Prose Tales of Pushkin

By Alexander Pushkin.

There were some excellent prose tales in this collection that I downloaded for the Kindle. The tales I hadn’t read were: An Amateur Peasant Girl, The Shot, The Snowstorm, The Post Master, The Coffin-maker, Kirdjali and Peter the Great’s Negro. A few of these stories ended very abruptly and this did make laugh. Pushkin says ‘there’s your story, no need to carry on and bore you with any more writerly artifice, The End’. Not in those exact words… Though in finishing An Amateur Peasant Girl he says:

“The reader will relieve me of the superfluous task of describing the end of the story.”

The story The Shot is quite special and I thought I could see strains of what would become Lermontov’s domain in it. All of the pieces were interesting: from the dark surrealism of the Coffin-maker, to the historic Kirdjali, then the personal of Peter the Great’s Negro. I say ‘personal’ because the subject of this story was loosely based on Pushkin’s great-grandfather who was African and thought to be from Cameroon. The story was unfinished and when you read it there is definite potential for it to become a long work. It is as though an episode has been snatched out of the centre of a novel. The characters were well sketched and, as I said, the piece felt like it came from somewhere and had a destination that it hadn’t quite reached.

Great stories.

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The History of Pugachev

By Alexander Pushkin.

I thought that this could be quite a dry work of history, however Pushkin’s narrative was entertaining and there were some good Pushkinesque asides.

Revolution is what happens when those who govern fail to listen to the mass of people. In Russia there was a great deal of poverty then as now and what Pugachev seems to have offered was some hope for a better life. There wasn’t any grand military plan either from Pugachev or the Yaik cossacks but their battle experience, when matched against commanders who were made up of the minor gentry, was telling. Pugachev won a great many battles and Catherine the Great was greatly concerned for a time.

Did Pushkin have an object in writing this history? Possibly – or it could be that he simply saw Pugachev as an attractive romantic figure. The title of the work eventually had to be changed to ‘The History of the Pugachev Rebellion’ as Tsar Nicholas didn’t think a revolutionary could have a history.

In context, many of Pushkin’s friends had been exiled and executed after the Decembrist revolt of 1825. The question must be asked – would the Decembrists have succeeded if they had not been merely dissatisfied gentry, but had canvassed popular support? If the Decembrists had been led by a Pugachev the outcome may have been very different.

Once again, Pushkin proves himself to be a literary genius. Not content with writing Poetry, Novellas, Novels, Drama, Prose in Verse and codifying the Russian literary language by encompassing spoken dialects – he was a historian as well. We know he was working on a history of Peter the Great, unfortunately his death in a duel meant this was never written. Still, at least he had an additional ten years of writing more than Lermontov. Both of their oeuvres were cut short and we can only speculate as to what may have been. Maybe there is room for a novel to imagine a future world where Lermontov and Pushkin survived their respective duels.

Soundtrack: The Able Tasmans – Sour Queen.

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Pushkin’s Fairy Tales

By Alexander Pushkin.

There are some great stories here. In 1833 Pushkin took a break from busy city life and retired to his estate where he wrote these tales. Even though many of these are known folk stories, which were originally told to him by his childhood nurse, Pushkin imbues them with his personality. I particularly like the fact that he directly announces his presence in these tales. He finished two by saying:

“And I was there, drinking beer and mead, and hardly wet my moustache.”

Very amusing.

This edition has wonderful illustrations by the Australian artist Arthur Boyd. It is really nice to have a book like this as a physical object with a good translation. The favourite story for me is ‘The Story Of A Priest And His Servant Balda’. It finishes with the statement: ‘It isn’t wise to try to take a man’s labour for nothing!’ This might not sound like much; but in the political ferment of the time, and with Pushkin’s position of influence, this maxim is provocative and gives a clear indication of where his sympathies still lie.

A few very pleasant evenings were spent dipping in and out of these stories. I recommend them, and this edition, to you.

Soundtrack: Cake – Commissioning a Symphony in C.

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Eugene Onegin

feature_eugeneOneginBy Alexander Pushkin.

Wow. What an amazing novel, poem or however you categorise it. I have enjoyed Pushkin’s prose work previously but I have shied away from his poetry. This is so funny, so aware and such a good story. I love Tatyana’s dream, and the part where Pushkin remembers grasping a stirrup and thinking of his ex-lover’s foot is a laugh out loud moment.

Apparently this translation by Charles Johnstone is ‘good’ according to some commentary but others have said that Stanley Mitchell captures more of the humour and lyricism of the Russian original. So possibly I will need to purchase and read again at some stage.

Throughout you get a real sense of Pushkin’s personality. In the introduction it is mooted that Pushkin is playing a game with the story and with form and enjoying himself greatly. You can really sense this. I think that Pushkin would have been an amusing but tempestuous man to know.

Eugene Onegin completely confounded all my expectations. I didn’t expect a text that was so aware and amusing. This is definitely worth reading. It takes time to get into the language but after you do you keep reading and wanting to read as all is revealed. As to the ending – it was perfect and again I laughed out loud.

Soundtrack: anything by Bulat Okudzawa.

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Brief Lives Alexander Pushkin

pushBy Robert Chandler

A very good ‘brief’ summary of Pushkin’s life and work, which coming in at 150 pages is not so brief really. It gives quite a detailed account of the major milestones of his life and excellent critical analysis of some of his work. It also manages to link the two (life and work) in a natural way and give some complex opinions on his themes. Definitely more than what you would expect from a brief work. After reading I want to read more Pushkin and also read some analysis of his work as well. Nabokov did some work in this area and I think it would be quite interesting to hear what he had to say. This has effectively given me some context within which to place the works I have read recently. You can only guess as to what would have happened to Pushkin if he hadn’t been killed in the duel. His debts were spiralling out of control and it may be that if he didn’t die in this duel he may have died in another. But it’s all conjecture, Robert Chandler who wrote this biography puts across some convincing evidence that he didn’t have a death wish. However, when a person is under pressure they may take risks or act in erratic manner so,while he may not have wanted to die, if his situation didn’t improve it’s very possible something else would have occurred. At the book’s conclusion you are left with the consciousness of Pushkin’s utter genius and sadness that it was not fully expressed. This, in the same way as Blok or Mayakovsky.

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The Captain’s Daughter

capdauBy Alexander Pushkin

This novel is even better than Dubrovsky – possibly because it was finished and also Pushkin had done a lot of research into the areas the novel covers. Prior to The Captains’s Daughter Pushkin had written a history of Pugachev – the rebel leader who takes a central role in the novel. The writing is confident and clear and Pushkin is completely at home in the world he has created. The hero Grinyov has a similar social status to Pushkin (if we are to judge by the number of serfs each have) and both struggle with social events and politics that surround them. Because of this there is an assurance here, which, combined with the subtleties and clarity of Pushkin’s art makes for a fantastic novel. Pushkin seemed to be talented in so many areas, poetry, theatre, history and novel writing. Sadly you feel that he was only just starting to get going when his life was cut short. This novel is not dated at all, highly enjoyable and an excellent entry into Russian literature. All the characters are so interesting and have so many shades – at no time do they become caricatures. Read Pushkin – Nevermind the Tolstoy.

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dubBy Alexander Pushkin

What a great novel! Thoroughly enjoyed reading this. As Pushkin was a poet there is slightness of touch throughout and events are hinted at and themes almost coaxed out. You can see this particularly in the short story Egyptian Nights which is almost worth buying the volume for on its own. It’s a pity that Pushkin died so young in a duel, as there would have been many many more amazing stories, novels and poetry. This was written fifty years before Tolstoy’s major works yet it’s Tolstoy that seems stilted and dated. Pushkin doesn’t dabble in certainties, his characters have humanity and ambiguity. Genius.

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