In his wonderful book Travels in Siberia, Ian Frazier quotes George Kennan (the nineteenth-century explorer, not the twentieth-century diplomat) thus: “In a letter from St. Petersburg to his parents, he wrote of the city’s sights, ‘You can imagine what an effect they produced upon me coming from the desolate steppes of Siberia.'” Kennan goes on to add: “And therein resides a truth: St. Petersburg looks most like itself not when you come to it from the West, an approach that might lead you to think St. Petersburg is merely the West’s imitation; to be affected properly by St. Petersburg you must arrive from the vast East…” I had a similar revelation with regard to Pushkin. I started reading The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin in college (I think “The Stationmaster” was the one assigned in Russian class), and over the years since I’ve read them all, some more than once. Of course I didn’t think of them as in any way “merely the West’s imitation”; I recognized that they were superb short stories, wonderfully told. But they did not stand out to me the way they did just now, coming to them after months of working my way through late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Russian prose: Chulkov, Karamzin, Zhukovsky, Narezhny, Perovsky, and Zagoskin. All of them are good in their different fashions, some sentimental, some satirical, some with a quite sophisticated way of telling a story—but they are all essentially storytellers, aiming to get the reader involved with the characters and care about what happens to them, while perhaps imparting a little moral instruction along the way. Pushkin is playing an entirely different game; he’s immediately recognizable as modern in a way that only Lermontov would match for decades to come, and his stories should be compared to those of writers like Nabokov and Alice Munro rather than those of his contemporaries.
The Belkin stories do not turn on character or on event but on… narrative focus? You’ll have to excuse me, I’m not a literary critic and don’t have a developed system for discussing these things. William Carlos Williams called a poem “a machine made out of words,” and of course that could apply to all of literature; in Pushkin’s case, as in that of any modern writer, the machinery is not hidden, it’s whirring away in plain sight and you’re supposed to admire it, not look past it to the plot and characters. In most of these stories, the plot is fairly ludicrous and the characters cardboard—that’s not what Pushkin is interested in. But each of them pulls a narrative knot tight and makes you wonder how it’s going to get untied; in fact, in a sense they’re comparable to locked-room mysteries. In the first one, “The Shot,” the mysterious Silvio is admired by all and known to be a crack shot, but when insulted he defies everyone’s expectations and the demands of his society by not challenging the man who insulted him; the narrator avoids him because he finds this behavior too painful to confront, but before leaving town Silvio, who has become fond of him, gives him an explanation. Years later a chance encounter fills in the story in a satisfying way; we’re left shaking our heads in rueful amusement. “The Snowstorm” presents a banal subject, a young noblewoman in love with an unsuitably poor army officer, but conjures up the titular blizzard, which like one of Shakespeare’s tempests or magical woods throws everything out of kilter and produces strange results, which are not revealed until the very end of the story (again separated from the first half by a break of some years). The third story, “The Undertaker,” is the slightest (and was the first written), but it’s a lot of fun, and was fun for me in particular because I recognized its jumping-off point as a story by Perovsky, “Lafertovskaya makovnitsa” [The Lefortovo poppy-seed seller], which Pushkin enjoyed so much he wrote his brother that he strode around imitating the proud walk of the black cat/bridegroom who features prominently in it (and was clearly a source of Bulgakov’s Begemot). In fact, I now recognize all the writers Pushkin alludes to or has his characters mention, which is deeply satisfying. Next stop, Gogol’s Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, and then on to more writers new to me, Aleksandr Veltman (Strannik [The wanderer; 1831-32]) and Ivan Lazhechnikov (Poslednii novik, ili Zavoevanie Liflyandii v tsarstvovanie Petra Velikago [The last page, or The conquest of Livonia during the reign of Peter the Great; 1831-33]). This chronological progress through Russian literature may be an odd thing to undertake, but I’m very much enjoying it.