Pushkin's The Queen of Spades
French connoisseurs already know Pushkin's The Queen of Spades in
Mérimée's translation. It might appear impertinent to offer now a new
version, and I do not doubt that the earlier one will appear more elegant
than this one, which has no merit other than its scrupulous exactness.
That is its justification. A preoccupation with explaining and rounding off
induced Mérimée to blunt somewhat the crystalline peaks of the tale. We
have resisted adding anything to Pushkin's clean and spare style, with its
slender grace, which hums like a taut string. When Pushkin writes:
Herman quivered like a tiger, Mérimée adds: ... lying in wait. When he
has Lisaveta bend over a book, Mérimée says gracefully. This charming
writer thus marks his own manner, and if some criticize his dryness it is
clear here that the criticism is ill-founded, or, at least, that only by
comparison with the lush style of the writers of his period can Mérimée's
style seem so unadorned to us. The clarity of Pushkin, on the other hand,
chafes him, and nothing shows that better than a study of this
translation. Poets, Pushkin wrote, often sin by neglect of simplicity
and truth; they pursue all manner of external effects. The pursuit of form
sweeps them toward exaggeration and bombast. He criticized in Hugo,
whom he admired, an absence of simplicity. Life is lacking in him, he
wrote. In other words, truth is absent.
The strangeness of most Russian writers, including the greatest among
them, often baffles the French reader, and indeed, sometimes repels him;
but I confess that it is the absence of strangeness in Pushkin that
confounds me. Or at least what baffles me, is to see that Dostoevsky,
that genius so prodigiously distant from us (despite all the secret
affinities that some of us find in his profoundly human work) considered
Pushkin as the most national of the Russian writers that preceded him. In
vain would we seek here what we are accustomed to consider as
characteristically Russian: disorder, penumbra, overabundance, disarray.
In the majority of Pushkin's works, all is clarity, balance, harmony. No
bitterness, no resigned pessimism;...