The Shot and The Fatalist – When Fiction turns into Reality

A comparison of Pushkin’s story The Shot (The Belkin Stories – 1830) with Lermontov’s story The Fatalist (A Hero of Our Time – 1838).

On the eve of the anniversary of Pushkin’s death 181 years ago, I thought it’d be interesting to see how Pushkin wrote about fate and death and to compare one of his most famous stories with a strikingly similar story by Lermontov.


Fate and death in fiction

Now I don’t know if any of you have read both The Shot and The Fatalist? If so, I challenge you to recollect to which story ‘the Serb’ belongs and to which story a certain ‘Silvio’. Both men are outsiders with a passion for cards and pistols. One of them ended up in a duel and the other played Russian roulette…

Yes, both stories are about as Russian as it gets. There’s a regiment stationed in a small village and the officers play cards together every evening. Both Silvio and the Serb like to ‘hold bank’. Both stories feature a cap with a bullet hole. Both have an anticlimax in the middle and fate is the main subject in both stories. But that’s where the similarities end.

In Pushkin’s The Shot, Silvio gets insulted by a young officer, whom he challenges to a duel. The young officer arrives at the scene carelessly eating cherries and Silvio decides that he can’t get satisfaction from shooting someone who doesn’t care for life and postpones his turn to shoot. Silvio practices shooting every day for years until he finally hears that his opponent is about to get married. He goes to see the young man and take his turn to shoot, but his conscience intervenes: he can’t shoot at an unarmed man, so instead he organises a new duel. The young man, now more mature and really nervous, misses, piercing a painting on the wall. His wife comes in terrified and throws herself at Silvio’s feet. Silvio, seeing the real fear in his opponent’s face, is now satisfied and shoots a hole in the same painting instead, right next to the other hole.

In Lermontov’s Fatalist, the Serb claims that you can’t die, unless it’s your destined time to die. He makes a bet with Pechorin and to prove it he takes a random pistol from the wall of their host, points it at his own head and shoots. Even though the pistol turned out to be loaded, it misfires. He wins the bet. Pechorin, the fatalist, however, was certain that he saw in the Serb’s face a sign that he would die soon (having been in the army already for a long time, he is familiar with death) and right enough, the Serb gets in the way of a drunken idiot that same night and gets killed. Pechorin decides to put his own theory to the test and certain that it’s not yet his time to die, captures the dangerously drunken Cossack.

Pushkin lets Silvio take control of fate; he had the chance and (by law of honour) every right to shoot his opponent on two occasions and being the best shot the narrator has ever encountered, he would certainly have killed his opponent if he had done so. The young opponent realises this only too well. This is very much a story about honour, respect and satisfaction.

Lermontov lets fate take control. Pechorin happily bets with the Serb, who puts his life in danger for a bet, and Pechorin doesn’t feel any guilt about it, even though, or perhaps because, he sees death written on the face of the Serb that evening. This story is about predestination. Pechorin can be more courageous because he is a fatalist.


Fate and death in real life

It makes you wonder how both writers felt about fate and death when they themselves came face to face with a bullet that had their name on it.

Lermontov thinking until the last moment that the duel would be called off; nonchalantly going to the appointed place, we can almost picture him eating cherries, but getting himself killed anyway, after all his outrage after Pushkin’s death, and being regaled as Pushkin’s heir. Did he see death in his own face when he looked in the mirror that fatal day?

Pushkin feeling out of control of the situation, feeling forced to fight a duel with a trained military man, fully aware that he might die, leaving a wife and four children behind. He too practiced shooting. His bullet hit d’Anthès, but fate blocked it with a mere metal uniform button, and d’Anthès lived. Pushkin was hit in the abdomen and died two days later, having had plenty of time to reflect on death on the leather sofa in his study.


In 2010 forensic experts found bloodstains on the leather sofa in Pushkin’s study, proving that it was indeed the sofa that he had died on. Moments before he died he told his friend Dal: “I was dreaming we were climbing these books you and I, high on these shelves, and I got dizzy.”


© Elisabeth van der Meer

Photos: illustrations from both stories combined by me; the waistcoat that Pushkin wore during the duel from Wikipedia; the couch in his study from The Moscow Times.

Books read: the two stories and Pushkin’s Button by Serena Vitale.

You can read these wonderful and short stories online here:

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/p/pushkin/aleksandr/p98sh/

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lermontov/mikhail/l61h/book4.html

And more about the final moments of these two great writers here:

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2017/10/15/lermontovs-fatal-duel/

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2016/06/29/pushkins-own-duel/


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Typically Lermontov

Lermontov (1814-1841) is generally considered to be Russia’s greatest poet bar Pushkin and his prose is as least as good as his poetry. His most important work A Hero of Our Time is regarded as the first psychological, Russian Realist novel and so Lermontov built a bridge between the Romantic and the Realist era in Russia. The impact was enormous when it was first published in 1840.

Small legacy

Lermontov was able to leave only a small legacy in his short life. It is usually split into two parts: a juvenile and a grownup part. A selection of poems, a few narrative poems, a couple of plays and A Hero of Our Time, that’s all. Thematically Lermontov belongs in the Romantic era: the Caucasus is used as a background for most of his work, the protagonist often goes on a journey and falls in love with some exotic beauty. Lermontov himself was a romantic hero too, growing up without his parents, travels and exiles to the Caucasus, a military career and duels being part of his life.

Pechorin, a superfluous man

Actually A Hero of Our Time is not really a novel: it’s a collection of short stories that can be read independently. They’re connected by the same protagonist, Pechorin. Pechorin is the prototype of the superfluous man, this apparently careless man leaves a trail of destruction behind him wherever he goes.The narrative prospect of the stories is very interesting, there are fragments from Pechorin’s diaries, and some of the stories are memoirs of people who knew him. This gives the reader a complete picture. The stories are not told chronologically, which highlights Pechorin’s mysterious character.

Psychological novel

Not only does Lermontov provide us with the picture of an embittered protagonist, he also investigates how it’s possible that such a young man is already tired of life. He comes to the conclusion that society is to blame for Pechorin’s character. Hence the title of the novel. It is the psychological background of Pechorin, that makes A Hero of Our Time the first psychological, Russian Realist novel. Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, Turgenev’s Bazarov and Tolstoy’s Olenin, they all have a little bit of Pechorin in them.

The Demon

His other masterpiece (and life’s work!) is The Demon. An epic poem, like we know from Pushkin. Here too Lermontov uses his beloved Caucasus as a backdrop for the story. A fallen angel roams the earth eternally. When he falls in love with a living girl, Tamara, he hopes that she can release him, but she dies after he has kissed her. The poem is of an unearthly and unequalled beauty; it is really not without good reason that Lermontov had the great honour of being called Pushkin’s heir. The Russian painter Vrubel made a fantastic series of illustrations for the poem that capture the atmosphere wonderfully.

Writing style

What makes Lermontov so unique is his musical and descriptive style of writing. Not surprising, since Lermontov was also a gifted musician and painter. Where Pushkin is elegant and cheerful, Lermontov is melancholic. His writing is doubtlessly as beautiful as the Caucasusian landscape. Or the Scottish landscape, where his ancestors came from, now misty and mysterious, then sparkling and fresh.

 

Fragment from The Demon:

“What is this eternity to me without you?

What is the infinity of my domains?

Empty ringing words,

A spacious temple — without a divinity!”

Read more from this unique writer here:

http://faculty.washington.edu/jdwest/russ430/demon.pdf

http://www.eldritchpress.org/myl/hero.htm

© Elisabeth van der Meer

Photos by me (book and Scotland) and from Wikipedia (Portrait of Lermontov and aquarel by Vrubel)

 

Lermontov’s Fatal Duel

“Если бы этот мальчик остался жив, не нужны были ни я, ни Достоевский – If that young man had stayed alive, neither I, nor Dostoevsky, would have been necessary” – Tolstoy

 

At 7 o’clock in the evening of July 27th 1841, somewhere at the foot of mount Mashuk near Pyatigorsk, in the midst of a fierce mountain thunderstorm, the young poet Lermontov was shot dead in a duel with his old comrade Martynov.

 

Since that fatal moment, there have been plenty of people who suspected a plot to murder Lermontov. Sadly there are not many reliable accounts of the events that took place on that fatal evening. So what do we know?

 

Lermontov was staying in Pyatigorsk to ‘take the waters’, to recover from an illness before he went to rejoin his regiment. Pyatigorsk was a popular spa town in the Caucasus (on the Russian side) where many wealthy Russians came to get cured. There were also many military men there, who were on (sick) leave from their duties in the Caucasian War, like Lermontov. Lermontov knew many of the people there, including Martynov, who he had known since military school.

 

In the morning the ‘patients’ would have to bathe in the mineral springs and drink several glasses of disgusting water. In the afternoons there were picnics in the mountains and in the evening dinner parties and balls were organised. At one of those parties Lermontov made one joke too many at the expense of his old comrade, calling him ‘the highlander with the big dagger’, mocking Martynov’s Circassian outfit and weapon. Martynov replied that he had repeatedly asked him not not make fun of him in the company of ladies. The next day they met again and Martynov again expressed his dissatisfaction, and a date and place for a duel were fixed.

 

Duels were illegal; both participants and seconds would not get off lightly. As a result duels were held in secret, but there were clear rules. The participants needed at least one second each, in this case they each had two. There also had to be a doctor present, and there had to be a cart to take away the dead or injured. The seconds had to try to dissuade the participants in advance and organise the pistols and a doctor.

Until the last moment Lermontov appeared nonchalant, thinking that they would call off the duel, embrace and go for dinner together. The seconds thought so too. They made an attempt to get a doctor, but even though there were obviously plenty of doctors in Pyatigorsk, they all refused to be present at an illegal duel. They didn’t bring a cart either.

 

Only one of the seconds, Vasiltchikov, wrote about the events later. The others, and Martynov too, kept silent. Tolstoy tried later in vain (unfortunately!) to persuade another second, Stolypin, to talk. According to Vasiltchikov, Lermontov had told the seconds that he would fire in the air. At the moment suprême the contestants faced each other. Lermontov pointed his gun upwards and supposedly said that he was not going to shoot at that ‘fool’ and at that Martynov aimed and fired.

 

The bullet pierced Lermontov’s heart and he fell down without even grasping his injury. Although he was clearly dead, a doctor was called. This time they had difficulty getting one to come because of the weather. One of the seconds, Glebov, stayed with the body, in the dark forest in the pouring rain until help arrived. The dead Lermontov was taken to his lodgings and Martynov and the seconds were arrested.

 

Pyatigorsk was in shock; all the ladies paid their respect and the poet’s body was soon covered in flowers. Death by duel was considered suicide, but after some money was paid, Lermontov got a Christian burial. His devastated grandmother later managed to get his body transferred to the family grave.

 

In the official reports there is no mention of Lermontov’s intention to fire in the air. It would have meant that Martynov had to be tried for murder. It remains strange that his old pal was unable to forgive Lermontov his pranks. Other than that there is no evidence of a coverup. And besides, the authorities may have had reasons to exile him, but not to kill him, although one could argue that sending a man to fight at the front in the Caucasian War is practically murder.

 

Did he perhaps want to die? I don’t think so. He was doing well as a writer, he enjoyed being in the Caucasus, and he had his army career. He did have a certain carelessness about him, a sort of disregard for life, like his character Pechorin from A Hero of Our Time. It is difficult to estimate how much of that was just a pose that comes with the territory of being a romantic poet. With Pushkin it was a different case. He had money problems, was well known to be a hotheaded person and he was clearly trapped. With him I feel it was both suicide and murder.

 

Since the duel could easily have been avoided if Lermontov had apologised for his attitude immediately, my conclusion is that Lermontov himself was mostly to blame for his death.

 

*****

 

Different sources all have slightly different versions of the events. I based this account mostly upon the Laurence Kelly biography, Tragedy in the Caucasus and the following websites: fishki.net and aif.ru.

 

© Elisabeth van der Meer

Photos from Wikimedia: Lermontov dying, the memorial in Pyatigorsk and the family grave in Tarkhany.

Also included is Lermontov’s prophetic poem A Dream.

 

Voor mijn Nederlandstalige lezers: alle Nederlandstalige blogposts staan nu op http://www.eenrussischeaffaire.wordpress.com .

 

The Short Life of Mikhail Lermontov

When Pushkin died in 1836, Lermontov got so infuriated, that he immediately wrote the poem On the Death of a Poet. In it he blamed, as did many people, the higher circles of Saint Petersburg society for Pushkin's death. The poem was copied out by hand and promptly distributed throughout the city. Lermontov became famous instantly and was received as the heir of Pushkin* in literary circles. A copy of the poem reached Tsar Nicholas and he was not so impressed with the young Lermontov and his criticisms. He got banished to the Caucasus, to serve in the Russian army there.


First exile to the Caucasus

Lermontov (1814-1841) was already serving as a cornet in Saint Petersburg at the time. There is a self portrait of him in 1837, looking the part, clutching a Circassian dagger. As some of you may remember, Lermontov had been to the Caucasus already three times before with his grandmother. He loved it there, so the exile was hardly a severe punishment for him. He was actually sorry when his banishment was over, and he certainly would have stayed, if it wasn't for his grandmother.


Youth with his grandmother

He was raised by his adoring grandmother after his mother died when he was little. Little Mikhail rarely saw his father, a descendant from the Scottish Learmonth family. His grandmother made sure that he received an excellent education. He had a number of foreign tutors, as was the norm for aristocratic families at the time. As a boy he discovered his hero Byron and when he wished he could read him in English, his grandmother hired an English tutor. As a result of this education, he knew English, French and German, could play and compose music and had learned how to draw and paint. Because he suffered from arthritis already as a child, his grandmother took him to the Caucasus, where the climate was better.


The spectacular nature, the fantastic stories he heard there and the exiting (to say the least!) lifestyle had a profound effect on the boy. After such an upbringing how could he not have become an artist? When he returned to the Caucasus as a grown man, he enjoyed spending his spare time drawing and painting the landscapes, but mostly the Caucasus inspired him to write.


Writing career

Back in Saint Petersburg he had more time to write and in 1839 his most famous work A Hero of our Time was published, as was his his beautiful poem The Demon. Both are set in his beloved Caucasus and have a melancholy feeling that is typical for Lermontov. He had now firmly established his name as Pushkin’s successor. Curiously enough** he was challenged to a duel by the son of the French ambassador, Ernest de Barante. Possibly de Barante was offended by Lermontov's poem On the Death of a Poet and the hate against his fellow countryman d’Anthès it expresses. The duel took place at exactly the same place as Pushkin's fatal duel. Luckily neither opponent was seriously hurt this time. Duels were illegal and someone must have betrayed them. De Barante could not be prosecuted due to his diplomatic status, but Lermontov got his second exile.


Second exile to the Caucasus

Again to the Caucasus, but lower in rank, fighting front line now. Lermontov was a free thinker who didn't like to be told what to do, but in the regiment he followed orders and showed extraordinary bravery. His superiors put him up for promotion and several medals, but Nicholas didn't think Lermontov worthy.


Perhaps also as the result of his childhood, Lermontov was a bit strange. Most people didn't like him, and he didn't like most people. He had a childish sense of humour, played pranks and made fun of others. When Lermontov was on sick leave in Pyatigorsk, his old comrade Martynov got enough of Lermontov’s jokes at his expense and challenged him. Until the last moment Lermontov was convinced that they would reconcile, but the duel took place. At the foot of mount Mashuk, so frequently mentioned in Lermontov's work. Lermontov said beforehand that he would fire in the air, and he did, but Martynov aimed directly at him and shot Lermontov dead.


Lermontov died at just 27 years of age, depriving Russia of another fantastic talent, who is in the West highly underestimated and undertranslated.


*****



*Pushkin died young and was already during his lifetime recognised as Russia's greatest, Russia's all. His death, by a foreigner, caused a real feeling of deprivation and despair and it raised two questions: How could things have gotten so out of hand that someone had dared to kill their national poet and who was going to fill his shoes?!

**Obviously there have been many conspiracy theories about this duel too, the similarities were obvious.


© Elisabeth van der Meer – Photos by me and from Wikipedia


Booklist:

Lermontov, Tragedy in the Caucasus – Laurence Kelly

After Lermontov, Translations for the Bicentenary – edited by Peter France and Robyn Marsack (translations by Scottish translators into English or Scottish to honour Lermontov’s Scottish roots:-))

Liever in het Nederlands? http://www.vanpoesjkintotpasternak.wordpress.com

Lermontov and the Caucasus

In the second part about the Caucasus we're going to talk about another authority on that subject: Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841). He visited the region for the first time as a child and got banished to the Caucasus twice.

Pushkin's Heir

Lermontov rose to fame instantly with his poem Death of the Poet, which he wrote after Pushkin's untimely death in 1837. In it he blames Russian society and the government for the loss of Russia's greatest talent. Pushkin's unexpected death shocked Lermontov so much that he even considered challenging d'Anthes (Pushkin's opponent in the fatal duel) to a duel himself. And after reading Lermontov 's outraged poem d'Anthes thought about challenging Lermontov.

More duels

Besides instant fame the poem also earned him his first exile the the Caucasus, for one year. In 1840 Lermontov was banished to the Caucasus for the second time, this time because he had actually taken part in a duel (which his opponent also survived). Apparently the banishment hadn't scared him off sufficiently, because in 1841 Lermontov died in a duel, fought at the foot of Mount Mashuk, which he described so often during his short life.

Romantic environment

The exotic landscape of the Caucasus and it's colourful inhabitants inspired Lermontov, like Pushkin, enormously. Of course, they lend themselves perfectly as a setting for literature in the Romantic genre. Lermontov wrote several works that take place in the Caucasus, A Hero of Our Time (1840) is the best known.

A superfluous man

The hero of the story, Pechorin, is not really a hero in the classical sense. He's a Byronic hero, an anti-hero. In Russian such characters are called a лишний человек, a superfluous man.

Pechorin's character is rather contradictory. On the one hand he is the bored dandy from Saint Petersburg. A dashing young man with expensive trinkets and clothes. On the other hand he is a reckless and unscrupulous daredevil, who appears to fit in effortlessly with the local climate and people.

“I SOMETIMES despise myself… Is not that the reason why I despise others also?…”

At some point in the book Pechorin is determined to have the attractive Circassian Bela. But he has a rival, the Cossack Kazbich. With a cunning scheme Pechorin not only manages to steal the girl from her family, he also robs Kazbich from his most prized possession, his horse. He makes it seem as if the horse was stolen by Bela's family and Kazbich kills Bela's father. And so Pechorin has destroyed a family and ruined a man, all for the sake of a fling with a pretty girl.

“The love of a savage is little better than that of your lady of quality.”

After they have lived together for a while, Pechorin quickly gets bored with Bela. By coincidence Kazbich catches a glimpse of Bela and tries to kidnap her. Pechorin manages to prevent this from happening, but Bela gets fatally injured in the process and dies a few days later. On her deathbed she briefly considers becoming a Christian, so that she will be reunited with Pechorin in the afterlife. She decides however to stay true to her roots. And probably she suspects that Pechorin won't make it there anyway, and that he won't stay alone the rest of his life.

Kismet

Just like Pushkin, Lermontov depicted the locals as noble savages. They rob and murder left and right. But he let Pechorin do the same. Pechorin sees himself as someone who doesn't matter, therefore he appears not to care about the implications his actions have on other people. Also he is obsessed with 'kismet', he firmly believes that you cannot escape your destiny. Lermontov used the rugged and unpredictable, but at the same time impressive, landscape to emphasise Pechorin's character. Nature doesn't care if you fall into a ravine or drown in a river, that's kismet.

 

The books I read:

– A Hero of Our Time – Lermontov

– Russian Literature and Empire – Susan Layton

 

Self portrait by Lermontov, Memorial for Lermontov at the foot of Mount Mashuk, Caucasian landscape by Lermontov – all from Wikipedia.

 

The quotes are from A Hero of Our Time.