2016 saw the publication of Novels, Tales, Journeys: The Complete Prose of Alexander Pushkin in a translation from those rock-star translators: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. This is a HUGE book–literally and metaphorically, and so a review morphed into reviews.
There’s a short intro from Richard Pevear which outlines Pushkin’s life and his importance to Russian literature, noting that Pushkin is “Russia’s greatest poet,” and also “the true originator of Russian prose.” For those who don’t know, Pushkin died in a duel at age 37, and there’s the sense in the introduction of Pushkin as a restless soul who left his work mostly unfinished as he moved from project to project. This collection shows Pushkin’s “experiments in various forms, borrowing from and parodying well-known European models, consciously trying out the possibilities of Russian prose.”
The first piece in this collection is “The Moor of Peter the Great.” Again for those who don’t know, Pushkin’s great-grandfather was African, and the intro gives a bit of the cloudy background here which helps in understanding the story. It’s a good story which was intended as a historical novel in the “Waverley manner“–one of the many unfinished pieces abandoned by Pushkin.
The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin are marvelous and they begin with a frame–a note from the (fictional) publisher who is trying to track down information about the Ivan Belkin, the author of these stories. The publisher receives a letter from Belkin’s neighbour which, while it announces Belkin’s death, still manages to be very funny in a bleak Russian way. The elaborate frame structure introducing the stories reminded me of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. But onto Pushkin and the first story, The Shot which I absolutely loved, but then who doesn’t love a story about a crazy duelist?
The Shot is set in a small town and concerns a group of men who gather together to drink and play cards. One of the men, called Silvio, by the narrator, is not an officer.
Some mysteriousness surrounded his fate; he seemed Russian, but had a foreign name. He had once served in the hussars, and even successfully; no one knew what motive had prompted him to retire and settle in a poor little town, where he lived both poorly and extravagantly: he always went about on foot, in a shabby frock coat, yet he kept an open house for all the officers of our regiment. True, his dinners consisted of two or three dishes prepared by a retired soldier, but then the champagne flowed in streams. No one knew his fortune, or his income, and no one dared to ask him about it. He had some books, mostly military, but also novels. He willingly lent them out, and never asked for them back; then, too, he never returned a borrowed book to its owner. His main exercise consisted in shooting pistols. The walls of his room were all riddled with bullet holes like a honeycomb. A fine collection of pistols was the only luxury in the poor clay-and-wattle hovel he lived in. The skill he had achieved was unbelievable, and if he had volunteered to knock a pear off of somebody’s cap with a bullet, no one in our regiment would have hesitated to offer him his head.
During a game of cards at Silvio’s house, an argument erupts. Everyone expects a duel to take place, and when it doesn’t occur, Silvio explains some of his history to the narrator. Years later, the narrator unexpectedly has news of Silvio. … The Shot explores the value of life, the deliciousness of revenge upon one’s enemies, and the etiquette of dueling–an activity in which sangfroid is opposed to the passion and anger of the perceived insult.
Lack of courage is least excusable of all for young people, who usually see bravery as the height of human virtue and the excuse for all possible vices.
The images of Silvio’s bullet riddled walls and Silvio “planting bullet after bullet into an ace glued to the gate” will remain in my mind for a long time.