17 Must-Read Books for the New Year
When Pushkin began writing two centuries ago, Russia didn’t have a literary canon to speak of. The clever nobles of his day preferred to read in French; if they did write in their mother tongue, they mostly kept to poetry or plays. Pushkin composed the works contained here in an experimental spirit, to see if Russian might work as well in memoir, battle journals, epistolary novels, and short fiction as it did in poetry. The undertaking paid off—the spell of his imagination still holds. He wrote of loyal lackeys and lecherous landowners, callow rakes and modest maidens, and soldiers so hot-blooded that they’d be tempted to duel over a handful of cherries. (Pushkin himself died at 37 in a duel over his wife’s honor.) Some of the stories give you the eerie sense that you’ve read them before because their distinctive features and settings reappear in the work of so many later authors. This volume reminds the reader that Pushkin was the first to set them down around the literary samovar.
The book includes two biographical entries: “The Moor of Peter the Great,” Pushkin’s tribute to his great-grandfather Gannibal (an African slave who was given to Peter the Great as a boy, became a court favorite, and grew up to be a general), and “Journey to Arzrum,” his eyewitness account of an 1829 military campaign to Turkey, rife with sneak attacks. But fact or fiction, the writing collected here displays Pushkin’s unique power to portray everyday human emotions and actions as epic, to preserve the vitality of the past in the language he spoke, and wrote, like no other.