An old friend with a new face–“The Complete Prose Tales of Alexandr Sergeyevitch Pushkin”

Just yesterday, I was musing nostalgically over all the things I “learned” when I was an undergraduate, including the many authors I came to be acquainted with in my Comparative Literature courses, authors whose works covered many different areas of world literature.  True, the acquaintance didn’t run very deep and was instead broad; still, it was an instructive “placement” issue in relation to stories, novels, and tales all around the world and my place-to-be in relation to them.  One of my favorite authors was Pushkin, and the book of his we read from front to back was a Norton publication called The Complete Prose Tales of Alexandr Sergeyevitch Pushkin, translated by Gillon R. Aitken.  I checked and verified that it is indeed still in print, though of course the cover or “face” is different.  The book is available from Amazon.com (just in case any of you are looking to make Pushkin’s acquaintance in translation).  Accordingly, here is an excerpt from the Introduction, and a short précis of one of my favorite (though quizzical) Pushkin tales:

“Pushkin holds the supreme position in Russian literature.  It was his genius, in his prose as well as in his verse, which created, in the fullest sense, a national literature, and which laid the foundations upon which that national literature could subsequently be built.  Until his emergence, writing in Russia, with the exception of a handful of works, had been mainly imitative, pursuing pseudo-classical principles, and reflecting closely the trends of various Western European cultures–French, in particular.  The lyrical simplicity and the absolute precision of Pushkin’s poetry, the natural, straightforward grace of his prose perfectly expressed the Russian mood; and, in that expression, Pushkin gave to Russia for the first time in her history a literature whose inspiration came from herself, and which succeeded in setting the tone for successive generations of Russian writers.  But, of course, his achievements were more than national:  his universality of vision, his ablity [sic] to transmute what he saw and what he understood into language of the utmost purity and point have created for him a permanent place in the literature of the world.”

To sketch a brief biography of Pushkin, he was born in 1799, to a boyar-descended father and a mother whose descent was from an Abyssinian prince, and whose ancestry is reflected in one of Pushkin’s unfinished novels entitled The Moor of Peter the Great.  Pushkin’s father and uncle were both inclined to literary pursuits, but this had a less direct influence on him than the tales of Russian folklore told by his nurse, Anna Rodionovna.  His reading and writing both started early, and were at first in French.  When he was twelve, Pushkin was sent away to school, where he started to compose poetry for perhaps the first time.  By 1814, he was already in print, and by the time he left school in 1817, he was already seen as a new young literary spirit.  He released his first important long poem, Ruslan and Ludmilla, in 1820, which “established his reputation beyond question.”  Pushkin’s life wasn’t without its travails and hardships–he was exiled to a minor officialship in Southern Russia by Tsar Alexander I because of his role as a liberal.  Still, he was able to make good use of this time as a literary force, and blossomed in his literary work.  It was during this time that he first read Byron, who made a strong impression on him.  It was between 1820 and 1826 that he wrote a number of long poems, lyrics, ballads, plays, and a novel.  Two of the things he wrote, a play called Boris Godunov and “the masterpiece for which he is best known,” Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse, have both since been made into powerful and resonant operas of which there are Russian film versions available.  In 1829, Pushkin got engaged to Natalya Goncharova, and this had a gradual influence on the tenor of his work:  before, he had been a passionate liberal spirit; after his marriage in 1831, he became more of a serious conformist, and incidentally also more of a prose writer.  “In 1836, Pushkin received an anonymous letter suggesting that his wife was having a love affair with a Baron d’Anthès.  He was persuaded to withdraw his challenge to [the baron] to a pistol duel.  Fresh insinuations made a duel inevitable, however.  It took place on January 27th, 1837…[and the baron was only a bit injured].”  Pushkin, however, received his death shot, and died at the relatively young age of thirty-seven.  The odd and interesting thing is that the story I am going to comment upon today, “The Shot,” a story of a strange duel, rather non-duel or quasi-duel, was written in the years before Pushkin himself ever had a reason to fight, and was published in 1831.

At the beginning of the story “The Shot,” we become acquainted with the perspective of a young army officer stationed in a small town, whose social opportunities are small and restricted largely to his fellow soldiers and a mysterious former soldier named Silvio, who also lives in the small town.  Much of the story is devoted to establishing Silvio’s eccentricities and quirks, such as his seeming to avoid any serious cause for quarrel with anyone.  The young officer from whose perspective the story is narrated has what would appear to be a typical young fire-eater’s view of things, which is that however small the slight to one’s honor, it must be avenged.  He relates how, after a possibly drunken lieutenant insults Silvio over a game of cards, Silvio, instead of challenging him to a duel as would be his right, “contented himself with a very slight apology and made peace with the lieutenant.”

This lukewarm attention to honor affects the narrator’s respect for Silvio, the older man who up until now has obviously been his hero.  It also for a while lessens his following among the other young men, although this doesn’t last.  But for the narrator, it is a serious matter.  He becomes cold toward Silvio, which fact the older man notes, and after a few attempts to befriend him again, gives up what had been their private talks together.  This continues until one day a message arrives for Silvio, and he calls all the young men together to announce that he must depart, and wants them all to attend him for one final dinner.  After the party is over, he asks the young narrator to remain behind; apparently, he has a tale to tell, and it is a strange and provocative one.

It seems that when Silvio himself was a young soldier, he was brilliant and rakish and all hellfire and was followed and admired eagerly by all others in his unit until suddenly a young man still more brilliant in his prospects and qualities entered the regiment.  The two could have been friends, and indeed the new recruit tried to make friends with Silvio, but Silvio resisted, eaten up with envy of the other’s qualities.  Matters accelerated until Silvio insulted the opponent, who by the traditions of the time challenged him to a duel.  When they fought, the opponent drew the winning lot for first shot, and placed a shot squarely through Silvio’s cap.  Silvio, however, determined to have a thorough revenge, said that he would reserve his shot until another time, and refused to draw on the young aristocrat.  As Silvio tells the young officer in the story’s present tense scenario, he has to go now because the time has come when he can properly get even with his enemy:  as he says, “We will see whether he regards death with the same indifference on the eve of his wedding….”

There is a passage of some time, and the young officer finds himself in another small town again.  It is a tiny and boring village, and has nothing to recommend itself in the way of social activity.  For a while, the soldier’s housekeeper tells him tales, for a while he reads all the books he can lay his hands on, and he is quite frustrated and is afraid of becoming an alcoholic because there is so little else to do other than to drink.  Then, however, he hears that a short distance away from him, there is a rich estate of a Count and Countess, and that they are coming to visit it in the summer.  He determines to make their acquaintance as a humble visitor, and in fact does so.  The conversation passes to how good each is with a pistol because of a couple of shots that the young visitor sees and asks about which have penetrated a landscape of Switzerland hanging on the wall.  As they compare notes on the best marksmen they have known, it turns out that Silvio, the hero of the young officer in the recent past, is known to the Count.  In fact, the Count is the same young aristocrat whom Silvio reserved his duel shot against years before.

Now it is the Count’s turn to tell a tale.  He relates how Silvio, soon after the Count’s marriage, turned up during the honeymoon to take his long-delayed revenge.  Silvio, however, had distaste for the thought of firing on an unarmed man, and so invited the Count to fire first, and when they drew lots, this is how it in fact turned out.  The Count hit a landscape picture on the wall.  Silvio took aim, but just at that point, the Countess rushed in, shrieking and throwing herself on the Count.  He told her they were joking to calm her, but Silvio responded, “‘He is always joking, Countess….[H]e once struck me in the face for a joke, he shot through my cap for a joke, and just now he missed his aim for a joke; now it’s my turn to feel in the mood for a joke….'”  He takes aim again, and the Count in frustration challenges him to fire and to quit making fun “of an unfortunate woman.”  Silvio, however, says that he has had his revenge in seeing their “alarm” and “confusion,” and says further:  “I forced you to shoot at me, and that is enough.  You will remember me.  I commit you to your conscience.”  On his way out, hardly even looking, he puts a second shot through the landscape picture.  The original narrator, the young officer who has just heard the Count’s story, understands that now he has finally heard the last of Silvio, and the tail-end of his story.  The story ends thus:  “I never met its hero again.  It is said that Silvio commanded a detachment of Hetairists at the time of the revolt of Alexander Ypsilanti, and was killed at the battle of Skulyani.”

A few points about this story:  first of all, the “shot” is in fact fired, because not only is Silvio’s revenge complete, but the landscape, a symbol of peace, tranquility, wealth, and privilege, is what he breaks into by deloping and firing at it.  Also, the “shot” is fired because he has attained his revenge at the end.  Another note on the story:  it is a complex and satisfying story to read, but except for Pushkin’s clarity and smoothness of relation could be a bit confusing because of the complicated story-within-a-story structure which occurs first when the young narrator tells of Silvio, relates the first part of the interior story from Silvio’s point of view, goes back to telling of himself and his own presence in a second small village, and then ends by giving the rest of the interior story (this time from the Count’s point of view) and reveals at the very last what happened to Silvio.  Making one final complication, the tale “The Shot,” along with four other tales, is published under the overall title “The Tales of the late Ivan Petrovitch Belkin,” an alter ego for Pushkin, and he even inserts an Editor’s preface to them which contains a short “biography” of Belkin supposedly written by a neighbor.  The lives of the real author, Pushkin, and the alter ego, Belkin, are mainly alike only in one respect:  both of them have heard many tales from a housekeeper.  Thus, Pushkin was giving credit of a sort to one of his own sources.

This tale is one of the shorter stories in the volume, but even so it packs quite a punch literarily speaking; it is my hope that if you have not yet had the chance to make the acquaintance of this particular Russian literary master, that you will be intrigued enough to take the opportunity to read him.  To make a bad pun with a Pushkin title, his works don’t “Boris” and are certainly “Godunov”!

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “An old friend with a new face–“The Complete Prose Tales of Alexandr Sergeyevitch Pushkin”

  1. That Silvio has had his lust for defending honour dulled is a telling thing, as one needs to come face to face with the challenge to realise the futility of the exercise. The young officer has not faced the challenge as yet, and harbours the timeless ‘elders know nothing’ mentality. Holding grudges may not destroy the instigator, but it does the holder.

    Thanks for alerting me to Pushkin’s work. Should I have the time and a reasonable gap in my booklist, he is worth a chase-down =)

    • Another series of good short story reads is a volume by Heinrich von Kleist, which I may feature at some other time. My notion of the short story has been shaped somewhere between the two of them, which is not to say that I’ve correctly managed a creditable imitation, but just that I feel they are real masters. Also de Maupassant, whom I have written upon here before. And there are others. But I think you’re correct, that basically the age difference between the older and the younger man is telling: the older we get, the less eager we are to lose our lives over a wager or a grudge. And to quote a much-hackneyed phrase, the more we appreciate the old saying “Discretion is the better part of valor.”

  2. richardstuartgilbert

    Thank you, Victoria—I am ordering this for my son, a Russian literature fan, for Christmas.

    • I’m flattered by your interest in my small article, Richard. Happy reading for you and your son. I hope he enjoys Pushkin as much as I have. “The Queen of Spades” is another good tale from the collection, but then, there are many good ones in there: he’ll likely find his own favorite as he reads them.

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