Short story: “The Queen of Spades”

by look i have opinions

“Пиковая дама,” by Alexander Sergeevich* Pushkin, translated as “The Queen of Spades” either by Thomas Seltzer or by some uncredited chump

The Russian is online here; the translation I read was collected in Best Russian Short Stories (1925, edited by Thomas Seltzer), found on Project Gutenberg and LibriVox; same translation online here (was it common back then to just totally fail to credit the translator? or are we supposed to assume the editor translated everything?); also, I found a much shorter, uncredited translation here and similarly brief one by H. Twitchell here**

9,885 words in this English version

Reread this recently, having totally forgotten the plot, and liked it a lot. Probably the reason I forgot it was that the main character was so contemptible by the end, and the development of his character confused me. Hermann’s initially stoic self-control, his descent into obsessive greed, and his remorseless machinations all go together strangely. For a considerable stretch of the story, I was able to hope (thanks to ambiguous phrases like “the inspiration of passion”) that he really did desire Lizaveta for her own sake. When I realized he didn’t, I lost some attachment to him as a protagonist.

I wonder if this is meant to be a tale of cruel justice, what I usually call a Schadenfreude story. I don’t find it as funny as most such stories, though I enjoy the way Hermann’s fate is tied up casually in the last few paragraphs. (Ending a story with the main character packed off to a madhouse seems very Russian to me. Not sure where else I’ve seen that.)

*According to Douglas Hofstadter, this is pronounced to rhyme with “Life is, as they say, a bitch”—useful mnemonic.

**These last two, in addition to being about a third as long, have a somewhat truncated ending. Which makes me wonder if the Seltzer padded his version for the benefit of us Anglophones. Maybe he thought we would expect all threads to be tied up? I would be disappointed if that were the case, since the last few lines charm me,*** and I’d like to believe that same irony is present throughout the story. I guess I’m not as comfortable with the death of the author as I like to think I am. What’s perverse is that I could easily keep the author alive (so to speak) by attributing the story I read to Seltzer, in the same spirit in which we attribute Romeo and Juliet to Shakespeare and not to the Italian writers who supplied its plot. But I’m not willing to do that—I can’t help believing Pushkin is the primary author of this English-language story, even though Seltzer got the final cut, and I can’t bring myself to conceive of them as collaborators either, separated as they were by almost a century.

Glancing over a machine translation of the original Russian (thanks, Google) confirmed that Seltzer’s is correct. Maybe Pushkin published two versions, though I haven’t seen any mention of the fact.

***Honestly, ending a tragic or horrific story on an ironically banal note is a pretty common device, and not difficult to do. I just like it.

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