Saturday, 30 June 2012

Don Juan in Nottingham

Earlier this year, during the Easter holiday, I was persuaded to attend the one-day Annual Conference of the Newstead Byron Society at Nottingham Trent University, dedicated to Byron's narrative poem  Don Juan (1818-1824). It's difficult to overstate the charm of a conference which promises that all panels will take place 'in Ada Byron King (immediately in front of George Eliot)'. Having oriented myself by both ladies (actually the names of modern buildings on the campus), and having gobbled the first three cantos of Don Juan on the train, I settled down to enjoy other academics' performances without the slightest fear of encroachment or challenge to my own Slavonic specialization. Alas! I'd arranged a busman's holiday - but I never suspected until too late that I hadn't even got off my own coach. The Newstead Byron society was, with some allowance for hyperbole, thoroughly overrun by Russianists. Not only were several authentic Russians in attendance, including Natalia Solovyeva of MGU's magisterially named paper on "Don Juan and Russia", there was an entire panel on Byron's Russianism and various Russophone or Russophile sympathisers in the audience, including Hugh Barnes, freelance journalist and author of the only English-language biography of Pushkin's African ancestor (its lacklustre British title, Gannibal: The Moor of Petersburg is amply redeemed by the American version, namely The Stolen Prince: Gannibal, Adopted Son of Peter the Great, Great-Grandfather of Alexander Pushkin, and Europe's First Black Intellectual). The panels, overseen by the omnipresent and endlessly knowledgeable Cambridge Byronist Peter Cochran,  stimulated lively discussions which continued in the hotel bar over many, many pints of local ale.

George Gordon Byron in 1818
My mistake had been to overlook the extent of Byron's fascination and sympathy with and for Russia and Russianists. It's impossible to read Pushkin or Lermontov without realizing how seminal Byron's narrative poems were for the evolution of certain styles and archetypes in Russian literature; yet the admiration was mutual. Byron not only researched existing literature thoroughly for his lyricization of Suvorov's defeat of the Turkish army at the 1790 Battle of Ismail episode in Cantos 7-8 of Don Juan, he also sought out and befriended visiting Russians, whose names and personalities sometimes reappeared, unsubtly mocked, in his poems (Koklofty, Chokenoff, Strongenoff, etc.). Natalia Solovyeva cited a passage from a letter Byron sent to his confidante Lady Melbourne in 1813: 'Your friend Kolfkovsky was with me yesterday-complaining of the English husbands & the restrictions upon their wives - with whom he appears to have made little progress - but lay it all upon the husbands - I was obliged to comfort him with the assurance that the fault was all his own -& that husbands & wives are much the same here as elsewhere- it was  impossible to hear them so traduced with patience'. Valeria Vallucci's excellent paper on "Byron, Italy, and New Russia"' argued that Byron acquired much of his practical knowledge of Russian mores and culture from Italy, where political resentment of Russian's enemy Austria-Hungary bred sympathy for the former. Don Juan's adventures with the Russian army (many of which, such as the rescue of a Turkish girl from marauding Cossacks, are transposed from the memoirs of the Duc de Richelieu), including his dispatch to Petersburg to report on the battle to Catherine II (a mission actually performed by Count Osterman-Tolstoy), are all extracted - and evolved - from Byron's preoccupation with Russian affairs. (With his friend John Hobhouse, he even made an abortive plan to visit Petersburg himself - a trip completed with brio and predictable romantic gusto by the poet's avatar Don Juan in Canto 9). His attitude to Catherine herself and her successors is unapologetically expressed in Don Juan, causing this and other poems to be banned in Russia: 'For me, I deem an absolute Autocrat/Not a barbarian - but much worse than that-', professing his 'plain sworn downright detestation/of every Despotism in every Nation.-' Byron saw through Voltaire's politically naive praise of Catherine's liberalism, identifying the Russian capital - perhaps presciently - as a den of 'polished boors/Who still have shown themselves more brave than witty'.
Byron does, however, deliver a backhanded compliment to the Russian armed forces in Canto 8. The joke is in bad taste, but neither Pushkin, Byron, nor the Newstead Byron Society are wont to oppress humour with political correctness. Here are the infamous stanzas 128 and 129: 

In one thing, ne’ertheless, ’tis fit to praise
The Russian army upon this occasion,
A Virtue much in fashion nowadays,
And therefore worthy of commemoration –
The topic’s tender, so shall be my phrase –
Perhaps the Season’s chill, and their long Station
In winter’s depth, in want of rest and victual,
Had made them chaste – they ravished very little.

Much did they slay, more plunder, and no less
Might here and there occur some violation
In the other line; but not to such excess
As when the French, that dissipated nation,
Take towns by storm; no causes can I guess
Except cold weather and commiseration;
But all the ladies, save some twenty score,
Were almost as much Virgins as before.

Next post: a hitchhiker's guide to Siberia.