Review: The Queen of Spades – Alexander Pushkin

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 STATION-MASTER

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.

POETRY

The Bronze Horseman, St Petersburg

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.

12 comments to Review: The Queen of Spades – Alexander Pushkin

  • Another one for my wishlist!
    I think I’d better ask The Spouse for a Peirene Press subscription for Xmas…

  • Doh! Pushkin Press, not Peirene. They publish lovely translations too.

  • I like it when a book is physically constructed with quality. Perhaps in the future we will only really have books constructed in such a way as lower quality printing may be pushed out by ebooks.

    The content sounds good too.

    I am surprised that I have never seen the film version of Queen of Spades. I am a real fan of films from this era and type. I will have to give it a look.

  • I wish I’d read this before going to Russia. I had read one short story by Pushkin, but not this major work about the Bronze Horseman. It’s a bit like visiting England without knowing Shakespeare, you feel a bit ignorant not being familiar with one of their best-loved writers, that every Russian schoolkid knows.

  • This hasn’t made it to N. America yet, but doubtful I’ll splurge in spite of the aesthetics as I already have several versions. Oddly enough I just came across an article in which the owners of Pushkin Press said they’d realised that in spite of the name, they’d never actually published any Pushkin and were about to remedy that.

  • Tom

    Guy – yes, its their first Pushkin. I wonder why they named the press after him – doubtless I could find out with a bit of googling. I didn’t mention in the review that this story is readily available for free on a number of download sites – but not in this new translation of course. Thanks for visiting.

  • Tom

    Lisa – thanks for visiting. I’d never heard of the Bronze Horseman and to be honest this is my first Pushkin too. I’m doing quite well as I read my fist Gogol story this month also! Of the two, I think I’d like to read a Gogol boon next – he seems to be more anarchic and interesting from what I can tell. Lucky you for visiting Russia

  • Tom

    Brian – I’m sure you’re right – printed books could become a niche market for connoisseurs. You can see the whole of the film here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_S9xa3gka4

  • BTW I’ve looked into subscribing but it’s much cheaper to buy the books ad hoc via the Book Depository because they don’t charge for postage. Unfortunately, if you buy the books direct from Pushkin or if you subscribe, (unlike deliveries to the UK and Europe), deliveries to the rest of the world i.e. to me in Australia are by surface mail. (See Pushkin’s website).
    And as anyone who’s had to use it knows, surface mail takes months.

  • I like Gogol too. I’ve only read The Nose, and The Night Before Christmas so far, but I liked them. (I haven’t got round to doing a post about The Nose, but the other is at http://wp.me/hTIP).
    And I have an audio book of Dead Souls on my TBR.

  • More Poetry, fantastic! And Pushkin this looks wonderful.

  • this does sound great like the other have said and I must admit I ve not read a lot by him ,thanks for sharing Tom ,all the best stu

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