(Re)-Reading Pushkin

Every now and then, out of sheer boredom and lassitude, I guess, I look at one of those tedious “How Many of These Classics Have You Read?” quizzes you get online. Madame Bovary? Yes, been there, done that. Huckleberry Finn? Yes, that’s a tick too. To Kill a Mockingbird? Eh? Oh, of course, that’s one everyone has heard of because they’ve had to read it at school. And it’s a decent enough book too, so fair enough. The Lord of the Rings? Yes, but only if I’m lying. Atlas Shrugged? Oh, for heavens’ sake! – why am I even doing this? I’m out of here!

It’s a great temptation to tot up numbers. The number of books you have on your shelves, the number of books you’ve bought recently, the number of books you’ve read. I suppose talking about numbers saves us the immense trouble of talking about the books themselves. I used to think all this was a fairly harmless distraction, but I am increasingly unsure of this. Is not this focus on numbers – on the amount we read – distracting us from absorbing more fully what we read? When we have finished a book, shouldn’t we, perhaps, spend some time – a few days, a week perhaps – just thinking about what we’ve just read, contemplating it, letting it sink into our consciousness a bit more deeply, rather than merely ticking it off the list and rushing on to the next one?

If any of these “How Many of These Classics Have You Read” lists were to include, say, Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter (not that they would, of course, since, unlike something like To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s not one of the approved classics that many people will at least have heard of), I would have answered “yes”, and ticked it off, since, as a teenager, I had undoubtedly read it. But, as I reported in my last post on this blog, I had as a teenager missed just about everything that made it so remarkable a work. In short, the fact that I had actually read it didn’t really mean much: I could tick it off the list, sure, and increment my score, but really, I might as well not have read it.

This applies to many other books I have read too, especially in my younger days. Stendhal? Yes, sure, I’ve read Le Rouge et le Noir and La Chartreuse de Parme. But, truth to tell, I don’t remember them very well. I doubt I took in any more of those books at the time than I did of The Captain’s Daughter. The novels of Flaubert I have revisited several times over the years, because they fascinated me (and still do), but the novels of Stendhal I haven’t. That in itself may say something about my own sensibilities, but the fact remains that even if Le Rouge et le Noir or La Chartreuse de Parme pops up in these quizzes, I would not really be justified in ticking either of them, as even the little I took in when I read them hasn’t stayed with me. Can I, in that sense, claim honestly to have read these books at all?

In recent weeks, I have been reading quite a bit of Pushkin. I should say re-reading, but, as with The Captain’s Daughter, I had taken in so little in my first reading (and had retained so little of the little I had taken in), I think it’s best just to stick with “reading” rather than “re-reading”. Take “The Queen of Spades”. I remembered it being a straightforward ghost story: now, it didn’t seem anywhere near so straightforward (indeed, my older self finds myself a bit puzzled by what my younger self had taken in its stride), and even its claim to be a ghost story seems to me to be in some doubt. Near the start of the tale, we are led to believe that the old Countess had had some sort of diabolical visitation, and that the secret knowledge she had gained from it had saved her from financial ruin. But this is, after all, just a story that we hear at second hand. Had the Countess really had dealings with the other world? If so, the other world had not left any otherworldly marks on her. When she appears, we see someone who seems very much this-worldly – a rather petty, mean-spirited, and frankly nasty old woman, almost like one of those grotesque characters that appear in Goya’s Black Paintings – a hideous, vain creature dressing absurdly in fashionable costumes intended for younger women, and tyrannising her young ward Lisa.

Hermann, though, believes the story he hears about her other-worldly past, and ingratiates himself with Lisa to gain access to her. There is a parallel drawn – self-consciously absurd – between Hermann and Napoleon: Hermann even looks a bit like Napoleon, we are told, and he wishes to raise himself with his own will, as Napoleon had done. But the absurdity lies in the fact that whereas Napoleon had done this by commanding armies and winning battles, Hermann’s act of will is no more than threatening an old woman with a gun. There is a clear foreshadowing here of Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment: he too, had compared himself to Napoleon, and had questioned whether Napoleon would have allowed the life of a worthless old woman to stand in his way; but, as with Hermann, Raskolnikov’s comparison is absurd; Napoleon had no more murdered old women with an axe than he had threatened them with a gun, demanding they reveal to him their diabolical secrets.

In Tchaikovsky’s much romanticised opera based on this story, Lisa, on discovering Hermann had merely been using her, commits suicide in despair. And Hermann himself, after being defeated in his attempt to become Napoleon, kills himself, asking for forgiveness in his final bars. But all this heavy-duty Romanticism is very far from Pushkin’s story. There, Hermann ends up in an insane asylum, and Lisa ends up marrying someone else and lives a contented life: would-be Napoleons like Hermann don’t really leave waves behind in Pushkin’s world, or even much of a ripple.

Would this rather un-Romantic world, I wonder, really accommodate dealings with the other world? What of the story about the old Countess really were but a story? In short, is it only at the end of the story that Hermann goes mad? If we pursue this tack of thought, we find that it isn’t a ghost story at all. But then, what is it? How do we characterise it? Suddenly, what had seemed a straight-forward ghost story when I read it in my teenage years seems to become something else, something quite different – though what it is remains, despite its clarity of narrative, deeply enigmatic: I cannot quite put my finger on it. “The Queen of Spades indicates some covert malice”, says the epigraph of the story (in Alan Myers’ translation); this epigraph, Pushkin tells us (not very seriously, I presume) is taken from “the latest fortune-telling manual”. But what malice? Whose malice? The more one looks at this seemingly straightforward tale – this tale that had caused me no problem over forty years ago – the more puzzling it all seems to be.

But sometimes, it’s worth spending one’s time being puzzled. Life is puzzling, and one shouldn’t expect anything that holds up a mirror to life to be any less so. It’s worth spending time contemplating the work, not to solve the puzzle, as such, but rather, getting to know the puzzle a bit better, and understanding that any resolution one might reach is but provisional, and awaiting merely one’s next encounter.

So I’m afraid that at the end of all that, I have no theory to offer on what “The Queen of Spades” is actually about. But that, I tell myself, is all right. Grappling with literature, I tell myself, is not about solving things, any more than it is about totting up scores. And more recently, I read (re-read?) Tom Beck’s translation of Eugene Onegin. But let’s leave that one for a later post.

4 responses to this post.

  1. I do not believe I would have seen too far beneath the surface of “The Queen of Spades” if I had read it as a teenager, and I doubt more time thinking about it would have helped much. The “true” story of how the Countess got that money would have been a ways beyond my imagination.

    It is true, with literature, with the arts, that the only real method is to read and read again. Individual puzzles can be solved, but not the puzzle.

    Reply

  2. I think that that is the brilliance of Pushkin; his work can be read one way when we’re young and another when we’re older. Also I completely agree that it shouldn’t be about how many classics you have read. What’s the point if you don’t absorb and enjoy what you’re reading?

    Reply

  3. Roger Shattuck, in his theses on literature said:

    “Everything has been said. Therefore, it has to be said all over again ,only better.”

    So why not read all over again, only better? I cannot believe the stuff I read as a kid – totally over my head – but something about it appealed to me, even the ones I read to check them off my juvenile list. And now I read them again.

    I still keep a list, but only to remind me of what I have read. Sometimes I look it over and it brings back memories and thoughts. Sometimes the titles draw a total blank. THOSE I won’t read again! 🙂

    My only knowledge of Pushkin is a very old (Russian?) film version of The Queen of Spades. I’m going to check out The Captain’s Daughter, thanks!

    Reply

    • Hello, good to see you again! I do apologise for my late response.

      The film you remember seeing could well have been this 1949 British film starring Anton Walbrook and Edith Evans. It takes a traditional view of the story (ie it presents it as a Gothic ghost story) but it is very well done, and well worth seeking out. (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041776/)

      To be honest, I don’t really see the point of seeking out newer titles all the time (and racing through them) when there’s so much have already read that I know I haven’t adequately taken in. I am nowadays resigned to not having read anything close to the number of books I should probably have read: I just want to spend more time with books dear to me – or with books that I think would be dear to me. But of course, you don’t know till you’ve read them!

      All the best for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

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