Thursday, 28 February 2013

'The Queen of Spades' by Alexander Pushkin (Review)

Considering that Pushkin Press is named after the famous Russian poet, it was a surprise to find that none of his work was in their back catalogue.  Thankfully, this embarrassing oversight has now been rectified, in the form of the wonderful little book you can see in the photo - and about time too ;)

Alexander Pushkin's The Queen of Spades (translated by Anthony Briggs, review copy courtesy of the publisher) comprises a variety of works from the writer's career.  Although primarily known as a poet, he did write some prose, and his most famous story lends its name to this collection.  In addition to 'The Queen of Spades' and 'The Stationmaster' (a shorter story), the reader is also treated to extracts from some of Pushkin's more famous longer works (e.g. Yevgeny Onegin).  Finally, there is a selection of his shorter poems, not forgetting another of his masterpieces 'The Bronze Horseman'  - truly something for everyone :)

'The Queen of Spades' itself is a longish short story set in St. Petersburg.  It tells of an officer who hears a story about a countess who knows the secret of successful gambling.  He decides to get the secret from her, by fair means or foul, faking an attachment with the countess' young ward in order to get closer to the old lady.  Eventually, he does learn the secret - but can he really trust the mischievous old woman?

It is an excellent story, written in a light, airy manner, despite the supernatural elements which creep into the second half of the tale.  Pushkin's observant poet's eye is evident in his descriptions of the characters, including a few lines about the old countess in society:
"She was a full participant in all high-society frivolities, taking herself off to every ball, where she sat things out in a corner, rouged up and dressed in the fashions of yesteryear, like a hideous but indispensable ballroom ornament."
p.27, 'The Queen of Spades' (2012, Pushkin Press)
This casual and humorous style contrasts nicely with the darker turn the story eventually takes.

However, Pushkin is far more famous for his poetry, and this is where the main interest of the collection lies.  One of the most famous poems in Russian (and one, I suspect, that many people memorise at school) is 'The Bronze Horseman', a twenty-page ode to St. Petersburg.  The poem starts with the story of the city's founding in the Finnish swamps and goes on to describe the city's beauties.  Then we are told of a (real-life) flood, one which devastates parts of the city - and has a dramatic effect on the life of Yevgeny, a poor working man.

Poor Yevgeny survives the floods himself, but some of his loved ones are not quite so lucky, so our friend decides to vent his anger on the founder of the city - in the shape of the statue of the bronze horseman.  As it turns out though, the Tsars are not to be trifled with, even when they are cast in bronze:
"And splendid in the pale moonlight,
One arm flung out on high, full speed,
Comes the Bronze Horseman in his flight,
Upon his crashing, clanging steed."
p.107, 'The Bronze Horseman'
Run, Yevgeny, run!

To round off the collection, there are ten or so shorter poems, representative of the hundreds Pushkin wrote.  They read elegantly and smoothly - at which point it is probably time to praise Briggs and his excellent translation.  In addition to writing an interesting introduction (and supplying occasional footnotes), the translator has managed to create a collection of different forms and styles without sounding artificial.  I have no knowledge of Russian, but poetry is notoriously tricky to coax into a foreign language; my enjoyment of the English versions must surely reflect on the translator's skill.

One example of this is 'Winter Evening', a short poem about an old woman sitting inside her cottage while the cold wind howls outside.  If we take just the first stanza, we can see the work Briggs has put into his translation:
"Darkness falling, stormy roaring,
Whipping Winds and scurrying snow.
Baying beasts are howling for me,
Babies wailing - blow, winds, blow!
Through the tattered rooftops, flapping,
Rustling through the threadbare thatch,
Like a late-night traveller tapping,
Rattling at the window latch."
p.128, 'Winter Evening'
It is clear from this stanza that Briggs is attempting to keep the alliteration and rhythm of the original ('whipping winds', 'baying beasts', 'threadbare thatch'), and this comes though very well in the fourth line, where the b/w/b/w/b pattern can't have been easy to create!

All in all, this is an excellent little collection and probably the perfect entry point into Pushkin for the average reader who isn't really that into poetry.  The variety of genres means that you can pick and choose, or you can simply dip into it as you feel the urge.  Another great Pushkin Press publication - even if it did take them more than a decade to get around to commissioning it ;)