When Alexander Pushkin wrote The Tales of Belkin, verse still made up the bulk of serious Russian literature, and this marked Pushkin’s first prose fiction publication. According to translator Hugh Aplin’s introduction to the Hesperus Press edition of the Tales, Pushkin didn’t think much of many of his prose predecessors, and he put his criticism—in favor of “[p]recision and brevity”—into action here. “What seemed to the vast majority of Pushkin’s critical contemporaries to be mere bagatelles, presaging the waning of the great poet’s powers, were arguably a crucial turning-point in Russian letters, when a verse-dominated literary world was shown ways it could develop the prose fiction that was to make it so influential over the subsequent century and more,” he explains.
Superficially, it’s easy to see the Tales as bagatelles, and they are certainly charming. They consist of six stories ostensibly written by the late I.P. Belkin, who heard them from various individuals he met. His collection, where names have been changed to protect the innocent, but places have not, “solely through a lack of imagination,” has been published posthumously along with a description of the author by an anonymous former neighbor. That’s at least three layers of remove for each story: the fictional publisher, the fictional author, and the fictional author’s acquaintance. And of course many of those acquaintances had the stories told to them as well.
Pushkin uses as many interpositions of fiction as possible to make these seem like true stories, and each interposition leaves its own residue. Each story has its own voice as it has its own original “teller,” but Belkin is always there as well. In “Mistress Peasant,” the story of a Russian Romeo and Juliet, it is only he who can be addressing “[t]hose of my readers who have never lived in the country.” What about earlier, describing our Juliet’s father, who “was, withal, considered a man not stupid, for he was the first landowner of his province to have the sense to mortgage his estate with the Board of Trustees, a move which at the time seemed extremely complex and bold”? The irony could be Belkin’s, but seems more likely Pushkin’s own. On the other hand, what of the totally false suspense in “The Blizzard,” which deliberately withholds information known to all three narrators? Here, is it Belkin, presenting the story in its most exciting light, or was that how it was related to him by some other talented storyteller?
Ultimately, Pushkin is behind it all and is well in control. He gives us more of Belkin in “The History of the Village of Goryukhino,” published later. That a man whose only reading material is an old letter-writer should be credited with these half-dozen delicious stories!
The FTC, deeming a subjective evaluation of a work of art an endorsement, compels me to disclose that Hesperus Press gave me a copy of their new edition of The Tales of Belkin.