Superb gathering of writings by the short-lived author Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), best known as a poet—but, argues translator Pevear, also “the true originator of Russian prose.”
Scholars will argue over whether Evgeny Onegin is novel or poem, but this anthology makes a clear distinction between verse and prose, then gathers all of Pushkin’s prose writings, down to a few delicious fragments. One of them, it seems, was enough to inspire Leo Tolstoy to build the novelistic world of Anna Karenina around just a few words; though prolific and seemingly capable of writing masterfully in any genre, Pushkin’s finished prose pieces are frustratingly few. Perhaps the best of them, the novel The Captain’s Daughter, is a study in fine detail: “Pugachev was sitting in an armchair on the porch of the commandant’s house. He was wearing a red Cossack kaftan trimmed with galloons. A tall sable hat with gold tassels was pulled down to his flashing eyes.” Like so much early modern Russian literature, that novel and Pushkin’s other tales sometimes seem exotic, sketches from a long-vanished world in which a tutor amuses himself by seducing “a fat and pockmarked wench and the one-eyed milkmaid Akulka” and a young woman, awakening, “beckoned to the maid and sent her for the dwarf.” Still, all the universal emotions and realities are in play, from jealousy to greed and overweening ambition, and Pevear and his longtime partner Volokhonsky render Pushkin’s words in an easy, conversational tone that is very far from the fustiness of the Constance Garnett renderings of old. The completed pieces are masterful, but the fragments are tantalizing; one wonders what Pushkin would have done had he lived to complete the piece that begins, “My fate is decided. I am getting married….”
A long overdue collection that speaks truly and well to Pushkin’s brilliance as a prose stylist as well as observer of the world.