“The Queen of Spades” is Alexander Pushkin’s perfect little E. T. A. Hoffmann story. Hoffmann was as inventive a writer as ever lived, but he could be a spongy prose writer – sometimes he needed to wring out his prose a little – while Pushkin’s story is light and crisp. He borrows lightly and wisely from Hoffmann.
It’s a gambling story, a problematic genre, since pure randomness is not such an interesting topic to simulate by means of literature, and a psychological horror story – now there is something to make randomness interesting.
A gambler at a card party tells a story about his grandmother. He claims that she knows a secret combination of cards that always wins at faro, three wins in a row, so the gambler can octuple his money. The Countess, his grandmother, learned this secret sixty years ago in Paris, from the mysterious Count Saint-Germain, which I like to think of as a little tribute to Hoffmann, although Pushkin could be thinking of any number of Hoffmann’s weird peers, or no one at all. Anyway, grandma has mostly kept the secret to herself.
Hermann, a desperate but methodical German – there it is again – engineer, resolves to learn the magic formula at whatever cost. Consequences ensue. That’s enough story. The ending is terrific. The middle is terrific. The story has a curious arc. I normally thinking of a story arc as a rise then a fall, but “The Queen of Spades” arcs moves sideways, from the gambling party to the Countess to her granddaughter to Hermann, the main character, I finally learn a third of the way into the story. Then the usual arc – a rise, another rise, then a ghost, and yet another rise, and finally a nightmarish crash:
Chekalinskii gathered in the bank notes lost by Hermann. The young man stood by the table, motionless. When at last he left the table, the whole room burst into loud talk. “Splendid punting!” the players kept saying. Chekalinskii shuffled the cards anew: the game resumed its usual course. (Debreczeny, 233)
I acknowledge that sounds like nothing if you have not read what comes before, but in context it is chilling as the icy grip of the cold Pushkinian narrator reasserts his control over this overheated story.
The ghost in “The Queen of Spades” is all business. Those in “The Undertaker,” one of the Tales of Belkin, are more hideous. The undertaker, in a fit of pique, has invited the dead over for a drink, and they come:
The room was full of corpses. The moon shining through the windows lit up their yellow and blue faces, gaping mouths, murky half-closed eyes, and protruding noses… All of them, male and female, surrounded the undertaker with bows and salutations; only one pauper, who had been buried gratis a little while back, stood humbly in the corner, feeling too awkward and ashamed of his rags to come forward. All the others were properly dressed, the lady corpses in caps and ribbons, the gentlemen of rank in uniform, though with their chins unshaven, and the merchants in their holiday caftans. (91, ellipses mine)
The ghost story, I have discovered, is fundamentally a comic genre:
His skull smiled affably and threadbare linen hung on him here and there as if on a pole, and the bones of his legs rattled in his jackboots like pestles in mortars. (92)
But of course a kind of commonsense reasserts itself as the story ends, the kind that loves amusing stories and recommends champagne.