Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) is said to be the founder of Russian literature, but it is also said that unless you can read his poetry in Russian, you will never really understand how great he is, nor why Russians revere him so.
Well, my Russian is confined to being able to count to ten or order a coffee, so I’m a long way from being able to read the great man’s poetry. But I have read his short story, The Shot (1831), so that I can at least claim to have read a little of their romantic literary hero.
The story has a certain frisson because it’s about a duel and Pushkin died aged only 37 as the result of a duel – with the otherwise forgettable Georges-Charles de Heeckeren d’Anthès who had tried to seduce Pushkin’s flirtatious wife Natalya. According to Wikipedia, Pushkin was a hot-tempered fellow, fighting 29 duels altogether to defend his honour. He was not the only young man to die prematurely in this type of stupid testosterone display, but his death was certainly Russia’s most tragic literary loss.
Like all members of the nobility at that time, Pushkin was required to do military service, so he was familiar with the lifestyle of a young officer (later deplored for its pernicious effects by Tolstoy in Resurrection). The Shot’s narrator is a young man whose regiment is deployed to a dull country town where the young officers do riding-drills in the morning and while away the evening with drinking and playing cards. Only one of the card players, called Silvio by the narrator though that is not his name, is a civilian, and he is a former Hussar whose reasons for early retirement are not known. He is caustic and taciturn and not very well off, though he can afford plenty of champagne. He keeps up his skill with the pistol by shooting holes in the walls of his room.
One day there is a squabble at cards, and he is ‘insulted’ by a newcomer to the regiment who does not know about Silvia’s accomplishments with pistols. To the astonishment of the young men, Silvio does not demand satisfaction for the insult, and in their impressionable young eyes, he sinks in their estimation. Six years go by before there is an explanation: a letter has come, and before Silvio departs he wishes to explain himself to the narrator, for whom he retains a fondness.
It turns out that Silvio has been unable to indulge his feelings of indignation with anyone because of unfinished business in another duel some time ago. The cause was simple: of all the dissolute young men in his regiment, he had been the most devil-may-care until the advent of a rival. The resulting duel is shambolic: the officer is so arrogant that he refuses to pay Silvio the respect he deserves even when the moment comes for Silvio to take his turn with the pistol. ‘What is the use’, [he thought], ‘of depriving him of life, when he attaches no value whatever to it?‘ Silvio decides that he will take his revenge at some other time, and waits, brooding, for a time when his victim values his life more highly.
Years pass, and the narrator has had to abandon the good times in the regiment to take care of family responsibilities (presumably running the estate). Once again the village is dull, so there is great excitement when, after a long absence, a rich neighbour returns to a nearby estate. A visit to this neighbour provides an explanation – and a resolution which has a special poignancy given the circumstances of Pushkin’s own death.
By the time Pushkin wrote this story he had already written his drama Boris Gudonov (completed in 1825, and published in 1831 but censorship under the Tsar prevented its performance until 1866) and his great verse novel Eugene Onegin (serialised between 1825 and 1832). According to Wikipedia, although it pre-dates the concept as popularised in Ivan Turgenev’s novella The Diary of a Superfluous Man (1850), Eugene Onegin is an example of the Russian literary concept of the ‘Superfluous Man‘:
It refers to an individual, perhaps talented and capable, who does not fit into social norms. In many cases this person is born into wealth and privilege. Typical characteristics are disregard for social values, cynicism, and existential boredom. Typical behaviors are gambling, romantic intrigues, and duels. He is often unempathic and carelessly distresses others with his actions. The Superfluous Man can be seen as a nihilist or fatalist.
My guess is that students of Russian literature amuse themselves by analysing the character of Silvio in The Shot as a ‘Superfluous Man’. Is he Byronic enough? I think so!
I have bought the Collected Works of Gogol and Turgenev and also Eugene Onegin for the Kindle and plan to read some of them while I’m away. But the Kindle is behaving very badly, not holding its charge for as long as it used to, and the charger not seeming to work at all if it runs down altogether. I am a tad anxious about being stranded with nothing to read!
Author: Alexander Pushkin
Title: The Shot, in The Alexander Pushkin Collection, Six Works in One Volume
Publisher: Halycon Books, , Kindle Edition, 2009
Source: Personal collection, on the Kindle