November 27, 2015

Unexpected parallels between famously troubled musicians and 19th century Russian novelists (Part 3/4)



Amy Winehouse (1983-2011); Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841)


Like Pushkin’s character, Lensky, Lermontov was also a romantic poet who died very young in a duel, in his case at the age of twenty-six. His career is as remarkable for its brevity as it is for the incredible literary contributions he made during his short life, which earned him both the title of “The Poet of the Caucasus” as well as his reputation as the greatest poet after Pushkin. Lermontov showed great promise from an early age; he composed poetry from the age of thirteen under the influence of Byron, who he greatly admired alongside Goethe and other members of the Sturm und Drang (‘Storm and Urge’) movement. Although he was a sickly youth and suffered from a permanent limp due to a horse-riding accident, the events leading up to his death had nothing to do with his physical afflictions and almost everything to do with the consequences of his intense personality.

His passionate behaviour included recuperating from his work with the same degree of intensity that characterized his work ethic itself. According to Lermontov’s biographer Alexander Skabichevsky, “In the mornings he was writing, but the more he worked, the more need he felt to unwind in the evenings…‘I feel I’m left with very little of my life,’ the poet confessed to his friend A.Merinsky on July 8, a week before his death.” During his years in the military especially, Lermontov not only gained a reputation for his whoring and drinking sprees but also a number of enemies due to his characteristic cruel wit and caustic humour. His lack of social pleasantries would eventually be the reason for the duel that killed him. In a letter dated to 1833, he admitted his impulsive proclivities: “Now I want material pleasures, happiness that I can touch, happiness that can be bought with gold, that one can carry it in one’s pocket as a snuff-box; happiness that beguiles only my senses while leaving my soul in peace and quiet.” Despite all of this energy expended on indulgent behaviour, however, Lermontov was extremely productive in writing and receiving publication.

Perhaps the act that best exemplifies his ability to create brilliant work under extreme duress was his creation of the poem dedicated to Pushkin that propelled him to fame, Death of a Poet. Following Pushkin’s death in 1837, Lermontov was severely distraught and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Yet despite his disfavour at court, impending exile, and fitful condition, he composed Death of a Poet, which enjoyed mass circulation among the Russian intelligentsia within only a few days. Its final part, in fact, was written impromptu within just a few minutes before being disseminated. Such was Lermontov’s gift.

Parallel to Lermontov, Amy Winehouse was also a young star prone to working and playing hard. In a 2007 interview, she remarked, “…Maybe I’m a bit resentful because all I do is work now. If I’m not working, I’ll be up for three weeks at a time, just like the old me.” In short, her idea of rest and relaxation was staying awake for three weeks in order to recover from working non-stop.

Only a year older than Lermontov was when he died, Winehouse was notorious not only for her involvement with drugs and alcohol but also for her disastrous love interests in a similar way that Lermontov’s personal life was remembered. It was in fact these tumultuous relationships that provided rich fodder for many of her song lyrics that mention being helplessly part of a toxic couple locked in a cycle of self-destruction. Lermontov’s romantic life was equally as chaotic. In his 1982 biography, author John Garrard mentioned that, “The symbolic relationship between love and suffering is of course a favourite Romantic paradox, but for Lermontov it was much more than a literary device. He was unlucky in love and believed he always would be: fate had ordained it.”

Fortunately, despite the frequent catastrophes that plagued them throughout their careers, both Lermontov and Winehouse at least lived to see the measure of their great success. Amy Winehouse, in a 2007 interview, remarked that although her greatest fear at one point was dying without being acknowledged for her contributions to music, her worldwide acclaim ultimately reassured her that “If I die…I would still feel fulfilled in a way.” By the time she died, Winehouse had received twenty-four awards from sixty-two nominations within a span of five years (2004-2009), including five Grammy awards in 2008. Her twenty-fifth and last award was a Grammy granted post-humously in 2012 for “Body and Soul,” her final recording done four months before her death.

Lermontov, by the end of his life, had earned the reputation as ‘Pushkin’s heir,’ not just for his admiration of Pushkin, but also as a brilliant novelist, poet, and founding father of Russian literature in his own right, alongside Pushkin. His interest in the culture and landscape of the Caucasus introduced new forms of literary thinking into the early development of his nation’s literature, and he invented the intonations of what was later termed ‘iron verse’ for its vigorous sounds and high energy of powerful expressions.

Next (part 4/4): Layne Staley and Nikolai Gogol



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