Review: "Pushkin and the Wikipedia"
The publication of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov gave rise to a heated polemic in the criticism of the time. In May 1831 one of the first negative responses to the tragedy—and an especially severe one—appeared in the form of an anonymous pamphlet, On Alexander Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, subtitled A Conversation between a Landowner Passing from Moscow through a Provincial Town and a Private Teacher of Russian Literature, Practicing in the Same. Contrary to literary custom at the time, A Conversation did not appear in the pages of a journal, but came out in a separate edition from the printing house of Moscow University and was cleared for publication by the Moscow Censorship Committee. The characters in the pamphlet—a landowner, Petr Ivanovich, and a teacher of Russian literature, Ermil Sergeevich—engage in a discussion of the merits and demerits of Pushkin’s latest literary production. The provincial teacher gives a critical reading of Boris Godunov to the Moscow landowner, who agrees, for the most part, with the teacher’s vitriolic remarks. The general stylistic mode of A Conversation is one of parody or pastiche. The teacher, who does most of the talking, is a bit of a caricature; his turns of phrase are often grotesquely pedantic and he is not averse to parading his Latin on occasion. The laconic and straightforward landowner is running late and is therefore obliged to rush along his grandiloquent interlocutor.
Alexander Pushkin’s Poltava concludes with a paean to the subtle traces of human lives a century after their ends. All that “goes on four feet, two feet and three feet … and is most feeble when it walks on four” passes to dust, thereafter existing in this world only as a shade of past events, perhaps exerting a presence in history or legend and then, possibly, in myth. The barely discernible remains of the Swedish king’s camp at Bender, three steps descending into the belly of the earth, say little about his worthiness as Peter’s foe. The field at Poltava and its trees silently memorialize the warriors who fought and died in the battle. A monument built by the labor of hands commemorates the two “martyrs,” Colonel Iskra and the Judge General Kochubei, concealing the deleterious longing for vengeance against Mazepa that motivated their loyalty to Russia. As for the Hetman himself, the final stanza of Poltava claims that:
Забыт Мазепа с давних пор;
Лишь в торжествующей святыне
Раз в год анафемой доныне,
Грозя, гремит о нем собор.
Mazepa had long been forgotten;
Only during solemnities on holy ground,
Annually unto this day, menacing,
The cathedral thunders anathema on him.
The church renews its curse on the Hetman each year to condemn his betrayal of Russia, not his appalling mistreatment and ultimate abandonment of Maria. Her place in cultural memory resembles Mazepa’s; she is paradoxically both forgotten (lost in “impenetrable darkness”) and remembered only in songs about a “sinful maiden” occasionally sung by a blind, aged rhapsodist.
The cultural myth of Cleopatra was central to the aesthetic sensibility of the Russian Silver Age. Few attempts, however, have been made to unfold the intricate workings of the image of Cleopatra as a fatal lover—an image that proved extremely influential among Silver Age writers and was directly inspired by Alexander Pushkin’s series of prose and verse fragments devoted to the Egyptian queen. Because Cleopatra-like heroines sometimes appear under different names and in different costumes, a rigorous framework for identifying and contrasting these images is in order. This essay outlines the structure, genealogy, and time frame of such a project.
It has been widely assumed that Alexander Pushkin’s Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin (1831) were inspired by the oeuvre of Sir Walter Scott, and most notably by Scott’s Tales of my Landlord, Collected and Arranged by Jedediah Cleishbotham (1816–19) and The Monastery (1820), both works with which Pushkin is known to have been familiar long before he began writing the Tales. That such a link exists seems inarguable; both D. P. Iakubovich and Sona Stephan Hoisington have convincingly demonstrated resonances between Scott’s work and the Tales, especially in relation to the latter’s preface. Nonetheless, I will argue, readings of this connection have so far proven insufficient, neglecting the importance of the broader manuscrit trouvé tradition—and almost entirely overlooking the important mediating role played by Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve’s Vie, poésies et pensées de Joseph Delorme (1829). There is compelling evidence that at the time he was working on the Tales’ preface in late 1830, Pushkin was reading, writing about, and pondering the implications of Sainte-Beuve’s text; indeed, it is well established that Joseph Delorme was the key source for a large part of Pushkin’s literary production of the period. As such, the Tales’ preface may be most fruitfully and most accurately read not as a mere pastiche or spoofing of Scott, but rather as part of a broader dialogue that, while clearly indebted to Scott, is also a direct response to the critical issues brought to Pushkin’s attention by Sainte-Beuve’s Joseph Delorme.
“My ‘Queen of Spades’ is in great vogue,” wrote Pushkin in his diary in April 1834. For almost two centuries the story has been celebrated by readers, with this difference: in Pushkin’s time it stirred the blood of card players, whereas nowadays it heats the imagination of literary scholars. Regardless of the approach chosen for analysis, most critics attempt to crack the mystery of the three cards, returning again and again to the story’s finale. Why does Germann lose the game? Why does the queen appear in the ace’s place? What is the meaning of three, seven, and ace? Interpretations are legion; nevertheless, “something in the text is always missing […] It is either the elusive ace, or the absence of resolution in the debate over realistic versus supernatural motivation, or the lack of a single literary prototype that the heroes […] might be parodying.” In this essay I will argue that inPushkin’stext—constructed in accordance with his idea of a prose work as precise and brief—nothing is missing: Germann’s fatal confusion is predetermined by his movement into and around the countess’s house, and his final loss is a replica of the strategy he himself chooses in order to win. As I will suggest, the appearance of the queen does not represent Germann pulling the wrong card, as is commonly presumed, but means quite the opposite. Therefore, however audacious it may seem, I will propose another possible reading, which will look at Germann’s failure through the prism of Pushkin’s own attitude towards the value of money and marriage in relation to happiness at the time of his work on The Queen of Spades.