Greed and Prejudice

Pushkin’s The Undertaker and Chekhov’s Rothschild’s Fiddle

Two very different stories with at least two common themes. I read these stories for the first time in university and they’ve stayed with me ever since, Pushkin’s story (one of the wonderful Belkin Tales) because of the humour and Chekhov’s story because of the melancholy.

If the undertakers that were created by Shakespeare and Walter Scott were jolly characters, the ones created by Pushkin and Chekhov were anything but. Always grumpy, suspicious and waiting for people to die; that sums up the Russian undertaker.

The Undertaker

The Undertaker* (1831) is about Adrian, an undertaker who has just moved from one area in Moscow to another with his daughters and his business. In the new area there are apparently a lot of German tradesmen. One of them invites Adrian and his daughters over for a party. The party is very jolly, Adrian drinks and eats, his daughters are above such behaviour, and there is one toast after another. The only Russian official at the party, a Finnish watchman called Yourko, suggests that Adrian make a toast to his clients, the dead. Adrian doesn’t think that’s funny at all and goes home in a bad mood. He vows that instead of inviting his new neighbors to a party as he had intended, he shall indeed invite his dead clients. The next day he gets a lucrative job and when he comes home in the evening, he finds a party going on in his house. All the corpses that were once his clients are there. They reproach Adrian for charging too much for the coffins and for ripping off their next of kin. When he wakes up the next day, he realises that he has been asleep since he came home drunk from the neighbor.

Rothschild’s Fiddle

In Rothschild’s Fiddle (1894) there’s a different kind of humour. A melancholic humour. The old undertaker Yakov lives in a small town full of old people who refuse to die. Yakov always counts his losses: people who die elsewhere, holidays when he can’t work, etc. The only thing that makes him happy and comforts him, is his violin. He sometimes gets asked to play in a Jewish wedding orchestra, but only in case of emergency, because he always argues with the Jews, especially with a certain Rothschild. One evening his wife gets ill and she dies the next day. Her sudden death slowly makes Yakov realise that his life has not been about material missed opportunities, but about the immaterial things that he missed out on because of his behaviour. In his own way he makes up with Rothschild and leaves him his violin when he dies.

 

Greed and prejudice

Both stories deal with misplaced xenophobia and greed. Adrian only seems to befriend his German neighbor because he expects free food and drink. At the party he is quick to make friends with the Finnish watchman, because he can be of use to him. But when they make a joke at his expense, they’re all heathens. While Adrian was sleeping and cursing his new friends, those same friends stop by his house to invite him again. We don’t know if Adrian has learned anything from his nightmare, but judging by the fact that he has tea as if nothing happened when he wakes up, I fear not.

 

Yakov does realise after the death of his wife and before his own, that he has always been wrong, that it was completely unnecessary to treat his wife and Rothschild badly. His wife is already dead, but he can still make up for it with Rothschild. He leaves Rothschild his most prized possession; his violin and something immaterial: a song. It’s a sad song that makes people cry, but they always ask Rothschild to play it again.

 

© Elisabeth van der Meer – text and photo (The Fiddler (1913) – by Chagall at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam)

 

*There’s a scene in the story where “Before the door of the house in which the deceased lay, the police had already taken their stand, and the trades-people were passing backwards and forwards, like ravens that smell a dead body”. Tolstoy apparently borrowed this scene for War and Peace, when Pierre’s father dies: “While he was getting down from the carriage steps two men, who looked like tradespeople, ran hurriedly from the entrance and hid in the shadow of the wall. Pausing for a moment, Pierre noticed several other men of the same kind hiding in the shadow of the house on both sides.”

 

******

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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/


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

Typically Gogol

Just like Pushkin Gogol is considered to be the father of Russian literature. Pushkin provided a modern language for future writers and proved to be an inexhaustible source of inspiration, and Gogol gave Russian literature its’ own identity and he wrote the first Russian novel: Dead Souls. He doesn't quite fit into a genre, his work has both romantic and realistic elements, and one could even say that he was a fantastic realist avant la lettre.


His career


Gogol was born in the Ukraine from Cossack descent. At school the other children called him a ‘mysterious dwarf’, but his mother adored him. When he was nineteen he moved to Petersburg to become either an actor or a writer. At the time folklore was very popular in Petersburg and writing about the Ukraine was easy for Gogol. His first collection of stories, Evenings on a farm near Dikanka (1832), was soon a modest success.


He followed it up with another set of Ukrainian stories, Mirgorod (1835). His first big success came with his play The Government Inspector (1836). It managed to get through the strict censure, even though Gogol parodied the bureaucracy in Russia. The so called Petersburg stories were written between 1835 en 1842. With that first of all great Russian novels, Dead Souls (1842) Gogol’s star was firmly set on the Russian firmament.


Great sense of humour


Gogol was a genius when it came to making ordinary situations comical. Dead Souls, described as an ‘odyssey through the great Russian land’, is riddled with anecdotes and eccentric characters. No one escapes Gogol's satire. There is a hilarious scene where two servants come back to the hotel where their master stays in an apparent state. They need fifteen minutes to conquer the stairs. Once inside they fall asleep immediately and soon the whole hotel is snoring. Quite a funny situation already. But add to that one person who is not asleep, a lieutenant, of absolutely no relevance to the rest of the novel, who has just bought four pairs of new boots and is parading up and down his room in them, admiring them and unable to take them off. That's when we have Gogol's inimitable sense of humour*.


Style


His writing style is rather old fashioned and complicated in Russian. Even though he wrote in Russian, he used a lot of Ukrainian words. He had a great sense of humour, but it is not always clear where he gets serious. His characters are described in detail by their appearance and actions, but unlike Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Gogol does not provide any psychological insights into their behaviour, nor do his characters develop. And he is terrible when it comes to describing women, probably because he simply didn't know many women.


Influences


Gogol was influenced by his paternal grandmother, who told him all about Ukrainian folklore and superstitions, Cossack legends and taught him the old songs. He corresponded with his contemporary Pushkin and it was he who stimulated Gogol to write, and supposedly gave him the idea for Dead Souls. Dickens’s influence can also be felt, as well as Homer’s and Walter Scott’s.


Gogol, in turn, has influenced all Russian writers after him, particularly Dostoevsky and Bulgakov, who frequently mentioned him in their works. Franz Kafka was a big admirer, and his famous novel, Die Verwandlung, was clearly inspired by Gogol.


Finally


Gogol was rather eccentric himself, with his funny haircut and small physique. He never married, although it is not clear if he was perhaps homosexual. He liked to travel, probably that was his Cossack blood stirring, and was abroad for long periods of time. He died at the age of 42, shortly after famously burning parts of part two of Dead Souls, one of the big mysteries in Russian literature**. He had more or less starved himself to death.


Gogol may not have left a huge legacy on paper, but his legacy in Russian literature is enormous***. At this very moment people all over the world are reading one of his books with tears of laughter rolling down their faces.



*This sense of humour made Pushkin sad, he saw the sadness behind the smile.

**Bulgakov refers to this incident in The Master and Margarita with the well known quote «Рукописи не горят – Manuscripts don't burn».

***See my piece about Taras Bulba https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2017/06/14/gogols-taras-bulba-a-milestone/


*****



© Elisabeth van der Meer / photos by me and from Wikipedia

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

A visit to the enchanting ballet ‘Onegin’

Amsterdam, March 29th 2017

Onegin

Dutch National Ballet


”I am writing to you… need I say more?

Is there more I can say?

I realize you’re free now

to punish me with your contempt.”

In 1833 Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin was published for the first time. It turned out to be an inexhaustible source of inspiration. In 1879 Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin premiered and in 1965 the ballet Onegin by John Cranko followed.

On March 29th 2017 the opening night of the ballet performed by the Dutch National Ballet took place in Amsterdam, and I had to see it, of course!

The famous choreographer John Cranko first got the idea for the ballet in 1952 when he did the choreography for the dances in the opera Eugene Onegin, but it wasn't until 1965 that he was able to realise his dream, when he was working with the Stuttgart Ballet. And what a delightful ballet it has turned out to be! The tricky relationship between Onegin and Tatyana is wonderfully translated into dance, especially when they dance together in Tatyana’s dream in the second act. The folk dances in the first act are super contagious and a joy for the eye. A real masterwork.

Although the music is from Tchaikovsky, it isn't the same music as in the opera Eugene Onegin. The German composer Kurt Heinz Stolze arranged the musical score from different compositions by Tchaikovsky, glueing them together with leitmotifs. If you didn't know any better you would never suspect that, it was done so skilfully. Tchaikovksy’s music is, as always, magical, dramatic and vivacious.

The story is split into three acts:

In the first act the arrogant and bored St Petersburg dandy Onegin finds himself in the countryside. His friend Lenski introduces him to the sisters Olga and Tatyana. Olga is Lenski’s fiancee. The sweet and dreamy Tatyana falls head over heels for Onegin. She writes him a love letter.

In the second act Onegin tears up the letter. He is not interested in the simple and romantic Tatyana. To annoy Lenski, and a little bit out of boredom too, he tries to seduce Olga instead. Lenski challenges him to a duel and gets killed.

In the third act Onegin meets Tatyana again for the first time in years. Now she is married and the shining star of the St Petersburg society. He falls in love, he regrets the past, writes her a letter.. but now it’s Tatyana’s turn to tear up the letter and so Onegin is punished for his arrogance.

In order for the ballet to work, Pushkin’s story has been shortened and simplified. However, Tchaikovsky’s music and the artistic interpretation of the dancers, who have clearly studied their characters well, add an extra dimension.

The principals of the ballet were Anna Tsygankova as Tatyana, Jozef Varga as Onegin, Qian Liu as Olga en Remi Wörtmeyer as Lenski. I thought Qian Liu was absolutely adorable as Olga, I loved her expression and the apparent effortlessness with which she danced, no flew, across the stage.

The Dutch National Ballet is fantastic, so is the Ballet Orchestra and Onegin is an enchanting night out.

The photos are from bolshoirussia.com.

The fragment is from Tatyana's letter and was translated by Roger Clarke.

http://www.operaballet.nl/en/ballet/2016-2017/show/onegin

Would you like to read more about Pushkin? Click on the 'pushkin' tag below.

 

Typically Pushkin

Pushkin (1799-1837) is the Mozart of the literary world. He is light footed, crystal clear and highly musical. Everything is just as it should be. Even his sporadic imperfections are charming. Pushkin is from the Romantic era, like Byron, Scott and the Russian Lermontov.

Exotic relations

On his father’s side of the family he stems from ancient Russian nobility. His mother’s side of the family is exotic: his great grandfather, an Ethiopian, was given to Peter the Great as a present in 1704. Peter took a liking to the little Abraham, and gave him the patronymic Petrovich, after himself, and a proper military education. Abraham eventually became a general and took on Hannibal as a last name, a definite sign that he was no slave. The Empress Elizabeth gave him a country estate to thank him for his services, Mikhailovskoe. Pushkin would get banned to it at some point in his career. Abraham married a Swedish woman, and that makes Pushkin just as much Swedish as Ethiopian.

Father of Russian literature

Pushkin is generally considered to be the father of Russian literature. He adjusted the archaic Russian language to his own needs and created a modern language, suitable for both modern poetry and prose. With this modernised language he expressed himself in a wide variety of literary genres: stories, drama, narrative poems, poetry, novellas, fairy tales and a novel in verse. The novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, is typical for Pushkin’s innovative style.

Style and works

His stories and novellas are sheer perfection, everything is right: the subject choice, they are light, there is humour and there is mystery. Many Russian writers took them as a starting point for their own writings. As I have written before, that is considered a big compliment in Russian literature. As a result there are numerous stories that are called The Snowstorm, but Pushkin wrote the original. The novellas Queen of Spades and The Captains Daughter are true masterpieces.

His poetry is legendary. He started to write poetry at school, with a preference for patriotic, satirical or amorous subjects. These subjects remained with him throughout his career. Most Russians know at least one of his poems by heart. Pushkin’s own favourite work was Eugene Onegin. A unique work with an innovative rhyme scheme that became known as the Onegin Stanza. It’s a cheery tale, thanks to this rhyme scheme, in spite of the romantic subject. Tatyana is a typical romantic heroine, a pale and dreamy girl, who spends her nights staring out the window at the moon. Onegin is one of those superfluous men, a poet who is bored with life. Pushkin infused the story with a rich humour, folklore and fantasy.

Influences

His work did not only influence other writers, but also numerous composers. Tchaikovsky turned Eugene Onegin into an opera that is, at least in the western world, probably better known than the book. Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov and Rimsky-Korsakov were also inspired by the works of Pushkin.

So who was Pushkin influenced by? His dear old nurse, Arina Rodionovna, apparently. She narrated all the fairy tales and legends she knew to him, and even when he was already grown up, he loved to listen to her (she stayed at Mikhailovskoe until she died). His maternal grandmother, who looked after little Alexander and his sister more than their mother, told him all about the origins of his family and sparked his interest in history.

Translating Pushkin

Because his works are so playful and musical, he is notoriously difficult to translate*. Nabokov wrote two fat volumes about the translation of Eugene Onegin, and still his translation doesn’t work for me. The two volumes themselves are super informative, though.

Debt and exile

Like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Pushkin had to write to pay his debts. The lifestyle that was required of him was more expensive than he could afford. His often razor sharp pen earned him a couple of banishments.

In short

It’s not difficult to recognise Pushkin, like Mozart he has a unique style. Seemingly effortless, fluent and happy. He likes to converse with his reader too. Because he was not a Realist like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, there are no moral issues that he wants to force upon his reader. Almost two centuries later his work does not appear outdated in the least. You can pick up any of his works at any time of the day and enjoy it like listening to Mozart, or a fantastic wine. So lean back in a comfortable chair and enjoy, perhaps even all three simultaneously.

 

Booklist:

Pushkin by T.J. Binyon

Photos © by me, the illustrations are from a old book that I picked up at a book market.

*Before you buy, it’s probably wise to read the first page to see if the translation works for you. In English I really like Roger Clarke, he seems to hit the right balance and gets the right feeling across. His comments and notes are also very entertaining.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=0hOT2QtLhhk

*******

 

Pushkin’s Own Duel

Imagine that you’ve shot dead,
a young friend of your own,
because after a drink he offended you
with an impudent look or remark
or in some other trifling way –
or perhaps, his own honour slighted, in a blaze of anger
he challenged you to a duel.
Just imagine him lying on the ground before you
motionless, death spelt out on his brow,
his body slowly rigidifying:
desperately though you call him
he neither hears nor answers…
Tell me: what feeling now
will overwhelm your heart?

On January the 27th of 1837 somewhere in a field close to Saint Petersburg, two shots were fired. The first by Georges d’Anthès, the second by Alexander Pushkin. D’Anthès’s bullet hits Pushkin in the stomach and Pushkin’s bullet pierces d’Anthès’s arm and would have entered his chest, were it not for one of his uniform buttons. Two days later Russia’s ’all’ is dead. A tragic and senseless waste of a huge talent.

Duels were a recurrent theme with Pushkin, and he himself had taken part in more than one. The poet was quite a hotheaded guy. His wife Natasha was known as perhaps the most beautiful woman in Russia. They had four children and were fairly happily married. Pushkin was proud of his pretty wife and would have been disappointed indeed if other men hadn’t paid attention to her.

Georges d’Anthès

Georges d’Anthès was a young Frenchman* who served as an officer in the prestigious Imperial Guard. He lived with his rich adoptive father, the Baron van Heeckeren, Dutch ambassador in Saint Petersburg. Van Heeckeren was a homosexual and it seems more than likely that his relationship with d’Anthès was intimate. There were certainly rumours in that direction. But the biggest gossip in town was van Heeckeren himself, and he cunningly spread a rumour that d’Anthès was the illegitimate son of the Dutch king, William I, apparently preferring to slander his king than himself. D’Anthès didn’t seem to care much and happily spent his rich papa’s money, acting like a dandy and a womaniser.

In May 1834 Pushkin, together with his friend Danzas, met d’Anthès for the first time. The three of them had at that time no idea of the circumstances under which they would meet again in January 1837.

Rejected lover

D’Anthès fell in love with Natasha. He became obsessed with her, his avances quickly became more and more improper. The young and innocent Natasha didn’t know how to deal with him and d’Anthès convinced himself that she loved him too. In letters to van Heeckeren he even begs his adoptive father to try to convince Natasha, to lie to her, saying that d’Anthès is dying of his love for Natasha, begging her to leave or betray her husband**. D’Anthès even told Natasha that he would kill himself if she didn’t give in!***

The anonymous letters

Obviously Pushkin started to get more and more annoyed with d’Anthès and when in November 1836 anonymous letters, suggesting that d’Anthès and Natasha were having an affair, were going around in Saint Petersburg, he couldn’t take no more. The letters were addressed to several friends of Pushkin, but of course, he got to see them. It has never become clear who was behind them, Pushkin blamed van Heeckeren, but it was more likely the work of two well known pranksters from Saint Petersburg.

The challenge

The next morning Pushkin challenged d’Anthès to a duel. Because d’Anthès wasn’t home due to his officer’s duties, van Heeckeren accepted in his name and at the same time managed to arrange a fortnight’s delay. In those two weeks d’Anthès got engaged to Natasha’s sister Yekaterina. This was a big surprise for everyone and no doubt van Heeckeren had instructed d’Anthès to do so. Pushkin, however, thought it was a scheme of d’Anthès and van Heeckeren; by marrying the sister d’Anthès would have unlimited acces to Natasha. Pushkin was probably right. He refused to attend the wedding, but he saw himself forced to cancel the duel.

The duel

In spite of the marriage the rumours and avances continued and Pushkin challenged d’Anthès again for a duel only weeks after the marriage.

On Januari the 27th Pushkin leaves his house to go to the appointed place. Natasha knows nothing. On the threshold he turns around to go back inside and put on a warmer coat, the worst thing he could do; according to Russian superstition the threshold brings bad luck, and Pushkin was extremely superstitious. On his way he still has to find a second**** and finally finds one in Danzas, his old schoolfriend. The duel takes place and a couple of hours later Pushkin is carried over the threshold of his house again, seriously injured.

The death of the poet

He wants to be taken into his study. They lie him down on the sofa and send for a doctor. The first doctor they find is an obstetrician, who can’t do much, but later the tsar’s own doctor, Arendt comes to see him. He concludes that the injuries are fatal. Pushkin writes to the tsar and asks him for forgiveness, and for Danzas too. He also asks him to look after Natasha and the children. The tsar writes back, not to worry, he will look after Natasha and the children as if they were his own. Pushkin kisses the letter. He assures Natasha that she is not to blame in any way, tells her to remarry, but not with a scoundrel! He says farewell to his children and best friends.

For two days he lies on that sofa. It must have seemed an eternity. He suffers tremendously, he can’t bear to have others touch his wound and changes the dressing himself. At a quarter to three in the afternoon of January the 29th 1837 he complains that he is suffocating and dies.

After his death

Natasha and the children were taken care off. Nicholas kept his promise and paid the allowances and even paid off all of Puhkin’s debts. When the period of mourning was over, Natasha became maid-of-honour for the tsarina. She remarried and had four more children.

After an angry letter from Nicholas to William II, van Heeckeren was called back to the Netherlands. D’Anthès had to go to jail and was forced to leave Russia a few months later, his officer’s rank was taken away from him. He went to France where van Heeckeren and Yekaterina were waiting for him. Danzas got away with only a small sentence.

*Technically d’Anthès was of Dutch nationality after the adoption.

**On October the 17th d’Anthès writes a letter to van Heeckeren in which he begs him to speak to Natasha alone and to tell her that his son is dying of love for her and that he fears for his life.

***On November the 2nd d’Anthès tricks Natasha into a meeting alone with him and tries to convince her to betray her husband, threatening to kill himself if she doesn’t.

****Duelling was against the law. Participants and seconds risked even the death penalty. It was the seconds’ duty to not only make sure that everything went according to the rules, but most importantly to try to stop the duel from taking place at all. You could, for obvious reasons, refuse to be a second. Danzas, however, was asked by Pushkin at the very last moment (others had already refused) and as his old schoolfriend, he felt he couldn’t refuse. Because he did not have time to stop the duel, he got off lightly, he wasn’t to blame.

*****http://the-newspapers.com/2016/06/04/pushkins-blood-was-needed-to-confirm-the-authenticity-of-the-sofa

-Quote from Eugene Onegin

-Photos from Wikipedia (the fatal duel, Natasha, d’Anthès and the waistcoat Pushkin was wearing at the time of the duel) and from me

-Literature consulted:

Pushkin, A Biography van T.J. Binyon

and

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.

 

A blog about Pushkin in the Caucasus

“Pushkin discovered the Caucasus.” – Vissarion Belinsky

Recently someone asked me on Twitter which book by Tolstoy he should read first. I don’t know the man and I haven’t got a clue about his preferences, but I unhesitatingly advised The Cossacks. It’s a short novella, and it was Turgenev’s favourite. Obviously I immediately read it again myself. And that’s how I got the idea to write about the 19th century Russian Literature featuring the Caucasus* here on my blog.

Banned to the Caucasus

As we know, Pushkin has been banned to the south and visited the Caucasus. The writer Lermontov was banned to the Caucasus and Tolstoy volunteered in military service there. For all three of them the incomparable beauty of the landscape and their colourful inhabitants, the Circassians, were a source of inspiration. Pushkin wrote The Prisoner of the Caucasus while he was there, Lermontov wrote A Hero of Our Time and Tolstoy wrote three stories about the Caucasus; The Cossacks, The Prisoner of the Caucasus and Hadji Murat.

Pushkin

We shall start with Pushkin, as he was the first to introduce the theme. Of course, you can read the rest perfectly well without reading Pushkin first, but we know that his influence was such, that the rest becomes better and more interesting if we start with him. No self respecting writer in Russia would even dream of putting a word on paper without having read Pushkin first.

The prisoner of the Caucasus

The Prisoner of the Caucasus is a long poem in the Romantic style. At first sight it’s an adventurous story with famous descriptions of the mountain landscape. The Circassians are described as heroes. The mountains are breathtaking, the men brave and quick, well dressed and they have the best horses. The vibrantly dressed women are attractive with their dark hair and eyes and they sing beautifully. Even the prisoner can’t help admiring them.
One would almost forget, but the story is told from the perspective of a Russian Prisoner of war, who was dragged into the Circassian village and is almost died. His rescue was a young Circassian beauty who regularly brings him food and drink in secret. She falls in love with the prisoner, but he, a true Romantic hero, has been disappointed in love and rejects her. Nonetheless she later helps him to escape and the prisoner, who by now loves her back, asks her to come along. Now she rejects him and commits suicide by jumping into the river in front of his eyes.

The story is followed by a rather surprising epilogue in which Pushkin suddenly announces that he hopes that the Russians will conquer the Caucasus, putting an end to the free lifestyle and culture of the Circassians. This patriotic epilogue can be explained as an attempt by Pushkin to get the poem through the strict censure, that put him there in the first place after all, or as an attempt to get his banishment lifted. But that would be underestimating Pushkin’s genius and self righteousness.

They recall the former days

Of raids that could not be repulsed,

Of the treachery of sly leaders,

Of the blows of their cruel sabers,

And of the accuracy of their arrows that could not be outrun,

And of the ash of destroyed villages,

And of the caresses of black-eyed woman prisoners.”

Violent people

If we take another close look at the poem, we notice how the free and romantic life of the Circassians is full of violence. When they are not fighting, they talk and sing about war. They play extremely violent games in which serfs are beheaded while little children watch excitedly. There is talk of sex slaves. They are one with their weapons and horses, and the horses are also seen as a weapon. Without Russian supremacy it is dangerous to travel there and difficult for Russia to trade with the countries behind the Caucasus.

Russia would benefit from a victory in the Caucasus and in this case Pushkin agrees with the government.

*During the Caucasian Wars from 1817 until 1864 Russia tried, eventually with success, to conquer the Caucasus.

Credit to John Lyles’ Bloody Verses and Pushkin’s The Prisoner of the Caucasus


Next time we’ll talk about the works of Lermontov and Tolstoy about the Caucasus.