Monday, September 15, 2014

the sky merged with the earth - some Pushkin stories

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.


  1. I read and reviewed these (but in a different translation) for Shiny New Books - and loved them. His writing is beautiful, but I'm glad I read them in the version I did (I'm not a fan of P&V).

  2. I have read and posted on "The Queen of Spades" and "The Shot". I would enjoy reading more of his short fiction.

  3. mel, they are certainly all worth reading, and, as all readers of Wuthering Expectations know, Russian books are short. So Tales of Belkin adds up to maybe 60 pages, and The Captain's Daughter is under 100.

    Pushkin seems like a good fit for P&V. The issue of voice is not such a problem. But they are certainly not doing a new translation because of a shortage of good versions.

  4. Tolstoy called Chekhov "Pushkin in prose." Chekhov himself didn't think highly of Pushkin, but he certainly did write from the Pushkin school; "clear and efficient" is a good description of both writers' prose.

  5. Chekhov has so much more distance from Pushkin, so it would have been easier to push the figure of Pushkin away a little more. Tolstoy was 8 or 9 when Pushkin was shot. His first books are only 15 years after Pushkin's death. They are Pushkin radicalized - more intense, more pure.

    Boy, I start lining up Tolstoy's long career, and some strange things pop out. So close to Pushkin, outliving Chekhov.

  6. You've inspired me to read a few of these. I have a copy translated by Natalie Duddington. She also has the semi-colons: "The wind could not rage here; the road was smooth; the horse rallied, and Vladimir was reassured."

  7. The Duddington version is super. It has all of Pushkin's best prose. At some point, many years ago, I switched to the Dubreczeny book just because it has more, much of which is fragments and drafts.

  8. Oh my goodness, I can hardly wait for the Pevear-Vol translation. I love Pushkin's poem Eugene Onegin, and reread it a few years ago to be sure it was as good as I'd thought it in college. I do have an Everyman collection of Pushkin's stories. No idea who translated it, but I should get it out for the winter. Russian lit goes with the Midwest in winter.

  9. Hey, whaddaya know, the Everyman is the Debreczeny version put between hard covers. Good for Everyman, good choice.

    I often feel like reversing the seasons. Reading "The Blizzard" during August, for example. Reading it in the middle of a Great Plains blizzard might be too frightening. Or would if we did not have central heat and snowplows and so on.