A Brilliant Mind’s Pauses: The Fiction of Russia’s Greatest Poet

PUSHKIN IS A TERRIBLE MODEL for writers: the prose is lively, amusing, idiomatic, clear, charming. Nobody can write as beautifully as he, so why bother?

When Tolstoy reread Pushkin’s tales, novellas, and “fragments” (as they’re called), in March 1873, he immediately abandoned a painstaking historical novel and started one that became Anna Karenina. Okay, for Tolstoy, Pushkin was a wonderful model. Pushkin’s fictional fragments, by the way, are only incomplete, not unfinished; they’re brilliant up to their last phrase. Pushkin, unlike Tolstoy, was not a compulsive reviser. He never even completely closed off Eugene Onegin, his verse-novel, because he was continually getting distracted by women and his literary disputes. His fictions concern love and youth, parents and children, the elderly, war and books, the city and country. His asides are not cute or especially intimate. They are a brilliant mind’s pauses for reflection, the observations of a great man. “To follow a great man’s thoughts,” as he says in “The Blackamoor of Peter the Great,” “is a most interesting study.”

Pushkin was an aristocrat, born in 1799. French was his first language, but the Russian he learned from his nanny captivated him, instilling a profound love for the vernacular. A talented misfit, he seemed to identify with his great-grandfather, General Abram Gannibal (1696–1781), Peter the Great’s African foster son. He was a ladies’ man and a hothead, admired but not especially liked; he put people off, but seemed to be sensitive to every flash of their personalities. Pushkin needled foes with his verses and twitted the powerful, but, unlike Gannibal, whose patron tsar protected and promoted him, he was for several years clamped down under the direct censorship of Nicholas I.

When he was 31, he married a beautiful 18-year-old, about whom he was continually jealous. They had four children over the next six years, before he was shot in a duel over her honor; he died a few days later, mourned by the literary nation, which was not, however, surprised by his fate. If he hadn’t been killed then, he would’ve died in a duel sooner or later.

Even in his lifetime, Pushkin was regarded as Russia’s supreme lyric and narrative poet, and his verse-novel Eugene Onegin remains a European classic. Unfortunately, most translations of his lively, quicksilver poetry have not been successful. He only took up narrative prose on a whim, but, as this collection makes clear, he mastered it gloriously. American readers are more likely to have read Chekhov’s stories than Pushkin’s; after all, Chekhov wrote several hundred, and their sympathy and humor have been admired and imitated by so many 20th-century Anglophone masters. Pushkin completed very few stories, but the five he collected as The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin (he pretended that a fictional Belkin, not he, had written them) are perhaps the best collection of short fiction in the history of the world.

The Captain’s Daughter and Dubrovsky are not novels but novellas — just in terms of length (95 pages and 66, here). But they are two of the greatest novellas ever written, both of them exciting, romantic racehorses of prose. He finished “finished” The Captain’s Daughter, the better known of the two, and to criticize it is to criticize a Mozart symphony: let’s say the first two-thirds are more excellent than the last. Dubrovsky is like a Heinrich von Kleist story; it gallops along on the hooves of righteous revenge, but is also full of romantic love — Pushkin’s specialty — which lightens the terror:
Marya Kirilovna sat in her room, embroidering on a tambour by the open window. She did not confuse the silks, as did Konrad’s mistress, who, in amorous distraction, embroidered a rose in green silk. Under her needle, the canvas unerringly repeated the original pattern, even though her thoughts did not follow her work but were far away.
How is that for a description of unconscious routine action? Dubrovsky is officially “unfinished” but is as polished as the rest of the fiction.

I read The Tales of Belkin and The Captain’s Daughter with surprising ease in my passable Russian before taking up Pevear and Volokhonsky’s new translations. The most popular translating couple of this century have taken their lumps for supposedly hogging the limited market for translations of the Russian classics — see, for instance, Janet Malcolm’s “Socks” in The New York Review of Books — but I wouldn’t presume to complain about them myself. In nearly 500 pages, I queried and checked maybe a dozen words or phrases of theirs, down to the pettiness of “Wouldn’t we say ‘went’ rather than ‘came’?” or “Wouldn’t ‘annoyed’ here be a little better than ‘bored’?” Quibbling over translations is perhaps only amusing for translators and people who claim to be experts in the original tongue. We’ll try a set of comparisons, but first I’ll declare that the best new old fiction you’re going to read all year is between the covers of this book. If we start with a quotation from The Captain’s Daughter, we can visit a moment with the captain’s wife, Vasilisa Egorovna, who domineers over the dilapidated fort on the Bashkir steppes west of Orenburg. Her husband, the captain, is competent enough, but she always knows best, and he, a wise man, agrees. When he tries to persuade her to leave before the arrival of the real-life rebel Emelyan Pugachev, who is leading an army that can and will overwhelm the captain’s puny and incompetent forces (some of whom will even defect), she refuses to go. She only concedes to sending away their daughter for safekeeping:
“Very well,” said his wife, “so be it, we’ll send Masha off. But don’t dream of asking me to go: I won’t. Nothing will make me part from you in my old age and seek a solitary grave in strange parts somewhere. Together we’ve lived, and together we’ll die.”
My version of the same:
“Fine,” said the commandant’s wife, “let it be so, send Masha away. But don’t dream of asking me: I won’t go. Not in my old age am I separating from you and looking for a single grave in a strange land. Together we live, together we die.”
Natalie Duddington, Vintage Russian Library:
“Very well,” said the Commandant’s wife, “so be it, let us send Masha away. But don’t you dream of asking me — I won’t go: I wouldn’t think of parting from you in my old age and seeking a lonely grave far away. Live together, die together.”
Alan Myers, Oxford World’s Classics: “All right,” said his wife. “So be it, we’ll send Masha away. But don’t even ask me in your dreams: I shan’t go. I’m not going to part with you in my old age and seek a lonely grave in some strange place. We’ve lived together, we’ll die together.” Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, NYRB Classics:
“Very well,” said Vasilisa Yegornovna. “We’ll send Masha away. But I’m not going anywhere myself — so don’t you dare ask me again! Why should we part in our old age? I don’t want to go looking for a lonely grave far from home. Live together — die together.”
Is it a wash? I think so. But is it “different” in Russian? Of course! This is from Volume Five, “Stories, Tales,” of the 1975 10-volume Soviet edition of Pushkin’s works, cited by Pevear and Volokhonsky as their source:
— Добро, — сказала комендантша, — так и быть, отправим Машу. А меня и во сне не проси: не поеду. Нечего мне под старость лет расставаться с тобою да искать одинокой могилы на чужой сторонке. Вместе жить, вместе и умирать.
In the Russian we hear the captain’s wife’s distinct voice, without trying. But there are so many things going on in the tale itself, so much action, so much momentum, that the English almost can’t help but come to life. Pushkin’s the cook of this feast and translators are the waiters. If one of them sticks his bare thumb in while serving it, I remind myself to blink and go on chewing. It’s still good!

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