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“The versifier’s bitterest, most unbearable affliction is his title…” #Pushkin #RobertChandler #ElizabethChandler @borisdralyuk

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A quick look at the Russian section of my bookshelves (which is pretty large…) reveals that I possess a good number of books by, and about, Alexander Pushkin. Known as the father of Russian poetry, and often indeed as the founder of modern Russian Literature, I’ve read a reasonable amount of his works; the poems mostly in anthologies, and also a lovely little collection of short prose works translated as “Belkin’s Stories” by Roger Clarke and published by Alma Classics. It’s interesting that, although Pushkin is most known as a poet, he actually produced many prose works, finished and unfinished. So I was very excited when I heard that NYRB Classics were releasing a new collection entitled “Peter The Great’s African: Experiments in Prose”, edited by Robert Chandler, and translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler and Boris Dralyuk; let’s face it, I was obviously going to want to read it!

The book collects together four pieces: Peter the Great’s African, The History of the Village of Goriukhino, Dubrovsky and The Egyptian Nights. Each of these, which vary in length from short fragment to almost novella, is an unfinished work, but they’re all remarkable pieces in their own right, and the book makes fascinating reading.

In the title story, Pushkin draws on his own heritage, as his maternal great-grandfather, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, was an African who had been kidnapped and enslaved, but ended up as a favourite and godson of Peter the Great. Cleverly, Pushkin uses the backdrop of his kinsman’s story to contrast the lifestyles of Russia, with its boyars and old traditions, and Paris, with its modernity and new ways. As we follow Ibrahim, the protagonist, on his journey through French then Russian society, we can see how Peter’s reforms were making inroads into the traditional lifestyle in his country, and that this was not always welcome. As well as the modernisations, the story also tackles the reactions of the Russians to the African man; despite his virtues, there is an underlying sense that if he had not had the protection of the Tsar, attitudes might well have been different. As the story breaks off, Ibrahim has had his heart broken and is preparing to make a society marriage to cement his status; alas we will never know how Pushkin would have resolved that plot strand.

“The History of the Village…” is a short, punchy and satirical piece. The narrator and author of the history is one Belkin (who also featured in the stories I mentioned above) an impoverished nobleman. Bored while staying in the countryside, he decideds that he has the making of a man of letters and sets out to explore a number of genres. Eventually, after finding all of them unsatisfactory, he settles on writing history, but even this seems problematic. His sources are random and partial; he senses bias everywhere; and he cannot even recognise the requirements of history as opposed to fiction. As well as satirising history and historians, there’s also the sense that Pushkin is parodying himself as Belkin has many traits and life events in common with his creator; altogether, it’s a clever and entertaining piece.

“Dubrovsky” is the longest work in the book, an unfinished novel in which Pushkin explores the situation in Russia and finds it wanting. Two landowners, Troyekurov and Dubrovsky, fall out and the former determines to dispossess the latter. The local legal systems can be easily bought and Troyekurov (a nasty, vicious and obnoxious tyrant if there ever was one) has the money to do so. His actions bring about the demise of Dubrovsky the father; however, his son returns to the village to avenge his father and becomes a notorious outlaw, assisted by a group of loyal serfs who join his gang of brigands. Events come to one dramatic head, although there is much action and drama in the story, and we will never know the end of Dubrovsky’s story; but what we do have is fascinating.

Again, Pushkin is definitely critiquing the system here; the serfs are nothing more than slaves, the law belongs to whoever has most money or sway in a locality, and there is the sense that good has no power against the corrupt systems of Russian law. There is a feeling in the first three stories that the old Russian traditions are so embedded that it will be impossible to drag the country and its population screaming and kicking into any kind of modernity. Certainly, Dubrovsky’s serfs are fiercely loyal to him and want to stay with him; there’s not much of a hint that they can envisage any kind of independence or freedom, and indeed the country is not structured in a way to give them opportunities.

Charsky made every possible effort to escape the insufferable soubriquet. He avoided his fellow men of letters, preferring the company of even the most vacuous members of high society. His conversation was exceedingly banal and never touched on literature. In his dress he always followed the latest fashion with the diffidence and superstition of a young Muscovite visiting Petersburg for the very first time. His study, furnished like a lady’s bedroom, did not in any respect call to mind that of a writer; no books were piled on or under the tables; the sofa was not stained with ink; there was none of the disorder that reveals the presence of the Muse and the absence of dustpan and brush. Charsky despaired if one of his society friends discovered him pen in hand. It is hard to believe that a man endowed with talent and a soul could stoop to such petty dissimulation.

The final piece in the book explores a different aspect to the changes in Russian society. “The Egyptian Nights” tells the story of the poet Charsky, a man with a complicated relationship to his art. The obvious thing, of course, is to see Charsky as a cipher for Pushkin himself, and Robert Chandler, in his excellent afterword, feels that the fictional poet does represent something of the real one. Charsky encounters an improvvisatore who composes and performs his works on the spot, after selling tickets to his recitals and getting the audience to choose his subject. That in itself is a great talent, but Charsky is uncomfortable with the commercial element of the performance. Artists of the period depended on rich patrons and the selling of one’s services, but in the story it is clear that Charsky is finding it hard to separate the demands of patrons and society with the need for purity of his writing. I guess not much has changed over the centuries, as the conflict between the commercial and the artistic still exists today.

A particularly fascinating element of “Egyptian…” is that it features two poetic sequences, and I can’t help wondering how much more of his verse Pushkin would have worked in had he finished it. As with all four pieces in this volume, there’s great joy in reading what the great writer left behind, but a sadness in knowing that he never finished them. He may have considered his prose to be “experiments” but it’s quite clear he had singular talents in all of the various kinds of writing he chose.

As I mentioned earlier, there is an excellent and informative afterword by Robert Chandler, plus useful notes to the texts, and this really is an exemplary collection. Chandler has also produced a brilliant “Short Life” of Pushkin, which I reviewed here and can highly recommend if you want to explore the poet’s life further. “Peter the Great…” is of course wonderfully translated by the reliable team I credited above – they’re all translators I trust – and this volume is a brilliant way to bring Pushkin’s prose to a new and wider audience; I loved it! As you can see from the image above, I really *do* own a lot of Pushkin, and after the joy of reading this one I shall definitely have to read more. I think someone on Twitter might just have mentioned a “Eugene Onegin” readalong later in the year…. ;D

Many thanks to the publisher for kindly providing a review copy; the book is out today!

Recent Reads – Subtly Worded by Teffi

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Sadly, despite the huge piles of books on Mount TBR, the lure of new volumes doesn’t get any less – and this rather lovely book is really something special. I first came across Teffi’s work in “Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida”, a nice Penguin Classic collected by translator Robert Chandler, and which featured two of her stories: “Love” and “A Family Journey”. So when I saw that a selection of her work was coming out from Pushkin Press I was naturally *very* keen to read it!

subtly worded

Teffi’s real name was Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya and she was born around 1872. Labelled a humourist, she had the distinction of being a favourite of both Tsar Alexander II and Lenin – which not many people could claim! She survived war, revolution and civil war, finally escaping to Paris where she spent the rest of her life, until her death in 1952. All through her life she wrote and published, her last stories being written not long before she died. She’s become unjustly neglected over the years but luckily Pushkin have brought this wonderful collection of pieces to us so she can be rediscovered by a whole new generation of English-speaking readers.

“Subtly Worded” contains a variety of pieces ranging from early pre-revolutionary stories through recollections of Rasputin to later stories and finally her last, thought-provoking works. And what wonderful works they are!The early pieces are gems; short, human stories with a sting in the tail and a hidden nugget of truth. “The Lifeless Beast” is a particularly powerful tale, telling the story of a young child whose world falls apart because of marital strife. Her only joy is in her toy ram, the beast of the title, and as her parents’ marriage disintegrates they are menaced by drunken women and rats in the cellar – the latter perhaps a metaphor for the circling evil in the world. It’s a striking and moving story. Even the slighter pieces, like “The Hat” which comments quite tartly on how much a person’s attractiveness is enhanced not by what they wear but on how they feel and project themselves, has a point to make. These are not just flimsy stories – Teffi always has something to say. The title story itself is a clever little masterpiece about the impossibility of communicating with friends and family left behind in Russia without endangering them or talking gibberish.

Some of the pieces are autobiographical and “Rasputin” in particular is intriguing. Teffi recalls her encounters with the mysterious monk who had so much influence on the Russian royal family and in many ways was a cause of their downfall; it’s a vivid, fascinating memoir and the monk comes across as a chilling personality. But the shorter piece, “Petrograd Monologue” gets across in a few pages the hardship and starvation suffered by the Russian people, which in the hands of a lesser writer would have taken more words and to less effect – it’s clever and subtle and very compelling.

The later stories, written when Teffi was an émigré in Paris, have a stronger sense of melancholy. She tells the tales of the ex-pats, struggling to adjust to life away from their homeland, trying to make a living in a strange and hostile city. These are funny and poignant at the same time, and you can tell that Teffi misses her Russia, the Russia of the past, in stories like “Ernest with the Languages” where she conjures up a Russian estate from her youth. There is also a section of magical tales, and some of these are quite chilling. The last few stories, from Teffi’s last years, are particularly moving, the last one in the volume relating her hallucinatory dreams under morphine as her life ebbs away.

“If a person in pain gazes  up at the stars as they ‘speak of eternity’, he’s supposed to sense his own insignificance and thus find relief. That’s the part I really can’s understand at all. Why would someone who’s been wronged by life find comfort in his complete and utter humiliation – in the recognition of his own insignificance? On top of all  your grief, sorrow and despair – here, have the contempt of eternity too: You’re a louse. Take comfort and be glad that you have a place on earth – even if it’s only the place of a louse.

Teffi’s work has been mainly translated here by Anne Marie Jackson, along with Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Clare Kitson, Irina Steinberg and Natalia Wase. Whoever chose the stories has made some wonderful selections, spanning the entire breadth of her works, and Jackson has done a grand job in giving Teffi a distinctive voice in English; in fact, all the translators have, because the tales work together seamlessly and it’s impossible to tell which translator did which story without looking.

Nadezhda_Teffi

There is an art to short story writing, and Teffi possessed it in spadefuls. Comparisons are being made with Chekhov but they’re odious (comparisons, that is). Teffi doesn’t need to be compared with anyone – she’s a great storyteller in her own right. As Jackson points out, Teffi is particularly good at capturing the voice and thoughts of children and really is a master of the short story form, capturing the essence of things in just a few pages.

Pushkin Press are doing such a wonderful job bringing us lost European authors, and they’ve performed a sterling service with this one, as Teffi has been unjustly neglected. She deserves to be known outside of Russia and thankfully we have wonderful translators and publishers who can bring her work to us! Highly recommended! And now I’ve just got to try to find where I’ve hidden my copy of “…from Pushkin to Buida”!

(Review copy kindly provided by Pushkin Press – for which many thanks! And as always with Pushkin, this is a beautifully produced volume, with French flaps, a lovely textured cover and quality paper – well done for producing books that are intrinsically objects of delight!)

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