Pushkin to Nabokov: Russian Literature at Yale

Pushkin to Nabokov: Russian Literature at Yale , the exhibition on view at the Beinecke Library until July 15, celebrates the bicentenary of Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837), Russia’s greatest writer, and the centenary of Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), the best-known exiled Russian writer of the twentieth century. The names Pushkin and Nabokov were permanently linked in 1964 when Nabokov published his controversial English version of Pushkin’s most famous work, the verse novel Eugene Onegin . Nabokov embedded his literal translation of Pushkin’s tale of failed love and senseless death in a long and witty commentary, and the whole was issued in four volumes by the Princeton University Press as part of its Bollingen Series.

The exhibition now on view at the Beinecke begins with an array of Pushkin’s works in their first editions. During his tragically short life (he was killed in a duel at age 38), Pushkin wrote lyric poetry, narrative poems and tales ( The gypsies, Count Nulin, The bronze horseman ), prose fiction (the so-called Belkin tales, The queen of spades , The captain’s daughter) , and plays, such as Boris Godunov . These works established his reputation as Russia’s national poet.

During the “Golden Age,” demarked by Pushkin’s death in 1837 and Chekov’s in 1904, Russian authors continued to produced works that attained the status of world classics. Gogol’s novel Dead souls (1842), Turgenev’s Fathers and sons (1862), with its enigmatic hero Bazarov, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1878), and Dostoyevsky’s The possessed (1873) are on display, as well as the 1897 edition Chekhov’s Plays , which includes the first book appearance of The seagull and Uncle Vanya.

Authors of the “Silver Age” (1900-17) represented in the exhibition include the poet Konstantin Bal’mont, the Russian translator of Shelley, Whitman, and Poe, and the short story writer Ivan Alekseyevich Bunin, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1933. Maxim Gorky was the most famous member of this literary generation; his novel Mother , written in 1907 during a trip to the United States, is on display.

Striking illustrations and innovative typography characterize books from the early decades of the last century. The works of Mayakovsky, the most prominent member of the Futurist movement, are on view, along with books and collaborative publications by Khlebnikov and Iliazd, among others. Many of the Futurist books on display are from the library of the Italian Futurist F. T. Marinetti, who served as inspiration for his Russian counterparts.

The twentieth-century section of the exhibition also includes four tiny volumes, all published in the 1920s, by the acclaimed poet Anna Akhmatova, and four titles by Marina Tsvetaeva, who spent the 1920s in exile, including After Russia (1928), the last work published during her lifetime. Boris Pasternak, who won the Nobel Prize in 1958 for his novel Doctor Zhivago , is represented by an early volume of poems. Books written by Nina Berberova, as well as books once owned by her, constitute an important part of the exhibition. Berberova’s international renown, dating from the 1980s, began with the French translation of her story The accompanist. Berberova’s papers are held by the Beinecke Library.

The author of Lolita is represented in the exhibition by books spanning four decades. Vladimir Nabokov, who grew up speaking French, English, and Russian, is one of a handful of authors who have written successfully in two languages. The exhibition includes five novels from the Russian phase of his career as well as his first novel in English, The real life of Sebastian Knight (1941), the first edition of Lolita (1955), published in Paris because no American firm would accept it, the Eugene Onegin translation, and his autobiography.

The books exhibited in Pushkin to Nabokov have been accumulating at Yale for more than a century. The most recent acquisition of all is the first edition of Pushkin’s first work, Ruslan i Liudmila (St. Petersburg, 1820), a romantic epic in six cantos, which Pushkin wrote as a young man just after leaving school. A copy of this rare edition came up for auction in Massachusetts on April 9, five days before the opening of the exhibition, where it was acquired for the Beinecke by an agent of the London firm Bernard Quaritch Ltd.