It’s a sad fact that in a lot of 19th-century English-language fiction people of mixed race are regularly presented as double-crossing villains or diabolical sirens. So it’s heartening to remember that two giants of world literature, Alexandre Dumas, author of “The Three Musketeers ,” and Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s most revered poet, were both rightly proud of their black heritage: Dumas’ father, the son of a Haitian slave, rose to become one of Napoleon’s generals, while Pushkin’s great-grandfather, slightly fictionalized, is the romantic hero of “The Moor of Peter the Great.”
That story — never finished — opens “Novels, Tales, Journeys: The Complete Prose of Alexander Pushkin ,” newly translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the seemingly tireless couple who have already brought us contemporary English versions of Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov. Need I add that the result is a wonderful book?
One might, however, argue slightly with its title, since Pushkin published just one very short historical novel, “The Captain’s Daughter.” Set in the 18th century, it mixes comedy, melodrama and horror in a deeply Russian fashion. On his way to a provincial outpost, a young army officer gives his extra coat to a penniless, shivering stranger. That simple act of kindness later saves his life and that of the woman he loves when renegade Cossacks mount a rebellion against the czar.
While the verbal music of Pushkin’s verse-novel “Eugene Onegin” is said to be untranslatable — despite impressive attempts in English by Charles Johnston and James E. Falen — his stories are typically set down in a plain, direct style that almost recalls Hemingway. As Pevear notes, the five “Tales of Belkin” are “as unpoetic, as purely narrative, as possible. They have no commentary, no psychology, no ideas, no flights of rhetoric or authorial digressions. They are cast as local anecdotes, and are told so simply and artlessly that at first one barely notices the subtlety of their composition, the shifts in time and point of view, the reversals of expectation, the elements of parody, the ambiguity of their resolutions.”
Consider, for example, “The Shot,” which opens in a backwater town, where a group of bored army officers spends long evenings playing cards. Their host is a quiet 35-year-old civilian of modest means, who devotes his days to pistol practice. Silvio has grown so expert that he now aims at buzzing flies as they land on the wall of his room. He never misses.
One drunken night over a misunderstanding at cards, a newly arrived officer insults this sharpshooter. To everyone’s surprise, Silvio doesn’t challenge him to a duel. Why not? It turns out that six years earlier, while in the army, he had quarreled with a rich, aristocratic fellow officer and nothing less than pistols at dawn would settle the affront. In an extraordinary passage, Silvio recalls that his adversary was late for their rencontre. Finally, “I saw him in the distance. He was coming on foot, his jacket hung on his sword . . . He approached, holding his cap, which was full of cherries.” This coolly nonchalant scion of the nobility wins the right to the first shot but misses. Then “it was my turn. His life was finally in my hands; I looked at him greedily, trying to catch at least a trace of uneasiness. He stood facing my pistol, picking ripe cherries from his cap and spitting out the stones, which landed at my feet.”
Silvio refuses to shoot. It seems pointless to kill a man who places such little value on his life. Nonetheless, admits the cherry-fancier, “Your shot remains yours; I’m always ready to be at your service.” For six years now, Silvio has waited for the right moment to take that shot. Until his revenge is accomplished, he doesn’t dare risk his life on other duels. But now, he tells the narrator, the time has come: His enemy is about to marry a young and beautiful girl. “We shall see whether he accepts death before his wedding with the same indifference as when he awaited it over the cherries.” You’ll have to read “The Shot” to find out what happens next.
Pushkin’s most famous prose work is undoubtedly the fantasy-horror classic “The Queen of Spades.” While young St. Petersburg gadabouts play cards for small fortunes, the poor and frugal Hermann merely looks on. But one night the young engineer hears a strange story: The Countess Anna Fedotovna, now a capricious, fussy old lady, in her youth was a celebrated beauty. During a sojourn in Paris she gambled regularly at faro and one night lost an extravagant sum. In desperation, the “Muscovite Venus” turned to her admirer, the mysterious Comte de Saint-Germain, who revealed to her a cabalistic secret that guarantees success at cards. To acquire that secret, the key to a fortune, Hermann callously decides to woo the countess’s plain, long-suffering ward.
Again, I’ll say no more. Pushkin, however, is himself similarly tantalizing, since many of his most promising stories exist only as fragments. One, for instance, opens by recalling that Cleopatra, when bored, would spend the night with any man willing to be executed the next morning. Could any modern Russian woman offer such terms? It would seem so, but then the story breaks off.
After you’ve read “Novels, Tales, Journeys,” you can learn more about its astonishing author, killed in a duel at age 37, in T.J. Binyon’s detailed “Pushkin: A Biography” and in the recent reissue of Andrei Sinyavsky’s “Strolls With Pushkin,” translated by Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy and Slava I. Yastremski (Columbia ). Given its title, Sinyavsky’s work is appropriately rambling and easygoing, but also brilliantly iconoclastic about this most iconic of Russian writers.
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursday in Style.
Translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Knopf. 484 pp. $30