Revisiting, Art of the Novella edition: Pushkin and Gogol

While I’ve been reading the Russian-authored titles from the Art of the Novella series in chronological order, I haven’t been posting on them that way. The two earliest, Alexander Pushkin’s The Tales of Belkin and Nikolai Gogol’s How the Two Ivans Quarrelled were re-reads for me, so I saved them for Friday and gave you an early taste of Turgenev and Dostoevsky this week. Now, backwards a bit.

The Tales of Belkin, published in 1831, were Pushkin’s first prose work, and consist of five stories allegedly written by Ivan Petrovich Belkin, a recently deceased landowner who dabbled in writing. They are supposed to have been told to him, in turn, each by a different acquaintance. The first of these, “The Shot,” could have made Melville House’s subset of “The Duel” novellas into a sextet if only it had been otherwise named, and it ended up pairing very well with my recent read of Joseph Conrad’s novella of that name.

The narrator—not Belkin, but lieutenant-colonel I.L.P., according to the “letter from the publisher” opening the collection, is stationed in a very small town where the soldiers have almost no one else for company. The only one in their circle who isn’t currently in the army is retired from it, and lives in a “shack” whose walls are riddled with bullets. He has a very expensive set of pistols and is a dead shot. But when, during a game of cards, a new arrival throws a brass candlestick at him, Silvio inexplicably refuses to challenge him to a duel. Where in Conrad’s tale we are mostly focused on the less romantic duellist, D’Hubert, who will accept the social dictates that require him to behave honorably and duel, here Pushkin/Belkin/I.L.P. gives a window onto the more romantic notions of people like the narrator, who is horrified that Silvio’s antagonist is still alive a few days after the incident.

Out of all of us, I was the only one who had a hard time warming to him [Silvio] again. Possessing as I did a naturally romantic imagination, I had felt an unusual connection to this man whose life was a riddle, and who seemed to me to be the hero of a secret tale. He had been fond of me too; at least, it was only in my presence that he dropped his curt manner and talked about things simply and even courteously. But after that unhappy night, the idea that his honor had been sullied, and that he himself had allowed the stain to remain—this idea refused to leave me alone, and prevented me from relaxing with him as I had before. I was ashamed to look at him. …From that point on, I encountered him only among fellow officers, and the intimate conversations we’d had before ended.

The grinding gears of social mores laid bare! The narrator doesn’t just drop his friend because the dictates of “honor” say that he should. He actually perceives a “stain” and is too troubled by it—ashamed himself, on his friend’s behalf most likely—to continue their relationship. Meanwhile, it turns out that Silvio is painfully aware of such things himself, and is probably as hot-blooded as D’Hubert’s opponent, carrying on another duel over a period of years.

How the Two Ivans Quarrelled, a story of many similar titles, was first published in 1835 in the collection Mirgorod, and falls under the “Ukrainian Tales” heading in the Pevear and Volokhonsky transltion of The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, where I first read it. This is at least somewhat important, because the main attraction of the two Ivans, and much Gogol, is the narrator, who is very intrusive, a bit silly, obsessed with details, and something of a Ukrainian village busybody (but in Mirgorod, it seems almost everyone is). This one is the classic neighborly feud: two men who start out as the best of friends get in an argument about trivialities and end up in a years-long lawsuit that disrupts their whole lives. Certainly, the tale is in the telling here.

One of my favorite things about Gogol and this narrator, or type of narrator (who’s to say it’s always the same one?), is his obsession with food. I want to re-read Dead Souls just for the suckling pig. Here, the best comes toward the end, when the most prominent townspeople make an effort to reconcile the two Ivans at a party. The passage really gives the flavor—pun quite intended—of Gogol.

Meantime, the fragrance of the beet-soup was wafted through the apartment, and tickled the nostrils of the hungry guests very agreeably. All rushed headlong to table. The line of ladies, loquacious and silent, thin and stout, swept on, and the long table soon glittered with all the hues of the rainbow. I will not describe the courses: I will make no mention of the curd dumplings with sour cream, nor of the dish of pig’s fry that was served with the soup, nor of the turkey with plums and raisins, nor of the dish which greatly resembled in appearance a boot soaked in kvas, nor of the sauce, which is the swan’s song of the old-fashioned cook, nor of that other dish which was brought in all enveloped in the flames of spirit, and amused as well as frightened the ladies extremly. I will say nothing of these dishes, because I lke to eat them better than to spend many words in discussing them.

This translation, by John Cournos, is good, though Pevear and Volokhonsky do have “borscht” for “beet-soup” and other similar differences. (Melville House’s edition of Belkin is translated by Josh Billings.) And in fact, except perhaps the sauce, and maybe “that other dish” (which is, in P&V, the sauce itself, confusingly), I don’t really want to eat much of it. But I don’t mind at all how many words someone wants to spend discussing it.

The Tales of Belkin by Alexander Pushkin

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.