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21 November 2018

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The Captain's Daughter

By Alexander Pushkin (NYRB Classics, $14)
Translated by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler

In his superb short biography of Alexander Pushkin (Hesperus, 2009), Robert Chandler notes that “Not only is Pushkin Russia’s greatest poet, he is also the author of the first major work in almost every literary genre.”

The Captain’s Daughter, Pushkin’s final published work, was Russia’s first great prose novel. And it is the sort of linguistic and literary masterpiece one would expect from a great poet working at the height of his art, steeped in the history that surrounds his work (the Pugachyov Rebellion).

Pushkin had been studying Pugachyov for years, and had released a monumental historical work on the rebellion just two years before, including a special edition (with instructive notes) for Tsar Nicholas. But if his history was remarkable for its use of primary (eyewitness) sources and a well-rounded if chaotic presentation of events, The Captain’s Daughter was not interested in truth. Instead, Pugachyov becomes a vehicle for telling a touching story about forgiveness, duty and honor. It is a vivid, symmetrically crafted, sonorously poetic tale that deserves greater attention.

The Chandlers’ give it that attention not merely by offering a translation that is easy and true, but by placing the novel in proper historical context, with fascinating appendices on the challenges of its translation (and thus the hidden riches in the prose), and on Pushkin’s work as a historian (with necessary background on the rebellion). The latter two are vital additions to this translation, which originally appeared under the Hesperus imprint in 2008.

Pushkin’s senseless death in a duel followed soon after the publication of The Captain’s Daughter, and one year later the critic Vissarion Belinsky wrote that “Every educated Russian must have a complete Pushkin, otherwise he has no right to be considered either educated or Russian.”

Any Russophile’s “complete Pushkin” should include this volume.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Sep/Oct 2014