Sunday, February 9, 2014

Pushkin's Queen of Spades

My new book club meets tonight.  I am excited to introduce Russian short stories to a small group of students who are under some form of court-ordered lock down.  I am nervous about my lack of experience educating teenagers, and worried by my lack of knowledge about the reading levels of this particular group of students.  However, I am going to give them serious readings, namely, the Penguin Classics book, Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida.  Hopefully, with the right support, they will find some level of satisfaction in learning new things while conquering difficult texts.  I will also use the book club also has a vehicle for enhancing my own knowledge of Russian literature.  To date, I’ve never really read all that many short stories, so this particular genre will be new territory for me. 

As a form of introduction to the club’s theme, Russia, I will ask students a series of questions related to their current knowledge of Russia, which may be limited to the Olympic Games or Soviet spy themes in American cinematography.  Drawing on my previous presentation to a grammar school, but adjusting the sophistication of the answers to my high school audience, I will ask students some basic questions such as the following:  Is Russia an old country or a new one?  Is it hot or cold?  Is it flat or mountainous?  Is it far or close to the United States?  What language do they speak in Russia?  What religion do they practice? 

After giving students a general framework for a discussion of Russia, I will try to give them at least a couple of broad reasons for my own personal interest in Russian history and Russian literature.  While passions may never be fully rationale, I will explain that Russia bears sustained scrutiny because it is a large country (in terms of both geography and demography), an influential country (in terms of its cultural legacy, communist past, and historic military might), a complex country (in terms of both diversity as well as its ambivalent relationship to Europe), and a unique country (in terms of both its religious history and almost unparalleled record of revolution, war, and upheaval). 

After covering Russia’s value as an object of study, I’ll say a few words about Russian literature, focusing on the global impact of its novelists, poets, and short-story writers.   While the reasons for Russia’s deserved literary fame aren’t necessarily easy to explain, I will say a few words about Russia’s claim to fame in the annals of world literature.  First, I’ll mention just a few of the “great names” of Russian literature, which include Pushkin, Gogol, Oblomov, Schredrin-Saltykov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov, Bunin, Gorky, Pasternak, Tsveteva, Brodsky, Solzhenitsyn, and Akhmatova.  Second, I’ll say that Russian literature has a reputation for being profoundly serious, moral, philosophical, and eschatological, if not also egregiously dark and Manichean.

Next, we’ll review some of the reading comprehension techniques we’ll need to be developing as we tackle a series of difficult Russian texts.  One slide from my first night’s presentation will be entitled, “How to read like a college student.”  This will entail a number of overlapping strategies, including underlining, rereading, note-taking, dictionary use, marshaling textual evidence in defense of an opinion, paraphrasing, and collaborative discussion and problem-solving.  I will also give students some basic tool to keep in mind as they approach a complex new plot for the first time.  For instance, even serious readers need to figure out one or more of the following questions:   who, what, when, where, and why?  The overall theme will be that students need not expect reading to be easy in order to see it as rewarding.  In fact, the reverse is at least sometimes the case:  the harder the text, the more difficult its narrative and complex its symbolism, the more satisfying and important it may turn out to be. 

Our first story will be Pushkin’s “Queen of Hearts.”   After asking students to explain the basic plot of the story, and after asking them several open-ended questions about what they liked or didn’t like about the story, I will use the text as a platform for introducing students to historical themes.  I will ask students, for instance, to identify passages that demonstrate something about the society Pushkin was describing.  We will, specifically, focus on what the short story reveals about the role of the Russian aristocracy, specifically focusing on Russia’s female aristocrats.  What were Russian aristocrats expected to do with their time?  What constituted an ideal aristocratic man, or an ideal aristocratic female?   We will of course examine Pushkin’s story-telling devices as well, including those related to suspense.  By the conclusion of the discussion, which will only happen two weeks after today, I’m hoping the class will have jointly diagnosed and rehearsed the story’s plot, and then explicated some of the elements of Russian aristocratic society related to militarism, leisure and gambling, gender, class and rank, and elite Russian identity.

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