Friday, 17 May 2013

Book Review: The Queen of Spades by Alexander Pushkin

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1908968036/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=1908968036&linkCode=as2&tag=editsmisc00-21
Card games are and have always been a very popular pastime although there were times in history when the Christian Church demonised them, not least because people played for higher stakes than they could afford and forgot about everything else. Many lives have been ruined by gambling and today we know that it can be an addiction. The Queen of Spades by Alexander Pushkin is a gambling tale that deals with obsession, with superstition and with the ruin of a person.

Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (Александр Сергеевич Пушкин), was born in Moskow, Russian Empire, in June 1799. At the age of fifteen he published his first poem and continued to write for the rest of his life. Among his most important works apart from numerous and famous poems count the verse novel Eugene Onegin (Евгeний Онeгин: 1825-1832), the play Boris Godunov (Борис Фёдорович Годунoв: 1825) and short stories like for instance The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin (Повести покойного Ивана Петровича Белкина: 1831), The Queen of Spades (Пиковая дама: 1834) and The Captain's Daughter (Капитанская дочка: 1836). In January 1837 Alexander Pushkin died in Saint Petersburg after a duel with a French officer who had tried to seduce his young and socialite wife. 

The Queen of Spades is the story of Hermann, a young officer of the engineers in the Russian Army. When his comrades ask him why he only watches them gamble and never plays at cards himself, he answers that he hardly cares ‘to sacrifice the necessaries of life for uncertain superfluities’. Then, one night, his friend Tomsky tells the story of his grand-mother who lost a fortune in Paris when she was young and then found herself unable to pay back her gambling debt. She turned to the Count of Saint Germain for help who instead of lending her money told her the secret of three winning cards to get back her lost fortune and even more. The story engrosses Hermann so much that he can’t think of anything else but making the old Countess tell him the secret. In order to achieve his goal he flirts with Lisaveta Ivanovna, the ward of the Countess, sending her love letters. Eventually, the young woman lets him know how to get into the house and into her room. Hermann waits for the Countess in her bedroom and bids her to reveal the secret of the three winning cards to him, but she tells him that it was only a joke. He refuses to believe her and threatens her with a pistol. The almost eighty-year old woman dies of terror and not knowing what else to do Hermann goes up to Lisaveta Ivanovna’s room. He confesses to her what he did and asks her to help him to get out of the house again. During the night after the funeral the old countess appears to Hermann as a ghost and tells him the three winning cards at last. Sure to win Hermann finally plays cards and puts at stake his entire fortune three times. Twice he wins as expected, but the third time... 

Of course, the setting and the mores that Alexander Pushkin described in The Queen of Spades are characteristic of the early nineteenth century, but the story itself is timeless in its outlines. The founder of modern Russian literature put down a typical story of greed that could happen everywhere and any time. There are casinos and stock exchanges that attract gamblers like Hermann who want to believe that there is an infallible as well as simple method to increase their fortune. Many of them would do anything to know the secret of the winning cards and they would stick at nothing. Few of them will be doomed like Hermann, and yet, a mind filled with greed is a madness of its own kind, isn’t it? 

The Queen of Spades is a short story that uses to be published with other works of Alexander Pushkin that may differ according to the edition. It may be an old story, but it’s also a classic that certainly is worth the time reading. So it’s another read that I’m happy to recommend.

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