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
Continue reading Revisiting, Art of the Novella edition: Pushkin and Gogol
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
Continue reading The Tales of Belkin by Alexander Pushkin