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The Queen of Spades by Alexander Pushkin – review


An unusual selection of a surprisingly modern master's work

Well, it's taken Pushkin Press 15 years to get round to it, but at last it has published a book by its namesake. "The Queen of Spades" not being the longest of short stories, it has added more material. Anyone who publishes that story is obliged to, in order to fill up the pages, but I don't recall seeing an edition that includes all the additional works here. "The Bronze Horseman", yes, but I think I would have remembered the 200-odd-line poem "Tsar Nikita and his 40 Daughters". The story concerns how one deals with the problem of one's 40 daughters, conceived with an undisclosed number of different wives, not having any vaginas between them. Anyone who has read Gogol's superb and mind-bending story "The Nose" will recall that there is a precedent for Russian writers giving parts of the body autonomous agency and form; this, actually, is the precedent, for it predates that story by more than a decade, and poses, and answers, the question of how to recapture 40 replacement vaginas which have flown off into the trees. (You can't work out how to do it? The story provides a simple, elegant and plausible solution.)

One does not want to dwell on this too much, but you can see why Pushkin might have been interested in telling the tale once you consider that the word he typically used to describe women was the same word Henry Miller used – you know, the one that rhymes with "punt". And he was certainly – how shall I put this? – puntstruck. The bearer of the replacements puts his nose to the casket and says, "I know that whiff!"

Yet vulgarity was rarely the defining note when it came to his work. One of the many intriguing things about Pushkin is that although he was by nature the most persistent of seducers (I put it delicately), and most loose in morality, his verse, though influenced by Byron, was not comically loose or slipshod, as Byron could be. The verse was tight and elegant all the time: something that those of us without any Russian have to bear in mind, but that is evident to all Russians. The translator of this volume provides a very good introduction which explains why Pushkin is so popular, to this day, in Russia: "Pushkin did for the Russian language what Chaucer did for English – but with a big difference. Pushkin's Russian is totally of today. He created a vibrant, modern language out of several different strands that needed to be woven together, predominantly vernacular Russian, French and Old Church Slavonic." So one might also add that he did for Russian what Dante did for Italian.

There is a link between the modernising nature of his linguistic approach and the way his stories do not seem to date. (We can also thank the easy fluency of the translator's style.) So it took me a couple of pages to finally have it fixed in my head that the stationmaster, in the eponymous story, has to deal with horses rather than trains; and the short verse drama "Mozart and Salieri" seems so familiar because Peter Shaffer sucked up every word of it for Amadeus. And while we're on the subject of music, Briggs proposes that no one else besides Shakespeare has had so many musical works inspired by his words. Could this be the case?

You might think £10 for a short volume like this is a bit much, but as with all Pushkin books it is a thing of beauty, and its contents are worth turning to again and again. The last work here, "I Have My Monument", takes as its epigraph and subject-matter Horace's "exegi monumentum": the claim that his verses will live for centuries. One wonders how many poets have said this who now live in obscurity, but in Pushkin's case the claim is warranted. And remember this, too, which might also account for his enduring popularity: "That in a cruel age I sang the cause of freedom, / And for the fallen called for mercy."

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