The International Journal of Erotica, Spring, 2005
Secret Journal (A. S. Pushkin 1836 - 1837)
Review by Lisette Ashton
"When I make love with Aza, I imagine N. under me. And when I make love with N., I imagine Aza under me. Does it mean that no woman will satisfy me completely? My desires are so demanding that reality has a hard time managing them."
Alexander Pushkin is renowned for his colourful Russian fairy tales and a host of powerful epic poems. His works have been translated into librettos for some of the world's most beautiful and passionate operas. He is cited as the patriarch of Russian literature (because he wrote in his native language rather than the French that was more popular with his intellectual contemporaries) and Maxim Gorky called him, “the greatest master in the world.” Czar Nicholas I, who privately feared Pushkin, referred to him as "the most intelligent man in Russia."
And his Secret Journal is like nothing he has previously written.
The preface for Secret Journal, with the story of how it came to be published, is almost worthy of becoming a novel on its own merits. A poet is trying to emigrate from communist Russia; a nervous translator approaches him; the poet is asked to smuggle a ciphered journal out of the country; and the story behind the publication of Pushkin's Secret Journal has properly begun. Mystery and intrigue are added when the partially ciphered papers are out of Russia. Someone unfamiliar with Pushkin’s literary style completes the final translation and then the original documents are stolen (an innocent theft? a KGB conspiracy? a convenient excuse to perpetuate a hoax?). All of which leaves us with a Secret Journal that holds an unsubstantiated claim as being the final diary entries for the father of Russian literature.
Structurally, Secret Journal reads like a tragic novella. In the opening pages we learn that the hero is entering his thirty-seventh year with dread and apprehension. A German fortuneteller made four predictions for Pushkin and three of them have come true before the journal begins. The fourth prediction was that Pushkin would live a long life unless a misfortune came during his thirty-seventh year in the form of a tall blond man. Enter Dantes, (the Baron Georges d'Anthes) an officer in a prestigious division of the Russian Army. Little description is given of the characters in this book but, ominously, we learn that Dantes is handsome, tall and blond.
And then we meet the fatal flaw that is needed to make all tragic heroes complete. Although he is freshly married - swearing love and devotion to his wife and prepared to do whatever it takes to defend her honour - Pushkin discovers that his voracious sexual appetites have not abated with his newfound status as a respectable husband. While he admits that there is an injustice in his attitude of freedom for himself and faultless monogamy for his wife, he makes no attempt to address the imbalance of this dichotomy.
"A kiss is the prelude to adultery. In married life, husband and wife do not kiss as lovers do but proceed to lovemaking right away."
After several heated episodes of fond recollections - a delightful scene where he fulfils the fantasies of a lover who wants to experience two simultaneous partners, then three and then five - Pushkin battles briefly with his conscience, before surrendering to those instincts that have driven him throughout his life.
His appetites are avaricious and his morality conveniently changes to suit his immediate needs. Hesitantly at first, and then with more plausible conviction, he argues that visiting prostitutes does not constitute infidelity. The reasoning is difficult to follow - although Pushkin seems won over by the idea - and his defeat in this battle is like a precursor to the tragic denouement that looms toward him. The pleasure he gets from each encounter offers diminishing solace and only fuels his embitterment toward a wife whom he depicts as being maliciously faithful.
The intrigue of the story develops a sordid twist when Pushkin accepts his wife's sisters into their home. Viewing the new additions to the family as recruits to his personal harem, Pushkin describes his conquest of each woman in loving and graphic detail. His wife's acceptance of this situation is shown as her tolerating the lesser of two evils. She is bringing a compromise between her desire for a faithful husband and her understanding of Pushkin's insatiable needs.
But still this isn't enough for the father of Russian literature.
He makes it clear that he venerates the female sex organs, analogising his obsession to a traveller praying at different cathedrals. He continues to zealously enjoy all three sisters while reacquainting himself with the staff of his favourite bordellos and many of his former conquests. Early on he admits he is equally proud of his reputation as a lover as of his reputation as a poet. And, although he speaks of prospective and current lovers with the grandest enthusiasm, there is a sense of misogyny to his writing that makes it difficult to sympathise with his plight.
The translator has given Pushkin's voice a contemporary timbre that could make a reader suspicious of the journal's authenticity. And the modern language employed detracts from the concept of history that could have overwhelmed this book. The Secret Journal covers a period that saw Victoria crowned queen of England; Louis Daguerre first capturing light and dark on copper plate; and the serialisation of Dickens' newest novel: Oliver Twist. It is an era that is usually considered to be conservative and repressed and Pushkin's licentious activities seem juxtaposed to this time of strict morality.
But the central character's excuses, self-image and attitudes are so in keeping with the early nineteenth century that one has to concede it would have taken a skilled historian to properly construct such a fabrication. The perpetual conflict he faces - balancing his own promiscuity against the devotion of his wife - finally leads to an insult and the subsequent duel that proves fatal.
This journal does not, as some have claimed, reveal Pushkin to be a “Russian de Sade." His blatant affection for each lover, and his attention to detail in bringing pleasure to every partner, indicate a sensitivity that is seldom found in de Sade's works. Admittedly, after reading de Sade, Pushkin makes an attempt to introduce his beloved to the double-edged sword of pleasure and pain. But her knee colliding with his groin quickly cures his further attempts to bring a sadomasochistic element to their relationship.
It would be more honest to describe Pushkin as an unlikely Casanova or Don Juan. His interest in each new woman comes across as nothing more than a selfless desire to bring her pleasure. And this makes the conclusion of the story all the more tragic.
"There are two happinesses: the one is when you go to a woman full of impatient anticipation and other one is when you return from a woman relieved of her and of desire."
The contents of the Secret Journal make for a compelling read. Pushkin is so frank in his thoughts, actions and opinions that nothing is left to the reader's imagination. Whether these are genuinely Pushkin's last words is a matter for more expert deliberation than I could hope to master.
But, for an exciting and accessible read - with a story that shows a tragic hero struggling to balance his own infidelity against his need for devotion from his wife - it's hard to imagine a more arousing tome.