Tag Archives: Pushkin

Novels, Tales, Journeys: The Complete Prose of Alexander Pushkin (Part I)

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.”

pushkin

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.

 

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Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov

“And that,” I said, “is how it always happens. First they drive the man into the ground and then begin looking for his personal effects. That’s how it was with Dostoevsky, that’s how it was with Yesenin, and that’s how it’ll be with Pasternak. When they come to their senses, they’ll start looking for Solzhenitsyn’s personal effects.”

I read and thoroughly enjoyed The Suitcase from Sergei Dovlatov, and so when I saw a new release from the same author, Pushkin Hills, translated by the author’s daughter, Katherine Dovlatov, I knew I had to read it. The premise sounded excellent–this is the story of a divorced, alcoholic writer, Boris Alikhanov who takes a job as a tour guide at the rural estate of Mikhaylovskoye, the Pushkin “preserve” even as his  ex-wife considers emigrating abroad. The possibilities of such a scenario were intriguing. At 116 pages, this is a slim book that at times seems more anecdotal than straight narrative, or perhaps it’s just that the characters appear and then disappear, and I frequently wanted them to return.

Pushkin HillsPushkin Hills was first published in Russia in 1983, and the novella slips in observations and criticisms of Soviet life, so when our narrator arrives at his destination, he notices that the walls of the town square are plastered with “warped plywood billboards. The drawings promised mountains of meat, wool, eggs and various unmentionables in the not-too-distant future.” These observations are prevalent in late Soviet literature, and yes they appear in early Soviet literature and post Soviet literature too, but there’s something about that late Soviet period. I’m not a historian, and I’m not a Russian literature expert–I’m a reader, so I’ll throw a mental dart at 20th century, and say post Stalin. Yes, Soviet writers were still being exiled but Soviet culture was defanged without Stalin, and what seems to be left, in late Soviet Culture (60s, 70s, & 80s) as evidenced by Pushkin Hills is a broken society in which conformity is still valued. We hear the slow, creaky wheels of indifferent, incompetent bureaucracy at every turn, and here at Mikhaylovskoye, it’s no different except tour guides are bombarded with the question: “do you love Pushkin?” which is supposed to generate an enthusiastic, gushing response. Here’s Boris being grilled in an interview conducted by the methodologist about his devotion to Pushkin:

I explained my reason for being there. With a skeptical smile, she invited me to follow her to the office.

“Do you love Pushkin?”

I felt a muffled irritation.

“I do.”

At this rate, I thought, it won’t be long before I don’t.

“And may I ask why?”

I caught her ironic glance. Evidently the love of Pushkin was the most widely circulated currency in these parts. What if I were a counterfeiter, god forbid.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Why do you love Pushkin?”

“Let’s stop this idiotic test,” I burst out. “I graduated from school. And from university.” (Here I exaggerated a bit; I was expelled in my third year.) “I’ve read a few books. In short, I have a basic understanding… Besides, I’m only seeking a job as a tour guide.”

But Boris has failed to give the correct answer which is “Pushkin is our pride and joy” and “He is not only a great poet, but he is also Russia’s greatest citizen.” In spite of failing to give the standard answer, Boris is given the job of being one of the many tour guides. He rents a room from Mikhail Ivanych:

A sloping antenna shone black against the white clouds. Sections of the roof had caved in, revealing black uneven beams. The walls were carelessly covered in plywood. The cracked window panes were held together with newspaper. Filthy oakum poked out from countless gaps. The stench of rotten food hung in the owner’s room. Over the table I noticed a coloured portrait of General Mao, torn from a magazine.

Mikhail Ivanych lives alone in squalor since his wife left. The beds are covered with “putrid sheepskins,” and Boris’s new landlord charges rent calculated by how many bottles of booze he can buy.

To be honest, I was at a bit of a loss. If only I could have simply said: “I’m afraid this won’t work…” But it appears I am genteel after all. And so I said something lyrical:

“The windows face south?”

“The very, very south,” Tolik affirmed.

Through the windows I could see a dilapidated bathhouse.

“The main thing,” I said, “is that there’s a private entrance.”

“The entrance is private,” agreed Mikhail Ivanych, “only it’s nailed shut.”

“Oh that’s too bad,” I said.

“Ein moment,” said the owner, took a few steps back, and charged the door.

Mikhail Ivanych, one of the book’s more bizarre characters, is perpetually drunk, and has some extreme, distasteful views regarding the German occupation and the fact that they “did no harm.” Apparently to Mikhail Ivanych, who at one point hangs two cats with fishing line, the Germans “fix[ed] the Yids and the gypsies.” This character, repulsive as he is, seems a study in contrast to the high-minded worship of Pushkin which is fostered just a few miles away.

Boris’s life as a tour guide at Mikhaylovskoye is the best parts of the book. We see bus loads of tourists disgorge, and Boris learns which nationalities are the best-behaved, along with the sorts of questions they will ask. Boris sometimes fabricates the facts, but most people don’t notice. The tour guides are essentially a bunch of misfits: failed writer Stasik Pototsky & the brilliant Mitrofanov who suffers “a rare clinical condition … total atrophy of will.”  Pototsky, who indulges in week long drinking binges, develops a lucrative sideline in showing tourists Pushkin’s secret “true grave.”

For this reader, the best parts of the book are found in the details of life at Mikhaylovskoye, and the juxtaposition of the worship of all-things Pushkin with the reality of how the tour guides are heartily sick of the manipulation of the subject. The book’s narrator finds parallels between his life and Pushkin’s. After all, they both had “an uneasy relationship with the government,” and Boris acknowledges that they both had ‘problems’ with their wives. Beneath the dark, sardonic jokes, and the twisting of the absurd into humour, the book raises questions about the writer’s life, censorship, the writer and the state, and the role of an émigré writer.

Pushkin Hills contains some colloquial language and the occasional swear word, and this brings up the issue of exactly how does one translate this sort of language?Apparently Alma Classics searched for a translator for some time, and I can guess that this book wasn’t easy to translate.  The translation of colloquialism is the aspect of the novel I liked the least.  I’ll add that I find it wearing to read much colloquialism in any book–not that I object to swearing. Here there’s “gimme,” “kinda,” “scrud,” “Fuck them and the horse they rode in on,”fuckin,” “fuck, my pecker’s dripping,”  “booze-up,” “wino,”have ya heard,” “outta,” “snuff ‘er,”  Well you get the point. I have no solutions for how to translate colloquialism, but for this reader, the book became less Russian when I read Americanisms. Perhaps other readers will feel differently. Yes, I could always learn Russian, but that’s not going to happen.

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