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Posts tagged ‘Russia’

Pushkin 2: Epic poetry, a love unthinkable, a youth unbearable

 “I am writing now not a novel, but a novel in verse – the devil of a difference. Something like (Byron’s) Don Juan – there’s no point in thinking about publication; I’m writing whatever comes into my head.”

Pushkin writing to a friend, 1823

Eugene Onegin is magnificent. Do not be fooled by Pushkin’s glib suggestion that his poem contains the fleeting fancies of his mind. Written over the course of eight years – started during his exile and finished in the year of his marriage –Eugene Onegin is informally autobiographical, a social commentary and a timeless love story.

Touching briefly on Pushkin Part 1, it is clear that if you read a translated text a good deal of Pushkin’s technical ability and talent as a wordsmith is lost. In particular, feminine rhymes at the end of lines are not easy to replicate without some degree of word replacement. Translating Russian to English requires around one third more words so we also lose some of the acute, direct nature of Pushkin’s text. That is not to say that he is ever verbose or overly wordy, far from it. My copy is the Penguin Classics translation by Stanley Mitchell. Wherever words and phrases are untranslatable, they are often substituted for lines from Pushkin’s contemporaries, idols and influencers; Byron is used often. As a result, the translator appears to have done an excellent job replicating the character and style of the original. One might hope that the author himself might have been proud of the translation. A slight quirk of Eugene Onegin and Pushkin’s work is that French is frequently used for both description and conversation – as was the case amongst the Russian ruling class of the time. This provides an escape route of sorts. On occasion, his characters cannot describe something in Russian or simply prefer to use French. For translation purposes it is beneficial when a romantic language is used in these tricky spots.

Epic poetry is rarely easy to read. This grand literary tradition began as a format for entertaining story telling and an outlet for extraordinary imaginations. It was then somewhat hijacked by the intelligentsia through the middle and industrial ages so as to advance authors’ personal agendas and advertise their intellect alongside the original purposes. A good example of this (very bias, admittedly) theory can be found in Dante’s Inferno in Cantos 4 and 8 where he encounters history’s greatest poets, exposes their limitations through allegory and moves swiftly on. Eugene Onegin is a refreshing diversion from this trend. The tone of the text, narrated by Pushkin himself, is almost chummy. The reader is directly addressed on a frequent basis and the audience’s feelings often anticipated and read out loud. Pushkin demonstrates kinship with his fellow, contemporary poets (some of whom appear as minor characters) and far from exalting his art or his intellect he seems to acknowledge its waning influence:

To Spartan prose the years are turning,
Coquettish rhyme the years are spurning;
And I – I with a sigh confess –
I’m running after her much less.

Pushkin is refreshingly honest and plain in his reflections and descriptions. As a result the reader is favourably disposed to the writer: I have rarely felt more rapport with an author, let alone one nearing their 180th birthday. 


Eugene Onegin is a difficult book to review or summarise without spoiling the plot. The story is not long and moves apace; there are occasions where months pass between stanzas and years pass between chapters. This actually leaves the reader intrigued by what the characters have been doing and how they have been developing rather than encouraging a sense of bewilderment. This pace and the quixotic verse in which it is written yield characters that are more silhouettes than anything else. They flash between scenes giving you glimpses of a dark romance, torment and duty. In many ways, it reads more like a play or indeed an opera.

The two central characters are Eugene and Tatiana. Eugene, a wealthy twenty-something becomes bored with and resentful of Moscow society and moves to his estate in the countryside. Nonetheless he never attempts to rid himself of his dandy habits:

“One can still be a man of action
And mind the beauty of one’s nails”

Unsurprisingly, his fancy ways and disaffected personality do not enamour him to the locals. Still he strikes up a friendship with the youthful, slightly green, poet Lensky who is part of the regional gentry. Through Lensky, Eugene is introduced into local society and, in particular, Lensky’s fiancée Olga and her older sister Tatiana. The elder sibling becomes infatuated with this worldly newcomer and falls into a deep love:

“(Tatiana) Your fate already you’ve relinquished
Into a modish tyrant’s keep (Eugene’s)
Imbibe the magic bane of yearning,
Daydreams will court your every pace,
And you’ll imagine in each place
A tryst to which you’re always turning;
In front of you and everywhere
You’ll see your fateful tempter there.”

Tatiana’s love is rejected. The apathetic Eugene masochistically denies himself pleasure at every turn and refuses to entertain Tatiana’s pleas. His response to her letter of love and devotion is almost as pathetic as it is sad. Through the poem, love letters and responses to them provide the most detailed look into the characters’ personalities. In this neo-classic romance we are forcefully drawn into Eugene’s world of sadness and spurned hope. It is marvellous.

(Spoiler alert!) The damage caused by Onegin’s self-pity continues to the end. He courts jealousy, which ends in him being challenged to a duel by his great friend Lensky whom he shoots dead. Tormented by these events Eugene leaves the countryside and travels. Tatiana is left torturing herself with memories. She frequently visits Eugene’s deserted house to read his books in his study. The hero of the story is truly lethal, physically and emotionally. 

Years later we find that Tatiana has journeyed to Moscow to find a husband; she marries a famed general. She becomes a woman, a paragon of society, embodying truly Russian values and virtues. Gone is much of the simple country girl, replaced by an urbane yet unpretentious princess, the toast of Moscow: “the city’s flower”.

Eugene returns to Moscow following his travels and forces himself to re-enter society circles. He falls in love with Tatiana, his tragic infatuation matching the young girl whom he encountered in the countryside years before. The crushing inevitability of this emotional inversion has the reader squirming with ineffectuality yet slightly rejoicing in Eugene’s plight. It is one of the oldest stories in the book. Eugene writes to his love, he begs her for forgiveness and fulfilment. Tatiana, the once-lovesick youngster, responds and reaches a zenith:

Your heart is honest and I prize it:
And there resides in it true pride
With candid honour, side by side.
I love you, why should I disguise it?,
But I am someone else’s wife,
To him I shall be true for life.”

The ephemeral scenes and the mysterious ‘cut-scenes’ provide a dream-like quality to the book. The occasional meetings that the reader has with the characters provide intrigue and engagement in equal measure through the quality of the writing and the timeless yet tough subject matters. For all Eugene’s self-absorption it is hard to dislike him. Tatiana is loveable and Lensky likeable. The characters showcase parts of Pushkin himself and you will aspects of yourself in all of them. Above all else Eugene Onegin is a letter of love and of guidance to the young:

Blest who in youth was truly youthful,
Blest who matured in proper time,
Who, step by step, remaining truthful,
Could weather, yearly, life’s bleak clime
To curious dreams was not addicted,
Nor by the social mob constricted,
At twenty was a blade or swell
And then at thirty married well;
Ridding himself, on reaching fifty,
Of debts and other bills to foot,
Then calmly gaining rank, repute
And money, too, by being thrifty;
Of whom the world’s opinion ran:
An estimable man.

Eugene Onegin is a gift, a brilliant work, and this verse buried deep inside Chapter VIII seems to have been echoed seventy years later by our very own Rudyard Kipling.

Matt Bradley

Pushkin 1: Lost in translation?

Queen of Spades - Alexander PushkinQueen of Spades – Alexander Pushkin

The idea of something being ‘lost in translation’ is both strong and valid. Social constructs, vocally embodied in our mother tongues, language and vocabulary, provide a base for communication and understanding between people and peoples. The sheer quantity of meaning, nuance, suggestion, hint, tip and allusion that one can pack into a short written phrase – let alone a spoken one – is remarkable. It is also somewhat inaccessible for those without the necessary tools to perceive this bounty of information. To fully detect and understand these signals takes an upbringing, depth of study or talent, ideally all three.

If you can bear it, the first couple of chapters of the Chomsky-Foucault Debate on Human Nature provide a good and relatively deep insight as to the importance of language and delivery in our comprehension of what people are saying and why they are saying it. It is something that might sound intuitive, maybe even obvious, but I would recommend taking a little time to consider it. These, at times subconscious, constructs and the communication (and miscommunication) that they engender are a matter widely studied by International Relations scholars and their importance is ever-increasing along with our evolving and expanding methods of communicating with one another; worldwide.

The ‘translation’ argument is close to its strongest when one considers those authors who are credited with the creation of a language or a domestic literary tradition. English commentaries on Dante’s work frequently mention their inadequacy in interpretation. Those of us in Britain might well think the same if we consider what Shakespeare might be like to read in Italian. These authors’ works have come to embody more than the stories that they tell, they document a context, a history and have bequeathed a style of writing and comprehension that whole nations identify with. This is the case with Alexander Sergeyevitch Pushkin.

Pushkin seems a wonderful character – his life tells a tale that would not be out of place in fiction. He was descended from noble Slavs on one side and Ethiopians on the other. One can imagine that his slightly swarthy looks set him very much apart from his contemporaries in early Nineteenth Century Russia. The effects and affections that a peculiar lineage such as his may have entailed are reflected in his unfinished masterpiece The Moor of Peter the Great.

The Moor of Peter the Great - Alexander PushkinThe young Pushkin had an obvious talent for writing and an open mind he soon found himself falling foul of the Establishment by the age of twenty. He was ‘exiled’ to take governance posts in minor provinces and, luckily for us, devoted a good deal of time to reading and writing. As lives in earlier times often seem to have been lived in fast-forward, Pushkin’s was no exception. By his early thirties he had earned a reprieve to Moscow and married a young socialite called Natalya Goncharova. Only four years later he died, aged thirty-seven in 1837, of wounds suffered in a pistol-duel defending the honour of his bride who had been accused of infidelity.

Pushkin left behind him a legacy. From the age of fifteen he published critically acclaimed poetry, plays and prose. I do not speak Russian, but from what I can read and what people tell me, his writing bound together disparate dialects and literary traditions like no one before him. Furthermore the style and structure of his writing was distinct and immensely influential. His stories are written in direct, pithy tots and tend to centre on a few core personalities. These characters formed the mediums and conduits that would take the reader through lavish environmental detail but also, through their abundant subjectivity, give deep insights into their characters and their perceptions.

In this largesse we are frustrated but satisfied in equal measure. Without a native, or extremely educated, understanding of Russian it is hard (or impossible) to properly understand the effect that Pushkin had on his domestic literary tradition. But – the mist important but – we can bask in the gift of his stories and the stories that his life’s work inspired. When I read him, I cannot help to think that his work paved the way and helped to inspire some of the greatest stories that have ever been told: Raskolnikoff and Sonia toiling to a shared peace in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment through to Woland’s message for The Master in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margerita. On a slightly less romantic note, it seems to me that Pushkin and post-Pushkin Russian writing translates incredibly well into English. The characters often demonstrate an eccentricity – a humanity – with which the readers can identify which shines through even in translation. The short sentences and peculiar detail often make for awkwardly humorous moments that the British, in particular, tend to understand and appreciate.

The Queen of Spades is a superb introduction to Pushkin. It is possibly the most famous piece of his prose work. More a short story than a novella, the succinctness and precision with which this mildly-surrealist story does nothing but add to its brilliance. The story hinges on Hermann, an earnest, frugal, German soldier. “The game fascinates me, but I am not in the position to sacrifice the essentials of life in the hope of acquiring the luxuries,” announces Hermann when questioned about his gambling abstinence.

An octogenarian Countess is Hermann’s foil as the story begins. She was once known as la Vénus Moscovite during her days spent racking up insurmountable debt as a twenty-something woman in Paris sixty years prior. In order to pay her debt, the young Countess turned to a society outcast, Count St-Germain, even rumoured to be the infamous Wandering Jew. From this shadowy character she learned a temporal clairvoyance – the next three cards drawn from a pack given a promise that after the trick is used she would retire from betting. Using this magic (and a little financial leverage) she pays her debtors, leads a life of luxury with one vice fewer and had since only revealed her valuable secret to one seemingly random acquaintance (who does not follow the ‘after sales guidelines’ and dies a pauper). And as for a Daily Telegraph Social Sterotype, Pushkin delivers with aplomb: “she was far from being wicked, but she had the capriciousness of a woman who had been spoiled by the world, and the miserliness and cold hearted egotism of all old people who have done with loving and whose thoughts lie in the past…she dragged herself to balls and sat in the corner like some misshapen but essential ornament of the ballroom.”

Hermann is driven wild with intrigue. This promise of guaranteed profit, the holy grail of reward with no risk, is too great a temptation for his financial reasoning and parsimonious leanings. He begins an aggressive and successful, yet silent, courtship with the Countess’ first-maid so as to get close enough to learn the secret of the cards. All this happens in about the space of one thousand words. The rest of the book is taken up with further gambling competitions, a lethal ultimatum, a happy marriage, a mental asylum, dreams and nightmares. It is beautifully wild and chaotic. In this short space alone I can see the blue print for my favourite stories. Motifs of religion and Para-normality alongside the themes of greed, literary tastes of the Establishment, misappropriation, the dangers of civilised and high-society, ordinary citizens as collateral damage are laid out for all to see here and they coarse through the veins of Russian literature since published. And yet for all the complexity, beautiful reflections of the normal, of human eccentricity are provided in the very same words for our more basic amusement and entertainment; the Countess cries: “PAUL!”Bring along a new novel with you some time, only not one of those modern ones, not the sort in which the hero strangles either of his parents or in which someone is drowned. I have a great horror of drowned people.”

Matt Bradley

Mikhail Bulgakov and The Master and Margarita

I first read The Master and Margarita in 1968, five years before it was published in its native Russia. I was dazzled and bewitched by its brilliance and originality, and I have been a life-long fan of Mikhail Bulgakov ever since.

Mikhail Bulgakov ranks with Sholokhov, Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak as one of the greatest Russian novelists of the twentieth century. The works of all four writers were forged in the heat of the revolution and the cataclysm which followed. Bulgakov’s interpretation of those events is perhaps the most extraordinary, zany and fascinating.

Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) was born into a prosperous middle class family in Kiev. Although he tried to leave the Soviet Union many times, he was doomed to remain there throughout his life, so experiencing in full the turbulent transition from Tsarist Russia through the revolution and the civil war which followed to the communist dictatorship under Stalin.  Bulgakov’s greatest literary works, The White Guard, The Master and Margarita and Black Snow give the reader a remarkable insight into the human tensions created by that terrible period of Russian history.

Although Bulgakov originally trained to be a doctor, poor health, caused by wounds he sustained in the First World War, turned him from medicine to writing. His literary career swung violently from success to frustration largely as a result of censorship under Stalin. But his frustration is the reader’s delight. His caricatures of the bizarre people and situations he encountered are at once tragic and hilarious.

Bulgakov’s first great success came from his novel, The White Guard. This is a partly autobiographical exploration of the middle class Turbin family’s experiences in Kiev during the transition from German occupation to the incursion of the Bolsheviks. The characters are brilliantly drawn, with their strengths and weaknesses ruthlessly exposed by the fearful events they encounter.

Because of its highly political content, the novel was initially suppressed, but Stanislavsky, a Moscow impresario, had seen some of the early chapters and invited Bulgakov to turn the novel into a play. Under the title The Last Days of the Turbins, and after some judicious alterations, the play became a runaway success at the Moscow Art Theatre. Despite the play’s subversive content, Stalin was reported to have seen it fifteen times. Theatre goers were delighted by the play’s reflections of their own experiences during that turbulent period. Adverse comment about Bulgakov by Stalin in 1929 caused the play to be closed down, but astonishingly it was revived in 1932 when Stalin casually enquired why the play wasn’t running any more. It was then performed throughout the rest of the 1930s.

Despite the intermittent success of The White Guard, Bulgakov became increasingly frustrated by the vagaries of the Moscow theatre, censorship, interference by the authorities and the dictatorial behaviour of the impresario Stanislavsky. These frustrations led to the creation of two of Bulgakov’s greatest works, the novels Black Snow and The Master and Margarita. Both were unpublished in Bulgakov’s lifetime. Black Snow is the slighter of the two novels. It gives a highly comic reflection of the irritations and setbacks Bulgakov suffered in the Moscow theatre.

Bulgakov’s great masterpiece is undoubtedly The Master and Margarita. The novel was written over a period of ten years, and was only finished shortly before Bulgakov’s early death in 1940. It tells the story of the devil visiting contemporary Moscow. He is accompanied by two demons together with a naked girl and a huge black cat which talks, walks upright, smokes cigars and shoots a Mauser pistol. The devil causes anarchy as he plays his pranks on the unsuspecting citizenry. During these events only the Master and his mistress Margarita seem to survive undiminished. The Master has written a novel about Jesus and Pontius Pilate, and excerpts of this are interspersed through the Bulgakov novel. Underneath the black comedy and the strangely convincing account of the meeting between Jesus and Pilate there is Bulgakov’s bitter satire of the Moscow literary establishment and his exposure of the difficulties of life under the communist dictatorship.

The subversive elements of Black Snow and The Master and Margarita made them unpublishable in the Soviet Union until the cultural reforms of the 1960s. The manuscripts were carefully guarded by Elena Sergeevna, Bulgakov’s widow, and The Master and Margarita finally appeared in full in the USSR in 1973. It was and continues to be a huge success.

For those who have never read any Bulgakov, I urge you to try him, and what better way to start than with The Master and Margarita? Alternatively see Simon McBurney and the Complicite theatre company’s fascinating multi-media conversion of the book into play at the Barbican. It ran to packed houses in March/April 2012 and it’s being repeated this December.

David Kent-Lemon

David’s first novel Blockade Runner is published by Pen and Sword. You can find a link to it here or ask in your local bookshop about  buying ordering a copy now.

The Prince

Book coverThe Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli, Translated by Peter Constantine

One of my tutees – while I was pushing myself through law school – was a young Russian boy of six called Yasha.  Yasha was fiery and precocious and extraordinarily good at chess and his family named him its King.  One day, I thought, Yasha will be king of more than just a chess board ruling as he did our class room, the household and the playground in which I would beat him at football, being the only thing I could beat him at.

On the chess board he ruled with a ruthlessness I have never since met.  I would think for twenty minutes, he would think for two.  I would take his pawn, he would take my bishop.  I would take his rook, he would take my queen.  And all the time he hummed the Dance of the Knights, chanted “ho ho ho and a bottle of wum”  or giggle as he said, “come on Jamesi, I am going to eat your pieces” as though he was hardly playing at all. His was the most intimidating intelligence I have ever encountered for being both naturally occurring and shaped so sharply like a scythe.

What then of Machiavelli?  In his short and potent treatise on the nature of leadership, the difficulty of decision making, the displeasing underbelly of political success, Machiavelli cuts too closely like a scythe to fit  comfortably in our political discourse:  ‘I judge a prince capable of standing on his own when he has enough men or money to gather an army capable of engaging in battle anyone who comes to attack him; and I judge a prince as needing the assistance of others when he is not strong enough to engage an enemy on the battlefield and is compelled to seek refuge behind his walls, which he then has to defend.”

What Machiavelli represents, aside from a lazy synonym for political chicanery, is the power of thoughtful pragmatism.  We might not like his message (“in short men must be either flattered or eliminated”) but we cannot deny the careful honesty of his ideas which makes them – at least in part – compelling.  It is a deliberately provocative book, it is a polished book, and it is a refreshing book because it runs against the grain of modern utilitarian political discourse, based around the cessation of responsibility by the individual to the state – our constant infantilisation.  It is a book written about 16th Century Italian Princes, yet it reveals to us each how we might choose to live in our own principality and to rule our own affairs (“a wise archer, for instance, will perceive that the distance of the target he intends to hit is too far off, and knowing the extent of his bow”s capacity, will aim quite a bit higher, not so that he will reach that height with his arrow, but so that he will gain his objective by aiming above it”).

It reminds me so vividly of Yasha, not simply because it is intelligent, even if it is cynical, yes, but also because I asked Yasha once why he was so good at chess and he said, “it’s easy James, all you have to do is think.”

The Editors