Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Sunday, May 2, 2010

"The Queen of Spades" by Alexander Pushkin

"The Queen of Spades" by Alexander Pushkin (1834-6 pages)

Alexander Pushkin (1799 to 1837-Moscow) is a greatly revered Russian writer and was a powerful influence on all  subsequent  Russian literature and opera.   He is not widely read in English as his most famous works are said to be  very difficult to translate poems.    I recall I first heard of Pushkin when I was in my early teens and reading the first edition of Clifton Fadiman's  Life Time Reading Plan.   Fadiman  said in his section on poetry that people he respected said Pushkin was a greater poet than any of the dozen or so canon writers he listed but he could not verify that by reading the translations.  I have always pretty much accepted the famous line of Robert Frost "Poetry is what is lost in translation".   The only translated poetic works I have read in the last twenty years or so (but for brief sections in an article) are Robert Fagles translations of Homer and Virgil.   

I was so happy to find on line a translation of Pushkin's famous short story, "The Queen of Spades".    The story opens in a private  casino. in Paris in the house of wealthy Russian army officer living in Paris.    The central character in the story, Hermann is an officer in the Russian Imperial Army ( for what it may matter politically at the time, he was a German).   He watches his fellow officers gamble on many occasions but never indulges himself.   One night one of his fellow officers tells him about his grandmother.   The grandmother had lost a fortune at cards.   She won it all back with a secret of using three particular cards of the deck to guarantee a win.   She learned the secret from a French count.   Hermann becomes totally obessed with learning this secret.   He finds out the now 87 year old grandmother is living still and begins to send love letters to her female ward to give him an excuse to visit.   He does visit and he threatens the elderly lady with a pistol while demanding to know here secret.   The story is short and can be read in a few minutes so I will not relay more of the plot as the ending is a bit of a twist.

The pleasure in this masterful story for me was in the depth of characterization Pushkin was able to achieve in such a short work and is his creation of a very full enviorment.    Here is a sample of the story to give you a feel for flow of the prose:
At the house of Naroumov, a cavalry officer, the long winter night had been passed in gambling. At five in the morning breakfast was served to the weary players. The winners ate with relish; the losers, on the contrary, pushed back their plates and sat brooding gloomily. Under the influence of the good wine, however, the conversation then became general.
"Well, then, listen to it. To begin with, sixty years ago my grandmother went to Paris, where she was all the fashion. People crowded each other in the streets to get a chance to see the 'Muscovite Venus,' as she was called. All the great ladies played faro, then. On one occasion, while playing with the Duke of Orleans, she lost an enormous sum. She told her husband of the debt, but he refused outright to pay it. Nothing could induce him to change his mind on the subject, and grandmother was at her wits' ends. Finally, she remembered a friend of hers, Count Saint-Germain. You must have heard of him, as many wonderful stories have been told about him. He is said to have discovered the elixir of life, the philosopher's stone, and many other equally marvelous things. He had money at his disposal, and my grandmother knew it. She sent him a note asking him to come to see her. He obeyed her summons and found her in great distress. She painted the cruelty of her husband in the darkest colors, and ended by telling the Count that she depended upon his friendship and generosity.

The Wikipedia  article on Pushkin  relays a life story as interesting as any 19th century novelist could create.   One of his ancestors was a black servant at the court of Peter the Great.   Pushkin at about age 15 begin to gain great recognition for his writings and became a frequent visitor at court.   He died at age 37 in a duel he fought with a man who was thought to be a lover of his wife.   She was at the time of her marriage at 16 to Pushkin considered one of the great beauties of the court.    The Wikipedia article details well his huge influence on Russian literature.     

I read the this story on line at    There is no translator credited. My guess is that the translator was Constant Garnett.  Many will have heard of this work through the production as an Opera by Tchaikovsk.   Russian writers from Gogol to Tolstoy paid homage to him and were heavily influenced  by his work.    On this story, I would just suggest it is an easy way for us to read at least something by a great writer that we will never probably be able to come close to knowing.   Victor Nabokov attempted a translation of Pushkin's most famous work, Eugine Onigen.   Here is what Nabokov (who was given to hyperbole) said of this work (which he has translated into English with an extensive commentary).

 The English form has been instrumental in producing a quantity of admirable short poems but has never achieved anything approaching, either in sheer length or artistic importance, a stanzaic romance comparable to Eugene Onegin.

Edmund Wilson says of Pushkin "No poet surpasses Pushkin—not even Dante—for the speed, point, and neatness of his narrative".      

I think "The Queen of Spades" is very worth the time of anyone who wants to learn something about this hugely influential writer while enjoying a good story at the same time.   The feel of the story is similar to Edgar Alan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death".    I will investigate other ways to read Pushkin soon.   

Dwight of A Common Reader has a very informative post on  Pushkin.  

Mel u


Beverly said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog! Thought I'd follow you - can't wait to stop back!

Dwight said...

Thanks once more for the link! Pushkin definitely is someone to savor, and I hope to take more pleasure of his work soon.

Rebecca Reid said...

Sounds like yet another Russian author I must try!

Whitney said...

This is such a wonderful, informative review on a book I must now read!