The Complete Prose Tales of Alexander Sergeyevitch Pushkin
Baron Delvig’s “Northern Flowers”
Pushkin: Death of a Poet
English readers are no doubt tired of hearing that unless they learn Russian they must take Pushkin’s greatness on faith. Unfortunately, whatever one may say or not say, this is the truth. Pushkin is still untranslatable, and will remain so unless another Pasternak arises who will do for him in English what Pasternak was able to do for Shakespeare in Russian. But his prose is more accessible to translation than his poetry, and it has been Englished quite satisfactorily several times. The latest version by Gillon Aitken is also adequate but not superior, it seems to me, to other good ones, not better certainly than T. Keane’s, which was first published in 1915 and then revised by Avrahm Yarmolinsky for his anthology of Pushkin in the Modern Library.
Pushkin’s stories are delightful, but they are more than this. Some of the greatest Russian fiction took rise in them: the germ of Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches is in “Dubrovsky,” that of Crime and Punishment in “The Queen of Spades,” of War and Peace in “The Captain’s Daughter.” Of course, although such derivations are historically interesting, they are not necessarily convincing aesthetically: a gifted borrower may be better than his source. But Pushkin’s followers are not better than Pushkin. Nevertheless, despite its unquestionable influence, his prose has not always been considered equal to his verse. And recognition of its excellence was rather late in coming. When the prose tales were first published in the 1830s, critics thought them superficial, a kind of prose equivalent of vers de société, entertaining, elegantly worded anecdotes, with neither philosophic, nor psychological, nor historic depth. It was some years before they were seen for what they indubitably are, little masterpieces, almost as great as the poems. Almost, because they are not quite so perfect stylistically, not quite so effortless. In reading them, as D. S. Mirsky has said, “one is always conscious of ‘the resistance of the material,”’ because “the higher level is never reached (as it always is in Pushkin’s verse) where all awareness of effort and resistance disappears and perfection seems to be the result of a natural, unpremeditated growth.” The reason for this is that Pushkin was an even greater innovator in prose than in verse, that he was writing prose in an age of poetry, consciously molding to his artistic purposes a language that was in a formative stage and still a bone of contention between traditionalists and modernists. It had been but recently purified of heavy Slavisms, but its chief reformer, Karamzin, whom Pushkin and the modernists followed, had used it rhetorically and sentimentally. His History of the Russian State was full of loftily grand effects, his celebrated novelette, Poor Liza, was sweetly mournful.
Pushkin set out to change all this and wrote prose fiction that was neither grandiloquent nor sentimental nor didactic. And if all of it came toward the end of his life, this was probably not, as is sometimes supposed, that …