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Little Tragedies

For most of this autumn I lived just outside of Middlebury with a good friend of mine, my former Russian professor, in the gorgeous old farmhouse he shared with his concert cellist wife. The two of them were gracious enough to take me in for the autumn after my somewhat precipitate return from Montreal. The plan was that I would stay on through the winter, as a housesitter, while they left for a long sabbatical trip to Europe. It was a dream come true for me - the house was enormous, there was a pond, a sauna, there were two dogs and an eternally hungry, silent black housecat.

I worked late nights back then. My office was only two miles away in town, but I had a big extracurricular project on my hands, and as a permanent houseguest I wanted to stay out of the way as much as I could. Most nights I didn't return home until well past midnight, but occasionally I would have dinner with my hosts, and my friend and I would sit up late playing drunken Russian ballads on bad guitar, or talking on the porch while he smoked his nasty little hand-rolled cigarettes. On one of those drunken guitar nights, as I was heading up the stairs to my room, my friend handed me a brightly colored, photocopied packet of Russian plays. They were the "Little Tragedies" by Pushkin, carefully annotated by my friend in preparation for a long article, and since he so rarely makes reading suggestions to me, I took the packet and stayed up for many hours reading it.

Pushkin is the greatest Russian poet, the founder of Russian literature, and in his influence on the language occupies the same slot that we give to Shakespeare. His greatest gift to Russian letters is a colossal act of synthesis - he read English and French fluently, German nearly so, and he combined his voracious reading of French and English novels with a love for Russian stories and folktales he heard from his nanny, a lifelong friend, singlehandedly creating the modern literary Russian language. Russian has not changed significantly since Pushkin's time, so his prose and verse are still easily readable in way that Shakespeare is not. Every cultured Russian has memorized some Pushkin, and from almost the moment of his death in a pointless duel to the present day, he has been lionized through every conceivable change of government and fashion.

The Little Tragedies were written by Pushkin while he was in involuntary seclusion in the small village of Boldino, which he had received as an engagement gift from his father. Pushkin had travelled out there at the end of the summer of 1830 to settle affairs connected to the transfer of title, but while there, an epidemic of cholera erupted in the countryside, and it became impossible for him to travel because of the intervening quarantine zones. Pushkin had just proposed marriage to an eighteen-year-old Petersburg socialite named Natalya Goncharova, and had finally received her agreement after an agonizing period of trying to convince her family he had the means to be a good match. But Goncharova was both jealous of Pushkin and something of a flirt, so that his letters to her alternate between snarky rebukes and exasperated explanations of why he can't make it back home.

My dear Natalya Nikolaevna, I don't know how to scold in French, so let me write to you in Russian, and you, my angel, can answer me in Chuhonian if you like, only answer. I received you letter of October 1 on the 26th. It embittered me for many reasons: first, because it took a full 25 days to get to me; 2) because on October 1 you were still in Moscow, which had already long been infected with the [cholera] plague; 3) because you did not receive my letters; 4) because your letter was shorter than a visiting card; 5) because you are clearly angry at me, while I am already the unhappiest animal in the world. Where are you? What are you doing? I wrote to Moscow, no one writes me back [...]

In the meantime, Pushkin is receiving letters from his father informing him that the marriage was being called off, enduring long silences from Goncharova, not knowing whether she still intends to marry him or not, and in the back of his mind fighting the everpresent worry that the cholera epidemic will come to Boldino, putting an abrupt end to all his efforts, or that Goncharova will herself succumb to the plague in Moscow.

Pushkin's efforts to get back to Moscow during this time approached the tragicomic - he repeatedly tried to make it around the various quarantines and found himself turned back, only to then have to convince his skeptical fiancée that he wasn't stalling. A quick, three-day visit to the country had turned into a three-month exile.

For all its frustrations, this Boldino autumn was also the most productive period of Pushkin's life - and calling Pushkin productive is like saying that Genghis Khan had a bit of a mean streak. In between the handwringing, aborted trips, and writing letters to his wife-to-be, Pushkin finished two major stanzas of his magnum opus, Eugene Onegin, wrote a series of five prose stories called the Tales of Belkin (worth reading in the excellent English translation), finished a whole series of shorter poems, and wrote the Little Tragedies. During a later stay in Boldino, he would describe his rhythm of life there in a letter to his wife:

I wake up at seven o'clock, drink coffee and lie in bed until three o'clock. At three o'clock, I go riding, take a bath at five and then have a supper of potatoes with barley kasha. I read until nine o'clock. There is what my days look like, each just like the last.

Of course, while lying in bed, Pushkin was also singlehandedly founding modern Russian literature, something he modestly glosses over.

Almost all of Pushkin's writing is inaccessible to foreign readers - the verse is too intimately tied to the language to survive translation - but the prose and plays are an exception, and the Little Tragedies are probably the best example of his work available to the English reader.

The four plays that make up the Little Tragedies are deceptively simple. Each is a variation on the theme of impure love and death: the Miserly Knight is about a father killed by his love for gold, Mozart and Salieri is the story of a murder motivated by artistic envy; the Stone Guest is the story of Don Juan, killed by a statue of his latest conquest's dead husband; and the Feast in the Time of Plague is about the obsessive, excessive love of life itself.

The plays share a trait that I like very much in literary texts - they are straightforward on the surface, but grow more complicated the closer you read them, revealing all kinds of intricate machinery and complicated long-distance connections that are easy to miss entirely through multiple readings unless you are very attentive - or unless you have an beautifully annotated copy of the text. What my friend had handed me was essentially a road map to the text, each bit carefully traced, pinned down and labelled with a Byzantine system of colored highlighting, pencil marks, glosses and small ideographs. As a visual display alone, it was so amazing that I asked for his permission the next morning to scan the text in.

Much of my work at the time I read these plays consisted of building tools to annotate and analyze literary texts online, so i was particularly struck by how utterly impossible it would have been for my friend to do this kind of obsessive analysis on an electronic text - even importing the annotations after the fact would have posed innumerable obstacles, given the insane variety of links, notes, annotations, connections, thematic indicators and other strange glyphs and scratchings he had covered the packet with. I later asked for, and received, a ten minute explanation of how this Byzantine system worked, and indeed it made perfect sense. But there is no way a computer could have emulated what he had done with just a pencil, a set of highlighters, and his erudite, obsessive brain.

I was also struck by how dispersive and annoying it would have been to read such a heavily linked text online. The costs of following links on paper - the need to find the right volume, pick it off the shelf, and look up the appropriate page - seem just high enough to encourage close reading without the endless distraction of spiralling off onto tangents. Online, the balance is different, and superheavyweight linking frequently promotes a spastic writing style.

On a purely personal level, I couldn't help but think about my own circumstances - I was reading the plays at almost exactly the time of year in which they were written, also secluded unexpectedly off in the country, also staying in bed late, with a variety of worries on my mind, not much younger than Pushkin was at that time (though considerably further from marriage). And with just as much time at my disposal, except that I didn't have the refactory mind, the talent, or the discipline to create even a shadow of something so beautiful.

I've scanned the entirety of this packet just for my own amusement and reference; if you read Russian, you may find it amusing to try and figure out what the elaborate system is. If you don't read Russian, you might still enjoy the neat visual patchwork, or take a trip through the Complete Prose Tales of Pushkin linked above, which are a far better window on the poet than any attempt to translate his verse into English. French speakers might also get a kick out of Pushkin's collected correspondence, much of which is in that language.

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