In the beginning of January, 1981, my father, Richard Moiseyevich Burgin, former concertmaster and associate conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, suffered a speech-destroying stroke while playing bridge near his home in St. Petersburg, Florida. A Russian Jew born in Warsaw in 1892 and educated at the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music (from which he graduated in 1912, a Silver Laureate in the Silver Age), Richard Moiseyevich was cosmopolitan, assimilated, somewhat of a polyglot, but withal, a native speaker of Russian. Through his unspoken, and probably uncalculating, influence, I was lured to study that language and literature, and ultimately, became a Slavist. In this manner of speaking, my life came out of his.
Richard Moiseyevich was a fine raconteur and himself the subject of countless stories, the majority of which discoursed on his absentmindedness, or bemusement. He would always insist to me, however, that he “never forgot anything important.” I wonder. In any case, he lived his long life almost wholly within the oral tradition: rarely recorded as a soloist or conductor; seldom wrote a letter; scribbled only in his stock books; and left behind a dozen or so empty diaries.
There was no small irony in his end. Not only did his stroke deprive him of speech, it occurred precisely one day after I had bought a tape recorder and he had agreed, with secret pleasure (or so I thought), to let me record his “memoirs.” His death (on April 29, 1981) realized the metaphor and double entendre of his life – he became absent/minded, eluded recording, eluded me.
In the months following his stroke, I plunged into researching his life, trying to remember it. I was most interested, for obvious reasons, in recovering what, in my literary-historical fashion, I called his Petersburg period. In the process of research Burgin began to acquire the aura of a Petersburg hero (the model of which is, of course, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin), if not a superfluous, then, a super-fluid man, supremely ever-flowing…away from me.
By October of 1982 I had gathered a file drawer full of strikingly heterogeneous information about Richard Burgin, yet I still had no idea in what form to inform anyone about his life. Nevertheless, one evening that fall, I sat down to write. My first several pages of biographical prose sounded at best, bad, at worst, sad, in a word, not at all as Richard Burgin had sounded to me.
‘But how did he sound?’ I asked myself in near despair. ‘Well,’ I mused, ‘often, he sounded…avuncular, like an uncle full of, full of…what? “Most honest principles?” – Moi diadia samykh chestnykh pravil? – That first line of Eugene Onegin is so hard to translate! – My uncle full of honest principles, When he fell seriously ill – Moi diadia… My papa… no! Too childish, too sentimental. Better: My father, … My father full of… My father full of marvelous stories, at eighty seven had a stroke and left untold the joys and worries he’d lived, of which he rarely spoke.’
I seemed to have caught the sound and rhythm of Burgin in the Onegin stanza (14 lines, iambic tetrameter, with fem/MASC rhymes: (aBaBccDDeFFeGG). What resulted is the present work. It cannot be called a biography of Richard Burgin; rather it is an imaginative work, based in part on Burgin’s life and reminiscences up to 1943 and in part, on my reading of it and them.
My Life in Verse is related to Pushkin’s Novel in Verse in a number of ways, some obvious and others more subtle. As the dedicatory stanza suggests, Richard Burgin, like Eugene Onegin, is a heterogeneous narrative poem in eight chapters, each provided with an epigraph (or two, or three). Its chapters, unlike Pushkin’s, however, have titles. The first three are deliberately borrowed from Tolstoy (Childhood, Boyhood, Youth) and the fourth, First Love, comes from Turgenev. After Burgin leaves Russia, halfway through the poem, the titles of the chapters of his Life no longer have resonance in Russian literature, although some of the events narrated do.
The respective plots of Eugene Onegin and Richard Burgin diverge for the most part although there are points of contact and deliberate reversal. Where the plot of Pushkin’s novel ostensibly revolves around the fictional life, character, unhappy love and ultimate defeat of the Petersburg dandy, Eugene Onegin, the contents of my Life concern the character, profession, loves, real and imagined life of the Russian-American violinist and conductor, Richard Burgin.
Both Richard Burgin and Eugene Onegin develop in counterpoint to their external narratives, through the relationship between the poet and her/his Muse, the meta-literary, inner story of how the work came to be written. And so, my “serious burlesque” plays upon certain stylistic aspects of Eugene Onegin: digressiveness, the influence of Byron, multivoicedness, the poet’s “life in verse,” his/her mid-life crisis and anxieties of authorship.
But I have no pretensions to being Pushkin, or even a second Pushkin. In the end, what is Pushkin to me, or I to Pushkin? Pushkin is the “father of Russian literature” and I am a daughter of the realm, so to speak, a reader of his novel and a writer of my Life. That Life began with a dying father at a loss for words, and ends with a birthing daughter who has found them. The ways in which Richard Burgin echoes, parallels, polemicizes with and reverses its parent text, Eugene Onegin, reveal its play upon genre, gender and generation.