Tag Archives: Pushkin

Working A Short Story

‘Does your grief sleep or not?’
‘Grief does not sleep,’ I replied.

– Nikolay Leskov, The Make-Up Artist, A Story on a Grave (162)

IMG_0046The Penguin Book of Russian Short Stories, is a collection of twenty short stories by different Russian writers. I began reading, as usual- at one of my jobs, with Pushkin’s The Shot which was about a steady and patient revenge. In between drying dishes and filling out forms, I read the quick tale. Unlike Eugene Onegin, this story is, sadly, not in rhyming verse, never the less it has a charmingly perplexed narrator doing his best to understand a puzzle of a man. When I was finished, it was time to deal with the commode, it’s the sort of task that is undignified all around- do not consider, just do. I think it’s best that way.

‘I don’t want to know! Do you think I’m going to let a sawn-off nose lie around in my room…you fathead!’ – Nikolay Gogol, The Nose (29)

While ironing in the basement I giggle at the weird Gogol and his ridiculous tale of a nose gone wild. No matter how hard I look before, I always find the odd stowed tissue in the shirt sleeves or pockets of the laundered clothes. Usually it comes out in flaky dried up bits I have to crawl around the floor collecting, but this day, the tissues separated into perfectly flat sheets pasted on the clothing. I had to spend some considerable time peeling them off my client’s fluffy bathrobe, too bad poor Kovalyov didn’t consider static cling as an adhesive for his wayward nose.

Later in the day I wandered the yard in search of suitable flowers to cut for the guestroom, I had only just finished Bezhin Lea, a truly beautiful tale by Ivan Turgenev:

I was at once surrounded by an unpleasant, motionless damp, just as if I had entered a cellar. (73)

A sleeping man privy to the fairy tales and superstitions of a group of boys chatting deep into the night. The writing was so beautiful- the story is just lovely good. His power of description and sentiment is wonderful. A short story is such a marvel- precision and economy are vital,  a phrase such as “motionless damp,”  is arresting in its original yet flawless description- it’s quite perfect.

My pride increased over the years and if I had ever actually come to the point of admitting to someone that I was strange I think I should have gone straight home that very evening and put a bullet through my brains. – Dostoevsky, A Strange Man’s Dream (99)

I probably don’t need to cite Dostoevsky with that excerpt. Gotta love him- There are more than commodes not to consider. Too true, my dear.

‘”You’re a foolish girl,” she said, “who does want to at first! Why, life is bitter, but grief’s poison is even more so. But if you quench the burning coal with this poison it will die down for a moment. Take a sip, quickly, take it!”  – The Make-Up Artist (168)

Some days there isn’t enough silver to polish or toaster ovens to clean to quench the burning coal. Based on a story that he heard as a child, The Make-Up Artist is absolutely devastating. Naturally, I loved it. Heartache is the sort of condition that, while turning one’s heart into stone, remains an eternal burning coal. There is nothing to do, nothing with which to douse, no deceptions of perspective that smolder.

The pansies need to be dead-headed. I’ll contemplate my plan for dinner, maybe Tilapia in a white wine sauce with sauteed zucchini, my client loves that.  There will be another story tomorrow.

The Shot, Alexander Pushkin translated by David Richards
The Nose, Nikolay Gogol translated by Ronald Wilks
Bezhin Lea, Ivan Turgenov translated by Richard Freeborn
A Starnge Man’s Dream, Fydor Dostoevsky translated by Malcolm Jones
The Make-Up Artist, Nikolay Leskow translated by William Leatherbarrow

More Bleeding Stumps of Verse

“But the truthfulness of juxtapositions and deductions is sometimes better preserved on the near side of the verbal fence.” – Vladimir Nabokov, The Gift

Maybe it should be called: Inside The Brain of a Writer 101, by Vladimir Nabokov. The sausage making process in all of its fantastic wonder. The only problem is that his sausage tastes so good I can’t think of why I’d ever bother to make my own.  I am left with my sad offerings of “bleeding stumps of verse,” Nabokov’s euphemism for excerpts and quotes. Chagrined but not deterred, I continue –

“But sometimes he envied the simple love life of other men and the way they probably had of whistling while taking off their shoes.” (178)

I think it is the word “probably” in that sentence that makes me love Nabokov so much. He is so astoundingly authentic in his description of life lived in the interior; he admits uncertainty, but come on -let’s have a little fun. He is never so profound and joyful as when he is at his most flippant:

“Because of her I almost forgot butterflies and completely overlooked the revolution.” (161)

Nabokov understands that all experience is sensual, even writing- especially writing. He is not one to leave out bodily or mental functions, and I love him dearly for it. This was Nabokov’s last book written in Russian, and I wish I had a deeper understanding of Russian literature with which to fully experience it, but my limited love affairs with Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Pushkin will have to do.

“Leave Pushkin alone: he is the gold reserve of our literature. And over there is Chekhov’s hamper, which contains enough food for years to come, and a whimpering puppy, and a bottle of Crimean wine.”

I like to think he is referring specifically to one of my all time favorite short stories, Chekhov’s The Lady With The Dog, I can’t remember if her dog ever whimpered, but there was a shared melon that stays with me…After all, does it matter if I comprehend every reference?  At least I am getting to a point in my life where I know what I don’t know. Progress.

“And not only was Zina cleverly and elegantly made to measure for him by a very painstaking fate, but both of them, forming a single shadow, were made to the measure of something not quite comprehensive, but wonderful and benevolent and continuously surrounding them.” (189)

Yes. Perhaps my favorite description of love I have ever read, whether or not it is true I am left to wonder, but I like it all the same. “Made to the measure,” – it’s a lovely notion. A lovely image.

One can get lost inside Fydor’s mind, I think even he gets a little lost in his own mind at times. But the final chapter may just be one of the sweetest I’ve ever read and funny as well with a nude amble through a park’s woods that is forcibly protracted when his clothing is stolen.

There is much about you I don’t like- your Petersburg style, your Gallic taint, your neo-Voltaireanism and weakness for Flaubert- and I find, forgive me, your obscene sporty nudity simply offensive.” (353)

Fydor’s gift is his writing, or rather it is Nabokov showing us his writing from the inside out in a way that is of course a ridiculous impossibility to show, right up until the moment the words find your eyes and it becomes clear that it is an effortlessly obvious thing to show. What was I thinking?

“I have been reciting a fictitious dialogue with myself as supplied by a self-teaching handbook of literary inspiration.” (88)

Oh good, I’m not the only one.

In Nabokov’s view, Fate, apparently, is sweet to some, tenaciously, even insistently, bearing the gift of love. It’s delicious.

Rhyme or Reason

It’s because her love is artless,
And she, not knowing men are heartless. – Eugene Onegin, Pushkin

If I begin to write in rhyme it will not be my fault. Reading is corrupting, the pattern and rhythm soon invade one’s mind. Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is an astounding piece of work. The man wrote in rhyming verse! A novel – in rhyming verse! And perhaps more incredible than that, other people have translated this rhyming verse into different languages. It is a marvel. I read Babette Deutsch’s translation of this devastating tale which is told with exquisite sensitivity and aplomb.

What sort of a man is Onegin? A Misanthrope?:

No syllable of sentiment,
No grace, no flash of merriment,
Lay hid in all the prose they uttered.-
No savoir vivre, no hint of verse;
And when their wives talked, it was worse.

Well, I don’t go in for small talk either, so I can’t hold that against him. But there lies within his core, a certain coolness I abhor (oh dear, a rhyme). But Tatiana is undone completely by her love for him.

For woman is a tender fool,
And love is but the devil’s tool.

It’s painful to witness. And, why? If only we could choose whom we love: command our molecules to paid heed to our senses, not just our sensibilities. I probably should not read Pushkin during my breaks in biology class. But, there must be some molecular explanation for attractions: love, love in the face of hopelessness, the powerlessness to cleave off unrequited love: it’s as if our electrons are fatalists.

‘Complaint will make my pain no less.
He cannot give me happiness.’

Further more, Onegin is a man of inertia. He does not love Tatiana enough to move him to transduction. Later on, when a careless act begins a chain reaction that leads to Lensky’s coffin, there is not enough friction within Onegin to stop it. Does he ever take control of his own life? No. Years later, his feelings are finally pushed along on the wave of societal esteem where Tatiana now finds herself; she is all the more humiliated by his display of wasted dynamic.

Our songs, but are not worth the singing.
Their looks enchant, their words are sweet,
And quite as faithless as their feet.

The absence of love then, is apoptosis: programmed cell death. The cell gets a little messenger molecule that says, “life is not worth living.” Tatiana lives in a state of slow perpetual apoptosis- she deadens herself so that she can live.

This pool we bathe in, friends, this muck
In which, God help us, we are stuck.

And yet, this familiar tale is balanced so divinely on the pen of Pushkin. I think he means to make the reader fall in love with him. Pushkin is a charming flirt if ever there was one. From his hilarious foot fetish of the opening stanzas to the steady interruptions of  commentary on the characters, their actions, and best of all, on his own writing and teasing rhymes.

The frosts begin to snap, and gleaming
With silver hoar, the meadows lie…
(The reader waits the rhyme-word: beaming,
Well, take it, since you are so sly!).

It is a tour de force of storytelling, his pleasure to tell, and ours to read. Pushkin will break my heart as gently as he can, preferably with a glass of Bordeaux in hand and a sweet smile on his face.

I know that life is but a bubble,
My fondness for it is but slight;
I am deceived by no illusion;
But I salute hope’s shy intrusion,