Capturing the essence of Pushkin

9780307959621Michael Dirda at The Washington Post:

While the verbal music of Pushkin’s verse-novel “Eugene Onegin” is said to be untranslatable — despite impressive attempts in English by Charles Johnston and James E. Falen — his stories are typically set down in a plain, direct style that almost recalls Hemingway. As Pevear notes, the five “Tales of Belkin” are “as unpoetic, as purely narrative, as possible. They have no commentary, no psychology, no ideas, no flights of rhetoric or authorial digressions. They are cast as local anecdotes, and are told so simply and artlessly that at first one barely notices the subtlety of their composition, the shifts in time and point of view, the reversals of expectation, the elements of parody, the ambiguity of their resolutions.”

Consider, for example, “The Shot,” which opens in a backwater town, where a group of bored army officers spends long evenings playing cards. Their host is a quiet 35-year-old civilian of modest means, who devotes his days to pistol practice. Silvio has grown so expert that he now aims at buzzing flies as they land on the wall of his room. He never misses.

One drunken night over a misunderstanding at cards, a newly arrived officer insults this sharpshooter. To everyone’s surprise, Silvio doesn’t challenge him to a duel. Why not? It turns out that six years earlier, while in the army, he had quarreled with a rich, aristocratic fellow officer and nothing less than pistols at dawn would settle the affront. In an extraordinary passage, Silvio recalls that his adversary was late for their rencontre.

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