The Captain’s Daughter by Alexander Pushkin: A masterclass in storytelling
A founding text of the 19th century Russian novel, this is high art at its most effortless
Alexander Pushkin: among his many literary talents was a flair for characterisation. Photograph: Universal/Getty
The Captain's Daughter
New York Review Books Classics
Pyotr Grinyov, a Russian nobleman, recalls a fraught interlude in his youth which was to become the defining moment of his life. His approach is witty and direct; he takes little credit, although as the story unfolds and becomes tense and darker, he does acquire increasing resourcefulness. He grew up on his father’s estate. “We were nine children. My brothers and sisters all died in infancy”. And so the narrator, without any bid for sympathy, makes clear that he was raised as an only child and clearly was indulged by his parents.
As a retired lieutenant colonel claiming Prince B as a close relative, his father had social connections that ensured Grinyov’s passage into adult life would be easy: “I was enrolled as a sergeant in the Semyonov regiment while still in my mother’s womb. Had Mother – God forbid! – given birth to a daughter, Father would have notified the authorities of the death of the sergeant who had failed to report for duty . . . I was considered to be on leave until I had completed my studies.”
All went well from the age of five under the supervision of his father’s trusted old huntsman, Savelich, who taught Pyotr to read and write in Russian. However, on reaching 12 summers, Grinyov experiences the first of several shifts in his young life: “Father then hired a Frenchman for me.”
The narrator’s aristocratic tone is subtly evident without ever sounding haughty. Throughout this daring romantic adventure, which has several serious messages yet avoids descending into a polemic, Pushkin displays a shrewd grasp of social class. It is a well-known story, rooted in Pugachev’s rebellion, when the Cossacks rose up against Catherine II between 1773 and 1775, and it is skilfully told with an intriguing element of ambivalence. Several characters reveal more than one side, including the narrator, an interesting blend of impulse and honour.
Instead of teaching the boy French and German, the French teacher sets about drinking and picking up Russian from his charge. Pushkin establishes a sense of ease; the narrator’s tone suggests affection for his past. All is well with teacher and pupil, until the Frenchman’s interest in the female servants causes the father to storm into the classroom, to discover the lazy tutor asleep and the schoolboy Grinyov busily making the large map of the world – which had been ordered for him from Moscow – into a kite. The Frenchman is dismissed and the narrator returned to the delighted care of loyal old Savelich.
One day as the narrator’s mother is making honey preserves, his father enquires as to their son’s age. On hearing that his 16th birthday has passed, the father decides it is time he sees military service. The mother is distraught. It is different for the narrator and he describes his elation: “I would be an officer in the Guards; this meant that I would be enjoying the ultimate in human happiness.”
But he will not be sampling the bright lights of St Petersburg. Instead he is going to Orenburg, an outpost in the provinces, or as he puts it “a godforsaken backwater”. Off he goes, again under the charge of Savelich. They check in to an inn. When Savelich goes out to buy supplies, the narrator is invited to play billiards with an imposing looking fellow. The boy loses the game and thinks nothing of it, until a messenger arrives at the inn, requesting the 100 roubles he had lost. Savelich is horrified, yet the debt is paid. Soon after the narrator and his servant resume their journey, the weather turns. The old man wants to turn back but the young man disagrees and they soon encounter difficulties. But a stranger emerges from the snow and helps them to safety. The encounter proves significant.
BackboneAmong Pushkin’s many talents is a flair for characterisation which often proves the backbone of his stories. By the time he came to write The Captain’s Daughter, which was published in 1836, his – and Russia’s – first prose novel, he had already completed the beautifully poignant verse novel Eugene Onegin, which had appeared in instalments between 1823 and 1831, before the complete edition appeared in 1833. (In that same year Pushkin wrote his epic poem The Bronze Horseman, as well as several short stories.)
In Tatyana, the young woman who falls desperately in love with the foppish Onegin, who is too self-absorbed to see in the quiet girl the woman she will one day become and he will woo in vain, Pushkin created an extraordinarily sympathetic heroine. Admittedly, Eugene Onegin is a remarkable work whereas The Captain’s Daughter – part history, part fairy tale adventure – is more conventional and ultimately highly romanticised. Yet it is compelling, largely due to the sustained candour of the well-intentioned narrator.
Pushkin, Russia’s literary pioneer, tends to be remembered as much for his impetuous behaviour, his debts and his early death at 37, after a duel he initiated over the matter of his wife’s honour, as for being a writer of immense and diverse talent. He was raised in Moscow and, as a French-speaking aristocrat, learned his Russian from serfs working in his parents’ household. He was wayward, yet there was also a disciplined side to him. Having secured permission to work in the state archive, he set about serious research. Between late February and early March of 1833, he had read more than 1,000 pages of documents. By May of that year he had written his first draft of A History of Pugachev. In August he travelled to the area, eager to interview eyewitnesses.
From this history of the rebellion (which ended with Pugachev’s execution) which Pushkin wrote in two drafts and published in December 1834, came his historical novel. It may seem strange to compare The Captain’s Daughter with a fairy tale but Pushkin borrows several narrative devices from that genre. The story also evokes a vivid sense of the dual nature of Russia; one face looking towards French culture, the other caught up in the peasant world of native tradition. It was this “other” Russia that fascinated educated aristocrats such as Pushkin.
When the narrator arrives at the remote fortress to which he has been posted he is made welcome by the ordinary country people he meets. The exchanges, invariably underlining the social differences between the camp commander and his kindly wife, who charm the narrator, almost as much as his daughter Masha, are well handled by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler in an effective translation rich in nuance and complete with introduction and footnotes.
Chandler also includes an interesting note about the pitfalls of translations, prefacing it with James Howell’s comment “translations are but as turn-coated things at best”. He then acknowledges the subtle linguistic variety Pushkin ,“a trickster”, summons in this beguiling performance.
A masterclass in storytelling and a founding text of the 19th-century Russian novel, The Captain’s Daughter is high art at its most effortless. Less than two months after publishing it, Pushkin, impulsive to the end, died of his wounds two days after that infamous duel. Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent