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Notes on Pushkin

I

In 1821, when Pushkin was twenty-two, he wrote a long poem called Gavriiliada, which was circulated widely in manuscript but, on account of its impiety and indecency, never published during Pushkin’s lifetime. It made trouble for him in 1828, when Pushkin was already in bad odor with the authorities. The servants of a Captain Mitkov complained that their immoral master had been reading them a blasphemous poem. The captain was arrested, and Pushkin was made to appear before the military governor general of Petersburg. He denied having written the poem, but this disavowal was not accepted, and he might well have been sent to Siberia if he had not addressed a letter to the Tsar in which he is thought to have confessed and expressed the deepest contrition. The Gavriiliada appeared in print only in 1861, when the poet Ogarev had it published in London. Today it is included in all the Soviet editions of Pushkin; yet it still has so black a reputation among members of the old regime that I have found that a highly intelligent and otherwise well-read Russian friend has never been able to bring herself to face it.

The Gavriiliada was obviously prompted by the literature of the French eighteenth century, of the mockery of the Bible by Voltaire and his follower Evariste Parny. It is directly indebted, in its comic treatment of the legend of the Immaculate Conception, to Les Galanteries de la Bible and La Guerre des Dieux of the latter; and in Parny’s version of the Garden of Eden, in which Satan in the guise of a serpent is made to play a liberating role, to his Paradis Perdu.

I have just reread the Gavriiliada and I found that it did not have the charm for me that it did when I first read it. But if one comes to it after Parny, graceful and well-turned though this is, but thin and dry in the eighteenth-century fashion, one is struck by Pushkin’s faculty for making anything he touched humanly sympathetic. His Mary is successively ravished by Satan, who has transformed himself from a snake to a handsome young man; by the Archangel Gabriel, who has been sent by the Lord to prepare the way for His holiday from the routine hymns and prayers in His praise, but takes advantage of the opportunity to make love to the irresistible Mary; and finally by the Lord Himself in the form of a quivering billing dove.

All these characters are brought to life much more vividly than Parny has been able to do. The first of the seductions leads Pushkin to remember wistfully his first arousing the desires of a well-brought-up young girl; and the struggle between Satan and Gabriel is described in terms of his schoolboy wrestling with comrades. The serpent’s account of the raptures of love to which he introduces Adam and Eve seems to me more attractive than those of either Milton or Parny:

И не страшась обжественного гнева,
Вся в пламени, власы раскинув, Ева
Едва, едва устами шевеля
Лобзанием Адаму отвечала.

is an already masterly example of Pushkin’s famous skill at alliteration, and the “Едва, едва” that follows “EBa” is an example of Pushkin’s power, later brought to such perfection, of making the language itself represent the thing described—in this case, Eve’s mouth with lips open from being kissed. This is echoed, as it were, when Eve succumbs to Satan:

Она молчнт: но вдруг не стало мочн,
К лукавому склонив свою главу,
Едва дыша, закрыла томны очн,
Вскричала: ах!.. и пала траву…

But in general the vocabulary is a little repetitious in comparison with Pushkin’s more mature and tightly economic style.

II

The Gypsies,” of 1824, is a striking example of Pushkin’s characteristic style. It concentrates in twenty pages a drama that seems to cover enough ground to have required many more. But I mention it because it seems to me to have been, even by Russians, rather imperfectly understood. Aleko, the central character, has fled cities and civilization in order to live with the gypsies, where he is able to enjoy a new freedom. A gypsy girl named Zemfira has found him in a waste place and brought him home to her father. Aleko loves her and lives with her; he stays with the gypsies two years. But she arouses his apprehension when he hears her singing a gypsy song in which a young woman defies her old husband and announces that she is now in love with a young man who is bold and hot-blooded. It presently becomes plain that Zemfira herself has taken a lover. Aleko wakes up one night and finds she is not by his side. He goes after her and stabs both the lover and her. The father rebukes him and orders him to leave. The gypsies live in lawless freedom; they will not tolerate murderers. Aleko is not fit for their wild life. He wants freedom only for himself. The gypsies depart like a flock of cranes and leave Aleko alone like a wounded crane on the steppe.

But in summarizing this story, I have omitted one very important circumstance that I find is often overlooked. When Zemfira brings Aleko back with her, she explains, at the very beginning, that he is being pursued by the law—“Ero преследует закон.” A later conversation with the old man, when Aleko is worried about losing Zemfira, makes it plain that the gypsies are pacific whereas Aleko is revengeful and violent. The old man long ago lost the woman he loved when he let her go off with a man who belonged to a different band; but Aleko protests that he would never stand for this: “I am not like that. No, I should never without fighting renounce my rights!” He would hound his enemy to his death and laugh fiercely when he had been destroyed. It is thus intimated, it seems to me, that Aleko was fleeing from the law on account of having committed a crime of violence and that he will inevitably commit another. The way that this is indicated, by a series of touches and never too explicitly, is entirely typical of Pushkin. The old man has already told Aleko the story of an outsider who had come among them but could never be at peace because he believed that God was punishing him for a crime. The incomparable Epilogue clinches this:

Но счастья нет и между вами,
Природы бедные сыны!
И под издранными шатрами
Живут мучительные сны,
И ваши сени кочевые
В пустынях не спались от бед,
И всюду страсти роковые,
И от судеб зашиты нет.

[But even among you there is no happiness, poor children of nature! And under the tattered tents there still dwell tormenting dreams, and your wandering shelters in the wilderness provide no sanctuary from sorrows, but everywhere are predestined passions, and from the fates there is no escape.]

The last two lines show Pushkin at his most trenchant; in translation they can hardly seem anything but flat. But the snap of судеб and нет which follows the description of the gypsies roving peacefully away in the wilderness, chops off grimly the drama of Aleko. I have inadequately tried to render it in matching escape with fates.

III

In 1922, the poet Vladislav Khokasevich published a little volume called Articles on Russian Poetry in one of which, “Pushkin’s Petersburg Tales,” he discussed a curious production which seems of such interest and importance that one wonders at never having found it mentioned by anyone else. In a Russian paper called The Day, there was reprinted in December, 1912, by the Pushkin scholar P.E. Shchegolev, and again in the January, 1913, number of a magazine called Northern Notes, a story which had first appeared in 1829 in a miscellany, an almanac called Northern Flowers. This was “The Lonely Little House on Vasilevsky [Island],” “Уединенныӥ Домик на Васильевском” signed Tito Kosmokratov.

One evening in 1829, at the Karamzins’, Pushkin had told a story which, according to the account of Pushkin’s friend, Baron A.A. Delvig, considerably affected the ladies and made such an impression on a young writer named V.P. Titov, who was there, that he was unable to sleep that night and later wrote the story down from memory. He showed his version to Pushkin, who amiably made some corrections in it and gave him permission to publish it. Now, this strange story is quite plainly the original nightmare fantasy from which, as Khodasevich says, were to grow the three stories later written and published by Pushkin as “The Bronze Horseman,” “The Little House in Kolomna,” and “The Queen of Spades.” These, it seems, have been known as the “Petersburg Tales,” though there is no direct connection between them, and in “The Queen of Spades” the city “as such does not play any role.” And yet a connection, although invisible, was felt to exist between them, “as astronomers are able to guess at the existence of a star which their optical instruments cannot yet reach.” That invisible connection was the story written down by Titov and neglected for many years in the files of the 1829 miscellany in which it had been published.

This story is about a young man named Pavel. He is in the habit of going to see a distant relative, a widow who lives in a little house in the suburb of St. Petersburg called the Vasilevsky Island. The widow has a daughter named Vera, to whom Pavel is “not indifferent.” But he makes friends with a rather mysterious youth called Varfolomey, who never goes to church and who gets money from some unknown source. He exercises “over the weak young man an irresistible power” and persuades him to take him to see Vera and her mother. Varfolomey has designs on Vera, but her instinct is not to like him, she prefers Pavel.

Varfolomey convinces Pavel that he ought to go into society and takes him to the house of a countess of his acquaintance, a beauty, to which her friends come in the evenings to gamble. These friends wear high wigs and baggy Turkish trousers and never take off their gloves. It is evident—though not to Pavel—that they are devils concealing their horns, hoofs, and claws. In their company, Pavel forgets about Vera; but Varfolomey has been working on her and Pavel finds that she now treats him with coldness. He demands an explanation of Varfolomey, and the latter declares that Vera has fallen in love with him. Pavel makes a lunge at Varfolomey but is knocked down by a violent though painless blow. When he comes to, Varfolomey has disappeared, and Pavel hears ringing in his ears his last words, “Be quiet, young man: you’re not dealing with a brother.” (“Потише, молодоӥ человек, ты не с своим братом связался.”) Going home, he finds a letter from the countess, giving him a rendezvous on the back stairs of her house for the following night.

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