Tuesday, September 16, 2014

the game resumed its usual course - Pushkin's ghosts

“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.


  1. Loved this story :) Do you have the Pushkin Press version with the poems and other stories?

  2. No, I don't have that version. I see it is a kind of "Greatest Hits" album, which is a good idea.

    It has extracts from Pushkin's plays, very good. Those are certainly worth reading in their entirety - just great. And of course Eugene Onegin.

  3. There's a soviet film version worth catching:

    PS (I think there's a typo in the first line)

  4. Oh right. I've never seen that movie, or ever seen a copy of that movie. That would be interesting.

    I think there are typos in many lines, but luckily I can correct the one you saw - thanks!

    1. I was a bit skeptical about seeing the film but it's really well done. At one point it was on youtube in segments. I don't know if it's still there or not.

  5. Now I have to re-read "The Queen of Spades" because I don't remember it being that interesting or good. Or maybe it just went over my head and I missed its nuances.

  6. There is definitely a - what do I want to say - limit on what Pushkin can do stylistically. He is deliberately stripping away a lot of 18th century plushness, and tightening up the German form. There are not a lot of individually great sentences.

    Having said that, the structure is ingenious and surprising, there is a symbolic undercurrent that is pretty amusing - look out for Napoleon references - and the grotesque scenes with the countess are fine stuff. I guess I hardly wrote about any of this.

  7. According to Estela Canto's memoirs (the woman who got away from Borges), Pique Dame was Borges' favorite Russian work of fiction, bar none.

  8. Ah, really! No, I believe it, that is completely believable. A fine choice.

  9. I have not read Pushkin. This might be a good place to start. I saw Tchaikovsky's opera version a few years ago and loved it. But, I love all Russian composers. I should look for the book.

  10. There's an intertextual link in “The Queen of Spades” that goes well with your point that the ghost story is a comic genre. J. Douglas Clayton says that “The Queen of Spades” is full of “striking echoes” of Diderot's Les Bijoux indiscrets, “a satirical novel, a racy mixture of the libertine tales of Crébillon and Swiftian satire. In it a cer­tain African sultan by the name of Mangogul acquires a magic ring, which, when pointed at a woman, causes her genitalia, her ‘jewel,’ to speak. Though set in a fantastic African world, the description of Mango­gul and his consort Mirzoza was to contemporaries a transparent caricature of Louis XV and his favorite Mme. de Pompadour. The work is thus a hilarious but biting portrait of the French court and the manners and morals of French society, for each time a ‘bijou’ speaks, it reveals alarm­ing secrets about its mistress’s adventures and misdemeanors in the bedroom.”

    I think Clayton's reading is that the countess used sex to pay her gambling debts in Paris, and this, not the three cards, is her secret. Hermann is like a woman out of Diderot: he cares more about gambling than sex, and is willing to use the latter to help with the former.

  11. Diderot, I would never have guessed, but I have not read that one. That's great. Thanks for the pointer.

    Clayton's reading is mine, too. Of course there is a secret. But it's not a magic spell.