Monday, February 8, 2010

Washington Irving in Pushkin's prose.. by

Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin.

When the snow is heaped up high all around your doorway – when the stars twinkle devilishly in the frigid air – when your friends are far away, and the peacefulness of a winter’s evening is all your own – what better pleasure is there than to lay back in an old recliner, face your feet to the fire, and beguile an hour or two with Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin? Amongst all the authors none offers such innocent delight, and takes from us so little. He does not tax our wits, and borrows upon our credulity only to charm us; he does not even so much as rob us of our time, for all five of Belkin’s tales plus the charming preface are contained in less than one hundred pages. This alone can we charge Pushkin with, that in writing so little he put many years between those evenings when we can read him as if for the first time.

The Tales of Belkin are remarkable for what they lack. There is no question of originality. Depth they have none. To call the characters stock would be injustice to Roman Comedy: young men are all dashing, and young women are all damsels, and old men are either bears or housecats, and old women – well there are no women (as opposed to girls) at all. Only one of the stories has the kind of catch ending which we associate with the short story as a form. “Serious scholars” of Russian Literature plead innocence of these works – “they are important only as historical documents” – for here we see letters in their ancestral role, as “epoch-making,” as “revolutionary,” as a well-told tale around a campfire.

In all this it is easy to see the close similarity of Pushkin’s prose to Washington Irving’s. Both stand near the fountainheads of their national literature. Both wrote in a time and a place where to be “a writer” meant precisely nothing; and pleasure and beauty were the grounds for their work. The resemblance is more than fortuitous: my edition notes that Pushkin had a copy of Irving’s Alhambra in his library, and doubtless he had the far more famous Sketch Book too. Ivan Petrovich Belkin shows every sign of being modeled on Diedrich Knickerbocker, and “The Postmaster” could be inserted almost without being noticed into the Sketch Book, it is so similar to essays like “The Wife,” “Rural Funerals,” and “The Pride of the Village.”

Both Pushkin and Irving share the same beautiful, pentelic prose – warm and cool at the same time, the utmost achievement of classical style – and the same affection for sentimentality, expressed wrily or generously by turns. The sentiments expressed are utterly primal but for the same reason they are almost impervious to time – and their motivations are, in the foreground, love, and in the background, death. Pushkin’s is a particularly booky book, and he loves to poke fun at romantic convention while following it nonetheless – you will find women swooning, letters left in hollow oak trees, aristocratic ladies dressing as peasants, dashing young men in uniform, and duels – but the fun books have at each other’s (and in this case, at its own) expense is one of the warm trifling pleasures of life. And Pushkin’s humor is so well-distilled it appears more as a worldview than a series of jokes. Look at his description of provincial ladies, where the irony and earnestness are so mixed they cannot ever be separated again:

Those of my readers who have never lived in the country, cannot imagine how charming these provincial young ladies are! Brought up in the pure air, under the shadow of their own apple trees, they derive their knowledge of the world and of life from books. Solitude, freedom, and reading develop very early within them sentiments and passions unknown to our town-bred beauties. For the young ladies of the country the sound of harness-bells is an event; a journey to the nearest town marks an epoch in their lives, and the visit of a guest leaves behind a long, and sometimes an everlasting memory. Of course everybody is at liberty to laugh at some of their peculiarities, but the jokes of a superficial observer cannot nullify their essential merits, the chief of which is that quality of character, that individualite, without which, in Jean Paul’s opinion, there can be no human greatness. In the capitals, women receive perhaps a better education, but intercourse with the world soon smooths down their character and makes their souls as uniform as their head-dresses. (from “Mistress into Maid”, 533)

While we have little evidence that a Classical education produces much in the way of literature today, Pushkin is another fine example of a literary talent well-disciplined by immersion in the Classics, both Greco-Roman and Hebrew. Amongst his poems we find “Arion,” “On the translation of the Iliad,” “A Nereid,” an imitation of “The Rape of Lucrece,” and invocations of Christian imagery and the Hebrew prophets which lend his verse astounding force. In his schoolboy days he wrote Anacreontic odes. And he is said to have admired Biblical prose, which left a mark on the simplicity and directness of his stories.

But like Irving, he is one of those writers who more than anything become our friends; whom we admire for their warmth and humanity even more than their art. This is one of the reasons why reading them feels so healthy: here art and beauty acknowledge their master Life, and do not rebel from her or attempt to dictate where they are bound to observe. Pushkin has always been the most beloved of the Russian authors rather than the greatest, and who is to say he did not choose the better part?


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