Pushkin’s Peter the Great’s African (Book acquired, sometime in the last week of March 2022)

NYRB has a new collection of Alexander Pushkin stories called Peter the Great’s African out later this month. The long short stories are translated by by Robert Chandler (who also provides the afterword), Elizabeth Chandler, and Boris Dralyuk. NYRB’s blurb:

Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s foundational writer, was constantly experimenting with new genres, and this fresh selection ushers readers into his creative laboratory. Politics and history weighed heavily on Pushkin’s imagination, and in “Peter the Great’s African” he depicts the Tsar through the eyes of one of his closest confidantes, Ibrahim, a former slave, modeled on Pushkin’s maternal great-grandfather. At once outsider and insider, Ibrahim offers a sympathetic yet questioning view of Peter’s attempt to integrate his vast, archaic empire into Europe. In the witty “History of the Village of Goriukhino” Pushkin employs parody and self-parody to explore problems of writing history, while “Dubrovsky” is both a gripping adventure story and a vivid picture of provincial Russia in the late eighteenth century, with its class conflicts ready to boil over in violence. “The Egyptian Nights,” an effervescent mixture of prose and poetry, reflects on the nature of artistic inspiration and the problem of the poet’s place in a rapidly changing and ever more commercialized society.

 

“To a Poet” — Alexander Pushkin

poet

“The Shot” — Alexander Pushkin

“The Shot” by Alexander Pushkin

We were stationed in the little town of N—-. The life of an officer in the army is well known. In the morning, drill and the riding-school; dinner with the Colonel or at a Jewish restaurant; in the evening, punch and cards. In N—- there was not one open house, not a single marriageable girl. We used to meet in each other’s rooms, where, except our uniforms, we never saw anything.

One civilian only was admitted into our society. He was about thirty-five years of age, and therefore we looked upon him as an old fellow. His experience gave him great advantage over us, and his habitual taciturnity, stern disposition and caustic tongue produced a deep impression upon our young minds. Some mystery surrounded his existence; he had the appearance of a Russian, although his name was a foreign one. He had formerly served in the Hussars, and with distinction. Nobody knew the cause that had induced him to retire from the service and settle in a wretched little village, where he lived poorly and, at the same time, extravagantly. He always went on foot, and constantly wore a shabby black overcoat, but the officers of our regiment were ever welcome at his table. His dinners, it is true, never consisted of more than two or three dishes, prepared by a retired soldier, but the champagne flowed like water. Nobody knew what his circumstances were, or what his income was, and nobody dared to question him about them. He had a collection of books, consisting chiefly of works on military matters and a few novels. He willingly lent them to us to read, and never asked for them back; on the other hand, he never returned to the owner the books that were lent to him. His principal amusement was shooting with a pistol. The walls of his room were riddled with bullets, and were as full of holes as a honey-comb. A rich collection of pistols was the only luxury in the humble cottage where he lived. The skill which he had acquired with his favourite weapon was simply incredible; and if he had offered to shoot a pear off somebody’s forage-cap, not a man in our regiment would have hesitated to place the object upon his head.

Our conversation often turned upon duels. Silvio — so I will call him — never joined in it. When asked if he had ever fought, he drily replied he had; but he entered into no particulars, and it was evident that such questions were not to his liking. We came to the conclusion that he had upon his conscience the memory of some unhappy victim of his terrible skill. Moreover, it never entered into the head of any of us to suspect him of anything like cowardice. There are persons whose mere look is sufficient to repel such a suspicion. But an unexpected incident occurred which astounded us all.

One day, about ten of our officers dined with Silvio. They drank as usual, that is to say, a great deal. After dinner we asked our host to hold the bank for a game at faro. For a long time he refused, for he hardly ever played, but at last he ordered cards to be brought, placed half a hundred ducats upon the table, and sat down to deal. We took our places round him, and the play began. It was Silvio’s custom to preserve a complete silence when playing. He never disputed, and never entered into explanations. If the punter made a mistake in calculating, he immediately paid him the difference or noted down the surplus. We were acquainted with this habit of his, and we always allowed him to have his own way; but among us on this occasion was an officer who had only recently been transferred to our regiment. During the course of the game, this officer absently scored one point too many. Silvio took the chalk and noted down the correct account according to his usual custom. The officer, thinking that he had made a mistake, began to enter into explanations. Silvio continued dealing in silence. The officer, losing patience, took the brush and rubbed out what he considered was wrong. Silvio took the chalk and corrected the score again. The officer, heated with wine, play, and the laughter of his comrades, considered himself grossly insulted, and in his rage he seized a brass candlestick from the table, and hurled it at Silvio, who barely succeeded in avoiding the missile. We were filled with consternation. Silvio rose, white with rage, and with gleaming eyes, said:

“My dear sir, have the goodness to withdraw, and thank God that this has happened in my house.” Continue reading ““The Shot” — Alexander Pushkin”

“The Queen of Spades” — Alexander Pushkin

“The Queen of Spades” by Alexander Pushkin

I

There was a card party at the rooms of Narumov of the Horse Guards. The long winter night passed away imperceptibly, and it was five o’clock in the morning before the company sat down to supper. Those who had won, ate with a good appetite; the others sat staring absently at their empty plates. When the champagne appeared, however, the conversation became more animated, and all took a part in it.

“And how did you fare, Surin?” asked the host.

“Oh, I lost, as usual. I must confess that I am unlucky: I play mirandole, I always keep cool, I never allow anything to put me out, and yet I always lose!”

“And you did not once allow yourself to be tempted to back the red?…
Your firmness astonishes me.”

“But what do you think of Hermann?” said one of the guests, pointing to a young Engineer: “he has never had a card in his hand in his life, he has never in, his life laid a wager, and yet he sits here till five o’clock in the morning watching our play.”

“Play interests me very much,” said Hermann: “but I am not in the position to sacrifice the necessary in the hope of winning the superfluous.”

“Hermann is a German: he is economical—that is all!” observed Tomsky. “But if there is one person that I cannot understand, it is my grandmother, the Countess Anna Fedotovna.”

“How so?” inquired the guests.

“I cannot understand,” continued Tomsky, “how it is that my grandmother does not punt.”

“What is there remarkable about an old lady of eighty not punting?” said Narumov.

“Then you do not know the reason why?”

“No, really; haven’t the faintest idea.” Continue reading ““The Queen of Spades” — Alexander Pushkin”

Alexander Pushkin’s Death Mask