The Eugene Onegin Guide – Chapter 1

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In which Eugene is bored with his life in the city and escapes to the country

Chapter 1 is all about Eugene Onegin and Pushkin himself. It starts rather vaguely in medias res: we are introduced to our hero as he is rushing towards his dying uncle*. Clearly he is not looking forward to the prospect of having to look after a sick man, but Pushkin keeps us in suspense for the next 50 of the in total 60 stanzas in this chapter, and tells us about the particularities of his life so far instead.

A Typical Day

Apparently he’s a good friend of Pushkin’s. He has had the usual upbringing and education and when he entered society he was an instant success with the ladies. In stanza’s 15 to 36 we can see what a typical winter day in the life of Eugene Onegin in 1819 looked like:  He wakes up in the afternoon, goes walking on the Nevsky Prospekt, has dinner in a fancy restaurant, goes to the ballet, goes back home to change and freshen up and goes to a ball. When he finally returns home again, the city is already waking up.

Boredom

Onegin is living a life of luxury. Everything is of the highest quality: his clothes, his perfume, the food he eats, the wine he drinks**, the ballet he visits. Nonetheless you get the impression that he is terribly bored with this life. The whole chapter reeks of boredom. Everything is repeating itself endlessly. Tomorrow will be the same as today. Eugene attempts to alleviate the boredom. He wants to go traveling with Pushkin, but just then his father dies unexpectedly, leaving behind mostly debts (51). He gives up the inheritance, and almost simultaneously receives a message that his uncle is dying and expecting his sole heir to look after him. And so he is on his way to his uncle’s estate where no doubt even more boredom awaits him.

Landowner   

Eugene arrives in the country and to his relief finds his uncle already dead. He is just in time for the funeral (53). Now he can start a new life as a landowner. “For two full days he was enchanted”, but alas, on the third day he is already bored again… There seems to be no cure for his boredom.

Digressions

Pushkin (or rather the fictional Pushkin) likes to digress***. In between telling us about Onegin, he also tells us about his own life and frequently reminisces about Saint Petersburg, although he admits that he “found it noxious in the north” (2) a reference to his banishment from the capital. Pushkin (the real one) keeps the lines between fiction and reality deliberately vague. The novel is full of people who really existed and real life facts.

The Omitted Stanzas

Perhaps you noticed that Pushkin left out several stanzas (9, 13, 14). It is not entirely clear why he did that. Of some drafts were found, and of others nothing. Because Pushkin did number the omitted stanzas, they remain a part of the novel, and he leaves it up to the reader to fill in the blanks.

Onegin’s Character 

Stanza 45 plays a key part in chapter 1 according to Nabokov: it summarises Onegin’s character and gives the reader a glimpse of what he may expect from Onegin in the future. And things promise to get interesting, because he is described as being dreamy, strange, clever and depressed. Nabokov also remarks that certain words are only used in the novel to refer to Onegin’s character: ‘sullen’, ‘gloomy’, ‘somber’, ‘clouded’ en ‘bemisted’. Apparently this was considered attractive in a man 200 years ago…

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*a reference to the at that time popular epistolary novel ‘Clarissa’ (1748) by Richardson, in which the villain Lovelace has to care for his rich and dying uncle. 

**1:16:8 The comet wine; the year of the great comet 1811 was a particularly good year for wine production. Wine from 1811 had a comet stamped on the cork. This is the same comet that Pierre observes when he is driving home in War and Peace. 

***1:30:10 And yet, how long it took me to forget two special feet… there has been much speculation about who’s feet these were. Most likely they were Maria Nikolayevna Volkonskaya’s (see photo below).

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So what did you think of the first chapter? What was you favourite line?

The next chapter post will go online in two weeks on the 15th of March.

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2020/02/16/the-eugene-onegin-challenge/

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2020/02/23/the-eugene-onegin-challenge-an-introduction-to-the-novel/

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

Special thanks to Markus@POINT BLANK for gifting me the beautiful Russian edition that you see in the photo above!

The Eugene Onegin Guide – introducing the novel and its heroes

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When was Eugene Onegin written?

Eugene Onegin was written by Pushkin (1799-1837) over the course of eight years. He was banned from St Petersburg in 1820 after some of his verses had offended the tsar. During his six year exile Pushkin travelled to southern Russia, the Caucasus, the Crimea, Moldavia and Odessa. The last two years of his exile he spent at his country estate Mikhaylovskoye. Although Pushkin would probably have preferred not to be exiled, the authorities did world literature a huge favour: away from the distractions of St Petersburg Pushkin could write in peace and the change of scenery proved a huge inspiration for him. Indeed, it seems doubtful that Eugene Onegin (and a lot of other works) would have been completed otherwise. He started writing Eugene Onegin in Moldavia in 1823 and completed the first six chapters in exile. Chapter 7 was written when he returned to St Petersburg and chapter 8 was mostly written when a cholera epidemic kept him in Boldino for a few months in 1830. 

A masterpiece

The novel was published first in separate chapters and in 1833 as a complete novel. It was a huge success and it is considered Pushkin’s masterpiece.

The structure of the novel is incredibly clever: it consists of eight chapters containing in total 366 stanzas*. Each stanza has 14 lines of 8 or 9 syllables that are stressed on the even syllables. The rhyming scheme is ABABEECCIDDIFF. Pushkin thought up this so-called ‘Onegin stanza’ on the 9th of May 1823. There is a remarkable symmetry in the structure and the storyline. You’d think that this is a rather restrictive structure to use for a complete novel, but Pushkin manages wonderfully. Not only that, he makes it seem effortless. The language he uses is clear and simple. The novel is lively and full of humor. And he managed to get it through the strict and restrictive censorship of the time.

An introduction to the characters

According to Nabokov there are six main characters in the novel: the friends Onegin and Lenski; the sisters Tatyana and Olga; and Pushkin himself and his muse. 

Onegin is a young man from St Petersburg. He’s a real dandy, he lives a life of glitter and glamour. He always dresses according to the latest fashion, takes ages to get ready to go out and rushes from dinner to ballet. In his mid twenties he is already bored with life and he is the prototype of the superfluous man (лишний человек)**.

Lenski is an optimistic, contented and dreamy poet who lives happily in the countryside. He is engaged to Olga. Although they are quite different, he and Onegin become friends.

Now Tatyana… she is the perfect literary heroine! She loves to read and ramble around the countryside for hours. She is passionate and pure, and a little pale. Stares out the window a lot.

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Then Olga pushes through the door, more rosy than the dawn before. Was there ever a sister who entered the room more lovely? She is very pretty, social and well mannered, but  alas also a bit superficial.

Pushkin has given himself a part as well. He is not just the narrator, he is also Onegin’s friend. Through this clever trick the lines between fiction and reality become blurred. 

And finally the muse, what’s a poet without a muse? There are countless mythological references, so you may want to keep your Geek mythology copy close by. 

Finally

With this challenge I hope to add something extra to your reading experience that will make it more interesting, intense, attentive, and (even more) enjoyable. I will be eating, dreaming, thinking, hearing Eugene Onegin for the next four months and I can’t wait to find out what the end result will be!

So let’s read the first chapter and I’ll see you next week again for the first chapter post!

*A stanza is a set of four or more lines of a certain length and rhyming scheme.

**A typical character in 19th century Russian literature: a young man unable to reach his full potential. Famous examples are Lermontov’s Pechorin, Tolstoy’s Pierre Bezukhov, and Turgenev’s Bazarov.

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Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 

Illustration from Wikipedia 

Previous post: https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2020/02/16/the-eugene-onegin-challenge/

The Eugene Onegin Challenge

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I’m challenging you! Not to a duel, no, although it does involve one… I’m challenging you to read Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin with me. Whether you’re a curious first time reader, a longtime lover, or something in between; anyone who is interested is welcome to join.

Now I know that you all have TBR’s that reach the ceiling, not to mention to-do lists as long as the neck of a giraffe, but don’t worry; we’ll do this at a very doable pace. Pushkin deserves more than to be read at a record speed anyway. 

Why?

Eugene Onegin is a ‘novel in verse’, something between a poem and a novel. That, among other things, makes it notoriously difficult to translate. If you translate a poem literally, it probably won’t rhyme. If you make it rhyme, you’ll probably have to adjust the text. I had very high expectations when I first read Eugene Onegin. But although I enjoyed it, I felt that I didn’t quite get it. Looking back that probably had a lot to do with the translation that didn’t do the work justice. Luckily I did not give up on Eugene Onegin. I made attempts at reading it in Russian and tried other translations. And with each read I loved it more.

The plan

The plan is to make ten more posts about Eugene Onegin. In the next one I’ll explain the rhyming scheme, introduce the characters and talk about how and when Pushkin wrote his masterpiece. The following eight posts will be dedicated to the eight chapters of the novel. After each of the eight chapter posts I would love to read your thoughts, insights, questions and feelings in the comment section. In the final blog post I’ll summarise the journey that we took together, exploring this wonderful novel. 

Taking it one chapter at the time allows us to pay attention to details such as the structure, references and characterization that make Eugene Onegin the masterpiece that it is. Your comments will be a valuable addition to the posts.

The details 

I’ll mainly use the James E. Falen translation. I think that it captures the cheerful and witty spirit of Pushkin really well. There is an audiobook version of this translation read by the marvellous Stephen Fry, which can be found on YouTube. I recommend that you use a translation that has plenty of notes. Sunday next week I’ll publish the introduction to Eugene Onegin, and Sunday in two weeks the first chapter post. After that I aim to publish a chapter post every two weeks. At the end of the series you’ll be able to not just say that you’ve read Eugene Onegin (again), but hopefully also that you love it (even more)!

Finally I’d like to emphasise that everyone is welcome to join at any time, and read at his or her own pace. The journey is more important than the destination, so enjoy it!

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Eugene Onegin – Alexander Pushkin, translated by James E. Falen, ISBN 978-0199538645

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 

Six Degrees of Separation – From A Christmas Carol to War and Peace

Inspired by fellow blogger An Argumentative Old Git, I decided to make a #6degrees blogpost too. The idea is that each month there is another book as a starting point, and this month it’s A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. From there you can connect to six other books. The meme is hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best.

So we start with A Christmas Carol (1843), the classic Christmas story. 

fullsizeoutput_6f.jpegScrooge is visited by three ghosts, showing him the past, the present and the future. Scrooge quickly understands that he needs to better his life. The Undertaker by Pushkin (1831) features an un-Dickensian undertaker with a Scrooge-like disposition. He too is visited by ghosts, a whole party of them: they are his dead clients, accusing him of ripping of their next of kin. Unlike Scrooge, Prokhorov does not seem inclined to better his life the next morning; he simply orders tea and calls his daughters. And we can almost hear him think “Bah! Humbug!”.

IMG_3931.JPGThere’s a ghostly party in The Master and Margarita (1940) by Bulgakov too. In this satirical novel Satan himself himself has come to Stalinist Moscow to organise a ball on Walpurgis night. The guests are all dead and they have all committed a crime that has sent them to hell. Among the guests are famous people and notorious criminals. They arrive at the party through the fireplace. Sounds familiar, right? But we’re not going there. The novel’s most famous quote is “Manuscripts don’t burn”.

IMG_3923.JPGIn 1852 Gogol famously burned most of the manuscripts containing the second part of Dead Souls shortly before he died in sad circumstances, suffering from depression. Dead Souls (1842) is, contrary to the title, a lively tale. A satire about an aspiring noble man traveling around Russia and the people he meets. Chichikov is accompanied by a faithful servant, Petrushka, who likes a drink and smells peculiarly, but is devoted to his master.

fullsizeoutput_5d.jpegThat brings us to another devoted servant: Zakhar. The interfering, lazy, complaining and gossiping servant of Oblomov. Oblomov has perfected the art of procrastinating and famously does not get out of bed for the first 150 pages of the novel. Oblomov was written by Goncharov in 1858, as an example of a ‘superfluous man’. Oblomov simply refuses to worry about things that everybody else already worries about, and does not like it when ‘things’ are expected of him. His home is his safe haven.

fullsizeoutput_6cFrom that save haven on Gorokhovaya Street we take stroll to Stolyarny Alley, to the humble quarters of another famous Petersburg hero: Raskolnikov. The protagonist of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) doesn’t just dream and scheme; he acts out his plan and murders an old pawnbroker. With her money he wants to help the poor, but he becomes consumed by guilt.

fullsizeoutput_6eCrime and Punishment was first published in episodes in the famous Russian magazine The Messenger. If you were a subscriber to that magazine, you were in for a real treat each month; just imagine, in 1866 it also ran Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Of course the reader already knew how the war with Napoleon ended, but what about Natasha, was she going to be reunited with prince Andrey?! The novel is full of cliffhangers and the reason is precisely that: the monthly episodes.

Dickens was immensely popular in Russia, and both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy admired him and were influenced by him. Where would A Christmas Carol lead you?

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer

Books read: all of the above and an article from The Dickens Magazine by George Gorniak about Tolstoy, sent to me by Roger W. Smith 

Russian Ghost Stories

img_0648Now that the evenings are getting longer again, it’s the perfect time to read ghost stories. And there were plenty of ghosts, witches and other scary things around in 19th century Russian literature! With the greatest pleasure I emptied my book shelves and (re)read some, in fact most, of the following examples.

Pushkin

Pushkin‘s Queen of Spades (1833) is without a doubt the best known Russian ghost story. It is also the best, even if it’s not the scariest. Written in a masterly way, Pushkin gradually builds up the tension. The young officer Hermann wants to extract a secret from an old Countess. It’s a combination of cards that will guarantee you to win at Faro, a betting cards game. The Countess, however, doesn’t just give away her secret… A story as fresh as if it was written yesterday and highly readable any day of the year.

Lermontov

And what to think of Lermontov’s Shtoss (1841)? Shtoss is a cards game similar to Faro. The hero Lugin keeps hearing a voice in his head repeating an address in St Petersburg. A friend advises him to investigate, and the address exists and is up for rent. He moves in, but it turns out there lives a ghost who likes to play Shtoss… The story ends with an open question and it is unclear whether the story is finished or not, and whether Lermontov was serious about it or not. In any case, Lermontov died shortly after writing it.

A.K. Tolstoy

A.K. Tolstoy, a remote cousin from Leo, wrote several classic horror stories. The Vampire was published in 1841 as well, under the nom de plume Krasnorogsky. This highly entertaining and original novella features a female vampire: an old woman who is after the blood of her (obviously attractive) granddaughter. The hero of the story, Runevsky, tries to protect her from her loving grandmother. Elegantly written horror with a healthy dose of humour.

Gogol

And that brings us to Gogol: the writer who knew all about (Little) Russia’s legends and superstitions. They feature in many of his stories, particularly in those from Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka and Mirgorod. Gogol had a vivid imagination and the coffins and witches almost fly off the pages. His heroes are not in the least surprised; they do not doubt that witches and sorcery exist. Viy (1835) is the scariest, but May Night and A Terrible Vengeance aren’t for the faint hearted either.

Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky, who did have a contagious sense for the absurd like Gogol’s, also wrote a ghost story: Bobok (1873). It’s a short and funny story about a certain Ivan Ivanovich, who one day happens to hear the dead chat amongst each other under their gravestones. What are the consequences of dying and what do dead people talk about? I had a good laugh reading this story!

Odoevsky

The inspiration for Bobok came from Odoevsky’s The Live Corpse (1838), an amusing story about a man who finds out he has died, but has a hard time accepting that. Other, more serious, mysterious tales from this Russian nobleman are The Salamander, Cosmorama and The Sylph. Odoevsky was, among many other things, interested in science and his works feature metaphysical, occult, gothic and romantic elements. Harry Potter fans will recognise a thing or two.

Turgenev

Even though he was a firm Realist who didn’t believe in God, Turgenev wrote numerous ghost stories: the best known being Klara Milich (1883); a great Turgenev story, that due to its almost claustrophobic atmosphere has a Dostoevskian feel to it. The recluse student Aratov literally becomes possessed of a young female singer who commits suicide while performing. His dear old aunt Platosha is worried sick about him, and not without reason…

Chekhov

The last of the great Russian Realists was of course Chekhov. The Black Monk (1893) is one of his best works. Chekhov, who was actually a doctor, considered it primarily a case study of a young man suffering from megalomania, but in a literary sense the novella could be categorised as a supernatural tale. Kovrin is a brilliant student who leaves for the countryside to rest his overworked brain. Once there, however, he starts getting visions of a black monk… Chekhov at his understated best!

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Hopefully I have inspired you with this diverse lineup. Did you read any of these stories, are you going to, did I miss something or would you simply like to share your favourite ghost story? Let me know in the comments…

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer

 

Pushkin House Blog — Pushkin House

Exciting news: I wrote a piece for the Pushkin House blog! You can read it if you click on the link below.Russian Cultural centre in London. Politically independent, Registered UK
Charity, owned and run by the Pushkin House Trust. Pushkin House hosts a
varied programme of Russian literature, poetry, art, cinema, music, theatre
and dance, history, philosophy and current affairs.
— Read on www.pushkinhouse.org/blog/

Odoevsky’s The Salamander

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A Finnish Legend

A few weeks ago I moved from beautiful Amsterdam to beautiful Finland. A leap of faith, yes, but one that I have every faith in that it will turn out very well. It was love at first sight, both with the man and the country, and that love has blossomed into something profound. I look forward to getting to know Finland and its people better and wonder with a big smile what the future has in store for me.

Finnish Characters in Russian literature

Finland is of course neighbors with Russia, and Russian literature features many Finnish characters. I thought it would be interesting to investigate this subject a bit more and came across The Salamander, a gothic story by the romantic writer Odoevsky. I had never read Odoevsky, and was pleasantly surprised.

Odoevsky

Vladimir Fyodorovich Odoevsky (1803-1869) was an impoverished nobleman, like Tolstoy descending from the highest branch of aristocracy in Russia: the Rurik dynasty. He worked for the Russian government until he died, and was extremely interested in literature, music, education, philosophy, science and the occult. His house was a regular meeting place for writers like Pushkin, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, to name but a few. Together with Pushkin he founded the famous magazine The Contemporary. On his Wikipedia page it says that he even predicted blogging and e-readers. So definitely a remarkable character!

He is not exactly widely read nowadays, overshadowed by those aforementioned giants, but I found him captivating and genuinely enjoyed reading his stories.

The Salamander

The Salamander (1841) is a complex tale that combines several legends and influences. It tells the story of Finnish Yakko and his sister Elsa, children of a poor fisherman. Yakko makes a good career in Saint Petersburg under the care of Peter the Great. Elsa, who has clairvoyant powers, initially stays behind in Finland. Her wealthy brother brings her to Russia, but she dislikes the Russians and they, in turn, think her beautiful but very strange and suspect her of witchcraft. The story continues to take us on a journey full of legends, superstition, sorcery, greed, and alchem, and it ends eventually with a haunted house in Moscow.

The Kalevala

The story starts with a mythological description of Finland that echoes the great Finnish epic, the Kalevala*. The Kalevala was first published in Finland in 1836 and had not yet been translated into Russian in 1841. Elias Lönnrot had based it on the Karelian legends he had collected. The Russian Yakov Grot, who was a friend of Odoevsky, had however accompanied Lönnrot on several of his research journeys, and had published articles about the Kalevala and Finnish people and customs in The Contemporary. This explains Odoevsky’s detailed knowledge of the subject.

Pushkin

Another major source of inspiration was his friend Pushkin: the primitive Finnish lad being educated by Peter the Great reminds the reader of course of The Moor of Peter the Great (1837) and the image of the poor Finnish fisherman and the flooding of Saint Petersburg seem to come straight from The Bronze Horseman (1833). Yakko’s frenzied greed in the second part of the story is very similar to that of Hermann in Queen of Spades (1834). As I’ve explained before, this was not considered plagiarism, but was seen more as a tribute.

Finns versus Russians

So how are the Finnish portrayed compared to the Russians? The Finnish are portrayed as half wild compared to the educated and advanced Russians. They have a splendid city, and an army, whereas the Finns live in primitive huts and are forced to fight the wars of other nations. Clearly the Russians considered themselves superior. But there is also a (romantic) admiration of their pure soul, simple customs, and closeness to nature. In his introduction Odoevsky describes the Finns as “kind, patient, obedient to the authorities, attached to their obligations, but distrustful and so cunning that, when they see a stranger, they can opportunely pretend not to understand him. Once annoyed, their vengeance knows no bounds”.

Well! Forewarned is forearmed!

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*The Kalevala is the Finnish national epic poem, the Finnish equivalent of Homer’s Odyssey. Elias Lönnrot compiled it from legends and songs he collected in the Karelia region (nowadays partially in Finland and Russia). This epic has been of immense importance for the shaping of the Finnish identity.

 

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer

Sources used:

The Salamander and Other Gothic Tales – Vladimir Odoevsky

Empire and the Gothic / The Politics of Genre – A. Smith & W. Hughes

To whom does the Kalevala belong? – Timo Vihavainen

The north in Russian romantic literature – Otto Boele

Rekonstruoidusta kansaneepoksesta Lönnrotin runoelmaksi – Kalevala Venäjällä – Kalevala maailmalla. Helsinki: SKS. 2012 – Mirja Kemppinen ja Markku Nieminen

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Odoyevsky

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/


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:-))

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