REVIEW: Tales of Belkin by Alexander Pushkin
Ivan Petrovich Belkin left behind a great number of manuscripts…. Most of them, as Ivan Petrovich told me, were true stories heard from various people.
First published anonymously in 1830, Alexander Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin contains his first prose works. It is comprised of an introductory note and five linked stories, ostensibly collected by the scholar Ivan Belkin. The stories center variously around military figures, the wealthy, and businessmen; this beautiful novella gives a vivid portrait of nineteenth century Russian life.
It has become, as well, one of the most beloved books in Russian literary history, and symbolic of the popularity of the novella form in Russia. In fact, it has become the namesake for Russia’s most prestigious annual literary prize, the Belkin Prize, given each year to a book voted by judges to be the best novella of the year.
It is presented here in a sparkling new translation by Josh Billings. Tales of Belkin also highlights the nature of our ongoing Art of the Novella Series—that is, that it specializes in important although albeit lesser-known works by major writers, often in new translations.
Alexander Pushkin is considered to be the writer and poet (mostly poet, but he definitely wrote some fantastic prose writings as well) who began to use the Russian language in the way it is widely used today. I should qualify that and say that it is how Russian was written when I was growing up – I am well read in Russian literature from the 19th and 20th centuries, but I can’t claim the same knowledge about works written in the 21st century. If you know Russian, though, you will see the differences between the language Pushkin wrote and the writers who came before him.
I am biased, but in my opinion he wrote great stories during his short life (he died at 38, after fighting a duel over his wife). His most famous work is “Eugene Onegin,” which is a novel in verse. If you can’t read Russian, don’t read it in translation, just don’t. I am not saying this because I think translations are bad. Granted, I have trouble reading almost any Russian classic in English, but that’s mostly because I am used to have a book speak to me in a certain language, you know? Especially if I had reread it multiple times while growing up. For example, I barely managed to finish Dumas’ “Three Musketeers” in English as well, and obviously that book was not originally written in Russian, but when I reread it over twenty times in my life, the book speaks to me in Russian and for all I know maybe the translation from French was horrible.
Anyway, the reason I advise not reading “Eugene Onegin” in English is different than the usual issues of translation. Rather, it’s because verse rhymes in Russian and does not in English, and as a result it loses its music to me. Don’t read it.
What I bring here instead is another of my many favorites among his works. These are five novellas, united by a fictional writer named Ivan Petrovich Belkin. Belkin supposedly wrote these stories and they are being published posthumously. In the foreword the publisher goes so far as to give us a brief biography of Mr. Belkin, who died when he was thirty, in his friend’s arms, and who left many manuscripts after his death. These are supposedly his first attempts (Belkin’s, that is; most assuredly they were not Pushkin’s first writing attempts).
So we have five novellas – supposedly they are true stories told to Belkin by other people, which he just fictionalized. The fictitious publisher of Belkin’s works, who has the same initials as Pushkin, names the original fictional storytellers by their initials in the foreword. I found it funny that two of the stories which I can wholeheartedly recommend to romance readers are supposedly told to Belkin by young lady such and such, but gentlemen told him the other three.
I first read all five novellas in either middle school or high school, and I reread the two love stories many times. I am also very fond of the third story. The other two are without doubt just as good writing-wise, but I almost forgot about them before this reread and I realized why I was not tempted.
The translation I read was apparently published in the “Art of the Novella” series. All these stories are great examples of what I personally want to see in novelettes/novellas. They are complete, and they tell me a lot about characters, but they do not attempt to squeeze too much into their limited page space. The compilation is 1211 locations on my kindle, and the last one (the one which I would probably be most comfortable placing in the Romance genre) probably occupies one third of the book, so the other four are even shorter. In Russian they are still called novellas, but maybe they should be called novelettes? I am not sure.
The first story in this collection is called “The shot”. The narrator remembers a charismatic older guy he met when the narrator was a young soldier. He talks about them being stationed in a small town and being bored, Sylvio (older guy and when I say older I mean few years older) being the central character of their company, and how much the young soldier worshipped Sylvio for being a great shot and being so charismatic. One evening they were playing cards and one soldier suspected Sylvio (wrongly) of foul play. All of them expected Sylvio to challenge the other guy to a duel, but he never did, which made everyone very disappointed with him, most especially the narrator. Shortly thereafter, Sylvio had to leave town, and because the narrator liked him so much (and Sylvio was fond of him as well), Sylvio decided to explain himself in more detail – why he supposedly did not defend his honor and did not call out the stupid guy who insulted him.
Sylvio explained that he had a second, unfinished duel to fight, and he could not chance the possibility (small as it was) that he would die in this duel. He then leaves, and through a strange coincidence the narrator learns the ending of that unfinished duel years later. I will let you to find out what happened on your own.
I will say that duels have always fascinated me. On the one hand, it is an idiotic way to lose your life, but on the other it offers so many possibilities to show your true colors as a person. Several Russian poets of 19 century died after the duel, including Pushkin himself as I mentioned above. I think this story had some Byronic motives in it.
The second story is called “The snowstorm”.
This one has romantic elements galore and a happy ending. A young girl of seventeen who is the daughter of a wealthy Russian landowner falls head over heels in love with a guy from a poor family. Her parents think she can make a better match and forbid her to see him, so they decide to elope together. They get married nearby and come back. Initially it is not clear (deliberately) what exactly happened during their attempt to elope, but because of the snowstorm the poor guy got lost and never met his fiancée at the rendezvous they had arranged. The girl comes back home, her parents had no clue that she was not sleeping at home all night, and her maid does not say anything to anybody. However, very soon after she comes home the girl comes down with fever and is between life and death for a couple of weeks. Although the maid kept her secret, the girl talked about the elopement while she was feverish, and when her parents realize how much she is in love they decide if that is the guy she wants, fine. Alas, it is too late. The young, broken-hearted idiot had already enlisted in the army (the year is 1812 by the way) and died fighting Napoleon.
Three years later, young woman and her mother are living together after her father’s death. She is wealthy but she is not interested in any of her suitors. But then the war ends and a certain hussar comes back from it – stay tuned to find out what happens.
After several years of not rereading the story I was amazed just how short this story was – it always felt longer to me, but not too long. They even made a movie out of it, with beautiful music too.
The third story is “The Undertaker,” which portrays what life is like for a person who achieves financial success but does not get respect from his provincial neighbors due to his profession. The main reason I have not reread it is because it has a horror element, but it is not really tragic. I guess you could call it realistic.
The fourth story is “The stationmaster”. The narrator talks about the stationmasters in Russia and how they get undeserving negative reputations. He remembers a guy whom he met before and tells us his tragic story. No happy ending here, be warned.
The last and my other favorite story in this collection is called “The Lady’s Maid”.
Once again we have a provincial town and two wealthy landowners, one of whom thinks that Russia should follow Europe and the other that Russia should follow the Russian way of life. Mind you, this is not a story about philosophical conflict, rather, the difference of opinion is just an excuse for them to fight in their everyday lives since they live next to each other. However, because of something that happens one day they decide to stop fighting. And lo and behold, one guy has a beautiful, smart daughter and the other landowner’s son just came back to visit his father. The son wants to join the army. Their fathers think that hey, we stopped fighting, why not make it so our children get married and introduce them to each other. But as you can imagine, the children have minds of their own. Then events take an unexpected turn, and the story ends well. I don’t know whether I would call it a happy ending or HFN, but as HFN it is very solid in my opinion.
The movie based on this story was also lovely.