Monthly Archives: November 2012

Brief Lives: Alexander Pushkin by Robert Chandler

This is a short biography of Pushkin written by Robert Chandler (143 pages). I got it in part because I’d been very impressed by Robert Chandler’s notes to Life and Fate, which he translated.

I found this very useful and well written. I hadn’t realised the centrality of Pushkin in Russian literary culture, or how many of his ideas had crossed over. For example, how the play/film Amadeus was based on a story by Pushkin. I knew how Lermontov had been influenced by Pushkin, thinking of his death (in a duel) as a form of legalised murder, but I didn’t know the context.

Pushkin was heavily influenced by the Decembrists. It’s interesting to think of the impact those events had on Russian cultural life. Perhaps the autocratic personalized state meant that the only form of political expression was through cultural forms? Obviously the Decembrist movement was a political movement, but it didn’t get very far. I wonder if there is any similar event in other cultures.

I found the descriptions of his poetry very useful, how a presence of Apollo can be felt even though he is not mentioned by name via the rhyming scheme (Arion). Also I was interested in the ideas of Anna Akhmatova writing about Pushkin’s talent for encryption in poetry.

A short biography like this can be criticised as being too brief and not much better than reading Wikipedia. While Wikipedia is really good, I found this more informative. Anyway this is longer than a Wikipedia article, so it’s a different scope.

Pagans and Christians: In the Mediterranean World from the Second Century AD to the Conversion of Constantine by Robin Lane Fox

I bought this at Blackwells as one of my summer vacation books, but didn’t get around to reading it until now.

I found it slightly slow going, particularly the parts about paganism. Perhaps I don’t know enough about the period to be able to appreciate the subject matter.

It taught me some things about the origins of Christianity that I hadn’t realized previously, but which might be obvious to other people. These include details such as Christianity being almost completely a phenomenon of the Roman Empire. That since it was not (at this early stage) a religion of conquest it did not have a single language. That bishops were central in the early church. That early Christianity was closely tied to Jewish communities. That heresy became an important feature of Christianity (but was unknown in paganism). That Manichaeism was a Christian heresy (I’d thought of it as more eastern).