Pressed Pushkin

Review, The Queen of Spades and Selected Works Pushkin Press was founded in London in 1997, and has found a niche in a difficult market, publishing pocket-sized, beautifully produced Monotype editions of classic and contemporary literature, much of it in translation; only now does its list include a volume by the author it honours eponymously. There may be a good reason for this omission: the virtues of Pushkin—like those of Goethe and Racine in German and French—are so deeply embedded in the native language that unless you take the trouble to learn Russian you can never fully appreciate all his tight and subtle sound effects. The Queen of Spades, a small book of selected lyrics and stories, however, is a good place to take some measure of Pushkin’s range if you don’t have another life in which to learn Russian. Anthony Briggs, author of a critical study and a considerable amount of Pushkiniana besides, observes in his introduction that Pushkin was, like Chaucer, a fountainhead—except that Pushkin’s Russian “is totally of today.” Exceptionally original, elegant and often subversively critical in his writings, Pushkin touched depths of feeling while cultivating an insouciant lightness that has earned him constant comparisons with Mozart. And indeed, very few writers have had as much of their work set to music as Pushkin.

Queen of Spades cover
The Queen of Spades

The title story, famous as the inspiration for Tchaikovsky’s opera, is a novella about the unmanageability of risk. Hermann is the son of a Russified German who has left him a small capital. He is fascinated by gambling but too cautious to play the tables (“Hermann’s from Germany. He calculates the odds.”). After hearing a story about a Countess who in her salad days reputedly cancelled all her debts in Paris with a string of three winning cards, he becomes determined to discover what he believes is her foolproof winning hand. Such is his obsession that he feigns infatuation with Lizaveta, the Countess’s ward, in order to win the old lady’s confidence. Events take a sinister turn when Hermann threatens her with a pistol, and the Countess dies of shock. Hermann attends the funeral, and asks forgiveness of the dead body. In a vision, he believes the Countess’ ghost is ready to confide in him. On successive evenings, he stakes his fortune at the gambling tables: after two initial successes against his opponent Chekalinsky, he selects a third card, covering it with a stack of banknotes. “It was just like a duel. Deep silence prevailed around them.” But the card he turns over isn’t the one he thinks it is—“Hermann shuddered; indeed, instead of an ace he held the queen of spades. He couldn’t believe his eyes, nor understand how he could have made such a slip.” The queen of spades even seems to be winking at him. (In cartomancy, the queen of spades denotes a scheming old woman). Hermann loses everything, including his mind.

What seems a supernatural ghost story (The Queen of Spades was turned into a thickly atmospheric horror film in 1948 by the neglected British director Thorold Dickinson and is now acclaimed “a masterpiece, one of the very best films of the forties” by no less than Martin Scorsese) turns out to be a shrewd character study: in wishing to overcome the laws of chance and become fabulously wealthy without personal jeopardy Hermann actually takes enormous risks while believing himself to be acting rationally; yet in the end unpredictability gets the better of his reason, and his avarice of spirit. Pushkin is suggesting that in seeking to control events we risk not having a life at all.

Thorold Dickinson_The Queen of Spades (1)
Thorold Dickinson’s The Queen of Spades

Other works include Pushkin’s famous narrative poem The Bronze Horseman, about the equestrian statue of Peter the Great in the model city on the Neva that bears his name:

A century saw the city’s birth,
A lovely wonder of the north,
From darkest woods and swampy earth
Magnificently rising forth.

It is a subtle meditation on individual fate in the face of historical necessity and on the ethical cost of progress of a Petropolis that stands “Waist-deep, like Triton, in the sea”, as well as on the drowned corpses of many of the workers who built it: the poem has had an enormous influence on Russian literature. There are a desultory couple of pages from his masterpieces Boris Godunov and the verse-novel Eugene Onegin (the complex iambic tetrameter form of which was famously adopted by Vikram Seth in his debut novel The Golden Gate). A more generous excerpt is offered from the play Mozart and Salieri, which gave legs to the rumour that the older and less talented court composer Salieri poisoned the young Mozart out of jealousy: it has been made familiar by Peter Shaffer’s play (and the film) Amadeus. Pushkin addresses the philosophical and moral quandary of how the pious Salieri’s just God could have spurned such a deserving cause and bestowed musical genius on a young man who seems little more than a vulgar boor:

Where is the justice when a gift from heaven—
Immortal genius—brings no reward
For burning love or selfless application,
Hard toil, devotion, hours spent in prayer,
But puts a halo on the stupid head
Of such an idle crackpot? Mozart, Mozart!

In some respects, Pushkin could in this play have been questioning his own talent: his poem Tsar Nikita and His Forty Daughters is a ribald folkloric romp which has been called the “most delicate of indelicate stories”: the forty daughters are perfect except for their lack of sexual organs, and the poem tells how they acquire them without itself being in the least indecent. It is a kind of tightrope act in words, much like Pushkin’s life itself: having been an inveterate risk-taker (and touchy to boot) whose preferred method of resolving disputes and saving face in society was the duel, he faced off in the snow in February 1837 against a young French officer in the tsar’s Horse Guard called Baron d’Anthès with whom his famously beautiful wife Natalya had been rumoured to be having an affair; in a twist worthy of an operetta, the adversary also happened to be his brother-in-law. It was his twenty-ninth duel (and like all the others carried out with scant regard for the fact that duelling was technically illegal in Russia). Fatally wounded in the stomach by d’Anthès’ pistol-shot, he died in agony two days later.

Alexander Pushkin

The manner of his death secured his legend; and his removal from the scene perfectly suited the autocrat tsar Nicholas I who had been the butt of many of Pushkin’s satirical poems (including The Upas Tree in this volume); the tsar also happened to be another admirer of Natalya. Pushkin was curiously blind to the lucidity of his own writings: he knew the limits of Romanticism and its cult of individuality and originality (as the remarkable insights of Tatyana in Eugene Onegin testify) but felt compelled to play the self-destructive Byronesque type in public life. His premature death might therefore be seen as a forced act of self-critique. Duelling, after all, is all about preserving one’s standing, figuratively and literally: it is a competition between rival equals in which a challenger can aim to lose, as well as to win. That Pushkin had a self-destructive side to him is an opinion that can get land you in hot water even today in Russia, where his death is considered an act of foreign interference—like Napoleon’s advance on Moscow in 1812—rather than a homegrown disaster.

Review, The Queen of Spades and Selected Works, © Quadrant 509: (Sept 2014): 109-110