 1989 and viewed for the first time by her, reveal some startling information concerning the events leading up to the duel. Written by D'Anthes to his patron Barron Heeckeren (the Dutch Ambassador to Russia, who later adopted D'Anthes and may have had a more-than-fatherly love for his charge), they convey nothing particularly startling. To those familiar with the background behind the main characters, the fact that the letters reveal that D'Anthes and Heeckeren were shallow, supercilious hedonists is hardly news. Though she constantly hints that "all will be revealed," concerning the identity of the perpetrator of the "cuckold letters" that were disseminated amongst the Petersburg aristocracy, and that directly led Pushkin to challenge D'Anthes to the fatal duel, the identity behind the letters is never established. This is but one example of myriad unsubstantial queries the author leaves hanging.
For those looking for a more carefully reasoned, and infinitely better written book that covers much of the same material, I would recommend Henri Troyat's biography of Pushkin. Troyat, unlike Vitale, doesn't engage in empty conjecture and he has a thorough understanding of Russian history and literature, as he has authored several great biographies, ranging from Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Tolstoy, Elizabeth II, Alexander I, etc.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Literary Whydunnit 4 May 2000
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
In her work on the events surrounding the duel that killed famed Russian writer Pushkin, Vitale weaves a literary web of both his contemporaries' accounts of the events leading up to the duel and its repercussions, and the often tangled motives of the players and those who reported their actions. Similar in its reconstruction techniques to Charles Nichols' "The Reckoning" (dealing with the murder of Christopher Marlowe), "Pushkin's Button" reads like a great mystery, and a window onto upper class Russian society of the day
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sifting through scandal... 24 July 2010
By Blaze - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
A bit uneven in its narrative style yet endlessly fascinating, I found this work more entertaining and thought-provoking than T.J. Binyon's recent comprehensive biography of Pushkin. Also, it gave interesting insight into the pleasure-filled life of the Russian aristocracy.
3.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating story that demands a lot from its reader 4 May 2014
By keetmom - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
In concept "Pushkin's Button" is brilliant - a weaving together of two parallel stories, one told by the writer giving her own perspectives and thoughts and the other in which she relates the final months in the life of Russia's most celebrated man of letters, Alexander Pushkin, culminating in his dramatic death after a duel. In practice, Serena Vitale demands a lot from her readers and the success of the book depends on their willingness to forge on through the complexities of Imperial politics and the courtly social calendar of early 19th Century Russia. It was only some way into this book that the central plot, presented in the form of snippets of gossip, research, romance and intrigue, began to gell for me and I appreciated the huge amount of work that Vitale had put into deconstructing this compelling literary murder mystery. From the start you know who is going to die and how, but working out where the button comes in is the hard part.
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