Thursday, March 29, 2012

Five top collections of Russian short fiction

Rosamund Bartlett's books include Wagner and Russia and the acclaimed Chekhov: Scenes from a Life. An authority on Russian cultural history, she has also achieved renown as a translator of Chekhov.

Her latest book is Tolstoy: A Russian Life.

One collection of Russian short fiction she discussed with Daisy Banks at The Browser:
The Queen of Spades and Other Stories
by Alexander Pushkin

The first short story you recommend is The Queen of Spades by Alexander Pushkin, in the Oxford World’s Classics collection.

Whatever one’s criteria, it is impossible to leave out The Queen of Spades. It’s a story about gambling, and the first undisputed masterpiece in the genre by the writer seen in his homeland as the “Russian Shakespeare”. Pushkin was a protean genius who moulded the cumbersome Russian of the 18th century into the supple and beautiful literary language used today. Although he was primarily a lyric poet, he started moving towards prose fiction at the end of his short life, as you can see in Eugene Onegin, Russia’s first great novel, written in verse.

Apart from being a gripping read, The Queen of Spades is the quintessential St Petersburg tale and an astonishingly modern work. Its author was far more hotheaded than the superbly cool, detached style of the story’s narration suggests. He was sent into exile for his rebellious ideas, and then had to endure submitting his manuscripts to Nicholas I for his personal approval. Pushkin was a gambler himself, of course, and even gambled away his own poetry on occasion. And he went out of his way to fight duels. He was killed in a duel four years after completing The Queen of Spades, at the age of 38.

You say that The Queen of Spades, written in the autumn of 1833, is a modern work – in what way?

First of all, the precision and lucidity of Pushkin’s language make it read like something written yesterday. So many later Russian writers took their cue from him. He also pulls off a spellbinding conjuring trick in managing to exemplify and simultaneously parody a variety of literary genres popular at the time he was writing. His irony and the endless games he plays with his reader make him a kind of post-modern writer avant la lettre.

On one level, the story emulates the “society tale” popular in the 1830s. There are characters drawn from real life such as the formidable countess, who was inspired by the legendary “Princesse Moustache”, Natalya Galitzine. On another level, it is a romantic tale of the supernatural. Pushkin teases us with a whole host of possible ways to interpret the story’s meaning. The Queen of Spades also looks forward to future debates about Russia’s relationship with Western capitalism. In Crime and Punishment, for example, Dostoevsky clearly models his character of [Rodion] Raskolnikov on Pushkin’s “anti-hero” Hermann, who has a German background. They both have to contend with an old woman and a young girl called Liza, and they both have a Napoleon complex and an obsession with money. A lot of people will be familiar with The Queen of Spades from having seen the opera. Tchaikovsky picks up on the phantasmagoric atmosphere of the story, which helped launch a whole St Petersburg mythology, but he departs radically from Pushkin’s plot.
Read about another book that Bartlett discussed at The Browser.

Visit Rosamund Bartlett's website and learn more about Tolstoy: A Russian Life.

Writers Read: Rosamund Bartlett.

My Book, The Movie: Tolstoy: A Russian Life.

The Page 99 Test: Tolstoy: A Russian Life.

--Marshal Zeringue