The third book I’ve read from my Classics list is “The Queen of Spades and Other Stories”, a selection of novellas by Alexander Pushkin written between 1828-1836. Until now Tolstoy has been my favourite Russian author but I must say he’s got some real competition now.
My edition contained “The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin”, “The Queen of Spades”, “the Captain’s Daughter” and the fragment “The Moor of Peter the Great”. I liked all of them but found “The Queen of Spades” and “The Moor of Peter the Great” to be the most memorable. The language, also in Alan Myers’ translation, is beautiful, none of the overburdened descriptions that sometimes stifles its contemporary novels. The characters, although briefly sketched, are generally three-dimensional and interesting (excluding the Tsar family which seem uniformly good).
I’ve read this collection a novella at the time with many interruptions so I will focus on the last one, “The Moor of Peter the Great” which is a fragment of a historical novel or novella inspired by the experiences of Pushkin’s great-grandfather. It follows Ibrahim who’s navigating the double roles of the privileged position as a favourite of Peter the Great and the role of the constant outsider. The novella’s description of racism feels surprisingly modern for an almost 200-year-old text and Ibrahim is a fascinating character I would have loved to read more about. Unfortunately as it is only a fragment it ends abruptly but I still recommend reading it. (Look up the “real Ibrahim”, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, Alexander Pushkin’s great-grandfather, it’s well worth it!).
“The Moor of Peter the Great” takes place in the early 18th century, shortly after the battle of Poltava, which made the references to historical events especially interesting from a Swedish point of view. I was also interested in the captive Swedish officer which is a minor character in the story and which Pushkin infuses with as much humanity as the other characters. Here too, Pushkin may have been helped by his family background, his great-grandmother was Swedish. Of course as it’s written more than a century after Sweden’s final defeat in the war any animosity may have calmed down. Anyway, I found it amusing.
So far I’ve read much more from my classics list than I expected to. Partly because I feel inspired by the challenge and by all the great books on the list but also because I decided that I may not by any new books until I’ve read as many of my unread books as I have bought this year. In total I have read more books this year (75) than I have bought (51) but that includes rereads and borrowed books so I’m still eight books behind. I did leave myself some loopholes but it’s still a strong motivation. As several of the classics on my classics list made it there just because they were unread or half-read classics that haunted my bookshelves I have started with some of these.