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Pushkin's Button

Serena Vitale

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To purchase Pushkin's Button

Title: Pushkin's Button
Author: Serena Vitale
Genre: History
Written: 1995 (Eng.: 1999)
Length: 352 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: Pushkin's Button - US
Pushkin's Button - UK
Pushkin's Button - Canada
Pushkin's Button - India
Le Bouton de Pouchkine - France
Puschkins Knopf - Deutschland
Il bottone di Puskin - Italia
  • Translated by Ann Goldstein and Jon Rothschild
  • Italian title: Il bottone di Puskin

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Our Assessment:

B- : a comprehensive and varied account of the facts surrounding the duel in which Russian poet Pushkin was killed

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe A 24/3/1999 Robert Taylor
The Economist B 10/4/1999 .
Daily Telegraph B 20/3/1999 John Weightman
Literary Review A+ 3/1999 Donald Rayfield
New Statesman B- 30/8/1999 Pankaj Mishra
NY Rev. of Books A 8/4/1999 John Bayley
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 7/3/1999 Richard Lamb
Publishers Weekly B+ 11/1/1999 .
La Questione Romantica . Spring/1996 .
La Stampa . 17/6/1995 Fruttero/Lucentini
Times Higher Ed. A- 28/5/1999 Rosamund Bartlett
TLS . 28/5/1999 Andrew Kahn
The Washington Post A- 2/5/1999 Michael Dirda

  From the Reviews:
  • "Pushkin's Button must be the most hilariously overwrought biography of recent years." - The Economist

  • "Pushkin's Button is as compelling as Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot, and deserves to be as widely read. (...) Pushkin's Button should be bought, read and emulated." - Donald Rayfield, Literary Review

  • "For the most part, (Vitale's) manner is that of the overenthusiastic, gossipy but moralising academic. She seems dazzled by the ballrooms and salons of St. Petersburg, and her excited tone lends her story a certain charm. But she tosses too many clues our way; every character and story is exploited for local colour, and the narrative is clogged with unprocessed archival material." - Pankaj Mishra, New Statesman

  • "Drawing on years of painstaking research, Vitale marshals an impressive compendium of hitherto unpublished letters, reminiscences and documents to construct an enthralling story of love, intrigue, death and deception that has a place on the general reader's bookshelf as well as in a scholarly library." - Rosamund Bartlett, Times Higher Education

  • "Vitale cannot hide her outrage at the unworthiness of Pushkin's antagonists. This might be fair, and even sufficient to win indulgence from readers for much overblown and purple prose. What seriously compromises this account -- in addition to the appalling translations of the verse -- is its failure to see behind Pushkin's role in his own tragedy." - Andrew Kahn, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(A) work of scholarship that is vivacious, seductive, original. But not, alas, quite perfect: Vitale is obviously a crackerjack researcher, but her prose can sometimes grow squishy with romantic cliches and rhetorical over-emphasis." - Micahel Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) was killed as the result of injuries sustained in a duel. It makes for an interesting story, though it is difficult for foreigners to grasp the obsession that Russians have with their great poet and his premature demise. Serena Vitale captures some of the obsession, relying to a great extent on other accounts, and weaving her own version of what led to the duel, as well as what exactly happened at and after the duel. A literary thriller of unusual sorts, in other words.
       The book may seem complicated, because of the general ignorance of Americans regarding Pushkin's poetry and life, but Vitale provides a very solid foundation, going into fair detail about both the poet and Russian court life in the early nineteenth century. It is a fascinating picture, and Vitale draws it well. The unusual background of Pushkin's assassin -- Georges D'Anthès, or later Heeckeren (he was adopted, in one of the story's twists) -- and the rich picture of the notables at the Russian court of the time make it worthwhile alone.
       We do not know enough about the other arguments regarding the truth behind the duel (which involves an insult to Pushkin's wife, and perhaps some inappropriate behavior between her and D'Anthès, as well as many anonymous letters) to judge how objective Vitale is, but her account is broad and offers a number of alternative theories and her reasons for accepting or rejecting these. Quoting extensively (excessively, on occasion), Vitale gives a marvelous insight into a very peculiar world -- and it is for this alone that the book is worthwhile. Pushkin, largely unknown to American audiences (come on, admit it -- have you read the four-volume Nabokov translation of Eugene Onegin ?), probably needs to be explained better -- the Russian passion for him is not entirely explained here -- but this is an exceptionally well-researched book, with many marvelous titbits of information and gossip. Not always easy to read, it is nevertheless a fun and worthwhile book.

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Pushkin's Button: Reviews: Other books by Serena Vitale under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author Serena Vitale is a professor of Russian language and literature at the University of Pavia.

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