"Paul!" the countess cried from behind the screen. "Send me a new novel to read, only pray not one of those modern ones."
"How do you mean, grand'maman?"
"I want a book in which the hero does not strangle either his father or his mother, and where there are no drowned corpses. I have a horror of drowned persons."
"There aren't any novels of that sort nowadays. Would you like something in Russian?"
"Are there any Russian novels?"
[--from 'The Queen of Spades']
Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) had a remarkably eventful short life. Not content with writing poetry, prose fiction, drama, history, and poetry-novels that won him fame in his own time and acclaim ever since, and developing Russian as a literary language by setting stylistic trends and introducing new words whenever the language's existing pool of vocabulary let him down, he was also politically active in an extremely repressive era: he spoke out for social reform, mixed with radicals like the Decembrists, supported a subversive Greek movement aimed at ending Ottoman rule, and wrote dissident poems that went down badly with Tsar Nicholas I. His activities earned him six years in exile and extended periods of government surveillance - his letters were opened, he was forbidden to travel, and his literary activity was strictly monitored and censored. All this, and he died after fighting a duel with the man strongly rumoured to be having an affair with his wife, Natalya Goncharova (a rumour apparently emphasised by a series of goading poison pen letters sent to Pushkin in late 1836).
The Queen of Spades and Other Stories collects two unfinished novels - The Negro of Peter the Great (1827) and Dubrovsky (written 1832, published in 1841) - and two short stories - 'The Queen of Spades' (1833) and 'The Captain's Daughter' (1836). Taken together, they make for an interesting mix of tones and styles: morality-tale fable, Romantic melodrama, historical epic. But the prose itself is consistently precise and unfussy throughout - making for a smooth, swift read unusual for work of Pushkin's time (not just, I think, a function of translation) - and the engagement with the characters' inner lives markedly less insightful and unflinching than the likes of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. Characters are revealed not so much by their actions or thoughts as by how the author introduces them to us, and they do what the story demands of them.
The Negro of Peter the Great sees Pushkin looking back to the early eighteenth century, to explore the themes of his family history. Pushkin's great-grandfather, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, was an African - recent research suggests probably from modern-day Cameroon - who was enslaved as a boy by the Ottomans and subsequently (1704) taken to the court of Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725) by the Russian ambassador, where he attained high rank. The story centres on the life and fortunes of a black courtier, and godson, of Peter, named Ibrahim (the Arabic cognate of Abram/Abraham). On the evidence of the six chapters that exist, Ibrahim's experience closely follows that of Pushkin's kinsman: we open with Ibrahim in Paris, having been sent to Europe by Peter to "acquire the learning needed by a country in the course of reorganization", as part of the Tsar's quest for 'Westernisation' in Russia.
Westernisation had a two-fold meaning under Peter's direction. On the one hand, it meant an attack on many of the bastions of Old Russia - which Peter considered to be superstitious or otherwise symptomatic of backwardness and barbarity, preventing his country from modernising - such as the Church (whose rituals Peter mocked) and aspects of the dress and habits of the boyars (nobles; he introduced a tax on beards, that great symbol of Russian manhood, to strongarm his courtiers into shaving them off, and forced them to wear European clothes). On the other hand, it meant learning from the countries of Europe so as to put Russia on a stronger fiscal and military footing - he was particularly interested in new ship-building techniques, and reorganised the army - and to follow its example in making the mores and manners of its society more 'modern' in the European sense.
"How glad I am that you have not died of tedium in this barbarous Petersburg!" Korsakov went on. "What do people do here? How do they spend their time? Who is your tailor? Is there at least an opera-house?"
Ibrahim replied that probably the Tsar was at work in the dockyard.
The perceived cultural gulf between Russia and the west, and the often problematic legacy of Peter's forced modernisation of the country, is the uneasy backdrop to the story. Pushkin himself admired Peter, viewing his policies as bringing "culture and enlightenment, which in the end must bring us freedom, too", as he wrote towards the end of his life. Since it is unfinished, it is of course hard to say on which side the book's preferences might have lain; in the early stages, at least, traditionalist characters speak clearly for an image of a shallow, permissive West undermining the moral strength of Russia:
"The living image of Korsakov," said old Prince Lykov, wiping away tears of laughters when eventually quiet was restored. "But why not admit it? He is not the first, nor will he be the last, to return to Holy Russia from foreign parts transformed into a buffoon. What do our children learn abroad? To scrape a leg, to chatter in goodness knows what gibberish, to treat their elders with disrespect, yes, and to run after other men's wives."
Outside the character dialogue, meanwhile, Paris is presented in all its stereotypically decadent glory (with post-1789 hindsight, of course):
According the testimony of the historical memoirs nothing could equal the frivolity, folly and luxury of the France of that period. [...] The orgies of the Palais-Royal were no secret in Paris; the example was infectious. [...] greed for money was united to a pleasure for thirst and dissipation.
There are all sorts of interesting issues that start to come to the surface in these opening chapters, not least the thematic parallels and contrasts between educated Ibrahim and Westernising Russia. Prince Lykov, our traditionalist speaker, goes on to note that Ibrahim "is a steady, decent man"; but his wife does not share his assessment:
"Of all the young men who have been educated in foreign lands the Tsar's negro (the Lord forgive me!) is more of a man than any."
"Dear me, prince!" said Tatiana Afanassyevna. "I have seen him, seen him quite close... what a dreadful visage! I was quite scared."
The suggestion, here and elsewhere, is that Ibrahim will always be judged first and foremost as a fear-inducing black man, for all his education, strength of character, and sensitivity. The latter is illustrated by a heartfelt letter he writes to break off his relationship with a Countess in Paris, which is of a notably higher-flown style than the surrounding prose ("better that I should die" etc.), and by his lavishly Romantic agonies about same ("his eyes went dim, his head reeled"). Obviously, being a seventeenth-century man, the sensitivity is mostly about his own feelings - specifically, his insecurities about whether she will leave him - but his desire to avoid putting his lover through further anguish, as when she became pregnant with their child and was forced to give birth in secret, marks him out as a hero in (what I take to be, given the other stories here) Pushkin terms. Ibrahim is well aware of the obstacles he faces, and when Peter decides that his godson must marry and that he has just the girl in mind, Ibrahim demurs:
"But even if I did think of marrying, would the girl and her relatives consent? My appearance..."
"Your appearance? What nonsense! There is nothing wrong with you. A young girl must obey her parents, and we shall see what old Gavril Afanassyevich will say when I come in person to ask his daughter's hand for you!"
Naturally, Peter goes ahead anyway, with results that look nothing if not ill-omened - the girl in question is a) in love with someone else, b) disgusted by the very idea of Ibrahim and c) vocally determined to die rather than marry him (her parents, meanwhile, dare not refuse the Tsar) - when the story breaks off. Peter's blithe colour-blindness here, and his bulldozing disregard for the strength of others' beliefs and prejudices, strikes me as an acute characterisation of him. Only an immense stubbornness could have pushed through his agenda within Russia; the question remains, however, whether all the 'modernisation' in the world will change peoples' assumptions about what Russia is and should be. Or, perhaps, whether the essential nature of Russia, as conceived by the traditionalists, will always win out.
Likewise for Ibrahim. The otherwise air-headed Korsakov sounds a note of caution (and, one suspects, lays out the Othello-esque plot of the novel for us):
"Look here, Ibrahim," said Korsakov, "follow my advice for once: I assure you, I have more sense than would appear. Give up this mad idea - don't marry! I do not think your betrothed has any particular liking for you. [...] There is no relying on a woman's fidelity: happy are those who do not bother about it. But you... With your passionate, brooding and suspicious nature, with your flat nose, thick lips and fuzzy hair - for you to rush into the dangers of matrimony!"
Korsakov betrays the bigoted stereotyping that can lie beneath even the most tolerant-seeming surface, and undoubtedly foreshadows the ways in which Ibrahim is likely to be condemned by the other characters. Where the novel as a whole would have come down on this is open to debate. A Byronic anti-hero tragically brought down by intolerant society, perhaps, or something more discomforting about 'essential natures'; either way, it looks unlikely that it would have ended happily.
The other unfinished novel, Dubrovsky, gets rather further into the melodrama before its premature ending. A tit-for-tat dispute between two provincial landowning neighbours - dissolute Kiril Petrovich and gruff Andrei Gavrilovich (father of the titular hero, Vladimir) - escalates into a full-on battle that shatters the lives of everyone connected with them. A breathtakingly-cavalier legal ruling hands the Dubrovky estate - land, house, dependants and all - over to Kiril Petrovich. "We quote it in full, believing that everybody will be gratified to learn of one of the methods whereby in Russia we can be deprived of an estate to which we have incontestable rights", says Pushkin, reproducing the verdict from a real-life case of the 1820s, with only the names changed to fit his fiction.
Indeed, the narrator emphasises how habitual is the resort to violence and cruelty for a capricious landowner, so rarely held accountable for his actions and so accustomed to wielding absolute power over his many subordinates. We are told that "Very few of the serf-girls of his household escaped the amorous attentions of this elderly man of fifty"; we see how he delights in trapping unsuspecting guests in a room with a bear, the length of whose chain leaves them one single corner in which to cower, often injured, until Petrovich chooses to release them ("Such were the noble amusements of a Russian country gentleman!"); we are privy to his thuggish thoughts:
[Kiril Petrovich] was beside himself with fury and at first wanted to attack Kistenyovka (as his neighbour's village was called) with all his serfs, and, razing it to the ground, besiege the owner in his very house. Such exploits were nothing out of the way to him.
Kiril Petrovich finds his victory a hollow one, however, and regrets its pursuit; but bad blood, and shed blood, have reached such levels a cycle of revenge ensues. When Andrei dies of the strain, Vladimir and some of the family's surviving dependants turn outlaw, and set about making things impossible for Petrovich. The situation takes a turn for the melodramatic with the introduction of Petrovich's daughter Masha, who is, of course, beautiful:
The reader has probably already guessed that Kiril Petrovich's daughter, of whom so far only a few words have been said, is the heroine of our story. At the time of which we are writing she was seventeen and in the full bloom of her beauty.
(This conversational, winking-at-the-reader style reminds me of Vanity Fair; signs of unconventional self-awareness when doing something so conventional and essential as describing the heroine are always welcome.)
Soon Masha is also in love with Dubrovsky, and he with her, after he - clever, dashing and a master of disguise in the making - poses as a new tutor for her and spends some weeks in the unwitting Petrovich's household. It being that sort of story, Petrovich retaliates by forcing Masha to marry someone of his choosing, Masha despairs extravagantly and decides her impending nuptials are "like the executioner's block, like the grave!", and Vladimir Dubrovsky trembles, flushes, and rages. Masha further demonstrates her angelic disposition by refusing (despairingly) to run away with Dubrovsky after he fails to rescue her, and the forced marriage is sanctified:
"No!" she answered. "It is too late! I am married - I am Prince Vereisky's wife."
"What are you saying?" Dubrovsky cried in despair. "No, you are not his wife! You were forced to, you could never have given your consent..."
"I did; I made the marriage vow," she answered firmly. "The prince is my husband. Tell your men to let him go, and leave me with him. I did not play false, I waited for you up to the last moment ... but now, I tell you, it is too late. Let us go."
But Dubrovsky could no longer hear her; the pain of his wound and the violence of his emotions overcame him.
It is predictable and formulaic, but exciting nonetheless, playing out at a swift pace in stripped-down, very readable prose. Pushkin's notes yielded a very brief outline of how the story was supposed to have developed: widowhood for Masha and more outlawry and disguises for Dubrovsky, by the looks of things. Par for the course, and yet I wish I could have read more of it.
The two short stories have traces of the high emotional tone of the novels, but each is also leavened with sardonic humour - and, in the case of 'The Queen of Spades', with a sadistically-fun twist ending well worthy of the nasty fairy tale it is. It is also a marvellously pithy, fine-tuned little story in its own right; again, the language is stripped of much of its descriptive padding, and the plot rattles along. A young man of questionable morals, Hermann, hears of an old Countess who is said to have a secret, infallible way - a lucky three-card run - to win at cards. He determines to learn the trick, and sets about worming his way into the household by manipulating the Countess' put-upon ward, Lizaveta, with false declarations of love, giving Pushkin a chance for more sly meta-humour (as in the quotation at the start of this post):
Lizaveta Ivanovna paid no attention to her. When they returned home she ran up to her room and drew the letter out of her glove: it was unsealed. She read it. The letter contained a declaration of love: it was tender, respectful and had been copied word for word from a German novel. But Lizaveta Ivanovna did not know any German and she was delighted with it.
It is hardly a spoiler to say that Hermann's scheme backfires, or that there is plenty of schadenfreude to be had when he gets his comeuppance. Along the way, though, there are plenty of nefarious deeds, tense encounters and even a ghostly visitation; great fun.
Finally, 'The Captain's Daughter' is a short historical epic about a brutal Cossack revolt in 1773, under the leadership of a man named Pugachev, who claimed to be Catherine II's (dead) husband returned. It also contains the collection's only examples of first-person narration, much of it being, ostensibly, the edited memoirs of its main character, Piotr Andreich. Piotr's voice is an enjoyable one: intelligent, ironic, warm, and dryly amused by - without seeking to excuse - his spoilt youthful excesses. Piotr, having recently joined the army on the strength of his father's connections, is rudely awakened from his dissolute ways when his remote, apparently boringly-safe posting is caught up in the tide of Pugachev's revolt.
The picture that emerges of Piotr is of a clever young man with little to occupy him and nothing to check him, least of all self-control. When describing his early life, his tales of running amok are fun:
At that particular moment Beaupre [his tutor] was sleeping the sleep of innocence on my bed. I was busy with my own affairs. I ought to mention that a map of the world had been obtained for me from Moscow. It hung on the wall but was never used and for long had I been tempted by the size and quality of the paper it was printed on. Now I had decided to make a kite with it.
When he is older, this becomes plain irresponsibility, and his military career begins with him squandering the faltering family fortunes on drinking and gambling (apparently an endemic issue for army officers; Piotr notes it as "zeal for the service"). But what could have been just censorious moralising, a too-simple story of a worthless boy made good through adversity, is made into something much more affecting and effective by a retrospective narration that is wry rather than preachy; the lighter tone elsewhere offsets, and emphasises by contrast, the real sufferings of the characters:
Pugachev looked at the old man menacingly and said to him: "How dare you resist me, your Sovereign?" The commandant, spent from his wound, summoned his last remaining strength and replied in a firm voice: "You are not my Sovereign: you are a thief and a pretender, do you hear!" Pugachev frowned darkly and waved a white handkerchief. Several Cossacks seized the old Captain and dragged him to the gallows. Astride upon the cross-beam sat the mutilated Bashkir whom we had questioned the day before. He was holding a rope in his hand and a minuted later I saw poor Ivan Kuzmich hoisted into the air.
Like the other stories in this collection, 'The Captain's Daughter' is concise and fast moving, rarely staying still for long enough to do more than glance at the scenery or hint at its characters' states of mind. Instead it juggles its various concerns rapidly and dextrously: the course and cost of the revolt; the sinister but not-without-a-point Pugachev's disposition and discontents; Piotr's development into an altogether leaner, sharper individual through both compromise and resistance (when his posting is taken, he is spared because he once gave Pugachev a gift, without realising who he was; he lives to fight another day, but is marked as a collaborator and traitor); and the efforts of Piotr's beloved Maria Ivanovna to save his life by petitioning Catherine (described, charmingly, as having "a plump, rosy face" and "calm dignity") for a pardon.
Thus ends part the first of my Russian Reading Challenge. Only 18 or so to go... :-)