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.

The story up to then has been in prose, but when the improviser suddenly breaks off, having sketched a situation without a dénouement, it has reached its end. The god has departed: the points have been made with Pushkin’s usual inscrutability. His vivid spontaneous genius combined in a unique way with a detached interest in form and theory, a taste for almost scientific demonstration. He abhors any use by the artist of unexamined cliché, and there was plenty of that around at the time. Sometimes his ‘fragments’ mingle verse and prose, as if in ironic comment on the virtues and limitations of each. The situation in ‘Egyptian Nights’ is set out in terse and simple prose (‘plain water’ was his prose ideal) and the superb and deliberate romanticism of the verse ‘improvisation’ contrasts with it, displaying the fact that if the god inspires him the most banal subject can be turned by the poet into deathless verse.

When Charsky first tested the improviser’s powers, he asked him to declaim on the theme of inspiration, and the Italian made a magnificent defence of the poet’s freedom to scorn the crowd and choose any subject he wishes, even the most trivial and vulgar one, ‘as the great eagle sails past tower and crag to perch on a withered stump’. The unspoken irony is not only that the improviser will accept any subject he is given, confident (like Pushkin himself) that his freedom lies in his possession by the inspirative power, but also that he is free to break off whenever he feels like it, when the inner message is delivered, and not to toil on to the end of some fabricated story for the sake of his laborious listeners. The improviser breaks off at the moment when the great queen has offered herself to all takers, the price of a night of her favours being death, and three have accepted – an old soldier, a philosopher, and a youth on whom Cleopatra bestows a quick glance of regret. The couch is spread; the poem ends.

D.M. Thomas, who has made some excellent translations of Pushkin’s poems, has also been daring enough to include in his novel Ararat (successor to The White Hotel) a verse ‘continuation’ of this story. He has the soldier and the philosopher submit successively to the eunuch’s blade as they leave the queen’s chamber in the morning. The youth, however, drugs the queen, slays the eunuch and departs in triumph. Thomas may have his own esoteric reasons for arranging this dénouement, but on the face of it nothing could better illustrate Pushkin’s implicit contrast between banality of theme and banality of treatment. No situation can be too banal to provoke and intrigue the imagination of the poet, and of his reader: but to pursue it to a conclusion worthy of a swashbuckling serial or the Arabian Nights is to ruin the imagination of the thing, rather as an explicit sex scene in a film spoils whatever suggestive appeal a love scene can have.

Thomas’s treatment is the more surprising because of his admiration for Pushkin’s most inspired dramatic fragment, ‘Rusalka’, the story of a miller’s daughter seduced by a prince, who drowns herself and becomes a ‘cold powerful rusalka’, seeking revenge. Again the theme appears banal but its suggestiveness is highly penetrating and poetic. It breaks off just at the moment when ‘revenge’, in the conventional sense, might seem about to be consummated. There is all the difference between this kind of effect and those that are sought by Barry Cornwall in his ‘dramatic fragments’, a reading of which in French had given Pushkin his model. Very much in the spirit of the age, Cornwall had sought to wring every ounce of romantic melodrama out of the situations he treated. Pushkin does just the opposite: he arrests the mechanism of the melodrama and the stock situation and probes their inward dimension and their inner psychology. As with Boris Godunov his gaze is not on the auditorium – ‘Rusalka’ would spoil in the acting, just as would the Little Tragedies – but on the calm calculation of what a ‘god’ of dramatic inspiration has brought him. Nevertheless ‘Rusalka’ is among the most haunting, and the most moving, of Pushkin’s works.

In forbearance and precision there are deep affinities between Pushkin’s poetry, drama and prose, though for most readers there is no point in claiming, as Tsvetaeva did in a remarkable essay on The Captain’s Daughter, that prose and poetry are for him the same medium. That may be true in some higher sense, but the distinction is nonetheless clear and plain, and in his excellent detailed study – probably the first in English – Paul Debreczeny is not concerned with metaphysical questions but with Pushkin’s prose as prose, though the two sometimes intermingle as in ‘Egyptian Nights’. His critical volume is complemented by a volume containing for the first time in English all the novels, stories and fragments, jottings and ideas, together with a detailed and informative textual apparatus and notes.

Everyone who has read Tolstoy’s life knows that the germ of Anna Karenina was a fragment of Pushkin’s that begins, ‘The guests were arriving at the dacha,’ and Tolstoy’s enthusiastic comment that this was just how a novel should open. Now that they can read the pieces that Pushkin actually wrote they may be surprised to find that Tolstoy’s debt to Pushkin in Anna Karenina goes far beyond that first sentence. Pushkin’s ‘novel’, if that was what it was to be, concerns a headstrong, odd, charming, fascinating girl who moves in the best Petersburg society. She is called Volskaia or Zinaida. She married for advantage, is dissatisfied with her life without knowing why, takes a lover, and goes to live in a little house – ‘in the corner of a small square’ is how the alternative fragment opens – where he visits her. What clearly intrigued Pushkin as a subject is the oppression of a free soul in what she feels should be a ‘free’ relationship – a situation perennially relevant for the novelist and never more so than today. It irks her lover equally.

He had never meant to tie himself down with such bonds. He hated boredom, feared every obligation, and valued his egotistical independence above all else. But it was a fait accompli. Zinaida remained on his hands. He pretended to be grateful, but in fact he faced the pain of his liaison as if performing an official duty, or getting down to the tedious task of checking his butler’s monthly accounts.

That becomes very much Vronsky’s situation, though Tolstoy does not do it with Pushkin’s swift and light touch, nor with his humour. The other fragment gives an excellent brief instance of Pushkin’s Law, where characterisation is concerned. ‘Not suspecting that frivolity could be joined with strong passions, he foresaw a liaison without any significant consequences.’ That compresses in one sentence an immense amount of social and psychological knowledge. Of course Tolstoy widened everything, weighed it and filled it in, but Anna Karenina, especially in its earlier drafts, owes a very great deal to Pushkin’s offhand but telling scrutiny of a character and a situation.

Pushkin himself owed a lot to his sources – Constant’s Adolphe, for instance. But his prose is a remorseless exposer of other men’s clichés, even those of authors with great talent. Constant’s hero and heroine are not only disingenuous with each other and with themselves: their creator is disingenuous too – because ‘love’, in the French context, is too hallowed an idea to be treated with Pushkin’s sympathetic, casual-seeming perspicuity. The fact that Adolphe and Ellénore are mutually disenchanted, while remaining mechanically attached, is a truth from which Constant flinches, writing as he is within a basically reverent convention. Apart from his genius, Pushkin is in a coincidentally strong position. He inherits all the French incisiveness and power of analysis, and yet is emancipated from the blinkers of their cultural and linguistic tradition. At the same time he can draw, through French, on Shakespeare and the English novelists and romantics, and be equally impartial in the use he makes of them.

One must not exaggerate his success. He needed money and was prepared to compromise for it. But much of his prose reveals his extraordinary intuition of the fatalities in the history of Russian power. The figure of Peter the Great fascinated him, and his first essay at historical fiction, ‘The Negro of Peter the Great’, was based on the career of his own maternal forebear, Ibrahim Gannibal, a black page presented to Peter, who rose to the rank of general in his army. Interestingly, Pushkin attempted the technique of omniscient and impersonal narrator, one which was normal for the later 19th-century novelist but was avoided on the whole by Scott – an instinctively crafty storyteller – as it was even by Dickens. Clearly the kinds of historical inanity – anecdote, local colour, ‘picturesque’ speech – which were the stock-in-trade of the genre, soon exasperated Pushkin, and he abandoned the novel. Its clichés, in this context, could not be made use of or transformed into a true or different kind of reality. He found the same difficulty when he attempted a different kind of story, ‘Dubrovsky’, which is set in comparatively recent times and has the promising theme of a small and honourable landowner persecuted and finally dispossessed by a large and aggressive one. It shows Pushkin’s growing interest in social unrest, its origin in naked power and in the lack of rights at any level of Russian society. But once again the clichés of romantic fiction steal in, showing themselves to be indispensable and uncontrollable. Dispossessed, the young Dubrovsky becomes a bandit; the big landowner’s daughter falls in love with him; there are flights, ambushes, assignations. The kind of stuff that Scott can produce with perfect equanimity, and without compromising his essential virtues, is alien to Pushkin’s almost scientific turn of mind as a conscious artist. Once again he abandoned the project.

The only historical novel he actually finished, The Captain’s Daughter, was written at a later stage, when Pushkin’s productivity and popularity as a poet were waning, and when he needed money even more urgently. It is a fine achievement but there is something fatigued about it, which suggests to me that when he died in a duel at the age of 37 he was, if not written out, unlikely to have realised a great future potential. The first-person narrator, Grinev, is a young officer of Catherine the Great’s time, who gets involved in Pugachev’s revolt; and he does just what the piece requires of him. He derives from Scott’s young hero Waverley, who is also involved in a rebellion ‘sixty years since’, and who like his Russian counterpart is carried along passively by the torrent of event. But ‘sixty years since’ is much more grimly significant and prophetic in a Russian context than it would be in a Scots and English one. Scott makes a comfortable English-style compromise with Waverley, allowing him to participate in romanticism and rebellion and to fall in love with a wild Scots lady, and then bringing him safely home to a hereditary estate and marriage with an English rose. The formula is more perfunctory in Pushkin but also more effective in the detail of the text. Grinev’s efforts at achievement in the romantic style are pointedly ineffective, and his expectations fade away before the flat economy of the narrative, which resembles the bare steppes where he sees the fortress – a low black palisade and a few wooden buildings which his imagination had pictured as looking like something out of the Scottish Highlands. Ingeniously but without vitality, Pushkin merely borrows the ending from The Heart of Midlothian, sending Grinev’s fiancée to intercede for him at Petersburg in a gracious interview with Catherine the Great.

That is a nadir by his standards, but there are admirable scenes in The Captain’s Daughter as in ‘Dubrovsky’ – the rebels’ capture of the fort, the meeting with Pugachev in the snowy night, the fire at the manor house in which the lawyers persecuting Dubrovsky are accidentally incinerated. Grinev, too, has interesting affinities with a later style of romantic hero, even though he is fundamentally a copybook figure, like the heroines. Pushkin’s real interest is in the figure of Pugachev and in the Pugachevschina, the rebellion associated with him. At the time of The Captain’s Daughter he had already written an official history of the revolt, commissioned by the Tsar, Nicholas I, who following his act of pardon to Pushkin after the Decembrist revolt had appointed himself as the poet’s patron and personal censor. The bland patronage of the tyrant became in time an intolerable burden, but we owe to it some of Pushkin’s most perceptive and mature reflections on the nature of power in Russia, which the Tsar was remarkably acute at elucidating and commenting on. In his notes to the Tsar Pushkin pointed out that all Russian revolts of true significance had followed the same pattern: a mutiny in what was virtually the colonial army – the Cossacks – joined by all the disaffected and ill-treated in Russia’s ever-growing empire. The Tsar was particularly exercised by Pushkin’s comparison of the Pugachevschina with the mutiny of Stenka Razin a hundred years earlier. Pushkin’s history is a model of its kind for detachment, perspicacity, and clarity of style. Its calm recital of the horrors of the revolt, the demoralisation of the ruling class, the eventual success of the methods of suppression, led by two effective generals, Mihkelson and the great Suvorov himself, and not least the contradictory character of Pugachev, a real-life instance of Pushkin’s Law – all this makes a telling comparison with the fictional discourse employed in The Captain’s Daughter.

As always, though, Pushkin needed a form. He had made the fragment into one, though his aborted romances and novels do not count as ‘fragments’; they are merely drafts which the author could not or did not wish to complete. There are undoubted traces of agoraphobia when he tries the omniscient authorial manner; when, for example, he makes use of a Russian gentleman in ‘The guests were arriving at the dacha’ to make a disquisition on the Russian class system, the decay of the original aristocracy and the reliance of Tsarism on a new class of apparatchik and time-server. Himself very conscious of belonging to the old nobility, Pushkin knew all about the new order, and his remarks are as relevant today as would be those he made to Nicholas about the causes of revolt in Russia. But they are too obviously personal, lacking Pushkin’s calmly objective identification with a form, even the form of the fragment.

With hindsight we can say that he saw what the big novel would be like, in its 19th-century heyday, but that he could not reconcile that knowledge with the ways in which he could make use of the limitations of existing romantic forms, undercutting and subtly transforming them. In one ‘Boldino Autumn’, those few weeks of the year when he used to give himself up to intensive creation on his small country estate, he produced among many other things the Tales of Belkin, a series of stories purporting to be written by the acquaintance of a country squire, and collected by him. Belkin is a figure of inimitable unconscious humour, and the tales are gems of deadpan comedy whose parodic implications it is the joy of Russian scholars to unravel. Dostoevsky pillaged them, both the spirit and material, while reserving his total reverence for the story written three years later, which he called ‘the height of artistic perfection’ – ‘The Queen of Spades’.

Here Pushkin again tries the omniscient mode of narration, but overcomes the agoraphobic effect it had on him by stuffing his tale with every kind of stock romantic and melodramatic situation. These contrast with the understanding, reasonable, slightly amused tone of the narrative. Inconspicuously the narrator enters into the psychology, the small hopes and irritations and ennuis, of a young girl who is the paid companion of a tyrannical old countess. He is equally good at showing with sympathy the Countess’s own life, the horrors of old age, and how she clings to her place in an haut monde which has forgotten her and acknowledges her existence only with the most perfunctory show of good manners. Though she does nothing and says little, the girl Lizaveta is one of his most effective characters; and it is typically Pushkinian that – contrary to what the reader might at first suppose – her heart is not broken nor her hopes ruined. She makes a suitable marriage with a very nice young man, the son of the Countess’s former steward, who has a good position in the service. Those unobtrusive concluding details are typical of the method.

The Countess and her attendant are really much more important in the story than are the popular melodramatic elements, chief of which is the hero himself, the Napoleonic Hermann, the young German engineer who makes up to Lizaveta and tries to force from the Countess her family secret of how to win at cards. Hermann is certainly a figure of great potential, borrowed from Balzac and from Stendhal’s young heroes of the will, and bequeathed to Dostoevsky, and yet one feels that Pushkin himself had too much sense to be fascinated by him. In a subtle way he is presented as a fundamentally boring character. What the story does brilliantly is to reconcile a depth and leisureliness of insight with narrative excitement and suspense – the apparition of the Countess, the fatal sequence of cards – so that each mode of feeling and describing enhances the other. The aspect of the story’s success which most pleased Pushkin, characteristically, was that to bring them luck his young gambler friends in Petersburg started to bet, as Hermann had done, on the three, seven and ace.

Pushkin’s refusal to be portentous about his materials is as typical as his talent for bringing their rather banal constituents into a memorable whole, though the tale is not, in my opinion, the absolute masterpiece that Dostoevsky claimed. The term is hardly applicable to anything in Pushkin’s prose, except perhaps to the parodic skill and finish of the Tales of Belkin. What does lurk in ‘The Queen of Spades’ is Pushkin’s genius for incompletion. Several suggestions in it remain as strategically-placed queries; the past broods over the present without leading into it; the future is claimed by Hermann but never conquered; in the face of superstition the supernatural remains enigmatic.

Pushkin declines to commit himself to melodrama and its emotions, as Dostoevsky would do, just as he had refused to play the conventional game as he had found it in Richardson and Constant. No heroine of his could die like Clarissa, and Debreczeny points out that he wrote ‘Rubbish’ in his copy of Adolphe at the point where the hero throws himself on the ground and wishes to be swallowed up. Ellénore’s death when deserted must have struck him as equally voulu. He was irritated by the higher sentimentality; the ordinary vulgar kind simply amused him, as is shown by his indulgence to two gushing young friends who were upset by the plot of Evgeny Onegin. One of them wanted the poet Lensky, killed by Onegin in the fatal duel, to have been only wounded. ‘Then Olga could have looked after him and they would have grown even fonder of each other.’ The other would have had Onegin wounded, ‘so that Tatiana could have looked after him and he would have learnt to value and love her.’

The anecdote shows what Pushkin was up against. Where the novel was concerned popularity was all, and Pushkin never succeeded in reconciling the conventions of the novel in his time with the intuitions he must have had of its later use as a vehicle for unrestrained intelligence and observation. He needed forms to work on, undercut and re-create, and here there was none suitable to hand. His history of Pugachev is not only a model historical study but shows a concentration of style and perspective which few historians at the time had any notion how to achieve. ‘The Queen of Spades’ is a brilliant tour de force, which makes stories like Balzac’s Sarrasine and La Peau de Chagrin look shallow, unfeeling, merely smart. But the two fragments of Pushkin’s prose that are truly and significantly prophetic are ‘The guests were arriving at the dacha’ and ‘In the corner of a small square’. The heroine glimpsed in those few pages could have been one of the most memorable of 19th-century fictional portraits.

Debreczeny’s detailed study will be useful reading for Russian students and a valuable text for anyone seriously interested in fiction and its techniques. His translations of the prose – almost as difficult a problem in its different way as translating Pushkin’s poetry – are always adequate, and in the case of the Pugachev History outstandingly good, though the stories contain some odd things like ‘tersity’ for ‘terseness’, and there is clumsiness in the use of colloquial English. (Grinev’s servant Savelich, among the best of Pushkin’s characters in The Captain’s Daughter, would hardly exclaim ‘Egad!’) Walter Arndt supplies an impressively vivacious rendering of the improviser’s verses in ‘Egyptian Nights’.