Cutting it short

John Bayley

  • Alexander Pushkin: Complete Prose Fiction by Paul Debreczeny, translated by Walter Arndt
    Stanford, 545 pp, $38.50, May 1983, ISBN 0 8047 1142 9
  • The Other Pushkin: A Study of Alexander Pushkin’s Prose Fiction by Paul Debreczeny
    Stanford, 386 pp, $32.50, May 1983, ISBN 0 8047 1143 7

Of all great writers Pushkin left the greatest number of incomplete or fragmentary works. Even when something is finished it still has an air of potential, of development that might have been carried on had not the author felt that his art had done its mysterious job and that it was not for him to press it further. Don Juan comes to an end because Byron cannot keep up the pressure and think up further adventures to which his imagination can really respond, and so he loses interest. Evgeny Onegin does not end in this sense at all. In it Pushkin tells us that when he began what he calls his ‘free novel’ he did not know how it would end. His story breaks off, but his hero and heroine seem to live on. Their destiny is fulfilled in the form of the narrative, but we continue to ask questions about their future. Would Evgeny have continued to pursue Tatiana? Would she (as Nabokov opined) in time have relented? Russian readers, and writers too, have always speculated about them.

Pushkin’s most subtle originality, in fact, could be said to anticipate and even to make a principle out of Henry James’s comment: ‘Properly speaking, relations stop nowhere, and the task of the artist is eternally but to draw the circle in which they shall happily appear to do so.’ James’s way of doing this was to squeeze the orange, as it were – to saturate his subject with all its meanings while avoiding everything about it that was not ‘meaning’. Pushkin’s solution was plainer, opener, more sybilline and yet more emphatic. He would take matters to the point at which the reader could take over. Above all, he would have no facile, sentimental or melodramatic endings, no suicides for love or honour, no stock wedding bells, no feasts of sugar-plums.

In the Romantic heyday, when literature was becoming ever more popular and popular literature was supplying all these things with ebullience and abandon, his task was not easy. Romantic history plays, facile as Hernani, fateful as The Cenci, were bursting out on all sides. Pushkin seems to have determined, in Boris Godunov, to write a history play showing how unco-operative history is with romance, with happy endings or with tragic ones. History just goes grumbling on. Dramatically Boris Godunov is a disappointing play: everybody said so – ‘nothing in this piece is complete,’ complained Pushkin’s old enemy Bulgarin. But as a kind of tableau of historical inquiry it is extraordinarily suggestive. It ends on an anti-climax, an anti-demonstration. The crowd are ordered to shout: ‘Long live Dimitri Ivanovich’ (the pretender who has displaced Boris’s son). They do so. End of play. But not quite, because the censor objected, and said it would be more decorous to orthodox Tsarist ears if the crowd were silent. Very well, said the amused author, and he wrote a final stage direction – ‘Narod bezmolvstvuet,’ ‘the people are silent’ – which has become a Russian proverb. As Pushkin must have seen, from the point of view of history, from the point of view of an anti-romantic history tableau, the two endings were the same. No opinion is uttered: there is only the finality of openness.

The theory of openness came to Pushkin from Shakespeare. In his admirable study – his ‘other Pushkin’ is the storyteller and novelist, not the poet – Paul Debreczeny quotes Pushkin’s comments on Shakespeare’s characterisation. They go hand in hand with inconclusiveness, and show why it is that though Shakespeare had to finish the play, his characters never do. They are not completed by their dramatic role, observes Pushkin. ‘Shylock is not only miserly but resourceful, vindictive, child-loving, witty.’ By contrast, Molière’s miser, like his hypocrite, is exhausted by being what he is and doing what he does; he can offer no further interest to us.

Pushkin implies here that if your character is not doing just what the piece requires of him then you cannot ‘finish’ the piece. You break it off at the right moment. And this is what he does in his Little Tragedies, which he called ‘Dramatic Investigations’. In ‘Mozart and Salieri’ the composer Salieri is so scandalised by the sheer insouciance of genius, its refusal to take itself seriously and to display the gravitas proper to a great musician, that he resolves to poison Mozart. But the wonderful clear lines of the poetry carry a note of hesitancy, of the lack of self-knowledge behind Salieri’s bleak and self-righteous convictions. Is he perhaps animated by low envy, the involuntary hatred of the lesser for the great? The piece ends with such questions hanging in the air, and in our minds. In ‘The Stone Guest’ Don Juan meets his fate at the hands of the commander whose wife he has seduced, but with whom, before they die together, he has perhaps fallen deeply and irrevocably in love.

Though he does not comment on the fact, as he comments on what might now be called Pushkin’s Law of characterisation, Pushkin seems to have connected the open ending with his own conviction that his art – his ‘rubbish’, as he sometimes referred to it – came from outside him, was the visitation of a god who sometimes condescended to enter and inspire this quite ordinary man about town, Pushkin, who normally spent his time gambling with fashionable friends and making up to the girls. Naturally the god withdrew before the work he had fathered reached anything as laborious as birth. This is itself the theme of ‘Egyptian Nights’. A fashionable young man, a secret poet, befriends a poor and rather ridiculous Italian improvisatore, another kind of self-portrait of Pushkin. To earn him money, the poet arranges for the improviser to declaim verses on any subject suggested by a fashionable audience. The subject is ‘Cleopatra and her Lovers’, which occasions titters, but the improviser, after looks of timid apology and uncertainty, abruptly turns pale as the god possesses him and proceeds to declaim line upon line of magnificent verse, some of Pushkin’s very best.

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