Belkin’s Stories by Alexander Pushkin

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Translated and with commentary by Roger Clarke

Reviewed by Karen Langley

Alexander Pushkin is, of course, Russia’s national poet. Tragically killed in a duel in 1837, his influence still  permeates the country’s consciousness, from the figure of his Bronze Horseman (who looms in statue form in St. Petersburg) through the town of Tsarskoye Selo being renamed in his honour, to a continuing fascination with the man, his work and his death. The fact that there is a Pushkin Press (who specialise in translated works) and a Pushkin House in London (which promotes an interest in Russian culture) speaks volumes about his continued presence and influence in the world.

Previously, his complete works were only available in English in a 15-volume set published between 1994 and 2009 by Milner and Co. However, Alma Classics have undertaken the admirable task of making these works available in beautifully produced separate editions, each with additional material and in some cases in sparkly new translations – which is very welcome for all lovers of Russian literature!

Pushkin is known of course primarily for his poetry, so it might be a surprise to some readers to find that he wrote prose too. “Belkin’s Stories” were Pushkin’s first published fictions, and they take the form of five tales purportedly told to the Belkin of the title. However, Belkin himself is a fiction, the individuals who supposedly told Belkin the stories are also non-existent, and so we come back to the ‘editor’ who introduces them, known only as “A.P.”, to get the root of from where the stories come!

“Belkin’s Stories” number five in total: “The Shot”, “The Blizzard”, “The Undertaker”, “The Postmaster”, and “Young Miss Peasant”. Additionally, in this volume is “A History of Goryukhino Village”, the only other one of Pushkin’s tales to be narrated by Belkin, and which tells us a little more about this would-be literary man. The five main narratives range over a number of topics, from gothic romance to country idyll, and as the commentary reveals, Pushkin was playing with a number of literary styles popular at the time. And ‘play’ is the right word to use here, as Pushkin certainly enjoys himself at the expense of other authors with his witty remarks.

Moral sayings are marvellously useful when we can think of little justification ourselves for what we want to do.

The genres here are varied: “The Shot” presents a tale of the duelling so popular in Russia (and which would ultimately lead to Pushkin’s early demise); “The Blizzard” tackles popular romantic stories; “The Undertaker” takes on ghosts and the gothic; “The Postmaster” is a tale of familial loss; and “Young Miss Peasant” is of love and landowners. However, each of these tales twists and subverts the reader’s expectations, as the denouement is never what is expected and Pushkin is clearly using the particular literary form in a tongue-in-cheek way to comment on Russian life and also the expectations of his readers (as well as having a dig at the social mores and influences of the time).

Marya Gavrilovna had been brought up on French novels and was therefore in love. Her choice had fallen upon an impecunious subaltern in the regular army who was currently on leave on his estate. It goes without saying that the young man burned with an equal passion and that his beloved’s parents, having noticed the couple’s mutual attachment, forbade their daughter to even think of him and made him less welcome than a superannuated court clerk.

However, “Belkin’s Stories” have surprising depth; “The Postmaster”, in particular, takes the imagery of the story of the Prodigal Son and turns it on its head in a very thought-provoking way, so that what might seem to be the tale of a lost daughter and an abandoned father is in fact a commentary on the selfishness of the parent and the joy of the child in obtaining happiness in a new life. The postmaster, portrayed initially as a good man, is in fact shown to be a self-interested person with no autonomy; and the other stories twist perceptions in the same way. Even “The Peasant Miss”, which seems initially to be a simple tale of love, has plenty of subtextual commentary on the state of the peasantry, attitudes of landowners and the problems and privileges of rank, all constantly vexing questions for Russians.

Where should we be, indeed, if the customary and convenient rule ‘Rank, respect rank!’ were replaced by an alternative – say, ‘Brains, respect brains!’? What disputes there’d be! And who would servants offer food to first?

The final fiction in the collection, “A History of Goryukhino” is an unfinished piece, purporting to be written by Belkin himself and telling the history of his estates. Again, the satirical elements are to the fore, as Pushkin allows Belkin to display himself as a man of limited intellect with pretensions as a writer, and it’s just a shame that the poet never finished this story.

Pushkin (left) apparently liked to play with fantasy and layers of meaning, and he certainly does here with the many different levels of authorship. This distancing of writer from narrative perhaps allowed Pushkin more freedom to experiment with the various stereotypes than if he had written them more directly as his own work. It’s a clever device, explored in the excellent supporting material provided by Alma, and written by translator Roger Clarke (who is also series editor). The translation itself is fresh and readable with no glaringly anachronistic modernisms, and the book is a real delight – and also an excellent introduction to Pushkin’s work. You don’t need to be a fan of Russian fiction, or even particularly knowledgeable about the country to enjoy this book – it’s funny and entertaining in its own right and the excellent notes will pick up anything you aren’t sure of!

The short story is a difficult form to get just right: there is the danger of trying to cram to much into it and creating a compressed novel; but conversely there is the risk of creating something too slight to have any real weight as a work of literature. Pushkin gets the balance just right with these witty and deceptively simple tales that work on many levels while still being so enjoyable. The poet went on to write a number of other prose works (most notably “The Captain’s Daughter”) and we can only regret that his early death stemmed the tide of these. Alma Classics are to be applauded for bringing these lovely new editions of Pushkin to readers, particularly with such excellent supporting material, and let’s hope they open up the works of the great poet to a wider modern audience.

See also Karen’s biographical feature on Pushkin here.

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Karen blogs at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Alexander Pushkin, Belkin’s Stories (Alma Classics: London, 2014).  9781847493514175pp, paperback.

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