Sunday, February 25, 2007

book of books - The Tales of Ivan Belkin

Pushkin is most well known for writing Onegin, being Russia’s most famous writer and dying after a duel. But even after Onegin, a story written like an extended poem, you want more evidence of his work and this little volume is something well worth seeking out. The stories are a joy to read and he manages to grip your interest in just a couple of pages and then never lets go until the very end.

What made reading this special was the extra interest of the version of the book, which was published in 1954, a year after Stalin’s death, by some sort of Russian literature organisation trying to promote the works of the state to a wider audience. The book, which is stapled with rusting metal, is full of illustrations and that added to the affection for the stories.

Of the stories my favourite two were The Undertaker and The Shot, brief explanations follow below:

The Undertaker
Adrian the undertaker has just moved into a new house which he is very pleased with when his neighbour a German calls on his and his daughters to join him the day after for a meal to celebrate his wedding anniversary. As they make toasts someone makes a joke at the undertaker’s expense asking him why he doesn’t raise a toast to his dead customers. He returns home in a rage and says he will not invite any of them to his house warming and would rather have all of his dead customers there. He returns home that night to find his house full of skeletons all coming in response to his invitation. He faints and then comes round to be told by his housekeeper it was all a drunken dream...or was it?

The Shot
The story evolves around an ex officer, Silvio, who spends his spare time in and around entertaining people from the regiment shooting his pistol. Silvio is an ace shot so when he is insulted by a new comer everyone expects a duel that will end in the life of the fresh entrant to the regiment. But there is no duel and then after receiving a letter Silvio gets ready to leave telling Belkin that he is going to revenge himself on someone who hit him in the face six years before. Five years pass and Belkin meets the count and his wife who are vesting their estate in his village and it turns out to be the man Silvio intended to kill but decided against it after accepting that he had made his rival fear death, which is revenge enough.

Is it worth reading?
To see how someone was playing around with language and literary conventions is fantastic and Pushkin introduces the book not as his own work but as the papers of a deceased landowner Ivan Belkin. This device allows him to produce a series of completely unconnected stories without any explanation. The locations change and the characters but what remains constant is the high quality of writing and anyone considering getting involved with the art of short story writing could learn a great deal from this collection. It has a rhythm, a tight structure and the ability to pull off twists in a limited number of pages.

More evidence if it were needed to justify Pushkin’s position in the Russian literary firmament

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