The latest issue of The Hudson Review, Summer 2014, includes three of the five Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovitch Belkin (1831), translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky as part of a forthcoming – distantly, in 2016 – Collected Prose of Pushkin. Since there were only two to go, including my favorite, “The Shot,” I got out my copy of Paul Debreczeny’s Complete Prose Fiction (Stanford University Press) to finish them off. And since I had it out, almost inevitably I had to read “The Queen of Spades” (1833). I did not continue to the 1837 novella The Captain’s Daughter, although I was tempted.
Pushkin’s fiction is pretty close to pure pleasure. Two, or maybe three, of the Belkin stories are based on wild coincidences. One is a ghost story of the “anxiety and indigestion” type. The fifth is a sad slice of life, also featuring a bit of coincidence. The frame around the little book is that the stories are “mostly true stories that he [the deceased Belkin] had heard from different people” (Debreczeny, 64) edited by Pushkin, his country neighbor.
Although the coincidences are preposterous fictional contrivances, in the frame of story-telling, the implausibilities are not a problem but rather the point. These are the five best stories Belkin ever came across. Of course they are unlikely – that is exactly why Belkin wanted people to hear them.
In “The Blizzard,” a young couple makes plans to elope, but the groom is caught by surprise in a storm. Everything goes wrong, then later it works out. Well, not for him, but for other people. Pushkin’s style is not exactly plain, but is clear and efficient:
But Vladimir had barely reached the fields outside the village when the wind picked up and such a blizzard set in that he could see nothing. In one minute the road was buried; the surroundings disappeared in a dim, yellowish murk, through which white snowflakes flew; the sky merged with the earth. (P & V, 192)
Vladimir finally pushes on to a wood:
The wind could not rage here; the road was smooth; the horse took heart, and Vladimir felt more calm. (193)
I am trusting the translators for those semicolons, but that line sounds like Pushkin to me. He is a vigorous prose writer, distant, unfussy, and exact.
Pushkin hardly has the strong, eccentric voice of later writers like Gogol or Dostoevsky. I will bet that I would have trouble distinguishing blind passages of Pushkin, Lermontov, and early Tolstoy, the latter two in some ways close imitators of Pushkin’s style, and come to think of it his subject matter, although there I am thinking of The Captain’s Daughter more than the short stories. But who, writing in Russian, did not in some way imitate Pushkin? Pushkin imitated French translations of Scott and Byron, to the extent that he imitated anyone.
This has been a rambler, hasn’t it? I think I’ll spend the week rambling through the Russian short fiction I read recently – Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Turgenev. A little more Pushkin tomorrow.