REVIEW: The Captain’s Daughter: Essential Stories by Alexander Pushkin
A dazzling new collection of Pushkin’s fiction, in definitive translations by the acclaimed Anthony Briggs
As complex as they are gripping, Pushkin’s stories are some of the greatest and most influential ever written. Foundational to the development of Russian prose, they retain stunning freshness and clarity, more than ever in Anthony Briggs’s finely nuanced translations.
These are stories that upend expectations at every turn: in ‘The Captain’s Daughter’, Pushkin’s masterful novella of love and rebellion set during the reign of Catherine the Great, a mysterious encounter proves fatally significant during a brutal uprising, while in ‘The Queen of Spades’ a man obsessively pursues an elderly woman’s secret for success at cards, with bizarre results.
The Captain’s Daughter – This is the longest story, a novella in length. A young man is sent off to the Army by his retired military father. Instead of being posted to the court in St. Petersburg, he ends up in south Russia at a small “back of beyond” fort. Along the way there, he has two fortuitous meetings before arriving. His commander is a nice guy whose wife actually runs the show and the young man immediately falls for the “Captain’s Daughter.” But rebellion is brewing, the Cossacks are rampaging, and there’s a lot that has to happen before we get a HEA.
I found this an interesting tale with a lot packed into it. The thumbnail descriptions of the characters are fantastic and paint vivid portraits of even the most tertiary of them. The initial breezy chapters are full of deadpan humor that had me grinning. Then things get serious and there are some descriptions of violent death and past torture. Our young man is full of honor and bravery while his truthfulness gets him both into and out of some tough situations.
There are a few indications that Pushkin was still experimenting with prose and include a few things such as the hero announcing he’s thought of a way out of a tight situation but that the reader will have to wait until the next chapter to learn what this is. There’s a lot of adventure, true love, strong hate, close calls, and a sort of deus ex machina way out but I enjoyed the story and this translation. B
The Station Master – I read this one before in the “Tales of Belkin” collection and found it just as bittersweet. A government worker, who often travels, tells the story of meeting a stationmaster and his lovely young daughter. A few years later, the worker is again in the area and seeks out the station to renew his acquaintanceship with the two only to discover that tragedy (per the father) has struck. But when the worker hears what happens and then follows up further a few years on, was it really a tragedy? Early in the story, the narrator mentions finding framed prints of the story of The Prodigal Son at the station house and the daughter is clearly meant to be the prodigal. In the end she does return, but has she really been unhappy all the years she’s been away? I’m not sure she’s living the life her provincial father might have wanted but she seems to be living her best life. B-
The Queen of Spades – A young Russionized German officer seeks through cruel means to discover the card secret that an elderly Russian Countess learned when she was young and needed to pay off a gambling debt. The epigraphs that begin each chapter are witty but this is a dark tale. There is a paranormal element to it with the Count of St Germain being mentioned as well as a ghost supposedly appearing. Pushkin got me caught up in seeing how far the officer would go (way too far with two people) to learn the Countess’s secret and what would happen when he tried to use it. I’ll just say that in my opinion, everyone got what was coming to them whether this is good or bad. B
The translations presented here are neat and crisp. Since I don’t read or speak Russian, I can’t judge how well these were done yet they don’t read as dry, dusty stories but do retain just a touch of formality mixed with enough freshness to make them feel contemporary.