Ivan Petrovich Belkin left behind a great number of manuscripts.... Most of them, as Ivan Petrovich told me, were true stories heard from various people.
First published anonymously in 1830, Alexander Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin contains his first prose works. It is comprised of an introductory note and five linked stories, ostensibly collected by the scholar Ivan Belkin. The stories center variously around military figures, the wealthy, and businessmen; this beautiful novella gives a vivid portrait of nineteenth century Russian life.
It has become, as well, one of the most beloved books in Russian literary history, and symbolic of the popularity of the novella form in Russia. In fact, it has become the namesake for Russia’s most prestigious annual literary prize, the Belkin Prize, given each year to a book voted by judges to be the best novella of the year.
It is presented here in a sparkling new translation by Josh Billings. Tales of Belkin also highlights the nature of our ongoing Art of the Novella Series—that is, that it specializes in important although albeit lesser-known works by major writers, often in new tranlsations.
Alexander Pushkin is considered to be one writer and poet (mostly poet, but he definitely wrote some fantastic prose writings as well) who started to use Russian language in a way it is widely used today. I should probably say was used when I was growing up – I am well read in Russian literature of 19 and 20 century but can’t claim that about the works written in 21 century. If you know Russian though you will see the difference between the language Pushkin wrote and the writers that came before him. I am biased obviously but in my opinion he only wrote great stories during his short life (he died after a duel which he was fighting over his wife when he was 38). His most famous work is “Eugene Onegin” – novel in verse. If you don’t know Russian, don’t read it, just don’t. I am not saying this because I think translations are bad. Granted, I am having trouble reading almost any Russian classics in English, but that’s mostly because I am used to book speaking to me in a certain language, you know? Especially if I reread it multiple times while growing up. For example I barely managed to finish Dumas’ “Three musketeers” in English as well, and obviously that book was not originally written in Russian, but when I reread it over twenty times in my life, the book speaks to me in Russian and for all I know maybe the translation from French was horrible.
Anyway, what I am trying to say is the reason why I suggested not to read “Eugene Onegin” in English is different than usual. It rhymes in Russian – it does not in English, it lost the music to me. Don’t read it.
What I bring to you instead is another one of my many favorites of his works. Five novellas united together by a fictional writer Ivan Petrovich Belkin, who supposedly wrote these stories and the publisher is supposedly publishing them posthumously. In the foreword the publisher is going as far as to give us a brief biography of Mr. Belkin, who died when he was thirty in his friend’s arms and left many manuscripts afterwards – supposedly those were his first attempts (Belkin’s that is, most assuredly this was not Pushkin’s first writing attempts).
So we have five novellas – supposedly those are true stories told to Belkin by other people which he just fictionalized. The fictitious publisher which has the same initials as Pushkin did even names those people by their initials. I found it funny that two of the stories which I could wholeheartedly recommend to romance readers were supposedly told to Belkin by young lady such and such, but the guys told him the other three.
I first read them all in middle school or high school (not hundred percent sure) and was rereading the two love stories many times. I am also very fond of the third story. The other two are without doubt just as good writing wise, but I almost forgot about them before this reread and I realized why I was not tempted.
The translation I have read was apparently published in the “Art of the Novella” series. All these stories are great examples of what I personally want to see in novelettes/novellas. They are complete, they tell me a lot about characters, but they do not attempt to squeeze too much in the limited page space. The whole book is 1211 locations on my kindle and the last one (the one which I would probably be most comfortable placing in the Romance genre) probably occupies one third of the book, so the other four are even shorter. In Russian they are still called novellas, but maybe they should be called novelettes? I am not sure.
The first story in this collection is called “The shot”. The narrator remembers a charismatic older guy he met when the narrator was a young soldier. He talks about them being stationed in the small town and being bored, Sylvio (older guy and when I say older I mean few years older) being a center of their company and how much he worshipped Sylvio for being a great shot and being so charismatic. One evening they were playing cards and one guy suspected Sylvio (wrongly) of the foul play, all of them expected Sylvio to call the other guy for a duel after that, but he never did and everybody was very disappointed with him, but especially the narrator. Shortly thereafter Sylvio had to leave the town and because the narrator liked him so much and Sylvio was fond of him as well, Sylvio decided to explain himself in more details – why he supposedly did not defend his honor and did not call out the stupid guy who insulted him.
Basically Sylvio explained that he had an unfinished duel to fight and could not chance the possibility small as it was that he would die in this duel. He leaves and because of the strange coincidence the narrator himself few years later learned the ending of that unfinished duel between Sylvio and his enemy. I will let you to find out what happened on your own.
I will say that much – duels always fascinated me, always. On one hand, the idiotic way to lose your life if you ask me, on the other – so many possibilities to show your true colors as a person. And several Russian poets of 19 century died after the duel, including Pushkin himself as I mentioned above. I think this story had some Byronic motives in it.
The second story is called “The snowstorm”.
This one has romantic elements galore and happy ending. Young girl of seventeen, daughter of wealthy Russian landowner falls in love over her head with the guy from poor family. Her parents think she can make a better match and forbid her to see him. They decide to elope together and get married nearby and come back. Initially it is not clear (deliberately) in the story what exactly happened during their attempt to elope, but it is clear that because of the snowstorm the poor guy got lost and never met his fiancé where they were supposed to meet. The girl comes back home, her parents had no clue that she was not sleeping at home all night and her maid does not say anything to anybody, however very soon after she comes home the girl comes down with fever and she was between life and death for couple of weeks. Basically even though maid kept her secret, she was talking while feverish and parents realized how much she is in love and decide if that was the guy she wants, fine. Alas, too late, young broken hearted idiot enlisted in the army (the year is 1812 by the way) and eventually died fighting Napoleon.
Three years later, young woman and her mother are living together, her dad died, the woman is wealthy but she does not really care for the suitors. Until the war ends and certain hussar comes back from it – stay tuned to find out what happens.
After several years of not rereading the story I was amazed just how short this story was – it always felt longer to me, but not too long. They even made a movie out of this story with beautiful music too.
The third story is the “Undertaker” which I suppose shows what it was for the person who may have achieved some financial success but does not get much respect from his provincial neighbors due to his profession. The main reason I have not reread it is because it has a horror element, but it is not really tragic. It is realistic I guess.
The fourth story is “The stationmaster”. The narrator talks about the stationmasters in Russia getting bad reputation undeservingly and remembers a guy whom he met before and tells us his tragic story. No happy ending here, be warned.
The last and my other favorite story in this collection is called “The Lady Maid”.
Once again we have the provincial town and two wealthy land owners, one of them thinks that Russia should follow Europe and the other that Russia should follow Russian way of life – mind you this is not the story about philosophical conflict, supposed difference of opinions is just an excuse for them to fight in their everyday lives since they live close-by. However because of what happens one day they decide to stop fighting. And lo and behold, one guy has a beautiful, smart daughter and the son just came back to visit other guy. Son wants to join the army. Their fathers think that hey, we stopped fighting, why not make it so our children would get married. At least they should introduce themselves to one another. Children as you could imagine have a mind of their own. Then the events take an unexpected turn. The story ends well. I don’t know whether I would call it a happy ending or HFN, but as HFN it is very solid in my opinion.
The movie based on this story was also lovely.