W. J. Leatherbarrow (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: Leatherbarrow, W. J. “Pushkin: The Queen of Spades.” In The Voice of a Giant: Essays on Seven Russian Prose Classics, edited by Roger Cockrell and David Richards, pp. 1-14. Exeter, England: University of Exeter Press, 1985.
[In the following essay, Leatherbarrow unfavorably compares Pushkin's prose to his poetry and considers The Queen of Spades a unique work within the context of other nineteenth-century Russian prose works.]
Pushkin's literary status is beyond question for Russians and for those in the West who read Russian. He is ‘the father of Russian literature’, a remarkable genius directly responsible for the impressive development of Russian literature in the nineteenth century. He is also revered as Russia's finest poet.
But Pushkin's genius—both as artist and as instigator—is by no means as apparent to the casual non-Russian reader, who perhaps has little difficulty in appreciating other Russian writers, such as Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Tolstoy. This certainly was the case with as intelligent and sensitive a reader as Matthew Arnold, who as late as 1887, some 50 years after Pushkin's death, commented that Russia had not yet produced a great poet.1
The reason for this view is not difficult to find. Poetry is, in general, very difficult to translate successfully, and this is particularly true of Pushkin's poetry. Therefore, the reader who wisely avoids the largely unsuccessful attempts to render Pushkin's verse in English has no alternative but to base his assessment of Pushkin on the poet's prose, which has been translated more effectively than his verse.2
Pushkin was a poet by temperament rather than by choice. His thoughts found their most natural expression in verse, and his adoption of prose towards the end of his short life in many ways ran counter to his nature. As Mirsky suggests, prose for Pushkin was a foreign language which had to be learned, and his use of it, although skilful, is nonetheless deliberate and self-conscious.3 Puskin's prose never quite conceals his natural tendency to write poetry and we can detect the poet in the very phrasing and tempo of his prose.
Judging Pushkin, therefore, on the strength of his prose is rather like judging Turgenev on the strength of his verse. With the exception of The Queen of Spades, Pushkin's achievements in prose are not comparable to his achievements in verse. Neither are tales such as Dubrovsky, The Captain's Daughter, and “The Negro of Peter the Great” likely to find enthusiastic admirers—as distinct from merely respectful ones—among modern readers familiar with the great prose achievements of Pushkin's successors.
But the failure of Pushkin's prose to affect the modern reader to the same extent as does that of, say, Dostoevsky in no way detracts from its immense historical significance. For without the examples of Pushkin's prose experiments on the one hand, and his novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, on the other, it is difficult to believe that the Russian novel would have flourished as it did in the half century following the poet's death.
Pushkin represented the culmination of a great age of Russian poetry. From the reign of Catherine the Great to that of Nicholas I, poetry had been the dominant literary genre, served by writers of outstanding talent and originality, such as Gavriil Derzhavin (1743-1816) and Vasilii Zhukovsky (1783-1852), as well as by a host of lesser figures. Imaginative prose fiction, as distinct from the historical works and travel sketches of Nikolai Karamzin (1766-1826), was largely unpractised. Most of the novels read during Pushkin's time were either French or quite unoriginal imitations of French models. There was no tradition of the Russian novel as such, and this point is made with delightful irony in The Queen of Spades when Tomsky offers to bring his grandmother a Russian novel and the old Countess replies: ‘Are there any Russian novels?’4
The only major literary figure who had made a consistent attempt to establish a truly Russian prose fiction was Karamzin, whose mawkishly sentimental tale Poor Liza, written in 1792, enjoyed a marked popularity amongst the Russian reading public. Karamzin had made an attempt, which was vigorously resisted by conservative literary figures, to liberate the Russian literary language from the ponderous archaisms of Old Church Slavonic. This he did by bringing it closer to the speech of the educated nobility. Indeed Karamzin's prose was the best Russia had to offer before Pushkin but, as Pushkin himself remarked in 1822: ‘That is no great praise’.5
Poor Liza has many obvious faults. Apart from its cloyingly sentimental plot about the suicide of a young serf-girl deceived by a thoughtless aristocrat, it is burdened by a wearisome, pretentious and totally unsuitable narrative manner. Purple passages give way to excessively emotional authorial interjections, which in turn yield to quite unconvincing dialogue. Karamzin was bound by literary conventions which did not allow for the straightforward, direct and realistic telling of a tale. Liza's speech—educated and formal—belies her lowly station in life. Peasant girls never spoke in this way, but Karamzin obviously considered it out of the question to introduce the vulgarisms of popular speech into a literature directed exclusively at an educated aristocratic élite.
In sum, everything about Poor Liza is excessive and artificial—a long way from the directness and simplicity of Pushkin's own prose manner. And herein lies the true significance of Pushkin's adoption of prose. In his first completed prose work, The Tales of Belkin, Pushkin experimented with existing narrative forms and conventions, adapting, testing, and even parodying them; in the process he created a versatile narrative medium—the first successful Russian prose style—which was to point the way and enable the great age of the Russian realistic novel to follow the golden age of poetry.
This achievement is all the more remarkable if we remember that prose did not come as naturally to Pushkin as poetry and that, with the exception of The Queen of Spades, Pushkin's prose lacks the sparkling vitality of his verse. Indeed, in the early part of his career Pushkin was openly contemptuous of prose. ‘The thought of prose makes me sick’, he wrote in 1823,6 and in view of the quality of prose written at the time we can perhaps understand his feelings. But fashions in literature change and the popularity of poetry had begun to decline by the end of the reign of Alexander I. Even Pushkin was no longer read as eagerly by a public that now craved prose. He was never a writer who pandered to public opinion, and poems such as The Poet and the Crowd (1828) and To the Poet (1830) demonstrate his disdain for the opinion of what he called ‘the rabble’, but it is notable that Pushkin's interest in prose should be awakened at a time when poetry was in decline. After all, he was the first Russian professional writer who relied for his livelihood on selling his manuscripts. Perhaps also he was fascinated by the possibilities of an unfamiliar medium.
By the time he turned to prose Pushkin had for some years been engaged in writing a novel, his masterpiece Eugene Onegin, which was not completed until 1830. But Eugene Onegin is written in verse and this makes, in Pushkin's words, ‘the devil of a difference’.7 It is quite unlike anything he wrote in prose despite its claim to being a novel. It has none of the studied austerity of his prose manner, but all of the wit and vicacity which characterise his best poetry. It is perhaps the fullest expression of Pushkin's poetic nature.
In all his best works Pushkin maintains an effective interplay between his material and his personality. Everything he wrote in verse bears the stamp of his temperament, but not in an obtrusive fashion as is the case with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, who constantly force points of view upon their readers. Pushkin keeps company with his reader, not as a teacher or guide, but as an intelligent, witty and sensitive companion who, like the reader, is sufficiently detached from the themes, plots and characters of his works to be able to share his impressions, his delight, his amusement, his irony, and even at times his sadness. Eugene Onegin is the supreme example of this kind of work. It is a highly personal piece in which Pushkin mixes the formal elements of the prose novel (plot, characterisation, etc.) with an extensive yet controlled poetic self-display. Pushkin is the commanding presence in the work. He interrupts, digresses, comments and reminisces; and in the process he grafts onto the novel a rich additional subjective world.
If poetry and ‘the novel in verse’ offered Pushkin the means for this delightful self-display, prose afforded him the opportunity of trying something quite different which ran against the grain of his nature—narrative impersonality. The reader is struck immediately by the directness of Pushkin's prose style. His tales are above all action stories, where the plot is promoted at the expense of description, digression, dialogue and analysis. In Pushkin's prose, unlike his poetry, the narrator usually plays an essentially passive role. This is particularly obvious in The Tales of Belkin, where Pushkin employs several narrators in order to maintain a distance between the characters and situations described in the tales and the real narrator—himself.
This approach may be compared with that of Pushkin's contemporary, Nikolai Gogol, whose stories are showcases for an obtrusive storyteller. Pushkin viewed prose quite differently from Gogol. He also saw it as a method quite distinct from poetry as it allowed for a totally impersonal narrative. Ironically enough, it might well have been the writing of the capricious and highly personal Eugene Onegin that fully revealed to Pushkin the possibilities offered by prose. Certainly, in a well-known passage from Chapter III of the work Pushkin anticipates eventually abandoning poetry for ‘humble prose’.8 In his novel in verse Pushkin had for the first time tried his hand at an extended plot, extended characterisation and a detailed evocation of a certain class of Russian life. As Pushkin no doubt saw, prose is the medium best suited to a work of this type and this scale, and Eugene Onegin remains the only successful Russian novel in verse. The subsequent great Russian novels, although often relying upon characters and situations deriving from Pushkin's work, were written in prose. It is ironic, however, that few Russian novelists inherited Pushkin's view of prose as an impersonal narrative medium. The nineteenth-century Russian novel was to become the vehicle for the propagation of opinion and personal views.
Pushkin's first major prose attempt was “The Negro of Peter the Great,” written in 1827 after he had been reading the historical romances of Walter Scott. Like the works of Scott, “The Negro of Peter the Great” aims to evoke a distinct historical period, but unlike Scott's novels it is written in the terse and economic prose so characteristic of Pushkin. Significantly, it is unfinished. Many of Pushkin's prose works were left uncompleted, which suggests perhaps that they were seen by him essentially as experimental pieces rather than as independent works of art.
Pushkin did not turn to prose in earnest until 1830, shortly before his marriage. He had travelled to his father's estate at Boldino, which he was due to receive as a wedding present, and stayed there for most of the autumn because of an outbreak of cholera. This period of isolation at Boldino was the most intensely creative period of Pushkin's life. While there he completed Eugene Onegin, composed his Little Tragedies, and wrote the collection of stories entitled The Tales of Belkin. The Queen of Spades was written during a second, brief Boldino autumn in 1833.
As early as 1822 Pushkin had drafted an article in which he considered the principles of prose. Like so much of Pushkin's prose fiction, this article remained unfinished, but enough of it exists to show that Pushkin valued precision and brevity as the cardinal virtues of prose. In one passage he scathingly dismisses those writers who burden narrative with rhetoric:
What are we to say of our writers who, considering it beneath them to write simply of ordinary things, think to liven up their childish prose with embellishments and faded metaphors? These people can never say friendship without adding ‘that sacred sentiment whose noble flame, etc.’ They should be saying ‘early in the morning’, but they write: ‘Hardly had the first rays of the rising sun illumined the eastern edge of the azure sky …’ Oh! How new and fresh this all is! Is it any the better just because it is longer?9
In The Queen of Spades Pushkin puts his early ideas on prose most effectively into practice. It is a very short work, with a very simple plot, a handful of characters and no obvious message or rich passages of description. And yet it echoes in the mind like few other works, and lends itself to the sort of detailed analysis that critics usually reserve for much longer pieces. The virtues of precision and brevity are in evidence throughout the work, in its characterisation, its plot and its narrative style.
In his presentation of the characters, for example, Pushkin ignores the obvious ways of making a character memorable, such as detailed physical description, lengthy dialogue and thumbnail sketches of personal history or cast of mind. Instead he creates quite distinct images with the minimum use of words. His secret is quite simple, if difficult to emulate. Rather than give his reader masses of information in the hope that the really memorable and significant details are included somewhere, Pushkin selects only those details which are evocative enough to allow the reader to complete the picture in his mind. For example, the gambler Chekalinsky is perfectly sketched in only ten or so lines:
He was a man of about 60, of most respectable appearance. His head was covered with silvery grey hair; his full, fresh face expressed good humour; his eyes glittered, enlivened by a perpetual smile. Narumov introduced Hermann to him. Chekalinsky shook his hand...
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