Friday, April 9, 2010

Alexander Pushkin

Imagine my delight when I received this slim volume published by Hesperus. Hesperus is, according to their blog, "a small London based independent publisher committed to their motto ET REMOTISSIMA PROPE - or bringing near what is far. That is to say, introducing to the English speaking world authors who have been unjustly neglected or inaccessible. They seem to specialise in short classic works - no more than 100 pages.
Adam Thirlwell - named by Granta magazine in 2003 as one of Britain's twenty best young novelists - provides a Foreword to this edition and Hugh Aplin provides the Introduction. Aplin studied Russian at the University of East Anglia and is now the Head of Russian at Westminster School, London. He has translated Chekhov, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgeneve and Zamyatin for Hesperus previously.

I have not read Alexander Pushkin to date, I am ashamed to say. He is described on the inside back flap as Russia's greatest poet. (Note to self....put Eugene Onegin on the TBR pile.) The Tales of Belkin is, however, prose and Pushkin wrote them in 1830 just before he got married. This was his first work of prose fiction and he published it anonymously the following year. Verse was more prestigious in those days apparently. Pushkin's goals with prose fiction were "Precision and brevity..." But more importantly he wanted to challenge notions about fiction.

The Tales of Belkin was originally published with an introduction by the Publisher, known only as A.P. attributing the tales to Ivan Petrovich Belkin. The introduction includes a letter from a neighbour in response to a request for a biography of Belkin from the Publisher. Belkin is described by the neighbour as inexperienced, soft-hearted, weak and perniciously remiss when it came to managing his estate. He also described him as leading a moderate life - avoiding excess and when it came to women, exhibiting a bashfulness that was "truly maidenly".

And so we are presented with The Tales of Belkin - five short stories and two other small pieces - The History of the village of Goryukhino and A Fragment. Does our reading of them change if we don't know Pushkin is writing them? How much of our reading is informed by what we think we know of the author? The tales seem simple enough - stories of thwarted love or deceived maidens. I found myself checking the notes which are by and large very helpful. However in the process I smiled wryly to myself that I was probably doing exactly what Pushkin was rebelling against most - checking for authenticity/scholarship. What makes a good story? Or indeed a good storyteller? Is there such a thing as a new story or are there only a certain number of stories in this world and it depends on the storyteller and how well they tell them? What does the reader bring to a story? His or her own experience is as important as the storyteller in determining what they find in the story.

For my money, and let's be honest - the book cost me nothing but this review - I enjoyed the story of The Undertaker the most. This story was written nearly 200 years ago and yet nothing changes about the world and the characters we find therein.....An Undertaker moves house and is surprised when he is not as happy as he thought he might be if he changed location. He drinks cups of tea endlessly and is morose as befits "his sombre trade". His neighbour, the cobbler, comes over with an invitation to dinner the next day. They chew the fat - "How's business?" ....."Can't complain..." and so on. The dinner is a great success - many toasts are proposed - to the health of the hosts, to the health of the guests, to the health of Moscow, to the health of the guilds, to the health of the masters, to the health of the apprentices and finally to the health of the customers....and this is when things turn sour for the undertaker. Everyone finds this intensely amusing in his case but he feels insulted and goes home cranky...."In what way is my trade more dishonourable than others?.... Is the undertaker a pantomime clown?" he bleats as his domestic helps him get ready for bed. He declares to the Universe that rather than invite his neighbours to a housewarming, he invites the Orthodox dead and then falls into bed in a drunken stupor. You'll have to read the rest...but I can guarantee, it's most entertaining.

Thanks Hesperus for an informative and delightful introduction to Pushkin.

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