Who has never cursed stationmasters? Who has never argued with them?

Tales of Belkin, by Alexander Pushkin

The Tales of Belkin are made from spun sugar. They seem insubstantial, but they’re constructed with great care.

There’s hardly any plot to these tales, and these aren’t the sorts of stories that have cunning or entertaining little twists at their end (there’s a bit of that, but no real surprises). These aren’t perfect miniature portraits of a person or situation either. They’re none of those things.

So what are the Tales of Belkin? Well, let’s step back. What they definitely are is a collection of five short stories, published around 1830 as a single collection and accompanied by a foreword in two parts.

The first part of that foreword is ostensibly written by the editor and explains who Belkin was – a collector and compiler of true tales from his neighbourhood. The second part is a letter from a friend of Belkin’s, published by consent, in which he describes Belkin and the background to his work.

Of course, Belkin never existed. The foreword makes no hint of that though. We’re told that people’s names have been changed to protect those involved, but that place names have not due to Belkin’s “lack of imagination.” The whole thing is a huge joke, because what’s claimed to be essentially an unimaginative act of collation is in fact a delicate work of art.

The five stories cover a range of topics. There are duels, romances, spectral appearances, kidnappings, feuds and rivalries. There are several cases of mistaken identity. None of it is terribly realistic, but when you have lines like this you really don’t need realism:

Maria Gabrielovna had been raised on French novels; it should therefore go without saying that she was in love.

That quote above is typical of the Tales. There’s a wry humour shot through most of the collection that makes it a delight to read.

The first story is the darkest. It’s a tale of obsession, long awaited revenge and that much overindulged Russian pasttime of duelling. Titled The Shot, it’s an example of a classic Russian narrative of this period.

The story opens with a bored group of young officers stationed in an out of the way spot. They pass their time drinking, gambling and killing each other in the occasional duel. When a new arrival offends an older crack shot everyone expects the newcomer to be dead within days. The older man though has other concerns, and what those are is where the real meat of the tale lies. Here’s an excerpt:

He stared down my pistol, taking ripe cherries from his hat and spitting out the pits, which flew at me. His composure sapped my strength. What good was it for me, I thought, to take his life, when even he didn’t value it?

After The Shot, the tales are generally much lighter in tone. In one a young couple plan to elope, but the night they arrange to meet sees a terrible blizzard which throws everything into confusion. In the next an undertaker has a vision of the dead returned to him to complain about their cut-price coffins.

The penultimate story, The Station Master takes a more melancholy turn with a man losing his beautiful young daughter to a kidnapper. From there though it’s back to a comic love story between the children of two rival landowners, with one’s daughter disguising herself as a peasant girl so she can meet the son of the other.

There’s a definite playfulness to Tales. While preparing this writeup I saw somewhere that in part Pushkin was satirising common genres of his day. I can’t speak to that. I don’t know enough about Russian literature of the period to recognise satires on it. All that said, I do find it very credible because Pushkin’s jokes aren’t just about the characters but about the writing itself:

At this point I am going to deviate from the pleasing conventions of current-day novelists by describing neither the Russian caftan worn by Adrian Prohorov, nor the European outfits of Akulina and Darya. I suppose, however, that it is not inappropriate to say that both women wore yellow hats and red shoes, which they did only on special occasions.

Of course despite the disclaimer (and the tale is supposedly written by Belkin who’s not a novelist at all) Pushkin has in fact given a pretty good idea of how these characters are dressed. Is he satirising those other novelists? Satirising the imaginary Belkin and his literary vanities? Both and other targets too?

Throughout this collection Pushkin shows an incredibly light touch. There’s the wit I referred to above, but there’s also at times a surprising of psychological insight. It’s surprising because in humorous stories of this kind it’s unexpected, and it creates a layer of sadness alongside the comedy.

[Maria’s mother] spoke with her husband and a few of the neighbors, all of whom agreed finally and in chorus that this was clearly Maria Gabrielovna’s fate, that no horse could outrun destiny, that one lived with the man and not the money, and so on – words of wisdom being remarkably handy in those moments when we need to justify our actions, but have little reason to do so.

I opened by comparing these stories to spun sugar. They’re slight, frivolous even, but that’s not the whole truth because they play clever games with narrative and style. With the creation of Belkin, Pushkin makes these stories within stories. In The Shot Pushkin is writing as Belkin who heard the tale from a soldier who heard the story that is within the tale from two more men who were each involved with it. There are multiple layers of narration there, but so smoothly done I didn’t even notice it until I stopped to think about it.

The Tales of Belkin then are beautifully constructed exercises in style. They are also funny, sometimes charming and generally rather clever. In fact, it wasn’t until I started writing this I realised how clever and I’ll come back to that in just a moment.

After all the positive comments above, it is worth mentioning one concern I had. Generally I found the translation by Josh Billings fluid and natural. There were moments though that it jarred with me slightly.

I struggled with a description of a character as “having been a real ham at one time”, which “did him no harm in the opinion of Maria Gabrielovna who (like most young women) gladly excused mischief, displays of daring, and enthusiasm.” Ham may be true to the Russian, but it’s only meaning in English I know is a bad actor, which has nothing to do with being mischievous. A reference to Russia as the “fatherland” surprised me too (though is probably accurate to the text) as did a description of a man as a “sickly old geezer” – a term which for me which brought to mind cockneys down the dog and duck rather than the Russian plains.

Those complaints aside, the translation wasn’t stilted and managed to generally avoid sounding archaic or overly modern. In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed the Tales of Belkin and while one or two choices of language might have jarred Josh Billings must be owed some thanks for that.

When I started writing this blog entry I could see no connection between these stories. I was missing the obvious. Belkin is the connection. He’s the only character who appears in each one, with direct asides to the reader and with the structure of the tale being a structure Belkin has chosen. The cleverest thing with the Tales of Belkin is that they are just what they say they are, tales of Belkin, even though he is apparently in none of them.

I’m going to have to reread them. Like spun sugar, there’s more substance there than you’d think at first glance.

Tales of Belkin. I bought Tales of Belkin because of a competition at The Asylum blog in which a copy was among the prizes. I didn’t win but decided to get the book anyway. John asked for a linkback from anyone who ended up reading it, so here it is.

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13 Comments

Filed under 19th Century, Novellas, Pushkin, Alexander, Russian, Short stories

13 responses to “Who has never cursed stationmasters? Who has never argued with them?

  1. leroyhunter

    The Melville House series is not a hard sell for me but I admit I’d overlooked this one, knowing little about Pushkin bar the enthusiasm of a friend who did Russian in college and is still fanatical about him. Sounds great, Max.

    Funny what you say about “geezer” jarring, that connotation (which is perfectly fair) would be a good way down my own personal list of reactions. “Ham” puzzles me as well in the context you quote but “fatherland” seems fair enough.

    I guess I may as well resign myself to ultimately having to get all the novellas Melville offer. There are a number I own already but I can sense the nervous twitch of completism when I try to choose one to get next. I just last week read The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg by Twain, which is kind of like this now I think of it – funny, charming but with more going on then might seem at first.

  2. Not an expert here, but is Pushkin (in the third quote) addressing the tendency of other novelists to create characters through emphasizing dress, so that we know where characters stand philosophically and politically through their attire: the caftan would be a Slavophile while the others, in Western dress obviously are Westernised Russians.

    The use of “pleasing conventions” makes me think he’s addressing something fairly common.

  3. I really like your spun sugar analogy; seemingly insubstantial but in fact finely wrought is just what I thought about this collection when I read it. Not at all what I had expected Pushkin to be like an a very pleasant surprise.

    And for what it’s worth, while “ham” sounds a bit jarring to me I do have another meaning for it in what my linguistics training would call my idiolect. In addition to referring to bad actors, it can be used to describe a person who likes to show off (usually in a silly way), especially for photos/home movies, by cracking jokes but especially through some kind of silly physical comedy. Something I can picture an older relative saying to a fairly young kid acting funny for pictures—”you’re such a ham!”

  4. leroyhunter

    I think Nicole’s spot on – the idea of “hamming it up” also suggests being loud, over-enthusiastic, trying to be funny to attract attention.

  5. I was probably unfair citing Fatherland, it’s almost certainly what it says in the original. My expectation is more likely to be at fault than the translation there.

    Translation’s a tricky business. There’s a balance that needs striking between preserving the feel of the original and yet preserving a freshness too. Too much modern language may be fresh, but may lose the feel of the period the book comes from. Too much period language though is another distortion, after all it was probably contemporary when written.

    In the tv series Deadwood the producers/writers decided to have contemporary swearwords rather than period ones. The swearing makes no historical sense, those terms weren’t used like that back then. Those that were used though now sound silly. Is that an accurate translation because it preserves the emotional impact of the original, or an innacurate one because it changes what was said?

    If a character speaks fashionably in an 1850s novel, should they speak fashionably for the 2010s in a contemporary translation? If so that could read in a very jarring way. Or should they speak in a vastly outdated mode quite at odds with the author’s intent? If so, that could completely occlude how the author meant the character to be viewed.

    I don’t think there are single answers to these questions, and the difficulty is compounded by the fact that not knowing Russian it’s very difficult for me to know whether this is generally a good translation (after all, that I enjoyed it and found it fluid speaks to its quality) or a terrible one but by a translator who’s a good writer in his own right…

  6. Guy, I think you’re correct, thanks.

    Nicole, I love the word idiolect, I came across it years ago but almost never use it because it’s not well known. Of course it makes sense a linguist would use it (I think it was a book about linguistics I saw it in).

    I’d expected it to be much heavier, I have to admit. It was a very pleasant surprise to find it so light and such an easy read (easy read is I believe a blogging cliche, but there you go).

    I do see what you mean now by ham, so thanks for that. I didn’t at the time though so it still jarred in the original context. When I reread this though I suspect that take on it will help (though my knowledge it jarred last time will probably make it jar again anyway, foreknowledge can be difficult that way).

    Leroy, I’ve not gone wrong yet with this series. John Self’s read more of the Melville’s than I have, but I’ve not seen a bad review from him of any of them. Whoever is doing the selecting is doing a nice job of it.

  7. I wish I had a more substantial comment to contribute, but: kudos on making me want to read this book I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. I love how you write.

  8. Thanks Brendan, comments like that are always welcome.

    To be honest, the Melville House edition is a lovely one, but there’s no notes or anything so you if you do decide to check it out you could probably do fine with one of the free translations online. It’s massively out of copyright after all.

  9. It’s been ages since my last Russian book.

    I like the idea of a fake writer gathering the stories: it’s like a set of Russian dolls, a story in the story.

  10. Russian dolls, yes, very nice analogy Bookaround.

  11. LaurencePritchard

    Max,

    I haven’t read these but I’ve read The Queen of Spades.

    Not sure if it’s the same style as these but it was excellent – a deceptively simple style and also a great command of pace.

    Interesting to read the discussion on translations. The Queen of Spades I read was from The Penguin Book of Russian stories.

    They are mostly translated by different people; they tend to drop letters such as the “h” when there’s a regional or non-aristocratic accent, so you get a kind of ‘”I saw ‘im ‘ere last week” kind of style.”

    I don’t remember it being that jarring. I don’t know if you even need this though.

  12. Queen of Spades is supposed to be one of his best works Laurence. I’ve not read it yet.

    Beside the Sea uses a similar approach to denote a regional/working class accent, it works pretty well there.

  13. Pingback: a Muscovite in Harold’s cloak? | Pechorin’s Journal

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