Posts Tagged ‘Pushkin’

(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.

“The Captain’s Daughter” by Alexander Pushkin

*** SPOILER WARNING: Inevitably the following will let slip a few details of the plot ***

It is generally thought that all one needs to do to get to grips with serious literature is to pick up seriously literary works and start reading. This is undoubtedly true up to a point: one must start somewhere, after all, and how does one start other than just picking up books and start reading them? But experience does make a difference: once one has read a bit, one does learn to read works with a mind more receptive to certain things. For instance, when I first read Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter, aged about sixteen or seventeen, and determined in my enthusiasm to gobble up everything I could find by nineteenth century Russian authors, I really didn’t make much of it. It seemed to me a rather drearily conventional story. Young man joins army, gets posted in the outposts, falls in love with his commanding officer’s daughter, and rescues her from danger once rebellion erupts and her parents are killed. Big deal, I thought. Where was Tolstoy’s epic sweep, Dostoyevsky’s anguished questionings, and all the rest of it? I put it aside respectfully: it was by the revered Pushkin, after all, and, no doubt, his greatness lay in poems which, as a non-Russian speaker, I didn’t have much access to back then. It is only now, over forty years later, that I have returned to The Captain’s Daughter, and … well, as I say, experience counts. It is still a story about young soldier in the outposts rescuing his beloved during a rebellion, but, I now find, seeing it as no more than that misses just about everything that is important.

We non-Russian-speaking enthusiasts of Russian literature do, I think, get a bit tired of being told that though we may rave about Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, it is Pushkin who is regarded as the supreme writer of the Russian literary tradition. We get a bit tired of this for a number of reasons. Firstly, what we read of Pushkin in English does not seem as thrilling or as exciting as the works of the Big Two. And secondly, we are, I think, implicitly enjoined to do something that most of us are too lazy to do – that is,  to learn Russian well enough to read their literature. And thirdly, Pushkin seems in many ways the very antithesis of all that we have come to see as typically Russian: he does not have the grotesque sense of humour of Gogol or of Dostoyevsky; he does not probe into the dark recesses of the mind as Dostoyevsky does, and explore the “big themes” of God and spirituality and the universe and all the rest of it;  he does not present us with the epic canvases of Tolstoy, seemingly peopled with the whole of humanity. In contrast to all this, there is a lightness about Pushkin’s works: his writing is clear, elegant, precise, even perhaps delicate, unencumbered with musings about the human soul; and his works are generally short. The Captain’s Daughter is more a novella than a novel, after all, taking up just a bit over a hundred pages. Great he no doubt is – we non-Russian speakers can hardly dispute the point with scholars who know the language – but it does seem a shame to hand the crown to someone who goes against all the preconceptions we have (and love) about what Russianness literature ought, at least, to be.

Certainly, The Captain’s Daughter begins fairly conventionally – the hero’s childhood on his parents’ country estate; his education (or, rather, lack of it) at the hands first of faithful family retainers, and later, of a drunken French tutor; his entry into the army and his posting in Southern Russia; his youthful extravagance and lack of judgement; and so on. And then, of course, he falls in love with the daughter of the commanding officer, the Captain’s Daughter of the title. The prose, in the translation I read (by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler), is exquisite (there is a fascinating essay towards the end of the volume in which the translators discuss the nature of Pushkin’s finely wrought prose, and the approach they had taken to find an equivalent in English); and the story moves along at a fine pace. But in terms of content, there is little to indicate anything much more than I had gleaned from my earlier reading all those years ago. But then, Pugachev’s rebellion breaks out. This was an actual historic event, which took place in the early 1770s, during the reign of Tsarina Catherine the Great: Pushkin had a particular interest in this rebellion, had done much first hand research on the topic, and had even written a history of it. In this novel, the rebellion erupts with shocking force. There is a particularly horrifying scene where a captured enemy combatant is brought in to be interrogated. Pushkin’s description of his appearance is, as ever, precise, and is unforgettable:

The Bashkir, his feet hobbled by a block of wood, stepped over the threshold with difficulty. Removing his tall hat, he stood in the doorway. I looked at him and shuddered. Never shall I forget the man. He must have been over seventy. He had no nose and no ears. His head was shaven and he had no beard, only a few grey hairs sprouting from his chin. He was short, thin and bent, but fire still gleamed in his narrow eyes.

The Captain has been presented as a mild and gentle man, kind to his subordinates and loving to his family, but duty is duty, and when the prisoner refuses to talk, he orders him to be whipped. And it is at this moment that the prisoner opens his mouth, and reveals that it was not just his ears and nose that had been cut off after the previous rebellion. It is a shocking moment

The fort is helpless against the attackers, and soon, Pugachev and his men are in charge. The Captain is hanged. His beloved wife, stripped naked, is also hanged. The daughter only escapes because she had been hidden by faithful servants. And our hero, Grinyov, survives because Pugachev, unexpectedly, spares him. We soon find out that Pugachev has recognised our hero. Earlier in the novel, when Grinyov and his faithful family retainer Savelich were making their way to their posting, they had become lost in a terrifying blizzard, and had only found refuge because a peasant had guided them to an inn; and Grinyov, in his youthful extravagance (and much to the disapproval of Savelich), had rewarded this peasant with his own hareskin coat. And this act of generosity Pugachev had not forgotten.

Not that Pugachev is by any means noble by nature: he is cruel and savage, as any warlord is. But the picture Pushkin presents of him, is just a few economical strokes of the brush, is exquisite. Pugachev, despite being a peasant, claims to be the rightful Tsar: he claims to be Peter III, husband of the Tsarina Catherine, whom Catherine had deposed (he was murdered soon after his deposition by Catherine’s men). He knows, of course, that his claim to be Tsar Peter isn’t true, but in the areas under his control, denying it is treason, and a hangable offence. He tells Grinyov a fable at one point of a raven and an eagle: the raven lives much longer than the eagle, but the eagle, after trying to live like a raven, decides that he prefers a shorter life living off live flesh than a longer life feeding off carrion. In brief, Pugachev probably knows that he will eventually be defeated; but rather that than live his entire life a peasant.

To Grinyov, Pugachev is what is known in the trade as a deus ex machina – a man who sets things right because he has the power to do so. But what is interesting here is not that he does this, but, rather, why he does this. To Grinyov he is effectively a second father, first sparing his life, then letting him return to his own side, and, later, when Grinyov returns to rescue his beloved, the captain’s daughter, setting her free himself, and uniting her with him. And he does this not because he is by nature kind and compassionate (we have seen for ourselves the atrocities he has committed), but because he has genuinely developed an affection for this young couple, and also, we suspect, because he is flattered by the image of himself as a kind and compassionate man – a father, as a Tsar should be, to his childlike subjects. And of course, we know all along that the captain’s daughter, Maria Ivanovna, is an orphan only because Pugachev himself had killed her parents.

The story could have ended with the eventual suppression of the rebellion, but Pushkin has an extra turn of the screw up his sleeve for the final chapter. This extra turn I had completely misread in my earlier reading: I had thought that the final chapter was only there to present the Tsarina Catherine in a good light. I couldn’t have been further from the truth. Grinyov, after a miscarriage of justice, is deemed to have been a collaborator with Pugachev, and is exiled; and now, it is the turn of the captain’s daughter, now his wife, to become the saviour. And she does not save him directly, any more than Grinyov had saved her directly: she appeals to the Tsarina Catherine, and it she who saves Grinyov by graciously overturning the sentence. Another deus ex machina. But we may look a bit more deeply into this. If Pugachev’s earlier role as the deus ex machina was morally ambiguous, should we take this one at face value? Although Pushkin doesn’t mention it in his narrative, Catherine had become Tsarina only after deposing her husband, who was later murdered, possibly on Catherine’s own instructions. Is her claim to the throne, to power, any more secure than Pugachev’s? Pugachev, of course, was cruel and brutal, but was the side he was fighting against any less so? We remember, after all, the old man who had had his ears, nose and tongue ripped off. And if Pugachev had been flattered by the image of himself as a gracious father to his subjects, could something similar not be, at least in part, Catherine’s motivation also? The parallels between Pugachev and Catherine seemed to me so obvious on this reading that I am astonished this novel had got past the censors. But maybe I am looking for things that aren’t really there, and maybe Pushkin’s ending is, as I had thought all those years ago, merely decorative, intended to highlight the graciousness and mercy of a great Empress, and nothing more. Maybe.  

This is an adventure story where there really is no adventure; while the hero Grinyov is certainly brave, he doesn’t have to do anything, as such, to rescue his damsel in distress: Pugachev does all that for him. And the resolution in the final chapter also comes about not because the hero or heroine had to do much, but because the Empress sorts everything out for the better. As an adventure story, it is, in truth, pretty lame. But with experience, one learns to look a bit further, and what one then sees is a work of art of considerable moral and psychological complexity, but executed with an ease – or, at least, an apparent ease – that belies its depths.

“The Stone Guest” by Alexander Pushkin

[All excerpts below taken from the translation by Nancy K. Anderson, published by Yale University Press, 2000.]

Pushkin seemed to have had Mozart on his mind around 1830, when he wrote those four miniature plays, usually known in English as the “Little Tragedies”. In one of these plays, Mozart and Salieri – a dramatic treatment of the myth that Salieri had poisoned Mozart, and written long before Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus –  Mozart himself is one of the protagonists. Another deals with a myth that, by then, was very much associated with Mozart – the myth of Don Juan. But, as with everyone else who had tackled this myth (including its originator, Tirso de Molina), Pushkin had his own individual view of the myth. And, partly because the form of Pushkin’s work – a miniature play in which, given its brevity, much is necessarily left unsaid – it is Pushkin’s view that I find the most enigmatic and elusive of those I have so far encountered.

Tirso de Molina had not made too much of the master-servant relationship. Molière, and, following him, Mozart and da Ponte, had, bringing this relationship to the front of the stage. Pushkin also brings the master and the servant (the servant here called Leporello, as in Mozart’s opera) to the forefront: the drama begins with the two of them entering Madrid, even though Don Juan has previously been banished from the city. The conversation between the two is partly expository – telling us what we need to know for the drama to make sense; but it is not entirely expository. Just minutes into the play, for instance, we get this:

DON JUAN (pensively): …    Poor Inez!
She’s gone now! How I loved her!

LEPORELLO: Inez! The black-eyed one … Now I remember,
For three months you were paying court
To her; it was all the devil could do to help.

DON JUAN: July it was … at night. I found strange pleasure
In gazing at her sorrowful eyes
And death-pale lips. It’s strange,
You apparently didn’t think she was
A beauty. And in fact, there wasn’t
Much beautiful about her. Her eyes,
Just her eyes. And her glance … I’ve never seen
Another glance like that. And her voice
Was quiet, feeble – like a sick woman’s –
Her husband was a worthless wretch, and stern –
I found that out too late – Poor Inez!…

With all its various ellipses and aposiopeses, the effect of this passage is sketchy – an adumbration rather than a depiction. Inez was no beauty in any conventional sense, and her “sorrowful eyes and death-pale lips”, and her voice that was “quiet, feeble”, suggest something sickly, other-worldly, and haunted by death. She is not, in short, the type of woman we would expect Don Juan to be attracted to; and, indeed, Don Juan himself is not sure why he had been attracted to her. In Mozart’s opera, Don Juan (or Don Giovanni) would seduce (or rape, if needs be) all kinds of women, simply to add them to his list, but what we see here is something new, something very alien to the incarnations of Don Juan as imagined by either de Molina, or by Molière, or by Mozart: we see here a Don Juan capable of genuine tenderness and affection. True, the other Don Juans could express tenderness and affection for the woman they are wooing at the time, but never for a past conquest; and it is left to us to determine how sincere their protestations of tenderness and affections are, and, indeed, whether such feelings can be said to exist at all when they are, at best, merely transient. But Pushkin leaves us in no doubt: this Don Juan is indeed capable of feeling these emotions, even for a woman who is now, presumably, dead.

And neither was Don Juan attracted to Inez because of her beauty. Leporello did not think her beautiful, and Don Juan agrees. Whatever attracted him, it was not her physical charms. And what he chooses to remember about her are those death-haunted qualities – her “sorrowful eyes and death-pale lips”. All of this suggests a rich inner world that previous Don Juans did not have. But then, almost immediately, Pushkin pulls us up short: the last two lines of the passage quoted suggest – only suggest, as nothing is spelt out – that Inez was murdered by her husband for her affair with Don Juan. If this was indeed the case, Don Juan had played a significant part in her tragedy, and, especially given how he still feels about her, he should feel guilt, and remorse. And yet, he doesn’t. Immediately after this rather affecting minor key passage, without so much as pausing for breath, Pushkin turns the tonality to a major key, and the rhythm becomes jaunty, as Don Juan and Leporello move on to talk about further conquests. Yes, Pushkin had Mozart on the mind, right enough.

This passage about Inez cannot be described as “expository”, as Inez is not mentioned again in the play. The entire section could have been taken out without affecting our understanding of what happens. But that minor key tonality it imparts, if only for a few bars, colours everything that comes afterwards. And it leaves us with a strange impression of Don Juan: he is a man clearly capable of introspection and tenderness and depth of feeling, who can be drawn to qualities other than mere external charm, and yet who bears no responsibility for the past, no guilt for his actions. He had, in the past, before the curtain raises on this play, killed the Commander, for reasons and in circumstances both left unspecified. But, once again, there is not the slightest hint in him of remorse: rather than feel sorry for the man he had killed, it is his widow, Doña Ana, who now interests him. The past is buried, and not allowed to interfere with the joys of the present.

In the second of the four scenes that make up this play, we are introduced to, in effect, a female equivalent of Don Juan, the actress Laura, who, like her male counterpart, demands complete freedom to pursue her desires. If Don Juan feels no responsibility for the past, Laura, only eighteen, and, hence, without much of a past to speak of, feels none for the future. When reminded that some day she too will be old, her reaction is:

…  Then? Why should
I think of that? What talk is this?

But even in those eighteen years, she had been Don Juan’s lover, and, in this scene, Don Juan comes back to visit her once again. This is yet another departure from previous incarnations of Don Juans: previous Don Juans did not care for their past lovers, their past conquests – they were always moving onwards to new experiences. But Pushkin’s Don Juan is different: he may not take responsibility for the past, and may refuse to feel any guilt that may interfere with his enjoyment of the present, but that past, nonetheless, is never dead for him.

In Laura’s apartment, Don Juan is challenged to a duel by a Don Carlos, whose brother Don Juan had previously killed in duel. (Whether or not Don Carlos’ dead brother is the Commander, we are never told.) Don Juan does not want to fight in Laura’s room, but he is given no choice. Of course, he kills Don Carlos. As in Molière’s play, Pushkin had placed the killing of the Commander before the play opens, but while Molière had done this to make Don Juan a more likeable character, Pushkin has no such intention: the killing of Don Carlos takes place in full view on stage, and, while it can certainly be argued that Don Juan was given no choice in the matter, we cannot but note the utter lack of remorse, or even of regret, either on his part, or on Laura’s. It has happened, it is now in the past, and responsibility for past actions, or guilt for past crimes, must not be allowed to interfere with the demands of the present.

And yet the past cannot be forgotten. There, it seems to me, is the paradox at the heart of this strange and elusive work. To enjoy the present, to seize the moment, the past must be forgotten; and yet, the past cannot be forgotten: the death-like pallor of Inez continues to haunt.

This paradox forces itself into the forefront of the action in the final scene. Here, Don Juan, having declared his love for Doña Ana under the assumed name of Don Diego, has been invited into her chamber. And, on the very brink of attaining his desire, he does the very thing that is most likely to thwart it: he admits that Don Diego is but an assumed name, and that he is really Don Juan, the killer of her husband. It is a startling moment, and not something I can claim fully to understand. It seems an inexplicable thing to do, and certainly not something that the Don Juans of de Molina,  Molière, or Mozart would have done. But Pushkin’s Don Juan is different: however he may try  to bury the past, to expunge it from his mind so he does not have to bear its burden, it refuses to remain hidden: it must out. And, in this startling final scene, it erupts unexpectedly into the open.

And at this point, the statue of the Commander comes to drag Don Juan into Hell. It is impossible not to see the stone statue at this point in symbolic terms. What does he represent? For surely, he must represent something: he is not just an optional add-on, present merely because the story demands it. The title of Pushkin’s play is not, after all, Don Juan, or Don Giovanni, or The Trickster of Seville: it is The Stone Guest. It is the statue, the title reminds us, and not Don Juan, who is at the centre of things, and it is up to us to understand the significance of this statue.

The obvious response is that he is the past that Don Juan had tried to deny – the responsibility he had shirked, the guilt he had buried, but which refuses to remain buried. Seen in this respect, we can find significance in the fact that he is of stone, the very antithesis of the flesh and blood that lives for the moment; we may find significance also in the fact that it is Don Juan who had invited him; or in the fact that the statue of the Commander is considerably larger than the Commander had been when he had lived.

All of this makes for a coherent reading, no doubt, but it strikes me as unsatisfactory, as it reduces the poetic richness of the work to mere allegory, and symbols rich with meaning into impoverished ciphers. In these cases, it seems to me best to not interpret at all, but, rather, instead of trying to winkle out what these symbols and the poetic images may mean, to take them at face value, and allow them to resonate in one’s mind.

I can’t say this play has settled yet in my mind. But it does continue to resonate, and I do sense there is more substance here than can be conveyed by any interpretation I may have to offer. Pushkin seemed to see this myth in terms of the past, and of the burden of guilt for that past that we try to keep submerged, but which we cannot keep from irrupting into the present.

At least, that’s the way I see it right now: I’m sure that the longer I ponder on it, the more meanings it will continue to yield. It is, as I said, the most enigmatic and elusive of all the Don Juans I have encountered so far.

“The Trickster of Seville” by Tirso de Molina – the first Don Juan

The myth of Don Juan is possibly unique in that we may pinpoint precisely its origins: it’s a Spanish play, first published in 1630 but written much earlier – possibly as early as 1616, Wikipedia tells me – written by Catholic monk Tirso de Molina. The full Spanish title of the play is El Burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra – which, roughly translated, reads The Joker of Seville and the Guest of Stone. The English title of this play varies by translation, but in the one I read – the verse translation by Roy Porter – the title is given as The Trickster of Seville. So let’s stick with that.

The story caught on almost immediately. In the decades following the first performance, there were – in those copyright-free days – any number of variants. Further variants continued to appear at a dizzying pace: Armand E. Singer,  Professor of Romance languages at University of West Virginia, has listed no less than 1,720 of them. And the myth has attracted the attention of some of the greatest creative minds of the Western world – Molière, Mozart, Pushkin. Indeed, Molière’s version appeared a mere 35 years after the publication of Tirso de Molina’s. Clearly, there is something in this story that resonated powerfully, and, given the undiminished popularity of various works based on this myth, continues to resonate still.

At the most basic level, it is, of course, is a male wish-fulfilment fantasy – a man addicted to sex whom no woman can resist is, I’d guess, the stuff of dreams for most heterosexual men, and the punishment at the end is no more than an obligatory piece of stuffy moralising we need to put up with. This, of course, is to interpret the myth at its most basic level, but perhaps we shouldn’t dismiss this basic interpretation: there is, it seems to me, a lot going for it: wish-fulfilment is, after all, a powerful draw. However, it seems fair to say that it is not this crude piece of wish-fulfilment that has drawn to it some of the greatest of creative imaginations: the myth clearly resonates on other levels also.

The last time I broached this subject on this blog, one correspondent very kindly directed me to this fascinating account of the myth by Paul Berman. In his essay, Berman argues that Tirso de Molina, who, despite his Catholic credentials, was a convert from Judaism, critiques in his play the Christian viewpoint that replaces the Principle of Law with the Principle of Grace, of Justice and Retributon with Repentance and Forgiveness. “The trouble,” Berman argues, “ … is that society that depends on conscience has no defense against a sociopath who has none”, and that “Christian reliance on the Attribute of Mercy at the expense of the Attribute of Justice … frees Juan to formulate a sociopath’s theory of salvation”. I shall not repeat Berman’s thesis here, since, firstly, I don’t think I have taken it all in fully; and, secondly, because it available online in its original form, and any paraphrase on my part can only distort. I do, however, recommend it to the interested reader.

However, there seems to me other angles as well that are worth exploring. The most striking, for me, is the means of Don Juan’s punishment. Of course, in a traditional morality play, the wrongdoer must be punished, and Don Juan is; however, perhaps rather surprisingly given the long list of earthly enemies he has accumulated, the punishment does not come from any earthly source: it comes from the other world. This makes for some dramatic untidiness – an untidiness that not even the stagecraft of Molière, of Mozart and da Ponte, or of Pushkin, could quite get around: throughout the action of the play, conflicts are created that are, by the end, left merely hanging in the air, since the resolution does not come from any of Don Juan’s worldly antagonists. As a consequence, the various characters whom Don Juan encounters are left, once Don Juan has finished with them, with no real dramatic purpose to fulfil. As Don Juan moves on from one set of characters to another, the sets of characters he leaves behind have little to do except to disappear from the action, or merely to crowd the stage for no discernible reason.

In Mozart’s opera, this seems to me the very point: the earthly antagonists are no match for Don Juan (or Don Giovanni), who emerges therefore as a character beyond the reach of earthly justice: the disorder he brings to the world can only be set right by a force from another world. The ineffectuality of mere mortals in the face of the phenomenon that is Don Juan is, it seems to me, is at the very centre of Mozart’s opera. But I am not sure this is the case in de Molina’s play: as in Mozart’s opera, there are several characters who, once their interaction with Don Juan is finished, mill about the action without contributing anything, but their inability to act effectively seems to me here more a dramatic encumbrance than anything else.

However, this other-worldly punisher is a remarkable figure. The idea of the other-worldly nemesis being a statue, a creature of stone, is, as far as I know, entirely Tirso de Molina’s creation, and while, it appears from various modern productions of Don Giovanni, many in our own times find rather risible and are embarrassed by the idea of a moving statue exacting retribution, it is precisely this feature that excited the imaginations of Molière, Mozart, and Pushkin. For Don Juan, who glories in being a creature of flesh and blood, who rejoices in pleasures of the flesh and is fired by desires of the blood, must be punished by one who has neither flesh nor blood about him – who is, indeed, quite literally, made of stone.

But of course, to speak of Don Juan’s punishment by the statue as the punishment of the human by the non-human is too crude a representation. For Don Juan is more than just human. Or, to be more accurate, he is less than fully human. He is a character entirely without conscience, and, as such, no human consideration can touch him. His utter lack of human conscience places him beyond the human pale. In Freudian terms, he is the id set free, with no superego to impose any form of control. It could be argued, I suppose that this man, seeking merely pleasure, without any form of control restricting his actions, is a form of wish-fulfilment, and a very potent one at that: he is certainly a very attractive figure, as was recognised from the very start. But while we may find such a figure attractive, we also recognise his dangers: no ordered society could accommodate such a figure, and his very presence of fills us with a sense of dread, even of terror. Don Juan fills us with both joy and with terror: he both attracts and repels in equal measure. It is easy to see why so many have been drawn to de Molina’s myth.

The Trickster of Seville is, despite some dramatic clumsiness, a remarkable play, and not merely because it originates so powerful a myth: de Molina seems fully aware of the resonances of his creation – although, of course, there is always a danger that we may be reading back into this work various elements that later dramatists have introduced. De Molina presents both the attractive nature and the charisma of Don Juan, and also the misery he leaves in his wake: the lamentations of Tisbea (called Thisbe in Roy Campbell’s translation), is particularly striking, especially given that, unlike Don Juan’s other conquests in this play, she is of a lower social order:

Fire, oh fire, and water, water!
Have pity, love, don’t scorch my spirits!
Oh, wicked cabin, scene of slaughter,
Where honour, vanquished in a fight,
Bled crimson! Vilest robber’s den
And shelter of the wrongs I mourn!
O traitor guest, most curst of men,
To leave a girl, betrayed, forlorn!

Even in Shakespeare, I cannot think of an instance of a woman from the lower social orders accorded such tragic stature.

But at the centre of the play is, of course, Don Juan, the man who is beyond the control of society because he is beyond the control of his own conscience, a fulfilment of our deepest desires and also of our most fearful nightmares, and who both attracts and appals in equal measure. He is a figure who has appeared in all sorts of guises since in Western literature, and, I guess, he will continue to appear: for while we may all secretly desire to be a person who is utterly unconstrained in the obtaining of desires, the very thought of such a person existing can but fill us with terror. We need to be our own Stone Guest to keep our flesh and blood in order.

The Don Juan Myth

I am not so much intrigued by the Don Juan myth as I am by its having intrigued so many others. On the face of it, I can see nothing particularly remarkable about the myth: Don Juan, an insatiable satyromaniac whom no woman can resist, strikes me as little more than a frankly rather crude male sexual fantasy. And yet, this seemingly uninteresting myth has exercised minds as distinguished as those of Molière, Mozart (and his librettist da Ponte), Pushkin, Byron, Richard Strauss, and, in a modern twist in which the mythical Don Juan Tenorio becomes the contemporary John Tanner, Bernard Shaw.  I am intrigued by what they all saw in this myth.

The only work based on this myth that I think I can claim to know to a greater depth than that merely of a nodding acquaintance is Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, and, as I indicated in a recent post, this opera, despite some forty or so years of listening, I find puzzling in many respects. For Don Giovanni himself, the central character around whom everyone else and everything else seems to revolve, seems, to me at any rate, a complete blank. Music which would strike us as deeply felt if sung by any other character becomes, when sung by the Don, insincere: we know that his ardent avowals to Donna Elvira of his repentance are false; in the serenade that follows, we know that the heart-achingly beautiful avowal of love he expresses is not deeply felt, nor even shallowly felt: it is not felt at all. This creates a peculiar tension: how can music so richly expressive not express anything? Through centuries of interpretations, all sorts of things have been written by commentators who refuse to accept that this can be possible: music of such emotional depth must, they assume, indicate emotional depth in the character who is singing it, and they have tried to see in the character of Don Giovanni all sorts of things that simply cannot be justified by the text. Many Romantics thought the Don Giovanni is searching for his ideal love: he isn’t. As Leporello’s “catalogue aria” makes clear, it is mere prosaic quantity rather than any poetic quality that counts for the Don. More recently, director Kaspar Holten, who directed the piece for Royal Opera, thought Don Giovanni was trying to escape his own mortality, but, once again, there is nothing whatever in the text to indicate this. Not an inkling.

So let us accept what Mozart and da Ponte gives us. Much of Don Giovanni’s music suggests that it should be deeply felt, but it isn’t, and the sense of unease this imparts to the listener is, I think, precisely the point. Mozart’s music endows Don Giovanni with a tremendous vitality, and an irresistible charisma, but there’s nothing behind all this vitality and charisma – no search for Ideal Womanhood, nor Fear of Death, nor any of the other things that the preoccupations of the interpreter’s own time may choose to saddle him with. This lack of substance where substance is to be expected makes this, I think, a very disturbing work – perhaps even more so than Mozart’s next opera, the deeply disquieting Cosi Fan Tutte.

But I remain uncertain. Mozart’s operas – especially the three he wrote to libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte – are endlessly complex works, and one should always be prepared to modify one’s views on them. But I am now intrigued by how others have interpreted this myth.

So I am planning a course of reading on the matter. Over the next few weeks, or however long it takes, I am planning to read Tirso de Molina’s play The Trickster of Seville (which, I believe, is where the myth began), Molière’s Don Juan, Pushkin’s The Stone Guest, and Bernard Shaw’s variation of the myth, Man and Superman. (I suppose I should really add Byron’s poem to that list, but let us restrict ourselves to drama for the moment.) And I am planning to record here, for what they’re worth, my thoughts on these works. And maybe, at the end of it all, I’ll have some inkling of why this myth has exerted to firm a grasp on the imaginations of so many.

And even if I don’t, a project such as this sounds fun.

I now therefore declare the Don Juan season officially open.

“Fathers and Sons” by Ivan Turgenev

“Fathers and Sons” by Ivan Turgenev, translated by Richard Freeborn, Oxford World Classics. All quotes in this post are taken from this translation.
[Please note: for anyone who cares about such things, this post contains “spoilers”.]

“What’s important is that twice two is four and all the rest’s nonsense.”
– Bazarov in Chapter 9 of Fathers and Sons, translated by Richard Freeborn

Readers not closely acquainted with the social and political background of mid-19th century Russia may find it surprising that this, of all novels, should have been so controversial, with both the Left and the Right lining up to attack the author. For, from our modern perspective, what strikes one most about Turgenev’s stance is his moderation, his level-headedness – his realisation that social and political change should and must occur, but also his revulsion from radicalism, from fanaticism, and, indeed, from any form of extremism. Many modern readers may even find him too lukewarm – too objective and detached, too lacking in passion. That we may take such a view of him is an indicator of how far we are from the times in which this book was written, and of the effort required of imagination to see in this novel something, at least, of what contemporary readers might have seen.

At the centre of the novel is Bazarov, the self-proclaimed “nihilist” – a man who, as he proudly proclaims, believes in “nothing”. This is not, of course, entirely true: he believes that twice two is four, for a start – the very contention that Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man finds such an intolerable imposition, and a challenge to the essential irrationality of the human mind. But to Bazarov, all else is, indeed, nonsense. Or so he believes. Or so he believes he believes. It is dangerous to state categorically what exactly Bazarov does or does not believe, since his mind is more subtle and more complex than he himself seems aware of. Or maybe, at some level, he is aware: it is hard to tell, since Turgenev tells much of the story through dialogue, and, as in a play, we have to decipher from this dialogue what precisely is going on in the characters’ minds, and to what extent the characters themselves are aware of what is going on.

We learn quite early to mistrust Bazarov’s pronouncements – or, at least, we learn not to take all his pronouncements at face value. He says at one point, for instance, that he does not believe even in medicine, but we can see quite clearly for ourselves that he is knowledgeable in the subject – far more so than the local quacks – and that, in practice, he is a good doctor: a man who doesn’t believe in medicine could hardly be either. So we must ask ourselves why he says something so clearly untrue, and the most obvious reason is that he is trying to wind up his friend Arkady’s father and uncle, landowners and members of the lower echelons of the aristocracy – that is, of a type Bazarov particularly despises. Similarly with his behaviour: at the Kirsanovs’, his behaviour is almost studied in its rudeness and bumptiousness. But this is not because he does not know how to behave in a polite manner, and neither is it because he thinks manners are unimportant and irrelevant: when he is later at Odintsova’s house, he behaves with perfect polish and refinement. His bumptiousness at the Kirsanovs’, like his contention that he didn’t believe in medicine, is, at least in part, a front, intended to create a certain effect. But this is only at least in part: that he feels the need to put up such a front to the very people who are offering him hospitality tells us much about him.

Turgenev’s critics from the Left took Bazarov to be a caricature of themselves, and they were partly right. Turgenev, as one would expect from a man who took art and literature seriously, took grave exception to various ideas that he ascribes to Bazarov, which were then current in radical circles, and which seem, if anything, to be enjoying a revival even now – that only that which is of practical use can be of any value; that anything incapable of being materially perceived is meaningless; that, in short, twice two is four and all the rest’s nonsense. But even here, Turgenev allows the ideas to be expressed without explicitly attacking them: these ideas are important in characterising the person who holds them. And Bazarov, as a person, is an individual: he is not representative of any group of people because Turgenev did not see humanity in terms of pre-defined groups that may be represented by single characters.

If Bazarov is not a representative of a group, neither is he a caricature. No matter how distasteful Turgenev may have found his views, he takes Bazarov sufficiently seriously to transform him, by the end, into a tragic protagonist. Indeed, given the complexity and intricacy of Turgenev’s portrayal, it is hard, at least from our modern perspective, even to imagine how any reader could have seen Bazarov as a caricature.

Conversely, Turgenev’s critics from the Right objected to his presentation of the Kirsanovs as caricatures of Russian aristocracy. And once again, this is hard to square with what Turgenev presents. Sure, the two Kirsanov brothers can appear absurd at times, and, indeed, are absurd at times: there’s Nikolay Petrovich, a widower, muddle-headed, and rather endearingly embarrassed about the peasant girl with whom he lives in sin, and for whom he genuinely cares; and there’s his brother, Pavel Petrovich, himself in love with the peasant girl his brother has taken up with, but sufficiently respectful both of his brother and of this girl not to act upon his desires; and who, living though he does in the middle of nowhere, still dresses and grooms himself as if he were in fashionable Paris or Dresden. These indeed are absurd figures. But at no point did I detect Turgenev looking down upon them. There is something about them that we would nowadays think of as Chekhovian: they would have been perfectly at home in The Cherry Orchard. These are people who are feckless and ineffectual, lacking in energy or in purpose, and not particularly gifted or remarkable in any way; but they are also decent, charming, well-meaning types, capable of genuine and sincere feelings, and, indeed, of that old-fashioned concept of honour. They are certainly not deserving of the contempt and the disdain that Bazarov displays so openly.

It is at the Kirsanovs’ estate that we first meet Bazarov. The Kirsanovs have been eagerly awaiting the arrival from university of Nikolai’s son, Arkady, an impressionable youth who appears with his friend Bazarov. Arkady is clearly enthralled by and somewhat in awe of his charismatic friend, who, though a guest, behaves rudely: indeed, that the Kirsanovs don’t turn him out says much for their manners and for their sense of hospitality. But they don’t understand him. What is he? Why does he behave in this manner? It is left to Arkady to explain to his astonished father and uncle that his friend is, indeed, a “nihilist”:

“A nihilist is a man who doesn’t acknowledge any authorities, who doesn’t accept a single principle on faith, no matter how much that principle may be surrounded by respect.”

“And that’s a good thing, is it?” interjected Pavel Petrovich.

After the initial sojourn at the Kirsanovs’ estate, the scene changes: we go into the town, and the town appears to be the same one in which Gogol’s Government Inspector and Dead Souls had been set – that dull, dirty, soulless pit in which all human aspirations and nobility appear to have been crushed by an unyielding and monotonous greyness. There’s a touch of Gogol as well in the two people they meet there – the foolish and conceited Sitnikov, and the equally foolish Kukshina, who likes to imagine herself an “emancipated woman”. Bazarov has little time for either, and is even more openly rude to them than he had been to the Kirsanovs, but they are too unintelligent even to notice. Gogol, one suspects, could have taken these characters to further grotesque extremes, but this would have been well outside Turgenev’s horizons: after introducing us to Sitnikov and to Kukshina, he steers the narrative towards the area he knows better – to affairs of the heart, and the unending intricacies and subtleties of human love. For Bazarov and Arkady also meet in this town Odintsova, a young widow of independent means, both attractive and intelligent. Till now, Bazarov had been putting up fronts, but now, all the fronts collapse: that man who had proclaimed so proudly that twice two was four and all else is nonsense now has to face the irrationality within his own self. He has, indeed, to discover what that self is, and it is not an easy discovery to make. Bazarov had understood his own identity purely in terms of the ideas he had held; but when those ideas collapse, when the fact of twice two equalling four is no longer sufficient, his concept of his own self also collapses. He has to find out anew what he really is, and this he cannot do.

The scenes between Bazarov and Odintsova are, for me, at the heart of the novel: it is in these scenes that Bazarov’s sense of his own identity is threatened, and soon reaches a crisis. Odintsova, for her own part, finds Bazarov fascinating, and is quite happy to flirt with him; but when the flirting takes a serious turn, she backs off, and Bazarov, who had presented himself, and, indeed, had thought of himself, as superior to all around him, can no longer tell with any certainty what precisely he now is.

The scene now changes again: we now accompany Arkady and Bazarov to Bazarov’s home, and meet his parents. His father is a retired army doctor and a small-time landowner; his mother is a deeply pious woman; both are devoted to their clever son, but seem in awe of him: they feel constrained even in displaying their love for him for fear of earning his disapproval. Bazarov, after his experience with Odintsova, is restless, and ill at ease: he feels alienated even in his own home, and, much to his parents’ dismay, he does not stay long. Before leaving, Arkady, now no longer in awe of Bazarov as he had previously been, takes exception to Bazarov’s referring to his uncle as an “idiot”, and is surprised by Bazarov’s reaction:

“In any case, it wasn’t family feeling, but a simple sense of justice,” Arkady retorted. “But because you don’t understand that sense, because you haven’t got that feeling, you can’t pass judgement on it.”

“In other words, Arkady Kirsanov is too elevated for my understanding, so I bow down before you and hold my tongue.”

“That’s enough, please, Evgeny. We’ll end up quarrelling.”

“Ah, Arkady, do me a favour! Let’s quarrel once and for all – to the death, to the bitter end!”

“But if we do we’ll surely end by … “

“By having a fight?” butted in Bazarov. “So what? Here, in the hay, in such idyllic surroundings, far from the world and human eyes, it won’t mean a thing! But you’d never get the better of me. I’d get you by the throat straight off…”

Bazarov extended his long, hard fingers, while Arkady turned and prepared to defend himself, if only in fun. But so full of hatred was his friend’s face, so very unfunny the threat he perceived in his twisted grin and burning eyes, that Arkady felt a momentary timidity regardless…

Bazarov’s self-hatred is by this stage so intense that it has overflowed into hatred of the young man who had hero-worshipped him.

But Arkady is changing also: he has matured and developed, is less in thrall to Bazarov than he had been, and, far from being in awe of his friend, is now capable of standing up for his beloved uncle in the face of his friend’s insult. As Bazarov seems increasingly unable to trust his own perspective, Arkady is growing in self-confidence. After this climactic scene, we rarely see the two together.

In the rest of the novel, there is a recapitulation of the places and characters we had previously encountered – Odintsova on her estate (she receives Bazarov coldly); the Gogolian town and its Gogolian inhabitants; and, again, the Kirsanov’s estate, where we are even treated to a duel. But where, in Eugene Onegin and in A Hero of Our Times, the duels had been dramatic and with far-reaching consequences, here, it is pure farce, and utterly inconsequential. This duel seems almost a parody of the duels in Pushkin and in Lermontov: tragedy here has turned into pure meaninglessness, and futility. And finally, after this tragedy-turned-to-farce, we return, for the final act of the drama, to Bazarov’s parents’ house. And this time, the tragedy is for real.

From my earlier readings I had been certain that Bazarov kills himself at the end, and I was frankly a bit surprised to find that there is not a single mention of suicide in the narrative. But it is easy, I think, to see how I got that impression. Here, after all, is a man whose entire sense of his self, of his own identity, has collapsed, and he cannot find a new one. He infects himself accidentally, we are told; neither Bazarov, nor anyone around him, nor Turgenev himself, says or hints at anything to the contrary. Yet, for me, the doubt remains. There is, after all, much in the inner workings of Bazarov’s mind that we cannot be sure of. This is not because Turgenev had failed to give us a complete picture, but because the picture is necessarily incomplete: Bazarov, like Hamlet, is a mystery even to himself. The man who, at the start of the novel, thought he knew himself perfectly, thought he understood the nature of the world in which he lived – in which twice two is four and all the rest nonsense – comes to understand that he never has understood anything, least of all himself. And he does not have the strength to build himself anew. Possibly, he does not even know himself whether his infection was accidental or deliberately self-inflicted: human motivations, as he has come to discover, are endlessly obscure – even one’s own. He asks to see Odinstsova before he dies, and she comes: but at no point does he express any grief, any rage, or even any regret, at his parting from the world. A world in which even twice two equalling four cannot be taken for granted cannot be, after all, a world worth living in. Parting from it seems a consummation devoutly to be wished. About this, if nothing else, Bazarov can be devout.


There is much in this novel that is unlikely to appeal to modern taste. Turgenev still has the habit of giving us giving us a full history of his characters immediately after introducing them, rather than allowing us to infer what we need to know from the way they act; he likes also to drive his narrative through dialogue, as in a play, and, while some of the dialogue is indeed very fine (most notably in the scenes between Bazarov and Odintsova), not all of it frankly is: the lad-and-lass love scenes between Arkady and Katya, for instance, are likely to strike the modern reader as a trifle insipid. However, most of the time, it works beautifully: it is, quite often, in the discrepancy between what Bazarov says and what he does that we come to appreciate his complexities.

Turgenev’s contemporaries appeared to see the novel as a comment on the politics of the time, and – as the title implies – on the gap between generations in ways of perceiving the world. I personally find it difficult to see the novel from such a perspective. To me, it is a fascinating study of the human sense of identity, and of how we cope, or, as in this case, fail to cope, when the idea we have of who we are is no longer consistent with what we perceive. And in Bazarov, we have, I think, one of the finest creations of all fiction – a character of endless complexity and contradictions, who nonetheless possesses a unity despite the diversity, and who is, by the end, one of the most striking and memorable of tragic protagonists.