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Posts tagged ‘Short Story’

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

Iceberg theory

Men Without Women – Ernest Hemingway

Much has been said about Hemingway’s minimalist style of writing, and Men Without Women is perhaps his most stripped back work.  The collection of short stories, first published in 1927, is almost like a series of anecdotes, with some of the stories lasting no more than a few pages.  It has to be said that this abruptness can be frustrating for the reader, who must constantly turn back on himself in an attempt to clarify the context and setting of each story.  There is no doubt that reading Hemingway can be hard work, and often it’s not even the sort of hard work that reaps tangible rewards – the effort made to come to terms with each character can at times feel utterly futile.  So what is to be gained from this truncated approach to writing?  I’ve read The Killers at least a couple of times and I’m still not sure I understand why Ole Andreson resigns himself to his fate.

Some critics have coined the term “iceberg theory” in relation to Hemingways’s writing – the idea that more is concealed than revealed in his books.  This is interesting because it assumes that there is something to be revealed in each case.  Sometimes it’s hinted at, as in Hills Like White Elephants, where the elephant in the room is almost certainly an abortion, but even where we are given some clue regarding the underlying plot or a character’s motivation, this almost never gives the full picture.  Herein lies the paradox: as readers, we want to know everything we can about what we read – we want to know the whys, hows, wheres and whens of every story – and yet our thirst for omniscience assumes that everything can be known.  Like deterministic scientists we try to reduce the characters we read about to skeletons of humanity – puppets that are masterfully manoeuvred by an author pulling on the strings of psychological and social theory.  Suffice to say that Hemingway did not buy into this reductionism; his characters are alive in all their unpredictable glory.  As such, we can try to understand each one as best we can, but often they are simply beyond us, which is what makes them so fascinating in the first place.

Oh, and it’s not sexist just because he writes about men.

The Editors

The consolation of Apricot Jam

Book coverApricot Jam and other stories – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

My mother makes a delicious dessert.  It is a warm yorkshire pudding dusted with icing sugar.  At the bottom of the batter (and not visible from the outside) is a large teaspoon of apricot jam.  It is the perfect combination for children in need of inner, outward and upward growth – sugar, fat and apricot jam in a puff of crystal happiness. 

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book of short stories, Apricot Jam, is filled with less uplifting experiences.  Solzhenitsyn has succesfully ranged far from the personal to the general.  Tales – dusted with snow and streaked through with a seam of anger – offer a hearty meal by which to educate the pallate of the mind.  Solzhenitsyn opens the book with a letter to a famous propagandist writer of the soviet regime.  The letter is from a man denounced as a kulak and who has become a wretched forced labourer in a camp, hospitalised with exhaustion, covered in boils and declared by a doctor to be in need of immediate compassion if he is to survive a fortnight.  The letter begs the writer for help but help is not forthcoming.

Instead, Solzhenitsyn delivers an aching lesson on the purpose of writing and reading.  The writer is a figure of the regime, a stooge whom we are not encouraged to like.  He sits, with a young film maker, intending to discuss a screenplay.  The narrator discusses screen writing styles but the conversation of the writer and the film maker barely touches them.  Instead, the writer tells the film maker, and his neighbour, a critic who has also joined them, about the letter received from the kulak.  They share their appreciation of the quaint style in which the letter is written, and they share amongst them two dishes of cherry jam and apricot jam.   

If this story is about Solzhenitsyn’s anger at the inhuman treatment of one by another it is also about the power of self-restraint for in it Solzhenitsyn substitutes his anger for bald statements of fact.  The painful randomness of the experiences of Solzhenitsyn characters is laid bare in sentences like: “the rest of my family went on into the Taiga, where they were left to live as best they could, and I never heard from them again.”

The story takes its structure from the apricot tree from which the narrator’s mother gathered apricots and made jam (“that sweet foam”).  “Before they deported us as kulaks they tried to make us tell them where we had hidden our goods.  Otherwise, they said, we’ll chop down your apricot tree.  And they chopped it down.”  By the end of the story, the apricot jam has crystallised, metaphorically, into a symbol of the world that has been stolen from the family as its members were deported as kulaks.  The jam itself drips from the spoon of the writer and he seems to savour a slow consideration of its colour, missing its wider import entirely – although the tools of interpretation are at his disposal – saying: “this very amber transparency, this surprising colour and light should be present in the literary language as well.”  And as the amber jam crystallises as if into the blood of the kulak families from whom it was taken (and from whom the writer’s ideas of ‘heroism’ are extracted by “driving people like us all night til we drop”), so the writer takes the life of the kulak who is begging his assistance and watches it drip meaninglessly from his spoon.  Will the writer answer the kulak’s message?  “What can I say to him.  The point isn’t in the answer.  The point is in discovering a language.”

If there is a message for us in Solzhenitsyn’s tale (other than gratitude for the freedom to write what we please) it is as bald a statement as this: writing should be about purpose before it is a about style.

The Editors