Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Book Review: Alexander Pushkin: The Bridegroom ...

Russians often lament the fact that the most popular Russian writers in the West are heavy players like Tolstoi and Dostoevskii.. They ask why we fail to appreciate their national treasure, Pushkin.  Perhaps it is because Pushkin's verse and even his prose, is so notoriously difficult to translate, and those who try so often fail to convey his unique combination of playfulness and seriousness. For a true appreciation, it is also no doubt. necessary to have some understanding of how Pushkin and his work were influenced by the.political and historical context of his time.

Following his previously highly-praised translation of Pushkin's Little Tragedies, Antony Wood has once again succeeded where others have failed in combating the first of these problems. This version of three of Pushkins exquisite verse narratives reads like the originals, full of verve, wit and rich rhyme. The delightful fluency with which they read in English is a tribute to Wood's skill as a translator.

These three verse narratives (The Bridegroom, Count Nulin and The Golden Cockerel) are illustrative of the immense breadth and variety of Pushkin's oeuvre, being examples of the lyrical ballad; full-scale narrative poem; and skazka (folk or fairy tale) respectively. The selection of these three works is also representative of the highly derivative nature of much of Pushkin's work, but with the uniquely Russian gloss which only he could add. Pushkin laid the basis of a truly Russian literature, using as his foundation both the literature of the Russian country nobility (dream interpreters, large-scale romantic novels and histories) and the traditional oral story-telling of the peasantry with which he had grown up; and the foreign (English, French, German and Scottish) literature popular in Russia and much of Europe at the time.

The Bridegroom is the darkly sinister tale of a merchant's daughter and a highly traumatic experience which she has recently undergone, but feels unable to relate to her parents. It is only at her wedding, and through the meshing of dream and reality, that the truth is uncovered. Beginning with a hint of mystery, the suspense builds with alarming pace in this tightly written verse tale, holding the reader gripped until the secret of what has happened to poor Natasha is revealed. Borrowing the metrical form of a German Romantic Ballad, but combining it with a story of almost Gothic horror (possibly based on an oral tale told by his nanny), Pushkin's skill as a story teller is showcased at its very best.

The contrast with the delightfully comic second tale is intriguing. Conceived by Pushkin as a parody of Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece, in Count Nulin he sets out to determine what might have happened had Lucrece slapped Tarquin's face, thereby changing the course of history. Written whilst Pushkin was working on Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse (Penguin Classics), his famous epic novel in verse, Count Nulin provides a comprehensive portrait of the boredom and trivial nature of country life and people, and contrasts it with the eponymous journeying dandy of the title.

Returning from Paris and cursing 'Holy Russia' for its backwardness, Nulin is very much the modern man of the time, and his threat to 'true' Russia in the person of Natalya Petrovna, is subtly drawn out by Pushkin. Finished in late 1825, on the very day the Decembrist uprising was being suppressed in St. Petersburg, Pushkin's exploration of the battle between tradition and modernity in Russia, and his attempt, as he puts it, to re-write history is fascinating. The comic nature of the tale adding to, rather than distracting the reader from, these bigger issues.

The last verse narrative, The Tale of the Golden Cockerel, is an exquisite example of the genre for which Pushkin is perhaps best known in the West, the skazka [fairy tale]. Beginning with the Russian equivalent of our own 'Once upon a time...', we are transported to fairy land, here ruled over by the rather unpleasant despot Tsar Dadon. In his old age he is under siege from his enemies and looks for assistance to a eunuch-astrologer. The astrologer gives him a golden cockerel which will keep watch over Dadon's realm and warn of any approaching troubles. For his assistance the eunuch is promised riches and anything he asks for from the Tsar. However, the Tsar does not fulfil his promise and later kills the eunuch-astrologer, but of course gets his just desserts in the end.

Written in 1834, when Pushkin himself was at the mercy of the vain, militaristic autocrat Nicholas I, the prallels are obvious. Tied to the court which he had long-served, but denied the rewards he felt entitled to, Pushkin's caricature of Nicholas and his dishonesty is cutting. But like the best fairy tales, the moral of the tale is framed in a magical story of David versus Goliath, with elements of witchcraft and the supernatural.

As in the other two tales, Pushkin transports the reader into the realm of his story, only to return us to earth with a bump when his job is done. In this convincing deception the master storyteller is well served by Antony Wood's lively and sympathetic translation.

Wood's end notes adequately and honestly illustrate the problems of translating Pushkin into English and also explain what he has done to counter them. This is admirable and interesting, even to the non-specialist reader, while also giving some idea of the sound and musicality of the Russian. The afterword also gives a brief overview of Pushkin's life and work, and an indication of the circumstances surrounding the creation of each of the verse narratives featured here.

This impressive new translation gives the non-Russian reader a true flavour of Pushkin and goes some way to illustrating his seminal influence on Russian literature.

This review was originally published in The East-West Review, the journal of The Great Britain-Russia Society.

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  1. I've never really been a fan of russian literature. Maybe I'll give it a go one day ;)

  2. Interesting review. I mainly stick to one kind of book (young adult fiction) - maybe I should branch out?!


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