Alexander Pushkin. Tales of Belkin. Translated by Josh Billings. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2009. 128. ISBN-13: 978-1-933633-73-2. Paper.
Alexander Pushkin. The Tales of Belkin. Foreword by Adam Thirlwell. Translated by Hugh Aplin. London: Hesperus Press Limited, 2009. xvii + 100. ISBN-13: 978-1-84391-185-2. Paper.
Sang Hyun Kim. Alexander Pushkin’s “The Tales of Belkin”: Formalist and Structuralist Readings and Beyond the Literary Theories. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2008.xxvi + 191. Index. ISBN-13: 978-0-7618-4129-6. Paper.
The new translations of The Tales of Belkin by Josh Billings and Hugh Aplin begin with errors in “A.P.’s” “From the Publisher.” Billings confuses the housekeeper-godmother with the village elder, apparently mistaking the Russian word starosta (village elder) for starukha (old lady), and is thus obliged to substitute the feminine pronoun for the masculine in the following passage, creating the first female estate steward on record (italics mine):
I demanded the estate books, denounced the old woman as a cheat… Just as my searching and strident questioning of the cheating old steward was driving her to the edge of embarrassment and forcing her to silence…” (18)
He does, however, translate kuma as “godmother” (16) in the description of this same woman-into-steward, better than Aplin’s “gossip” (4); on the other hand, Aplin renders pluta-starosta more or less accurately as “rogue of a headman” (5). Both might have consulted Alan Myers (World Classics, 2009)—“rogue of an elder” (5)—and Ronald Wilks (Penguin, 1998)—“roguish elder” (5)—for accuracy. In “The Shot,” Billings translates Baratynskii’s “Strelialis´ my” as “we shot” (21), while Aplin has the more accurate “We exchanged shots” (7), better than Wilks’s “And so we fought a duel” (7) but not than Myers’s “We exchanged fire” (7). In Billings, zlobnaia mysl´ becomes plural “vengeful thoughts” (29), while Aplin has the better “a malicious thought” (12). The Melville House edition calls Belkin a “scholar” on the cover, which does not inspire confidence. Of the two, Aplin’s translation is more accurate and retains more of the humor carried by the styles of the speakers that is key in the Tales; that edition contains “A History of the Village of Goryukhino” as well as a two-and-a-half-page fragment of Pushkin’s on being a poet. But neither Billings nor Aplin has surpassed the existing translations.
Sang Hyun Kim’s study of the Tales of Belkin is designed to provide a theoretical analysis of the tales as a cycle, to get at their “organic unity” (xv). He begins by asking why Pushkin moved the last two stories he wrote to the beginning of the cycle when he published the Tales in 1831, and suggests that “Pushkin persuaded [sic] a number of closely intertwined aesthetic purposes” in so doing; “the texts are created elaborately to achieve his own goal of rebuking the contemporary Sentimental and Romantic clichés by means of irony, parody and mask” (xv). Citing Sergei Bocharov’s 1974 study of Pushkin’s self-conscious transition from poetry to prose, Kim describes this development as the “macro-plot,” finding in the epigraph to the first story, “The Shot,” Pushkin’s “literary shot at his literary opponents” (141), and in the story’s plot a metaphorical destruction of Byronic clichés in the death of Silvio, while in the last tale, “Mistress into Maid,” Pushkin depicts a genuinely Russian, young hero Aleksei who will have a successful marriage (137), so that the story “symbolically prefigures a new start, a married life, not only creating a new form of artistic text, but also interweaving his own real life story with virtual characters” (138). According to Kim, Pushkin’s understanding of svadebnyibyt and literary materials converge to render the theme of the verge between life and death, a theme which dictates the cycle’s structure: the first two stories contain the deaths of Silvio and Burmin, while there are no deaths in the last two (this is inaccurate: Vyrin dies in “The Station Master”); “The Undertaker” acts as a fulcrum between the opposed halves.
In his discussion of “The Station Master,” Kim suggests that Pushkin’s use of the German captions to Samson Vyrin’s pictures of the Prodigal Son conveys a metaphorical rejection of foreign models; it might be more precise to say that the story rejects the imposition of literary models on life on the one hand, and that all Sentimental and Romantic models when Pushkin was writing simply were foreign, or too directly derived from foreign models, on the other. Kim takes up the epigraph which calls stationmasters “tyrant” and applies it to Vyrin, taking Dunya’s side against him since she is the “breadwinner” (99), while ignoring the hussar’s deception of Vyrin and later ejection of Vyrin from his Petersburg home. The narrator does not figure in the discussion as a persona, so the question of his plying Vyrin with drink to get his story out of him does not arise; rather, Kim sees Vyrin as comical when he goes back to pick up the hussar’s money from the Petersburg pavement, because of (quoting Henryk Markiewicz, “On the Definitions of Literary Parody”) “the discrepancy between the model’s high style and a trifling or common object” (97). He also finds Vyrin’s punch-fueled tears comical, and Vyrin’s story “simply irony,” because of “an ironic parallel” with Dmitriev’s “humorous poem, ‘A Caricature’” (98).
The book effectively demonstrates some structural and thematic similarities among the tales: their division into two symmetrical parts, the types of hero, and the theme of weddings. For example, Silvio and Vladimir appear in the first part of the first two tales, and die pointlessly by the end of the second part; both characters’ deaths represent Pushkin’s rejection of Romantic conventions, and enable the marriages that are central to the second part.
Kim examines the four weddings (and a non-funeral), in relation to the eleven stages of Russian folk rituals that surround the wedding. Referring to V. I. Eremina’s book on marriage rituals (1987), Kim suggests that “Dunia comes to her house not from her deep repentance [not posited by Kim or attributed specifically to others], but from the conventional marriage custom according to which any bride pays a visit to her home after marriage.” Kim agrees with critical opinion when he concludes: “From this reading we are able to maintain that Dunia’s fate in the city with Minskii is by no means unhappy,” although the wording seems to suggest that he has revealed a “concealed meaning” that differs from the critical consensus. But Kim usefully connects Dunia’s apparent contentment to the fact that Pushkin “was deeply engrossed in collecting wedding songs and in writing some marriage customs as his manuscripts prove,” i.e., kidnapping the bride was a marriage custom: in Pushkin’s notes there are two specific plans for weddings. Moreover, while in exile in the South he had planned to write “an analysis of the poetics” of the structure of “daily family life” (102); it would be interesting to adduce parallels between these studies and the texts of the Tales to see the degree to which Pushkin incorporated them.
Kim refers to a huge literature in Russian and English, both on critical theory and on the Belkin tales. His first chapter reviews the scholarship related to his topic, none of which, he says, does what he does: examine the thematic unity of the Tales and the theory of the story cycle. Kim’s book does some of this, but distributes his analysis through the book; nowhere is there a clear summary of it. Rather, chapter 4, “The Synthetic Interpretation of The Tales of Belkin,” together with the conclusion, repeat many things stated in earlier chapters. The writing needs a good editor to clarify the English and condense and shape some of the material. Nonetheless, the reader comes away with a new sense of the structural unity of the Tales, their movement from tragic to happy, and of the variations on the theme of marriage as an important unifying feature.