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Svetlana Ter-Minasova "Alexander Pushkin's Prose in the English-Speaking World"

Svetlana Ter-Minasova –

Doctor of Philology, Professor

Faculty of Foreign Languages and Area Studies

Lomonosov Moscow State University

Tel.: (495)734-03-44

Email: president@ffl.msu.ru

Alexander Pushkin's Prose in the English-Speaking World

Despite the devout adoration in Russia, A.S. Pushkin is not as popular with English-speaking readers as other classical Russian writers. This article argues that one of the best ways to help foreign readers understand and appreciate Pushkin is to supply the Russian learner editions of his works with proper commentary. A contrastive study of four editions of The Belkin Tales reveals two types of commentaries to extralinguistic information: 1) encyclopaedic, providing factual data only; 2) creative, establishing a link between facts, cultural and social context, and the author himself. The latter type of commentary is of much greater value as it both reflects the existing attitudes of foreign readers to Pushkin and shapes their perception of his literary work.

Key words: Russian literature, Alexander Pushkin, perception of literature, English-speaking reader

There are various ways to judge the reader's understanding of foreign literature. The most obvious, natural, and direct one is to find out what literary critics of a country (or countries) think about a foreign writer, i.e. to study the corresponding literary criticism on the subject. In this case it would mean to study the English-speaking critics' literature on Pushkin. However, that is not the point of this paper, and a brief survey of the state of the art in this field will be given only in order to illustrate the general background of the problem of understanding Pushkin outside Russia.

It is a well-known fact that Alexander Pushkin, "the sun of Russian poetry, "the number-one name in Russian literature (which is quite rich in great names) is less popular with English-speaking readers than are Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, even Gogol and Turgenev. In England he is unpopular both with readers and with some literary critics who accuse him of eclectics, dilettantism, and superficiality.[1]

A burst of interest in Pushkin in America in the middle of the 19th century had a political basis: abolitionists used the African line in Pushkin's origin in their struggle against racism.[2]

Most scholars attribute his unpopularity outside Russia to the untranslatability of his poetry. These difficulties with translations of Pushkin's literary works were predicted by the Decembrist[3] Nikolai Bestuzhev: "Pushkin's charm is in his poems which, as a reviewer once said, glide like pearls on velvet. Ryleev's [4] strong point is in the power of his emotions, in his spiritual fire. Translate both poets into a foreign language and you will see that Pushkin will become lower than Ryleev. The latter's ideas cannot be caught in translation; the charm of the word as well as the enchanting harmony of the poems by the former will be completely lost."[5]

A deep and acute English literary critic, A.D.P. Briggs, who is a great expert in Russian literature in general and Pushkin in particular, not only clearly realised but also explained quite well to everybody else that Pushkin's works have been playing a unique and very special role in Russian culture, language and literature for the Russian people. He emphasised that since the charm of Pushkin's poetry is lost in translation, the foreign reader needs a special explanation.[6]

It is this "special explanation," or commentary to Pushkin's literary works that is used in this paper as an indirect - and more objective than literary criticism - way of penetrating into the perceptions of Pushkin by the English-speaking reader.

As is well-known, since the mid-20th century the American reader has shown a great interest is Russian literature. Indeed, in the 20th century both Russia and the USA were the most important political centres of the world, so an interest in Russia, its literature, its culture, and its language was historically and socially deep-rooted.

Consequently, the problem of teaching Russian as a foreign language has been in the focus of both public and scholarly attention. One of the most crucial aspects of this issue is, of course, that of language - teaching material in general and the use of fiction for teaching purposes in particular. Heated arguments on the ethical and aesthetic aspects of "distorting" literary masterpieces (adapting, digesting) have led to the conclusion that the best way to use fiction for language teaching is to study the original with the help of detailed explanations. These explanations in Russian academic literature on the subject are called "the learner's commentary."

The research material for this paper is this kind of commentary to Pushkin's "The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin" published in different countries and at different times but with the same purpose: for the teaching and learning of Russian as a foreign language. The commentaries, which have been studied from two points of view: what is explained and how it is explained, help understand the reader's perception of Pushkin. It must be specially noted that commentaries not only reflect this perception but also - and this is very important! - shape it.

Pushkin's prose has been chosen for investigation for obvious reasons: 1) the problem of "untranslatability" of poetry can be forgotten and 2) readers are generally more interested in prose than in poetry. Pushkin stated himself in 1836: "Poetry is usually enjoyed by the chosen few while novels and stories are read by everybody everywhere."[7]

The research is based on the contrastive study of "The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin" published for learners of Russian:

in London, 1945

in Oxford, 1947

in Moscow, 1975

in California, USA, 1983.

As always, the commentaries include language difficulties as well as extralinguistic facts: realia of social life, history, culture, etc. This paper deals only with the latter, with the so-called "real commentary," the commentary of real extralinguistic data: geographic and proper names, historical persons and events, and peculiarities of Russian social and cultural life.

It has been assumed that explaining extralinguistic facts is easier than language commentaries proper.[8] It is interesting to see how different may be the ways of commenting upon even this kind of most obvious, "easiest" material, which, as it were, does not require any creative efforts from the commentator. Indeed, it may be true in those cases when the notes simply quote dictionary and encyclopaedia entries, and this kind of approach can be called "encyclopaedic." It is in this way that commentators explain such realia as: "The Senate Gazette," Borodino, Artemisia, the Nikitsky Gate, Fonvizin, the Cross of St George in his button-hole, Pamela, "The Minor," etc.

In all these cases the notes are confined to some popular encyclopaedic data about these people, places, and facts without any attempt to connect them with this particular literary text. The author of the notes is expected to give the reader some adequate information, exact data which are not misleading - this is the only requirement for the commentator.

Thus, for instance, Borodino, mentioned in "The Blizzard" is commented upon with varying degrees of volume of information, but the general approach remains purely encyclopaedic, which means that the explanations are quite objective and do not reveal any national or contextual connotations.

London 1945: The battle which was fought at Borodino on August 24-26, 1812. The Russians had 50 thousand killed and wounded, but the engagement was not fought to a finish, and Napoleon understood that the war with Russia was only beginning.

Oxford - 1947: The battle of Borodino was fought on 7 September, 1812 (according to the Russian calendar, 26 August).

Moscow - 1975: On the 26th of August, 1812, a most important battle of the Patriotic War was fought between the Russian and the French armies at the village of Borodino (approx. 69 ml. from Moscow).

This is an example of the encyclopaedic approach. However it is possible to explain facts of reality in a different, more creative way. This kind of commentary is philological or socio-culturally-oriented and alongside with the objective information of encyclopaedic kind, it tries to reveal, on the one hand, specific national (political, cultural, etc.) connotations and, on the other hand, the inner contacts between the realia under discussion and the purport of the work of literature.

Commentary of this kind cannot be called "non-creative," and its author's task is far from being confined to the mechanical transfer of data from encyclopaedia to explanatory notes. This way of explaining facts of reality may be called "creative" as it is based on a creative approach to the explanation of facts of real life. The creative commentary of realia, besides concrete encyclopaedic data, must be:

1)      culturally oriented, that is, it should reveal the national peculiarities of perceiving the fact, all the connotations that this fact has in the eyes of native speakers;

2)      contextually oriented, i.e. it should show the part the fact under explanation plays in creating the artistic purport of the work of literature.

Here is an example of a culturally oriented commentary. The following notes reveal the national, Russian, perception of the name of the town of Tula mentioned in "The Blizzard": "Sealing both letters with a Tula seal..." The town of Tula is associated by Russians with samovars, rifles and metal-work. Interestingly, only London Commentary gives some encyclopaedic (in this case, geographic) data, the others give only cultural information.

London - 1945: Tula is the capital of the government of the same name in Central Russia. It is famous for the manufacture of hardware (iron and silver).

Oxford - 1947: So called because of the town of Tula famous for its metal-work.

Moscow - 1975: A seal made in the town of Tula, which was famous for its hardware (iron and silver).

Let us see now the ways the name of Artemisia is explained. The name is mentioned in "The Blizzard": Queen of the city of Halicamassus in Caria, renowned in history for extraordinary grief of the death of the husband (fourth century B.C.).

Oxford - 1947: Artemisia 2, (4th century B.C.) queen of Halicamassus in Asia Minor who erected in memory of her husband Mausolus a magnificent monument thereafter called Mausoleum, which was considered one of the seven wonders of the world.

Moscow - 1975: Artemis (4th cent. ВС), a legendary queen of Halicamassus, Asia Minor, known for her boundless devotion to her husband, King Mausolus. After the King's death she had a magnificent tomb (the Mausoleum) built in his memory. One of the wonders of the world.

California - 1983: Artemisia (350 d. ca. ВС) bereft widow of Mausolus, King of Caria (d. ca. 353 ВС), in his memory in Halicamassus.

Out of the four commentaries it is the Oxford one that is of most encyclopaedic character: it informs the reader of the time, place, the status of Artemisia, and of the Mausoleum as one of the seven wonders of the world, but lacks the most important context-oriented information, namely, that Artemisia is a symbol of grief of the death of the husband. This cultural information is emphasized in London and Moscow commentaries. London commentary lacks encyclopaedic information (neither Mausolus nor Mausoleum are ever mentioned). Moscow and California commentaries are, probably, the best as they give both kinds of information.

Notes to the name of Razgulyay ("The Undertaker") in the Moscow commentary are of purely encyclopaedic character: "the name of square in Moscow." Oxford commentary, however, not only makes this information more precise (not "a square" in modern Moscow but "a quarter" in the Moscow of Pushkin's time) but also adds contextually oriented explanations: a quarter in Moscow close to the Basmannaya where Adrian used to live.

The opening phrase of "The Undertaker" has some real facts requiring explanations: "The last of the effects of the undertaker, Adrian Prokhorov, were loaded up on the hearse, and for the fourth time a couple of scrawny nags trudged their way from Basmannaya Street to Nikitskaya...." In this case it much more important to explain to the reader that Basmannaya and Nikitskaya are "two roads situated at the extreme ends of Moscow: the first in the north-eastern part of the town, the second in the south-western one" (Oxford commentary) than to inform him/her that these are streets in Moscow and the distance between them is three miles (Moscow commentary). In contemporary Moscow three miles is no distance at all and the streets are considered to be next to each other. That is why it is important to make it clear to the reader that in Pushkin's time these streets were at the extreme ends of Moscow. Oxford commentary here fulfills its main task: it restores the vision of facts at the time and in the place when and where the book was written. Metaphorically speaking, the commentator provides the modern reader with spectacles through which the reader can see Russia of the early 19th century.

In order to fully understand the image of police constable Yurko compared by Pushkin to "Pogorelsky's postman" the reader must know not only that the postman is the hero of a story written in 1824 by the writer Anthony Pogorelsky, a pseudonym of A.A. Perovsky (1787-1836) - this information was given by all the commentaries - but rather that this is the symbol of a devoted servant (Moscow commentary).

Explanations of the word "brigadier" coincide as far as the encyclopaedic information in all the commentaries is concerned: a rank of the fifth class in the old Russian Army, between that of colonel and major-general, which was suppressed by Emperor Paul I (1796-1801). However, the additional information of Moscow commentary is very valuable because it is contextually oriented, i.e. it connects the real fact with the context of the story: "and consequently, at the time when the action of the story takes place there were only retired brigadiers."

An interesting example of two extreme approaches to the explanation of real facts (abstract encyclopaedic as opposed to concrete contextually oriented) is given by comments for the following phrase from "Peasant- Lady". "In his youth he had served in the Guards, but resigning his commission at the beginning of 1797, he had gone to live on his estate, and since that time had never left it." Moscow commentary gives the reader some encyclopaedic information but does not show any links between this information and the context of the story: "resigned his commission in early 1797, i.e. after the death of Catherine II and the accession of Paul I, who took a hostile attitude to Catherine's Guard and started reorganising the Russian army in the Prussian manner".

Conversely, Oxford commentary lays emphasis on Ivan Petrovich Berestov's behaviour and character without informing the reader sufficiently about the historical background of his life's events: "Berestov, therefore, belonged to those officers, a fairly large number, who did not hold with the reorganisation of the army undertaken by Paul I and had left the service in 1797."

Thus, Oxford commentary depicts Berestov as a highly principled man, a Russian patriot who gave up his military career because he did not like the reorganisation of the Russian Army in the Prussian manner. California commentary, however, gives a different interpretation of his behaviour: "After the death of Catherine II in November, 1796, her successor Paul I dismissed many of the people, especially officers of the Guards who had surrounded her." According to this interpretation, Berestov was dismissed from the army by Paul I for being a supporter of Catherine II.

All the three commentaries show quite convincingly how important it is for a commentary to combine both kinds of information: on the one hand, encyclopaedic, objectively informing the reader about the time, place, character, circumstances etc. of a name or event and, on the other hand, contextually-oriented, deepening the images, the idea, the purport of the story and revealing the artistic intentions of the author.

A creative approach to commenting on a work of fiction implies also informing the reader about extralinguistic moments, for example, allusions to the author's life. This is a specific case of commenting on realia because the real facts are hidden in the text and seeing them requires great erudition, special knowledge and special creative efforts from the commentator.

Oxford commentary is especially good at explaining these kinds of hidden allusions and secret hints. For example, the line from "The Shot": "He stood within pistol range, picking ripe cherries from his cap and spitting out the stones so that they almost fell at my feet." It is only the Oxford commentator who was knowledgeable enough to read between the lines: "This detail is autobiographical: like Silvio's young adversary, Pushkin was eating cherries at the time of his duel in Kishinev with Zubov, a staff officer."

Another example: "It took me as long to accustom myself to this kind of treatment as to being passed over by some discriminating waiter at a Governor's dinner" ("The Stationmaster"). It is only the Oxford commentator again who explains the hint: This sentence obviously refers to a personal recollection: the unpleasant experience had happened to Pushkin himself at a dinner given by Strekalov, the military governor of Tiflis, during a journey made by the poet to the Caucasus in 1829, therefore a year before he wrote "The Stationmaster". Information of this kind, undoubtedly, enriches the reader and enables him/her to understand the work of literature more profoundly.

As has been mentioned earlier, a good commentary not only reflects the perception of a work of literature by the reader but it also shapes and determines this perception. Here is an example of a biased explanation of a quotation: "Hurrah! Hurrah! The women cried and flung their bonnets in the air" ("The Blizzard"). The California commentator comments upon it in the following way: "From Act 2 Scene 5 of "Woe from Wit" by A.S. Griboyedov. In the comedy Chatsky berates Russian women with these words for their stupidity in falling for uniforms".

To sum up, in this paper the problem of commenting upon fiction for teaching purposes was studied on the "simplest", "the least creative," and "most obvious" material - explanations of realia, real facts of real life. The investigation of various commentaries for the same work of literature has shown that even this "simplest" material must be treated very creatively. The commentator's task is far from just the mechanical transfer of information from an encyclopaedia or a manual to the notes. The creative task of a commentator is to establish a link between the given fact and the context and its author, on the one hand, and, on the other, to show the significance of this fact for revealing the inner world of the characters or the development of the plot; in other words, for performing the artistic tasks of the author.

The Learner's Commentary is both a chance to find out the perception of a writer by foreigners and an opportunity to form their attitude to the writer. That is why elaborating the principles of commentaries of this kind is at the same time a scholarly, pedagogical and patriotic task of great importance.


  1. Briggs, A.D.P. Alexander Pushkin: A Critical Study (Croom Helm, 1983; re- Printed The Briston Press, 1991).
  2. Fatushchenko V.I. On the philological commentary on a Text Used for Teaching Purposes. Melbourne Slavonic Studies, 1971, N 5-6.
  3. Johnson, C.A. Pushkin.A Personal View.Contemporary Review.L, 1965, Nov. vol. 206, N 1198.
  4. Pushkin, A.S. Complete Works. Academia, 1949, vol. XII.
  5. The memories of the Bestujevs. Moscow, 1931.
  6. Whitter John G. Pushkin. Nat. Era: Wash, 1847 Febr. 11, vol. 1, N 6.

[1] Johnson, C.A. Pushkin.A Personal View.Contemporary Review.L, 1965, Nov. vol. 206, N 1198.

[2] Whitter John G. Pushkin. Nat. Era: Wash, 1847 Febr. 11, vol. 1, N 6, p.2.

[3] A member of a conspiracy among certain nobles and army officers for constitu­tional reform. Their coup against Nicholas I failed (Dec. 1825).

[4] Ryleev, Kondraty (1795-1826) Russian poet - Decembrist (See 3).

[5] Воспоминания Бестужевых. M., 1931, с. 25. (The memories of the Bestujevs. Moscow, 1931, p. 25)

[6] Briggs, A.D.P. Alexander Pushkin: A Critical Study (Croom Helm, 1983; re- Printed The Briston Press, 1991).

[7] Pushkin, A.S. Complete Works. Academia, 1949, vol. XII, p. 98.

[8] "Explaining various geographic, historical, etc. realia is of non-creative character: the advantage of the commentator in this case is determined by the fact that he/she has all kinds of manuals, encyclopedia, etc. which readers usually do not possess." Fatushchenko V.I. On the philological commentary on a Text Used for Teaching Purposes. Melbourne Slavonic Studies, 1971, N 5-6.

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