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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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

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