Monday, January 15, 2018

Pushkin, The Gypsies and Other Narrative Poems (trans. Antony Wood)

Of the five narrative poems in this volume, I particularly enjoyed "The Bridegroom" (a hauntingly familiar folk-tale about a woman who narrowly escapes a fateful marriage), "The Tale of the Dead Princess and the Seven Champions" (a retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves), and "Count Nulin" (a parodic re-imagining of Shakespeare's "Lucrece").

"The Gypsies" (written 1824, first published anonymously 1827)

Wood notes that "both Mérimée's Carmen (1845), the acknowledged source for the libretto of Bizet's opera, and the opera libretto itself (1875), owe much to ['The Gypsies'], which has always gone unacknowledged" (xxvi).

Freedom is a recurring theme in the poem, but it is most curiously applied to the bear that travels with the gypsies.  As the scene opens on the gypsies' encampment, we learn that "behind one tent / A bear lies fast asleep and free" (3).  Wood's word choice suggests that the bear is essentially a willing fellow-traveler with the gypsies, or perhaps that it has become habituated to handouts and is thus almost domesticated, trusting and trustworthy.

After the young lovers' first night together, the gypsies clamorously move on, "din everywhere, / Songs, the roaring of the bear, / The jingling of its iron tether" (6).  One might wonder: is the bear really free, as initially stated, or is it tethered in irons?  Later evidence (12) further supports a view that the bear is, in fact, a captive:
"His [Aleko's] shelter's shaggy guest, the bear,
A vagrant from its native lair,
Roves the Moldavian villages,
Performs its clumsy dances, gnaws
Its irritating chain, and roars
Before the wary villagers;
The bent old man is not averse
To beating on the tambourine,
Aleko leads the bear and sings,
Zemfira goes about to glean
The voluntary offerings."
This puts everything in a different light; the bonds chafe or otherwise irritate the poor bear, which bootlessly gnaws at the iron.   So in what sense was the bear "free" in the opening scene?  Perhaps merely in the freedom of the temporary oblivion of sleep (it "lies fast asleep and free") -- a purely primitive or animal freedom which is unknown to Aleko, whose own sleep is troubled by jealousy and fears of losing Zemfira's love.

Of course, Aleko also conspicuously lacks the freedom of Zemfira's father, who was content to receive the love of Zemfira's mother Mariyule as long as she chose to bestow it and thereafter cherish the daughter she left behind without trying to constrain her either.  (Both men lack the freedom of Zemfira and Mariyule, in that they seem to give their hearts only once; but Zemfira's father - unlike Aleko - is free of the burden of anger, jealousy, or grief.)

(Or to take it from the other direction, Aleko lacks the freedom of Zemfira, in that he seems to be able to give his heart only once.  While Zemfira's father shares this particular constraint, never moving on from Mariyule, he is still more free than Aleko because he bears his loss lightly and loves what is, rather than some idea of what should be.)

"The Dead Princess"

The Snow White retelling does away with some of the more morally dubious elements of the more familiar story.  The prince who eventually rescues the princess is already her betrothed, not a stranger, and he is looking for her.  He awakens her from the glass coffin not by kissing her supposed corpse, but by beating and banging the coffin in grief!  The "seven champions" (not dwarves here) are all in love with her, but respectful and courteous once they learn that she is already betrothed.

There are other changes as well.  For example, it's not a nameless huntsman, but a named female servant, Chernavka, who is ordered to "bind [the princess] up and leave her / For wolves to eat alive" (68).  She leaves the princess alive and unbound, but lies to the evil queen that she left her "Bound firmly by the elbows" (69).  When the mirror reveals that the princess is still alive and beautiful, the queen threatens Chernavka with an "iron penal collar" and vows that either Chernavka or the princess must die (75).  The prince not only gets a name (Yelisey) but also a quest, in which he asks the sun, moon, and wind for help.  As it turns out, only the wind knows where the princess is.    

I noticed that the king, queen and princess are referred to only by title (no name given).  The seven champions are also not named.  So the only names we get in the entire poem are the prince Yelisey and the servant-girl Chernavka.

I'm sure it would have been a tremendous disappointment to Pushkin to learn that his failure to come up with another female name would cause his poem to fail the Bechdel test, even though both the queen and the princess speak with Chernavka about something other than a man.

"Count Nulin"


Wood notes that Pushkin wrote "Count Nulin" after wondering what would have happened  in Shakespeare's poem, had Lucrece slapped Tarquin (xxix).

Perhaps this line of thought was inspired by lines 1034-36, in which Lucrece urges her hand to assist her in suicide:
Since thou couldst not defend thy loyal dame
And wast affeard to scratch her wicked foe,
Kill both thyself and her for yielding so.
Especially as we later learn that, had Lucrece been able to cry out at the time, her maid would have come quickly:
With untuned tongue she hoarsely calls her maid,
Whose swift obedience to her mistress hies,
For fleet-winged duty with thought's feathers flies.
(ll. 1214-16).

A Simile, Deflation, and Some Points of Comparison with "Lucrece"

I particularly liked this passage from "Count Nulin":
Donning his striped silk dressing gown,
The count is speedily abroad.
In the dark a chair goes down;
Tarquin, in hope of sweet reward,
Once more sets forth to seek Lucretia,
Resolved to go through fire to reach her. 
Thus you may see a cunning tom,
The mincing darling of the house,
Slip from the stove to stalk a mouse,
Creep stealthily and slowly on
Towards his victim, grow slit-eyed
And wave his tail from side to side,
Coil to a ball, extend his claws
And snap! the wretch is in his paws.
(57).  So here, Pushkin explicitly compares Nulin and Natalya to Tarquin and Lucrece.  There's some excellent deflation going on there -- tripping over a chair in the dark is like going through fire! -- especially since, in this poem, the intended mouse slaps the cat and thwarts him.  (Still, the count might have taken a dark revenge on Natalya Pavlovna for the shameful slap, the poem suggests, "Had not the barking of the pom / Woken Parasha [Natalya's servant] from her sleep." The sound of Parasha's "footsteps drawing close" sends Count Nulin "To take shamefaced and rapid flight" [59].)

"Lucrece" also contains a cat simile, though not as extended.  It occurs after Tarquin gives Lucrece a choice between (a) saying Yes to him as a secret lover and (b) getting raped and murdered and left with a murdered servant in her arms to make it look like she was untrue.   She desperately pleads with him, but her words only buy her a little time:
So his unhallowed haste her words delays,
And moody Pluto winks while Orpheus plays. 
Yet, foul night-waking cat, he doth but dally,
While in his hold-fast foot the weak mouse panteth. [...]
His ear her prayers admits, but his heart granteth
No penetrable entrance to her plaining [...].
(ll. 552-55, 558-59).

Another point of contact between the poems -- a comic contrast -- is Count Nulin's tripping over a chair in the dark.  Shakepeare's Tarquin does not face that particular risk to his enterprise, because he lights a torch to find his way; indeed, he chillingly addresses the flame: "As from this cold flint I enforced this fire, / So Lucrece must I force to my desire" (ll. 181-82).

Shakespeare actually expends rather a lot of verse on this torch.  Tarquin debates with himself about whether to proceed, urging "Fair torch, burn out thy light, and lend it not / To darken her whose light excelleth thine" (ll. 190-91) but proceeds with lit torch nonetheless:
As each unwilling portal yields him way,
Through little vents and crannies of the place
The wind wars with his torch to make him stay
And blows the smoke of it into his face,
Extinguishing his conduct in this case;
But his hot heart, which fond desire doth scorch,
Puffs forth another wind that fires the torch. 
And being lighted, by the light he spies
Lucretia's glove
(ll. 309-17).

Retelling of the Incident 

After she escapes Count Nulin's nefarious attentions, Natalya regales her friends and neighbors with the tale.  The poem ends with a comment that it was Natalya's 23-year-old male neighbor Lidin -- rather than her husband -- who found the story most amusing.  Her unnamed husband is "the least amused by far" and swears "he'd make [Count Nulin] yelp" (61).  

Lidin's amusement here suggests to me that he is Natalya's established lover. In that case, he would rejoice in both the story of Count Nulin's failure to seduce Natalya and the husband's impotent vows of revenge.  What better jest for a young buck than to know he has usurped both the husband and a would-be rival lover -- with the husband not only none the wiser but also wrongly irate with the thwarted count?  

If so, Pushkin's closing quatrain is nicely ironic.

Alternative Translation

While preparing this post, I came across a loose, breezy translation by Betsy Hulick, which I'm guessing probably captures the tone of the original rather well.

In both translations, we get the names of our "heroine" Natalya Pavlovna (48), our "hero" Count Nulin (56, 61), the count's manservant Picard, Natalya's maidservant Parasha, the 23-year old neighbor Lidin, and two other servants, Filka and Vash.

In Wood's translation, the husband remains unnamed like the non-entity he is; in Hulick's, Natasha addresses him as Seryozha.

Revisiting the Tomcat Analogy

Hulick renders the passage as:
Even so, a snoozing tom,
the darling of the help, will rouse
from sleep, apprised that there's a mouse
nearby, and track it to its doom.
With narrowed eyes, on silent paws,
he closes in with untaught skill,
crouches, leaps, and sinks his claws
in flesh that twitches, then is still.
In Alexander Pushkin: A Critical Study, Briggs (106) gives us:
A sly cat sometimes set off thus.
A maid's spoilt pet, of mincing walk,
Down mousing from the stove he'll stalk.
Slow-moving, inconspicuous,
Eyes screwed in half a squint, advancing,
He'll coil into a ball, tail dancing,
Spread paws from sly pads, and anon
Some poor, poor mite is pounced upon!
And Wood's version (57), as previously seen:
Thus you may see a cunning tom,
The mincing darling of the house,
Slip from the stove to stalk a mouse,
Creep stealthily and slowly on
Towards his victim, grow slit-eyed
And wave his tail from side to side,
Coil to a ball, extend his claws
And snap! the wretch is in his paws. 

Briggs, A. D. P. Alexander Pushkin: A Critical Study. Croom Helm ; Barnes & Noble Books, 1983.
Pushkin, Alexander.  "Count Nulin."  Translated by Betsy Hulick, Cardinal Points Journal, vol. 12, no. 3, July 2011, pp. 112-126.  Stosvet Press15 January, 2018.  
Pushkin, Alexander.  The Gypsies and Other Narrative Poems.  Translated by Antony Wood, 1st ed, David R. Godine, 2006.
Shakespeare, William.  "Lucrece" from Folger Digital Texts.  Ed. Barbara Mowat, Paul Werstine, Michael Poston, and Rebecca Niles.  Folger Shakespeare Library, 15 January, 2018. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Self-Judgment as the Worst Judgment

Lucrece has now told her husband and his companions of her rape, but has not yet named the perpetrator.  They have vowed to seek vengeance.  But she first asks them about the "stain" on her body from the violation, arguing for her own innocence as if they had thought her guilty:
'O, speak,' quoth she,
'How may this forced stain be wiped from me? 
'What is the quality of mine offence,
Being constrain'd with dreadful circumstance?
May my pure mind with the foul act dispense,
My low-declined honour to advance?
May any terms acquit me from this chance?
The poison'd fountain clears itself again;
And why not I from this compelled stain?' 
With this, they all at once began to say,
Her body's stain her mind untainted clears
So they do not judge her harshly, but recognize her as victim.

Turning away "with a joyless smile," she rejects this rational and fair-minded approach in favor of her own self-judgment.

(The subsequent clash of mourning from her father Lucretius and her husband Collantine over her dead body - who loved her most? - reminds me of the graveside clash of Ophelia's sometime love and her brother.)

Brutus intervenes in this unseemly quarrel, and again reaffirms that Lucrece was innocent and her death unnecessary:
Thy wretched wife mistook the matter so,
To slay herself, that should have slain her foe.
Curiously, the vengeance ultimately inflicted on Tarquin is banishment, rather than death.

Take THAT, Accursed Painting!

While awaiting her husband's return, Lucrece wanders over to look at a painting.  Her meditations on it are almost cathartic, in a way; and while her thoughts and feelings continue to vacillate, she seems to accept (for the moment) that the fault is really Tarquin's.

She reacts strongly to the depiction of Hecuba, meditating on the suffering caused by Paris's self-indulgence.  (Oddly, she seems to blame Priam for failing to restrain his son.)

But she reacts even more strongly to the depiction of Sinon.  At first she is angry that the painter has shown him so fair of face; then, reflecting on Tarquin:
'It cannot be,' quoth she, 'that so much guile'--
She would have said 'can lurk in such a look;'
But Tarquin's shape came in her mind the while,
And from her tongue 'can lurk' from 'cannot' took:
'It cannot be' she in that sense forsook,
And turn'd it thus, 'It cannot be, I find,
But such a face should bear a wicked mind.
So she concludes that fair face must conceal evil intent!  And then, a few stanzas later:
Here, all enraged, such passion her assails,
That patience is quite beaten from her breast.
She tears the senseless Sinon with her nails,
Comparing him to that unhappy guest
Whose deed hath made herself herself detest  

Honor Killings and "The Rape of Lucrece"

After reading Pushkin's "Count Nulin," I've been working my way through Shakespeare's "The Rape of Lucrece."

Her extended musings and deliberations are painful to read, from a 21st century perspective.  I mean really, why does she blame herself for "submitting" to the rape under threat of violence and (essentially) blackmail?

But the part that caught my attention this morning is this stanza:
My honour I'll bequeath unto the knife
That wounds my body so dishonoured.
'Tis honour to deprive dishonour'd life;
The one will live, the other being dead:
So of shame's ashes shall my fame be bred;
For in my death I murder shameful scorn:
My shame so dead, mine honour is new-born. 
This sounds like exactly the same thinking that must underlie the so-called "honor killings."

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Naming the Black Riders

A Mythgard Academy lecture on The Treason of Isengard (vol. 7 of the History of Middle-earth series), in which we finally learn the True Names of all 9 black riders: 
Aloysius, Biff, Clive, Dumbo, Egbert, Fillmore, Gump, Humpty, and Irv. 

Monday, January 08, 2018

The Dark Is Rising - some concluding thoughts

I'm a bit fuzzy on which of the "Dark Is Rising" stories I've read all the way through.*  I certainly read the eponymous novel as a kid, and later bought a one-volume collection of the entire series.

But I got rid of it during or soon after law school, when I tried reading or re-reading some of the stories and found them underwhelming.

So it has been 15+ years since I last read The Dark Is Rising, and I'd forgotten a lot.

Things I loved on the re-read:
  • The creepy atmosphere, especially at the start of the novel.  Susan Cooper really nails it -- the sense of winter, sinister signs and portents, freakish behavior of the rooks.
  • The poetic language.
  • Good use of winter weather and storm as instruments of the Dark.  (It makes me think now of A Wrinkle in Time, which also has a storm early on.)
  • The changing relationship between Will and his family.
  • Certain strands of Faërian traditions and lore - esp. the haunting bell-like music.
Things that annoyed me on the re-read:
  • The obstacles are too easily overcome.  It seems like all Will has to do is be there at the right time and hold fast; support comes.  In fact, he doesn't even have to go looking for the Signs; they come to him.  
    • Example: A the longboat surfaces, and the final Sign is on the body of the dead king. Will is initially hesitant to touch the body, but Merriman assures him it'll be OK, so he reaches out and immediately has the final Sign. Merriman then promptly announces "Now that you have it, they [the Dark] lose their power over Mary forever -- that spell is dead."  (III "The King of Fire and Water," 261)
  • It's a curiously male-focused book, from a 2017 perspective.  The only significant female role is Miss Greystone.  It's a nice role, I suppose, but her early magical intervention sidelines her for most of the rest of the tale.  Maggie Barnes is negligible as a force of evil; she seduces the all-too-willing Hawkin to the dark side, but is herself easily dispelled and sent away.  Will's sisters and mother don't have much to do, though his mother and Mary get to be victims of the Dark. And as Deb Sabo noted, virtually all the negative personality traits are given to Will's sisters. The remaining females also have bit roles - e.g. Mrs. Pettigrew, who runs a local market with her fat son Fred, is altogether bewildered and bewuthered by the storm.  The smith's wife is never even named.  And so on.
  • The magically enchanted mounting and dismounting of the Light's horse.  It's a little petty of me, I know.

And I don't get excited about things like Herne the Hunter or the strongly-hinted-at-but-not-expressly-confirmed appearance of King Arthur.  I didn't really see the point of either of them in this story, though I can imagine that people who love those traditions would be tickled to see them.

FN * For example, I seem to recall having started Greenwitch at some point, but disliking it, perhaps because it was too overtly pagan for me at the time.  But I don't recall if I read it (or even skimmed it) all the way through.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Rebound / Reaction Shots

Dr Verlyn Flieger has talked about how Tolkien creates certain effects indirectly, through "rebound" or (as I call it) "reaction shots."  So we hardly ever (if at all) see the One Ring being used to full effect, but instead see other characters' reactions to it, especially the great caution and terror of the very best and wisest characters (Flieger, "Tolkien's World and the Fairy-story Essay" in Green Suns and Faërie at 12).  And he uses this same technique to evoke a sense of wonder at several points (Flieger,  "The Eye of the Beholder" at Mythmoot IV; also discussed at Idiosophy and The Middle Page, among others).

This came up in a recent discussion of the Babylon 5 episode, "A Late Delivery from Avalon," as participants noted that Marcus mentions, but absolutely refuses to explain or describe, the ranger training on "terror – how to use it and how to face it."

This hint allows audience members to imagine for themselves just how horrific the training must be, rather than risking disappointment by showing or describing it.

So the hoary writing advice "Show, don't tell" can perhaps be perhaps revised as "Show, don't tell - and sometimes hint for greatest effect."