Binyon, T(imothy) J(ohn) 1936-2004
BINYON, T(imothy) J(ohn) 1936-2004
PERSONAL: Born February 18, 1936, in Leeds, Yorkshire, England; died of heart failure, October 7, 2004, in Witney, Oxfordshire, England; son of Denis Edmund Fynes-Clinton (a university lecturer) and Nancy (Emmerson) Binyon; married Felicity Antonia Roberts (a stenciller), September 11, 1974; children: Polly Charlotte. Education: Exeter College, Oxford, M.A., 1963, D.Phil., 1968.
CAREER: University of Leeds, Leeds, Yorkshire, England, lecturer in Russian, 1962-65; Oxford University, Oxford, England, lecturer in Russian, 1965-2004, senior research fellow of Wadham College, 1968-2004.
AWARDS, HONORS: Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction, BBC-4, 2003, for Pushkin: A Biography.
(Editor) A Soviet Verse Reader, Pitman (New York, NY), 1964.
Swan Song (novel), Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1982.
Greek Gifts (novel), Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1988.
Pushkin: A Biography, HarperCollins (London, England), 2002.
Contributor of articles and reviews to periodicals, including Modern Language Review, Times Literary Supplement, Literary Review, Oxford Slavonic Papers, and Slavonic Review. Also contributor to The World of Raymond Chandler, edited by Miriam Gross, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977.
SIDELIGHTS: Writing in the Literary Review, Peter Levi considered T. J. Binyon to be "an heir worth watching" to the traditions of the English thriller novel. Swan Song, Binyon's first novel, drew upon his knowledge of Russian life and culture, while his second, Greek Gifts, "shows his powers of invention and suspense at full throttle," according to John Coleman in the Sunday Times. "In fact," stated Levi, "he offers all you can expect from a thriller, and a good deal more."
After writing two thriller novels and an examination of the role of the mystery detective titled Murder Will Out: The Detective in Fiction, Binyon turned from mystery to biography with Pushkin, a biographical investigation of the life of the famed and tragic Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. Binyon traces Pushkin's life in great detail, from his eclectic heritage all the way to his untimely and foolish death. It also highlights along the way those personality traits that made Pushkin such an unforgettable historical figure. Spectator reviewer Jonathan Sumption described Pushkin's personality as "rude, crude, dissolute, scurrilous, mendacious . . . affected . . . quarrelsome, snobbish, feckless and arrogant. . . . [He] offended large numbers of people, ogling their wives and mistresses, spreading unpleasant gossip, thrusting his atheism in their faces, and generally making a nuisance of himself." At the age of twenty, Pushkin was exiled by Russian Tsar Alexander I, who invited him back to St. Petersburg after four years, but kept him under careful scrutiny.
The examination of Pushkin's character is built up until it reaches a crescendo on the fateful day of the poet's death. Natalia Goncharova, Pushkin's wife, was admired by many, and though she was known for her flirtations, Binyon asserts that she was faithful to the poet in her affections. Pushkin exhibited jealousy nonetheless, and after learning that Guards officer Baron Georges d'Anthes was stalking his beautiful wife, Pushkin challenged the man to a duel. Though Pushkin had previously won many duels, this would be his last, as d'Anthes shot and killed him at the age of thirty-seven. Binyon went as far to assert, however, that Pushkin's challenge was a death wish ultimately fulfilled.
Many reviewers commented on the detail with which Binyon chronicles the poet's life, which was the main reason many felt that this biography stood above other biographies in its attempts to explain the vast life experiences of Alexander Pushkin. "Producing such a detailed yet absorbing chronicle of Pushkin's life is a remarkable achievement," stated Catriona Kelly in the Guardian Unlimited. "A weighty biography in every sense, Binyon's book is poignant, brisk, and at times downright funny: the best possible tribute to the changeable and elusively fascinating character of its subject," Kelly continued. One Economist reviewer wrote that the book "doesn't lazily pretend to put us inside Pushkin's head or explain his writings but sits so close to the man and his times that by the time Pushkin is dead . . . you almost feel you have lived his life."
While some readers enjoyed the book's expansive detail, others thought that it made the biography too weighty for general readership. Orlando Figes, fellow Russian scholar and contributor to the London Times, wrote that while Binyon's Pushkin is "by far the most important [biography of Pushkin] to appear in years," he concluded that "one really needs to be a specialist to get the most from this deeply learned book. . . . There are just too many details for the general reader to cut through. . . . There are many instances where Binyon does not give sufficient explanation of the historical or cultural context for the non-specialist to find his way." Figes also commented on the biography's lack of attention to Pushkin's work itself, a sentiment expressed by many reviewers. "He never really stops to analyse the qualities of Pushkin's verse," Figes wrote, "nor to explain why the use of the language was so original." In the Spectator, Sumption wrote that "apart from giving exact translations of the many four-letter words in Pushkin's writings instead of the euphemisms preferred by earlier biographers, Binyon cannot claim to have advanced the frontiers of modern science." Sumption went on to comment, however, that "to write such a readable, perceptive, and witty biography, based on a careful study of the known sources and a synthesis of current, largely Russian scholarship, is as valuable an achievement." Similarly, George Walden wrote in London's Sunday Telegraph that "'scholarly' and 'engrossing' are often antonyms, yet such is Binyon's skill in presenting his phenomenal research, and so patiently does he build up the reader's interest in the man and his era that he ends by captivating us. . . . Reading this book is like breathing clean air, unpolluted by loaded or emotive commentary. The myths evaporate under Binyon's scrutiny, leaving a far more complex portrait of the poet than we are used to."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Armchair Detective, winter, 1991, review of Murder Will Out: The Detective in Fiction, p. 108; summer, 1992, review of Murder Will Out, p. 352.
Bookseller, December 5, 2003, Caroline Sanderson, "Samuel Johnson Prize," p. S9.
Choice, January, 1990, review of Murder Will Out, p. 794.
Contemporary Review, January, 1990, James Morton, review of Murder Will Out, pp. 54-55; January, 2003, review of Pushkin: A Biography, p. 63.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), September 28, 2002, Alan Marshall, "The Philandering Poet: Alan Marshall Enjoys the Tempestuous Life of Pushkin," review of Pushkin.
Economist (U.S.), September 14, 2002, "A Small Man of Great Stature: Literary Biography," review of Pushkin; December 14, 2002, "Seriousness, the New Black: Books of the Year 2002," review of Pushkin.
Library Journal, October 1, 2003, Ron Ratliff, review of Pushkin, p. 75.
Literary Review, January, 1988.
Michigan Quarterly Review, spring, 1991, James Gindin, review of Murder Will Out, p. 343.
Modern Fiction Studies, summer, 1990, Edward S. Lauterbach, review of Murder Will Out, pp. 285-287.
New Leader, September-October, 2003, Rebecca Reich, "Russia's Don Juan Darling," review of Pushkin, pp. 21-22.
New Republic, January 19, 2004, Joseph Frank, "Liberties," review of Pushkin, p. 29.
New Statesman, September 30, 2002, Julian Evans, "Slave to Passion," review of Pushkin, pp. 78-79.
Publishers Weekly, September 15, 2003, review of Pushkin, pp. 55-56.
Spectator, September 21, 2002, Jonathan Sumption, "Bankrupt in All But Talent," review of Pushkin, p. 48.
Sunday Telegraph (London, England), September 8, 2002, George Walden, "The Poet Who Was Russia: George Walden Praises a Masterful Biography of Alexander Pushkin," review of Pushkin, p. 14.
Sunday Times, January 10, 1988.
Times Literary Supplement, October 22, 1982; September 27, 2002, Clive James, "Master of Paradise: The Libertine Pushkin, Mythologized by Liberals, Fans and Lovers," review of Pushkin, pp. 3-4.
Times (London, England), September 25, 2002, Orlando Figes, "A Crime against Rhyme," review of Pushkin, p. 20.
Wilson Quarterly, winter, 2004, Andrew Reynolds, review of Pushkin, pp. 130-132.
Baronage Press Web site,http://www.baronage.co.uk/ (May-August, 2003), The Feudal Herald online newsletter.
BBC Web site,http://www.bbc.co.uk/ (March 22, 2004), "Pushkin, by T. J. Binyon."
Better Living Web site,http://www.betterliving.co.nz/ (March 22, 2004), Bob Williams, review of Pushkin.
Guardian Unlimited Web site,http://books.guardian.co.uk/ (October 5, 2002), Catriona Kelly, "Turbulent Poet and Femme Fatale," review of Pushkin.*