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The Captain’s Daughter by Pushkin

October 14, 2012 7 comments

The Captain’s Daughter by Pushkin. 1836

When I loved a book or when I hated one, billets seem to write themselves on their own will. In both cases I have many things to say about a novel that stirred strong emotions. When the time I spent with a book only triggered mild feelings, I have difficulties writing about it without yawning. And that’s where I am now that I’m supposed to write about The Captain’s Daughter by Pushkin, which was our Book Club’s choice for October.

If I’m correct, with The Captain’s Daughter, Pushkin wrote the first great novel of Russian literature. After his poetry work, he decided it was time to try prose and was inspired to do so after reading Sir Walter Scott. [Note to self: read Scott one of these days, he influenced so many Western writers of the early 19th century.]. I read a French version translated in 1973 by Brice Parrain. The free version available online is a translation by Louis Viardot  which dates back to the 19th century. Turgenev helped him translate Pushkin and Gogol into French. So it’s supposed to be faithful to the original and yet the newer translation sounds better. My question now is whether this new translation isn’t too modern and thus erases the formal atmosphere of the original. I’ll never know.

The story takes places in 1773 when Pyotr Andreyich Grinyov, a young aristocrat is sent into military service in a remote fort near Orenburg, the Belogorsky fortress. During his journey, he is caught in a snow storm and generously compensates with a coat a fellow traveler who leads him to a shelter for the night. Pyoth eventually arrives to the fortress which is actually barely better than a village with a fence around it. He gets acquainted with his commanding officer, the captain Ivan Mironov, his wife Vassilia and his daughter Masha. Pyotr and Masha fall in love but Pyotr’s parents refuse the alliance as they judge that the girl is beneath him. At that moment, the Pugachev rebellion spreads in the region and the fortress is besieged. What will become of the two lovers?

The Pugachev uprising is a historical event that took place in Russia in 1773-1774. Pushkin was interested in it and wrote nonfiction about it. Catherine The Great wad ruling Russia at the time and Pugachev claimed to be emperor Peter III and started a civil war. He raised an army and won several battles against the Empress’s army. Pushkin made an enquiry, visiting people who had lived through the period, collecting stories and building up a novel with this raw material. I suppose that this historical side is the link between Pushkin and Scott. I wasn’t blown away by the book, even if I was eager to know what would happen as it is full of twists and turns. Perhaps the translation impaired my reading and the Russian prose is better than the French. I was into the story but didn’t feel strong emotions; the novel doesn’t linger on psychological insight and is more on the side of a plot-driven novel.

However, side aspects interested me because I learnt details about Russia at the time, in addition to the historical events. Of course, I’d never heard of the Pugachev uprising and the footnotes of my paper edition were useful. I didn’t understand all the details but understood the main events.

Through the pages you can pick up information about the Russian Empire, for example how noblemen estimate their wealth according to the number of souls they own. (And there will be Gogol’s Dead Souls in 1842) I noticed that Pyotr’s personal servant behaves like a slave and yet is surprisingly literate as he can write good letters. I laughed at the description of the French teacher Pyotr had as a child. The man was lazy and more interested in wine and duels than in actual education.

Then some war customs in the 18th century Russia horrified me. Do you know what they did to traitors? Cut their nose and/or their ears. As I write this, I wonder if this custom has something to do with Gogol’s choice for his wandering appendix in The Nose. (1835-1836). And deportation, sorry exile, in Siberia was already fashionable.

The Belogorsky fortress is only a fortress by name; the army there is little trained, Captain Mironov isn’t tight on practicing. They have only one cannon and only dispose of few weapons. It doesn’t give a good image of the imperial army. I thought about Lermontov and the fortress he will describe in A Hero of Our Time (1840).

The captain’s family is nice and loving as if Pushkin wanted to put forward a part of the society which usually remained behind the curtains. The Captain’s Daughter is light but doesn’t hide the atrocities of the Pugachev uprising or the bad shape of the Russian army. For me, this novel is to the Russian literature I’ve read what Ladies’ Paradise is to Zola’s work: a unique piece without darkness, with hope and good people. I probably would have made more of it if I knew better about Russian literature.

Now you’ve read this post and seen different covers for it. But none of the quite matches with the story. My edition has a portrait of Catherine The Greatand the ones I included here are anachronistic.

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In November, our Book Club is reading Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler.

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