The Gypsies & other narrative poems
Translated from the Russian with an introduction, afterword and notes by Antony Wood
Alexander Pushkin’s reputation as Russia’s greatest poet rests on more than Eugene Onegin. This selection of five of his finest narrative poems displays his essential qualities – his stylistic fluency, ironic poise, parodic playfulness and endless ability to surprise, his creation of poetry out of everyday language.
The Gypsies, the anti-Romantic tale of a city-dweller whose search for ‘unspoiled’ values among gypsies ends in tragedy, is modern Russian literature’s first masterpiece – and a source for Bizet’s Carmen. The ballad The Bridegroom turns this Romantic genre into a whodunit filled with sexual dread and subconscious terror. Count Nulin, a deliciously comic tale of country life, stands Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece on its head – what would have happened if Lucrece had slapped Tarquin’s face? The Tale of the Dead Princess (Pushkin’s version of the Snow White story) transforms Russian folk-tale into purest art, and the eerie Tale of the Golden Cockerel savagely politicizes the folk-tale form.
In a substantial introduction, the translator discusses these different approaches to narrative in verse and the literary and biographical context of each poem. In his end notes and an afterword ‘Pushkin’s Voice in English’, he takes the reader into the translator’s workshop to consider what is involved in the process of translating Pushkin’s verse and his solutions to specific problems posed. If, as one critic has written, Antony Wood ‘comes close to the translator’s ideal,’ so the wood-engraver Simon Brett comes close to the illustrator’s in this beautifully produced book, capturing the essence of each poem in a single dramatic image.
‘Re-creating Pushkin requires skills approaching magic. Antony Wood is one of the two or three best translators of Russia’s greatest poet in the Angophone world, because his Pushkin moves: you watch him dance as well as hear him sing.’ – Caryl Emerson
‘Everybody knows how difficult Pushkin’s poems are to translate. Antony Wood has succeeded, within the limits of the possible.’ – John Bayley
‘“Count Nulin” is rendered by Wood into witty, supple English cadences that imitate the effect of Pushkin’s iambic pentameter … “The Tale of the Dead Princess”, a version of Snow White, luminously combines verse of the highest cultivation with the simple intimacies of a peasant nurse’s diction. “The Gypsies” is a flawless and bewitching creation.’ – Rachel Polonsky, Times Literary Supplement
‘Wood shows considerable expertise in producing sustained and impeccable iambic tetrameter … a welcome and worthy addition to the library of Russian literature in translation offered by Angel Classics … from one of the UK’s leading translators of verse.’ – Michael Pursglove, Slavonic and East European Review
ALEXANDER PUSHKIN was born on 26 May 1799 in Moscow. On his father’s side he was descended from an old boyar family which had sunk into obscurity; on his mother’s, he was the great-grandson of an African prince’s son adopted by Peter the Great, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, who attained eminence as a military engineer. He was educated at Tsar Alexander I’s newly founded Lycée at Tsarskoye Selo, where he excelled in Russian and French literature and little else, acquired his characteristic ease and fluency in writing verse, and wrote nearly one-sixth of his entire lyric output. His reckless political verses and lampoons earned him exile in southern Russia, and an imprudently revealed interest in atheism a further two years on his mother’s estate near the north-west frontier town of Pskov, where he wrote a number of celebrated works including Boris Godunov, some chapters of Eugene Onegin, and most of “The Gypsies”. Recalled from exile in 1826 by the new tsar, Nicholas I, after the abortive Decembrist uprising of the previous year, he was obliged to make a show of toeing the line for the rest of his life. In 1828 he met a sixteen-year-old impecunious beauty, Natalya Goncharova, and married her in 1831. She caught the tsar’s eye and he gave Pushkin a minor post in order to secure her attendance at court balls. Her flirtation with a French guards officer in Russian service provoked a duel in which Pushkin was shot in the stomach, dying two days later on 29 January 1837. Pushkin and Natalya had four children; two of their grandchildren, a brother and a sister, married grandchildren of Nicholas I.
Pushkin’s extensive oeuvre laid the ground for Russian literature of the rest of the century and was inspirational to Russian writers of the next. His completed work comprises over eight hundred lyric poems, some dozen narrative poems, six verse plays, five verse folk-tales, a novel in verse, a novel in prose, six short prose tales, a work of history, and sundry prose, diaries and reminiscences.