Pushkin Press are known for beautifully designed volumes of translated fiction, usually in a smaller format than most paperbacks. The Queen of Spades and Selected Works by Alexander Pushkin is a gem of a book with its Naples Yellow cover, its fold-over cover and its archival quality paper. I gave up my precious e-reader for a couple of days in order to read it.
Having gloated over the production values of this little book, let me get down to the content. This is a new translation by Anthony Briggs who also provides a short but useful introduction to the works included in the book. It consists of two main stories, The Queen of Spades and The Stationmaster and then a number of poems including The Bronze Horseman which the translator says is “one of the brightest gems of Russian literature”.
THE QUEEN OF SPADES
The highlightof the book is the title story in which Hermann, a young gambler, hears of a friend’s grandmother, an ancient Countess, who became wealthy by learning a gambling secret from a Count St Germain who claimed to be “the Wandering Jew, the discoverer of the elixir of life and the philosopher’s stone”. When the grand-mother was a young woman and in considerable financial difficulty she joined a gaming table for one night, deployed the mysterious secret and won a vast sum of money.
Herman decides to try to obtain the old-lady’s secret by courting her ward, Lizaveta Ivanovna, a lonely young woman who has the job of caring for the cantankerous Countess. Lizaveta is an easy catch for the dashing Hermann but as soon as he obtains the old lady’s secret he abandons her and sets about using the secret method at a high stakes game of cards. There is of course a terrible catch in the secret and I have to admire Pushkin for his ingenuity in dreaming up such a dramatic end to his story.
I was not surprised to find that this story had been filmed several times, and the 1949 version starring Dame Edith Evans was entered into the Cannes Film Festival of that year. The story was also made into an opera by Tchaikowsky and a full-length Russian performance of it can be seen on YouTube. The 1949 film of the book starring Edith Evans can be found online here.
The second story places us in rural Russia in 1816 where a postal station-master lives with his beautiful 14 year-old daughter Dunya. One day, a young Hussar comes by showing signs of being grievously ill. The station-master and his daughter take him ito their home and nurse him back to health, whereupon the Hussar, when fully recovered, tricks the station-master into allowing him to give the young girl a lift to church in his sleigh. Needless to say, the Hussar drives off with Dunya and abducts her, perhaps not against her will, for the two apparently make a good life for themselves.
The story is beautifully written and shows the fate of the three characters as they work through their respective destinies, leading to a sad ending.
These two stories take up about half of the book, the rest consisting of various poems, including The Bronze Horseman which was considered such a significant work of Russian literature that a great statue of Peter the Great in St Petersburg came to be known by the title of the poem. It is a narrative, tragic poem concerning young Yevegny whose dreams of happiness with his wife Parasha are shattered when the River Neva floods and overwhelms the city.
The other poems are interesting and easy to read. A seasonal poem, “Winter – What Shall We Do?” starts unpromisingly -
Winter. What shall we do out in the country? I greet
My servant as he brings my morning cup of tea
With questions. It is cold outside? Has it stopped snowing?
Is there a covering? Should I perhaps get going,
Go for a ride – or stay in bed all day and labour
Through these old magazine passed on by a kind neighbour?
- but develops into a tribute to Russian girls,
The eyes meet first in angled, lingering observations
And then a word or two leads on to conversation
Warm laughter and an evening singing with the sister
With whirling waltzes, secret dinner-table whispers
Long languid glances, mixed with bantering repartee
Protracted meeting on the close stairs, she with me.
Pushkin Press have produced and elegant little volume here which any lover of Russian literature would value. Incidentally, so sure are Pushkin of their products that they offer a year long book-club membership for £99 which will provide you with every new edition published in the year you subscribe.