She had “a voice like money.” And with those four short words, F. Scott Fitzgerald described the girl that Jay Gatsby, the Great Gatsby, did everything to win, the girl who would eventually cost him his life. Daisy had “a voice like money.” Reading that, those four short words, you know that what Gatsby thought he had to have to have her, the vast sums of money he was willing to break all the rules to get, meant nothing to her because it was something she had always had. That line, those four commonplace words, stays with you forever, after you have read The Great Gatsby. There are other lines as good as that in the things Fitzgerald wrote. There are more of them in the stories Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s first great writer wrote.
In The Queen of Spades, Pushkin’s best known, and most popular, story, Hermann, desperate to learn the secret of how to win at cards, sends a letter to a woman he is trying to seduce. “It contained a confession of love; it was tender, respectful, and translated word for word from a German novel. But Lizaveta Ivanovna did not know German and found it very satisfactory.” When he sends her more letters, no longer translations, they are written “in a style that was characteristic of him, expressing both the uncompromising nature of his desire and the confusion of his unbridled imagination.”
In The Blizzard, Pushkin captures in a single sentence the dominant influence among Russian women in the early 19th century: “Maria Gavralovna had been brought up on French novels and was consequently in love.” In The Shot, he summarizes he significance of a visit by a rich landowner to one of his estates as “a historical occasion for people living in the country.” They “speak of nothing else for two months before the visit and for three years after.” In The Guests Were Arriving at the Dacha, the mind of those ambitious for place and power, not just in Russia, but everywhere, is understood immediately when Pushkin writes “Vronski, a wealthy young man who usually let his feelings be governed by the opinion of others, fell head over heels in love with her because the Sovereign had once met her on the English Embankment and talked with her for a full hour.”
Some of Pushkin’s stories are based on real events. The Captain’s Daughter, written in 1836, is the story about a remarkable fraud, Pugachev, who claimed to be the real Tsar of Russia, wrongly declared dead by the imposter who had assumed power. Three years earlier Pushkin had written a history of Pugachev and his rebellion, a history that can only be described as impossible to understand, and impossible to put down. One battle follows another in an endless chronicle of momentary victory and temporary defeat, a catalogue of constant advances and regular retreats, butchery on an unbelievable scale, making more remarkable the few, the very few, acts of decent treatment of prisoners and restraint in the treatment of women.
In The Captain’s Daughter, Pushkin uses a single, seemingly minor, incident, a stranger who saves Pugachev, during a blizzard, to make history come alive. The stranger, Petre Andreich Grinev, does not know who Pugachev is or that he is the leader of a rebellion against the Tsar. Sometime later, Grinev, an officer in the Tsar’s army, is taken prisoner by the rebels. Just when he is about to be executed, Pugachev recognizes him and saves his life in turn. The History of Purgachev, so difficult to follow in all its endless detail, is now a drama that holds you, mesmerized, from the very first page.
Pushkin’s place in Russian literature cannot be overstated. The movement from poetry to prose, which took nearly three centuries in the English speaking world, happened in Russia with Pushkin, who, in addition to his remarkably concise prose wrote Russia’s greatest poetic work, Eugene Onegin. Everything Pushkin did as a writer can be found in Onegin, the romantic disillusionment after the fall of Napoleon, the heightened sense of honor that compelled men to fight duels to the death and made women sacrifice the love they felt to the marriages they were sometimes condemned to enter. It has sometimes been said that unless you read Eugene Onegin in the original Russian, you can not appreciate its power, its hold on the Russian soul, but whatever its failings, the translation by Babette Deutsche in the Penguin edition of l965 is powerful enough.
Tatyana is a young girl who lives in the country. Eugene Onegin, older, though still in his twenties, is a landowner visiting his estate.
“The country to the past is tender,
Nor bends to fashion’s tyrannies:
The modern Russian’s worst disease.”
Tatyana falls in love with Onegin and writes to him of her love. His reply is polite,
dismissive, and devastating to her young heart:
“If for a moment I found pleasure
In cosy scenes of fireside life,
You, you alone would be my wife.’
But, “My love, first warm, would soon diminish,
Killed by familiar;
Our marriage would mean misery.
Onegin understands himself, understands that he will never bring happiness to a woman’s
life. In his own eyes, he is a tragic figure, living in a tragic age. Without intending it, he
provokes Tatyana’s brother, Lensky, into a duel.
Tatyana will not see Onegin, “the betrayer.” She must “hate her brother’s slayer.”
But she goes to Onegin’s vacant house where she find herself reading through his books,
which included “Lord Byron’s tales, which well consorted
With two or three bright-backed imported
Romances, upon every page
Exhibiting the present age,
And modern man’s true soul divulging,
One whose embittered mind finds zest
In nothing, but can never rest” (p.169)
Much later, Onegin sees her in St. Petersburg. She is no longer the “poor girl whose adoration
Of him had filled her simple youth
But the proud princess, cold and serious,
The Queen, aloof, remote, imperious
Of the magnificent Neva
Onegin, regretting everything, falls in love and writes her an impassioned letter, to which
she forces herself to reply:
“I love you (why should I dissemble?)
But I became another man’s wife;
I shall be true to him through life.”
Onegin survives a duel and loses forever the women who, though she loved him, marries another man. Dueling and marriage, the violence of misguided men and the loyalty of unfortunate women, are frequently the central thread, the guiding force, if you will, in Pushkin’s stories. It would not be going to far to suggest that they are an obsession In ’Dubrovskii,’ for example, the hero is going to rescue the woman he loves from marriage to an older man she despises but has to marry so her father can recover some of the fortune he has squandered. Dubrovskii, who has become a famous brigand, arrives just after the marriage ceremony has been performed, but he and his men still have time to stop the carriage that is taking the bride and bridegroom away. Durbrovskii tells her that she is now free; she tells him that it is too late. “I am already married.” Too late because she had consented. “I made my vow.” She had waited for Dubrovskii until the last minute. “But now, I am telling you, it’s too late. Let us go free.” And Dubrovskii does what she asks.
The Shot is a story about a duel that, in a way, lasts for years, a duel in which death by itself is not enough to satisfy a diabolical thirst for revenge. Following their instructions, the two duelists, drew lots to decide who would fire first. Silvio, who had been humiliated, slapped in the face by a Polish count, waits until the count has fired and missed. Then he announces that he reserves until a later time his right to fire. He waits for years, until the count has just married and knows for the first time what perfect happiness is. They draw lots again, this time in the count’s study, and again the count gets the first shot, and again he misses, though this time on purpose. The count and his new bride wait for the fatal shot. Silvio starts to leave without firing, but then stops, looks back, and fires twice, leaving two bullet holes in a portrait hanging on the wall, one just above the other, “a remarkable shot,” that proved for those who know the story, what a marksman Silvio had always been.
Marriage and duels of honor over women were the stuff of Pushkin’s great fiction, and Pushkin’s great fiction was the perfect mirror of his own all too brief life. When he was almost thirty-two, he married the exquisitely beautiful Natasha Goncharova, a seventeen year old girl from an impoverished family who, because of Pushkin’s connection with the Tsar, saw in the marriage the possibility of a connection with the imperial court. She quickly became not only the favorite of the Tsar, but the most desirable woman in St. Petersburg. She thrived on the attention, and if she fell in love early and often, she remained faithful, if not very close, to her husband. But because the world, especially the world made up of court romances and court intrigues, reaches its own conclusions, Pushkin was treated with contempt as a husband who could not keep his wife. Driven half mad by gossip, Pushkin challenged one of Natasha’s would be lovers to a duel, and died in the attempt to save his honor. He was only thirty seven.
The end of Pushkin’s story cannot be told without telling the story of the story he never finished, The Blackamoor of Peter the Great. The blackamoor is a young African, Ibrahim, whom Peter sends to Europe to be educated. When Ibrahim returns to Russia, Peter forces a young woman, Natalia, to marry him. Natalia, however, who is in love with someone else, takes to her bed, hoping to die. A household servant tells her when she recovers enough to listen that, “While you’ve been sick the blackamoor has succeeded in charming them all. The master is devoted to him, the Prince raves about him, and Tatiana Afanasevna says, ‘What a pity he’s black; otherwise we couldn’t wish for a better bridegroom.’”
In the same way that The Captain’s Daughter was based on the history of the Pugachev Rebellion, The Blackamoor of Peter the Great is based on the history of the great Russian Tsar. Every court in Europe had in those days young African boys in attendance. Peter the Great wanted one. Abraham Hannibal, the son of a minor Abyssinian prince had been sent as a small child a hostage to Constantinople where he became a member of the Sultan’s household. Peter’s ambassador bribed one of the Sultan’s viziers and Abraham, only eight years old, was sent to St. Petersburg where he was baptized with Peter as his godfather and the Queen of Poland as his godmother. Abraham became the Tsar’s valet, then his groom, and then his private secretary. Gifted and eager to learn, he traveled with Peter to Paris in 1717, where he was left to study for a career as a military engineer. He rose to the rank of captain in the French army, and in l725 returned to Russia where, just as in the story, Peter forces a woman who loves someone else to marry his blackamoor.
Pushkin never finished the story, but the history had an end. The woman hated Abraham so much she was unfaithful to him both before and after the marriage. Abraham divorced her and married another woman with whom he had eleven children, and in 1752, a major-general, he became the head of the Russian Engineers Corps. Abraham Hannibal, the son of an African prince, however, was not only the inspiration for The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, he was also Alexander Pushkin’s great-grandfather. Alexander Pushkin, the great Russian writer was, and remains, the greatest writer of African descent the world has ever seen.