Pushkin's Button / Edition 1

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Pushkin's Button recreates the four months of Pushkin's life leading up to the fatal duel in the snow on January 27, 1837. Many theories have been advanced about the death of one of Russia's greatest artists, none of them wholly satisfactory. Serena Vitale has opened the archives and studies the case more closely, and more imaginatively, than anyone before her. Her brilliant detective work unearths fascinating, revealing details, including a button missing from Pushkin's Kamerjunker uniform.

"Pushkin's Button will keep all constituencies of reader fastened to their seats, as they watch Petersburg's lofty denizens leave no moment of the hurtling Pushkin scandal unrecorded or not speculated on."—Monika Greenleaf,Los Angeles Times

"[A] deliciously entertaining whydunit, a book in which every page seduces with a riddle. . . . Vivacious, seductive, original."—Michael Dirda, Washington Post

"A delightful combination of retrograde pleasures (court balls, the demise of a doomed genius) and primary sources. . . . Illuminating."—Richard Lamb, New York Times Book Review

"A book almost impossible to put down."—George Steiner, New Yorker

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Vitale's reconstruction of Alexander Pushkin's 1837 dueling death--the poet had employed the most provocative terms in accusing an insolent French officer of dallying with his wife--brings to life the vulgar yet aristocratic milieu of St. Petersburg, not the Russian literary giant himself. In this titillating, lurid recounting, the capital of the czarist state is riven by secrets and intrigues, amused by slander and scandal, and sustained by undeserved status and unearned wealth. Everyone writes malicious, tattling letters, no one throws any of them away, and Nicholas I's Third Section reads every one. In Pushkin's last months he was desperate for funds and maddened by the feud over his young, frivolous and beautiful wife. Vitale draws her evocation of this time largely from tale-bearing correspondence written or received by both the poet's eventual killer, the apparently bisexual Georges d'Anthes, and the homosexual Dutch ambassador Jacob van Heeckeren, who, doting on d'Anthes, went so far as to adopt him. In this tale, told as a mystery unfolding from contemporary records, Vitale (an Italian scholar of Russian literature) spares no trivia about the "narrow-minded province of gossips, vultures, [and] voyeurs, whose unyielding, deadly rituals Pushkin not only declined to shun but actively, zealously, took part in." If her prose purples, at least as rendered in this translation, it seems utterly appropriate to the gaudy salon setting and to Pushkin's tawdry demise.
Library Journal
Alexander Pushkin, a descendant of Hannibal of Carthage, was Russia's greatest poet. He was also married to the most beautiful woman in St. Petersburg, who attracted the attention and admiration of many men in Russian society, notably one Georges D'Anthes. D'Anthes had been adopted by the Dutch ambassador, Baron von Heerecken, and was a chevalier de garde for Tsar Nicholas I. Vitale (Russian literature, Univ. of Pavia, Italy) presents a marvelous biographical mystery in which she explores the events leading to the duel between Pushkin and D'Anthes. Through letters, the reader gets an intimate view of the personalities and passions of early 19th-century Russia. Vitale sheds new light on the causes of the duel and makes the story accessible to 20th-century readers. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.--Ann Irvine, Montgomery Cty. P.L., Silver Spring, MD
Richard Lamb
...[A] delightful combination of retrograde pleasures...and primary sources....both illuminating and pathetic....Pushkin received a death sentence for dueling that in Gogolesque fashion couldn't be carried out because he was dead. -- The New York Times Book Review
George Steiner
[Vitale's] dayᾺtoᾺday Ὰ indeed hourᾺtoᾺhour Ὰ record of Pushkin's final year is not only an enthralling portrayal of imperial St. Petersburg in the 1830s. It qualifies the usually idealized, radiantly pathetic image of the poet…A book almost impossible to put down.
New Yorker
Kirkus Reviews
An Italian scholar's unorthodox take on the events leading to Pushkin's fatal duel reads like impassioned fiction. On January 27, 1837, one of Russia's greatest poets, Alexander Pushkin, died as the result of a wound inflicted during a duel he'd fought to defend his wife's honor. His opponent was none other than his sister-in-law's husband, Georges d'Anthes, a French officer. Readers will recognize telltale signs in Vitale's (Russian/Univ. of Pavia, Italy) narrative of the typically massive Russian novel: the cast of thousands (here enumerated in a 24-page "Index of Names") and the story's soap-opera-like overtones. Combining her own research with information gleaned from secondary literature and the memoirs and letters of Pushkin's contemporaries, this account brims with humor, drama, scholarly insight, and a breathless conversational tone, hinting of espresso and cigarette smoke wafting in a cafe corner. Vitale's approach, however, is not for everyone. The duel occurs some 242 pages into the text. Chapter titles, like the title of the book, are more poetic than informative. And the facts are often conveyed repetitiously. Still, the drawbacks seem finally beside the point, for Vitale brings to life the drama of Pushkin's end, from the state of the poet "whose frenzied jealousy was known to all," to the doings of his flirtatious wife and the royal court, Pushkin's strained relations with the tsar, and the bizarre case of d'Anthes's adoption by a Dutch ambassador and his affairs with the women of St. Petersburg. Also, the author eagerly takes up her role as detective, investigating d'Anthes's circumstances, his opinion of Pushkin's wife, and the circulated letter that provoked theduel. With its unabashed love of intrigue and nuance, Vitale's unusual chronicle of Pushkin's final days will appeal to any lover of Russian literature, history, and culture.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226857718
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 5/28/2000
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 362
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Table of Contents

Author's Note
1. Dispatches from St. Petersburg
2. The Chouan
3. Those Fateful Flannel Undershirts
4. Herring and Caviar
5. The Heights of Zion
6. Pushkin's Button
7. The Anonymous Letters
8. Suspects
9. Twelve Sleepless Nights
10. Remembrance
11. The Deleted Lines
12. The Bold Pedicurist
13. Table Talk
14. The Man for Whom We Were Silent
15. The Ambassador's Snuffbox
16. One Summer in Baden-Baden
Index of Names

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First Chapter

Chapter One


... Russia has just lost its greatest man of literature, Mr. Alexandre Pouschkin, the most famous Poet it has ever had. He died at the age of thirty-seven, at the apex of his career, after being gravely wounded in a duel. The details of this catastrophe, unfortunately provoked by the dead man himself with a blindness and a kind of frenetic hatred well worthy of his Moorish origins, have for days been the sole talk of the town here in the capital. His opponent in the duel was his own brother-in-law. Mr. Georges de Heeckeren, French by birth and adopted son of Baron Heeckeren, the Dutch ambassador. The younger Mr. Heeckeren, formerly known as d'Antes, was an officer in the "chevaliers gardes" and had recently married Mrs. Pouschkin's sister....

Maximilian von Lerchenfeld-Köfering,
ambassador of the Kingdom of Bavaria
January 29, 1837

... A young Frenchman, Mr. Dantes, last year formally and legally adopted as son and heir by Baron Heeckeren, the Dutch ambassador, was joined in matrimony to Mrs. Puschkin's sister just a few days ago. Mrs. Puschkin, a woman of remarkable beauty, is the wife of the writer Mr. Puschkin, who has won well-deserved fame in Russian literature, mainly as the author of works in verse.... A boundlessly jealous man of a most violent character, he was driven to madness at the suspicion of a secret understanding between his wife and brother-in-law, and vented his rage in a letter whose crudely offensive language made a duel inevitable....

Otto von Blome,
ambassador of the Kingdom of Denmark
January 30, 1837

... This duel is considered a public catastrophe by all classes, especially the middle class, both because Mr. Pouchkine's poetry was so popular and because national sensibilities have been stung by the circumstance that a Frenchman, an officer in government service, has robbed Russia of its best poet. It was, moreover, barely two weeks ago that the officer in question was wedded to Pouchkine's wife's sister, who lived in the home of the deceased, and it is said that the officer contracted the matrimonial bond precisely so as to avert suspicion and to lend legitimacy to his frequent visits to the Pouchkine house. Duels are quite rare here, and Russian law stipulates the death penalty for participants....

George Wilding di Butera e Radoli,
ambassador of the Kingdom of Naples and the Two Sicilies
February 2, 1837

... Mr. Pouchkinn had a young and beautiful wife who had already given him four children; irritation with Mr. Danthees, who pursued this young woman with his attentions, led to the challenge that proved fatal to Mr. Pouchkinn. He lived for thirty-six hours after being mortally wounded. In this circumstance the Emperor has exhibited the great magnanimity of which His entire character bears the stamp. Very late in the evening His Majesty learned that Mr. Pouchkinn had fought a duel and that his condition was desperate. He deigned to write a few words telling him he had pardoned him, urging him to fulfill his duties as a Christian, and easing his final moments by assuring him that his wife and little children would be properly cared for....

Karl Ludwig von Ficquelmont,
ambassador of the Kingdom of Austria
February 2, 1837

... It is said that nearly fifty thousand people of all classes visited Mr. Pouschkine's funeral chamber before his remains were conveyed to the Chapel, and many corporations asked to be allowed to act as pallbearers for the deceased; there was even talk of unharnessing the horses from the funeral carriage and having it be drawn by the people; the outpouring of display and acclaim on the occasion of the death of a man noted for his ostentatious atheism eventually reached such a pitch that the authorities, fearing a disturbance of public order, suddenly decided to change the place of the funeral service (which initially was to be held in the Cathedral of St. Isaac at the Admiralty) and moved the body there by night....

August von Liebermann,
ambassador of the Kingdom of Prussia
February 2, 1837

... Funeral rites for Mr. Pouchkin were celebrated in the most sumptuous yet moving fashion. All the heads of the foreign missions attended, with the exception of Lord Durham and Prince Souzzo, who were ill; Baron Heeckeren, who was not invited; and Mr. Liebermann, who declined to attend because he had been told that the aforesaid poet had been suspected of liberalism in his youth, a youth which, like that of many geniuses of his race, was indeed tempestuous....

Karl August von Lützerode,
ambassador of the Kingdom of Saxony
February 6, 1837

... The elder Baron Heeckeren has written to his court asking to resign from the ambassadorial post he holds here. It is not yet known what punishment will be meted out to his son, who, as a Russian officer, is awaiting a court-martial, but it is expected that he will be allowed to leave after being discharged from the regimental ranks, in particular since the insults addressed to him by his brother-in-law made a duel to the death inevitable....

Gustaf of Nordin,
secretary to the
Embassy of the Kingdom of Sweden and Norway
February 6, 1837

... The Emperor has extended his generosity of heart to the deceased Mr. Pouschkinn's widow and children. He has granted pensions of 6,000 rubles to the former and 1,500 rubles to each of the latter.... But to these acts of generosity on the Emperor's part must be added another, earlier one: before the writer's death, His Imperial Majesty, aware of the man's character and ideas, instructed a friend to burn all writings that might be harmful to him....

Luigi Simonetti,
ambassador of the Kingdom of Sardinia and Piedmont
February 9, 1837

... His Majesty the Emperor has just commuted the death sentence issued by a court-martial in accordance with Russian law against young Baron Heeckeren, who instead is to be banished from the Empire, and yesterday morning the baron was escorted to the border and thereby expelled from the Russian Army. In this gesture one must yet again take note of the mercy and gracious kindness of His Imperial Majesty; up to now all Russian officers punished for dueling have been demoted to the rank of private....

Christian von Hobenlobe-Kirchberg,
ambassador of the Kingdom of Baden-Wurttemberg
March 20, 1837

... The insinuation which is directed against the Dutch minister with regard to the letter written by Pouschkin is very clearly to be understood and is not very complimentary to His Excellency. He has left this Court on leave of absence, applied for in consequence of this unfortunate transaction, and was refused an audience of His Imperial Majesty, but was presented with a snuffbox....

John George Lambton, Earl of Durham,
ambassador of the Kingdom of Great Britain
April 22, 1837

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 10, 2004

    Tragic and amazing

    One of the most amazing books I've ever read. Even those who (somehow) are not fans of one of the greatest authors ever to live will love this capsule of 19th century St. Petersburg. Brilliantly researched and written, this is a book to read again and again...

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