CARDINAL POINTS: THE CURRENT ISSUE
Alexander Pushkin
COUNT NULIN
translated from Russian by Betsy Hulick
Print versionSTOSVET PUBLISHING HOUSE
about the translator 

TRANSLATOR'S NOTE:



Betsy Hulick
   Betsy Hulick

In publishing this text I am paying a debt, long delayed. A lifetime ago - no, several - I studied in the Slavic Department at Columbia University. My enrollment in the master's program was beclouded from the getgo - I had taken up Russian faute de mieux, having made what appeared to be a false start in acting. Unqualified by temperament or ability for an academic career, after a year of course work, I nevertheless applied for and received a scholarship under the NDEA (National Defense Education Act). Before I could take advantage of it, I had flunked my comprehensives and won a prize. The prize was for an unfinished version of the current translation; of course, I was then obliged to carry through and finish it. And to make it more worthy of the prize than it then was. As I had pretty much shut down on all fronts, it was some time before I came back to it and completed the task. Since then, there being no suitable venue I knew of for publication, it has sat on my shelf. And now, astonishingly, such a venue has presented.
When I started Russian, I was surprised to find that after six months, I could read the first selection in a book of poems: "Ya vas lyubil." This was my introduction to Pushkin. I know of only one other poem that can compare to it, and it is in Spanish, sometimes attributed to St. John of the Cross: "A Cristo Crucificado." Both are exceptional inasmuch as in these two poems it is love itself that invokes the dispassion of love. Thus Pushkin functions on the profane level the way a saint functions on the sacred. This should be enough to realize, here was an extraordinary poet, and, no less, an extraordinary personality.
The background to Graf Nulin is generally known. Exiled to the family estate, Mikhailovskoye, Pushkin wrote it in two mornings, in December of 1825, as a riposte to Shakespeare's "Rape of Lucrece." Clearly, he wrote it to amuse himself. As reworked here in the language that inspired it, I will be happy if it amuses the reader. Let me only add that in every instance in which there has been a choice between hewing to the literal sense of the original and a clean line in English verse, I have chosen the latter. In translation, as Pasternak is on record as saying, the chief consideration is tone.



Count Nulin

Ta-ra! Ta-ra! the bugles blow.
Up since dawn, the hunters sit
their horses chafing at the bit;
the dogs are milling round below.
The master sallies out, surveys
the company: His easy grin
reflects a candid pleasure in
the little world that he purveys.
His Cossack jacket, patched and frayed,
is buttoned snug across his breast;
a brandy flask, a Turkish blade,
and horn equip him for the rest.
Behind a foggy windowpane,
hugging round her frame a shawl,
his wife, with sleepy-eyed disdain,
looks down on man and beast and all.
He grips the stirrup, legs it up,
cups his hands to call at her:
"I won't be back tonight," gives spur,
and takes the highroad clippoty-clop.

Circa Sept., the 21st
(to sink to macaronic prose)
country life is at its worst:
It's dark, it's cold, it rains, it snows,
and wolves are on the prowl. But still,
nothing daunts the hunter's will.
Up at dawn, he gallops off
to make his way, however rough,
through brake and brush, uphill and down,
then, soaked and cursing, finds a tree
to bed beneath as night draws on,
rejoicing like a Myrmidon
wreathed in leaves of victory.

And in her husband's absence, say,
what occupies his wife all day?
Do chores and duties never cease?
Salting mushrooms, feeding geese,
planning menus, glancing in
the pantry cupboard, cellar bin,
back and forth the housewife plies
with vigilant, correcting eyes.

Alas! our heroine (her name,
Natalya, with its patronymic,
Pavlovna, is so arrhythmic,
it renders English iambs lame.
So we propose to know her as
Natasha, which, if not the same,
will do as well, since it's the name
her husband knew her as.) Alas!
Natasha failed to do the work
a conscientious housewife does,
nor was this lapse a random quirk
of nature. No. It had a cause:
her years at Madam Falbala's
pension for gently-bred young ladies,
where Slavic lares and penates
were absent from the syllabus.

We find her in a snug retreat,
the recess of a windowseat,
where she has settled down to read
a novel finely felt indeed:
Eliza and Armand in Love:
The Correspondence of Two Friends
.
A work that's highly spoken of,
its tone is noble and uplifting,
while reading it is much like drifting
on a tide that never ends.

Natasha concentrated hard,
but when a skirmish in the yard
sprang up between the dog and goat,
she inadvertently took note,
and duly shifted her regard
to that, as somehow less remote.
Some idle urchins rocked with laughter.
A wet, bedraggled turkey hen
flew round the yard and back again;
a turkey cock flew gamely after.
Three ducklings in a puddle splashed
a washerwoman trudging past
to hang out laundry on the fence.
The cloudbank rolling in was dense.
Snow by suppertime, no doubt.
All at once, a bell rang out.

Who's lived in unfrequented parts
for any length of time knows well,
what storms of longing in the heart
a carriage bell can raise and quell.
At last! the long-awaited visit
from that dear friend, so apt to stir
youth's memories up - or is it her?
The tension mounts: Oh, God! who is it?
The bell is ringing, nearing still.
The heart is beating fit to kill -
But now it carries past the gate
to dwindle down and dissipate
in silence, lost behind a hill.

Elated by the telltale sound,
Natasha made a swift sortie,
to check the likely roads around
for traffic from the balcony.
Sure enough, beyond the mill,
full-tilt careening down the hill
a carriage gallops toward her... No!
before the bridge, it slows and veers
to take the turnoff... close to tears,
she stamps her foot to see it go.
But then - what luck! - a curve... the ice...
the carriage capsized in a trice.
Hurry! Hurry! Filka! Vaska!
Over there! There's been a wreck!
Hurry! Help! And ask the master
back for dinner and the night!
No! Wait! Suppose he broke his neck...
Well, go find out if he's all right!
And off they go.
                              While she goes off
to fluff a curl and give a puff
to pillows on the best settee,
and then she waits. For heaven's sake:
What's keeping them? The time they take!
But now they hove in view: i.e.,
The muddied carriage, wounded sore
like some poor casualty of war,
is dolefully lugged across the yard.
The master follows, limping hard.
His man Picard, more hale of limb,
moves up to say:" Courage!" to him.
Now while he's welcomed at the door
and ushered with his bags upstairs,
and while Picard unpacks a score
of items needed for repairs,
shall I inform you who he is?
Count Nulin, come from foreign haunts,
where he has spent a fortune, viz:
the one that's still his maiden aunt's.
As bright-eyed as a cockatrice
he's posting toward Petropolis,
accompanied by vast supplies
of ruffled shirts and colored ties,
of hats and handkerchiefs and plumes,
lorgnettes, cigars, pomades, perfumes,
a gallimaufry of bon-mots,
the coded notebooks of Guizot,
a Waverly by Walter Scott,
an air composed by Beranger,
an aria by Paër (not
accounted in the present era
the light he was in Pushkin's day),
etcetera, etcetera.

The table's set, the lamps are lit,
Natasha, freshly coiffed and dressed,
impatiently awaits her guest.
The door swings open to admit
the count. She stands to ask politely
about his leg. It aches a bit,
but all in all, he got off lightly.
Shall they go in? They do, and sit.
A moment, please. The count prefers
his table setting next to hers.
A subtle silence, muffled cough -
he starts the conversation off:
How ignorant the peasants are.
Russian roads are past belief.
If only Paris weren't so far.
The theater? Put it on relief.
C'est bien mauvais. Ça fait pitié.
Talma's completely deaf, in fact,
and Mamzelle Mars? An artefact.
But still Potier, le grand Potier,
Yes, he's superb in any part,
without discredit to his art,
at forty-five can play eighteen.
Which poets are most popular?
Still d'Arlincourt and Lamartine.
They're imitated here. They are?
Enlightenment may reach us yet.
But tell me, where's the waistline set?
Oh, very low. So low, it goes...
If I may see the dress you're wearing?
Yes, here you get a row of bows,
and here a panel, pleats and shirring.
You have an excellent sense of style.
We get The Moscow Telegraph.
Oh, listen! This will make you laugh!
He taps his fork and sings awhile.
But count, you've barely touched your food.
I've finished.
                              Oh.
                                      Natasha's mood
is carefree as the two repair
to chairs beside the fire where
they sip their afterdinner drinks.
Forgetting Paris, Nulin now
appreciably relaxes. How
agreeable she is, he thinks.
Time passes imperceptibly.
The count is not himself at all
His hostess sometimes seeks his eye,
then lets her own abruptly fall
as if unwilling to meet his.
But mercy! Look what time it is!
A rooster crows across the way.
The gong reverberates outside.
The fire's blaze has died away.
The servants hover, sleepy-eyed.
Natasha stands to say goodnight.
"It's time for bed, Count. Pleasant dreams."
He nods reluctantly. "You're right!"
He's let her turn his head, it seems,
as taking leave, he bends to kiss
her hand in silent homage. And...?
God help her! would you credit this?
The artful baggage squeezed his hand!

Retired to her room, Natasha
prepares for bed. As is her wont,
Parasha waits on her. Parasha,
dear reader, is her confidante.
She circulates the gossip, sews,
claims the use of castoff clothes,
berates the mistress, sulks, defies
the master, tells colossal lies.
The present theme of her discourse
is Nulin, and the count's affairs;
God only knows her data's source.
There's not an item that she spares.
But overtaken by a yawn,
Natasha interrupts: Enough!
She wants her nightcap. With it on,
she climbs in bed and waves her off.

The count has also got undressed
He lies in bed propped up by pillows.
The comforter across his chest
spreads out in undulating billows.
At his request, Monsieur Picard
supplies him with a glass of water,
candle snuffers, clock, cigar,
The Minstrel of the Scottish Border.

Count Nulin opens to his place
but finds it hard to pay attention.
A tremor in his hand betrays
some unaccustomed cause of tension.
He pauses, ponders: What the devil!
Am I in love? I can't be. No.
Her pleasantries were only civil.
She really seemed to like me, though.
The topic thus dismissed, he turns
to snuff the light, and shuts his eyes.

But restless in the dark he lies.
Make no mistake: Our hero burns.
Some devil, surfacing on cue,
tempts him to a venal sin.
He passes in detailed review
the lady's beauties: flawless skin
(the best cosmetic, country air)
slender waist, bosom, full,
voice low pitched and musical.
He recollects her dainty toe,
he recollects - and feels a thrill -
the pressure on his hand - oh, no!
He's been a perfect imbecile!
He should have stayed. He shouldn't have left.
He should have been more poised and deft.
He missed his only chance... Too late.
But is it really? After all,
her bedroom door is down the hall...
Why not go investigate?!
So reaching for his robe, in hopes
to slake a whetted appetite,
this reincarnate Tarquin gropes
past corners jutting left and right,
to hie him toward the chaste Lucrece
prepared for all contingencies.

Even so, a snoozing tom,
the darling of the help, will rouse
from sleep, apprised that there's a mouse
nearby, and track it to its doom.
With narrowed eyes, on silent paws,
he closes in with untaught skill,
crouches, leaps, and sinks his claws
in flesh that twitches, then is still.

The lovesick count construes his way
along the pitchblack passageway
aquiver with acute desire.
He freezes if a floorboard creaks.
His mouth is dry; his palms perspire.
Arriving at the door he seeks,
he gropes to find the knob. It turns.
The door yields silently. Ahead
a tablelamp still faintly burns
revealing to his gaze, in bed
for all the world asleep, unless
she's simulating sleep, his hostess.

The count advances, pauses, drops
abruptly by Natasha's side.
The narrative at this point stops,
while Pushkin, in a brief aside,
exhorts her peers to visualize
the desperate straits in which she'll wake,
and say for sisterhood's sweet sake
what course of action they'd advise.
Time moves on, but men stay men
and women women: In her shoes,
I'd do exactly what she does,
though all the rules have changed since then.

She stirs, she wakes, she blinks her eyes
and dumbly stares. The count declares
his passion in disordered sighs
and mumbled phrases. As he dares
advance a hand with clear intent,
she masters the embarrassment
til now depriving her of wits,
and flaring up in righteous anger
(if not compelled by present danger),
bolt upright in the bed she sits
and slaps his face. She slapped his face!
Lucrecia, hear! and Tarquin, tremble!

Count Nulin blushes. His disgrace
is too apparent to dissemble.
God knows what might have happened next
his nerves so raw, his pride so vexed,
had not the spitz begun to bark
and woken up Parasha. Hearing
the telltale sound of footsteps nearing,
he turns and hightails through the dark
to reach his room and safety, swearing
at roads made treacherous by ice
and woman's infinite caprice.

How Nulin spent the night's small hours,
no less the ladies, is uncertain.
Discretion's self, our poet lowers
an impenetrable curtain.

Daylight broke, Count Nulin rose,
nonchalantly donned his clothes,
buffed his nails to pearly pink,
wet a brush to smooth a kink,
selected from an ample stock
a silk cravat to match his hose.
What thoughts he had, God only knows,
but when he hears a servant knock,
despite his anger and chagrin,
he squares his shoulders, sets his chin,
and goes below.
                              Suppressing glee,
his hostess lowers mocking eyes
bites her lip, and pouring tea,
discourses brightly on the rise
in prices, weather, this and that.
Monosyllabic at the start,
eventually the count takes heart
and joins her in this harmless chat.
Indeed, his spirits so improve,
before a second cup of tea,
he's very like to fall in love
with her again...
                              Good gracious me!
Someone's in the hallway. Who?
Natasha, dear!
                              Seryozha, you!
My husband, Count. Count Nulin, dear.
A pleasure, sir, to have you here.
Nasty weather. Looks like rain.
We saw your carriage at the smith's.
Nothing wrong that couldn't be fixed.
It's ready for the road again.
Natasha! What a time we had!
Game no matter where we went.
Vodka, count? You'll pass? Too bad.
It's something special we get sent.
At least, you'll lunch before you go.
I can't... You see, I'm in a hurry.
Nonsense, Count. We won't take no.
Will we, dear?
                              But very sorry,
and kissing hope goodbye, their guest
remains unmoved, however pressed,
In no time flat, the stout Picard,
has had a nip and cleared the room.
In no time flat, they've sent a groom
to bring the carriage to the yard.
The trunk is hoisted on the rack,
the portmanteau installed in back.
The count gets in. Goodby again.
Away he gallops in the rain.
End of story. But it's not.
There's still an i we have to dot.

Natasha told her husband on
their guest no sooner than he'd gone,
nor did she scruple then to tell
the neighborhood on him as well.
And guess who had the biggest laugh
at Nulin's deed of derring do?
I bet you haven't got a clue!
Her husband? No sir! Not by half!
That worthy made a big todo:
The callow fool! the moonstruck calf!
He'd sic his pack of dogs on him,
make him run for life and limb.
Their neighbor Leedin, none but he -
a gentleman of twenty-three.

Now we can reasonably assert
for fact, that in the present day
a wife may be an awful flirt
but only rarely will she stray.


Translated from Russian by Betsy Hulick


© Copyright  Betsy Hulick
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