Monday, August 3, 2020

Tales of Three Centuries by Michael Zagoskin

Balzacian stories of feudal Russia
Mikhail Zagoskin
Tales of Three Centuries is a collection of three short stories by Russian author Mikhail Zagoskin. In the English-language edition, published in 1891, his name is printed as Michael Zagoskin. These stories were translated by Jeremiah Curtin, an American multilinguist who served as secretary to the U.S. minister to Russia. Curtin is perhaps best known and sometimes criticized for his translations of Polish literature. His command of the Russian language was better than his Polish, however, and his prose here is lively and easy to read.

The three stories included in this collection are almost long enough to be considered novellas. These works are lighter than the intimidatingly ponderous epics one often associates with Russian literature. Zagoskin’s writing calls to mind the fiction of French writer Honoré de Balzac, who is even a topic of conversation in one of these stories. Balzac chronicled French society in a series of fictional time capsules that often took the form of comedies of manners. Zagoskin likewise uses his stories to illustrate the social landscape under Russia’s feudalistic system of the 18th and 19th centuries. Like Balzac, Zagoskin is often a satirist who pokes fun at the values and conventions of the upper classes: their obsession with land, measured not in acres but in souls (serfs); their propensity for social climbing, even through deceptive means; and their efforts to distance themselves from their own Russianness by pretending to be French.

In the first story, “An Evening on the Hopyor,” five gentleman guests attend a dinner party at the estate of a wealthy and eccentric host. The gathering turns into a Canterbury Tales-style sharing of stories, resulting in a half dozen sub-narratives, all of which deal with supernatural experiences. The tales they tell are suspenseful but not frightening as Zagoskin brings a sense of humor to his ghost stories that calls to mind Arthur Conan Doyle more than Edgar Allan Poe. Each paranormal phenomenon is cleverly debated by believers and skeptics. All of the storytellers have had military experience, and the tales they tell often relate to their service in Poland, Italy, or the Napoleonic Wars, thus providing the reader with glimpses of Russian history and military life.

“The Three Suitors” is a more typically Balzacian comedy of manners. A young maiden is in love with a handsome young captain of the hussars, but her stepmother won’t allow her to marry for love. Instead, this guardian wants to arrange a marriage between her stepdaughter and one of three competing landowners. The stepmother’s matchmaking tactics border on pimping as she manipulates the three suitors to her own advantage. Luckily, the girl has a godfather who actually cares about her happiness. This story is good fun, though pretty predictable.

The final entry, “Kuzma Roschin,” is an improvement on the same theme. A father won’t let his daughter marry the soldier she loves because the young man’s family is of a lower social and financial class. This story, however, has the added attraction of a sinister bandit. What starts as a comedy of manners morphs into a melodramatic adventure before concluding as a touching meditation on guilt and justice. Like Balzac, Zagoskin has a tendency for too-abrupt endings that leave the reader wanting an epilogue. Nevertheless, this collection as a whole displays smart, entertaining writing with plenty of historical context and local color to conjure up the atmosphere of Tsarist Russia. Zagoskin may not be a household name among Russian masters, but Curtin made a wise choice when he selected these stories for translation.

Stories in this collection
An Evening on the Hopyor 
The Three Suitors 
Kuzmin Roscha

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