Queen 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 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.”