Aleksandr Kuprin anyone? Despite enjoying significant popularity in early 20th century Russia, Kuprin’s name recognition among 21st century U.S. readers is pretty minimal. I’ll admit that I have trouble remembering if he’s Aleksei or Aleksandr, even after seeing his books on my nightstand for weeks!
I recently read two Kuprin stories. The longer story, “Гранатовый браслет” (“The Garnet Bracelet”), is one of Kuprin’s best known. The name of the shorter story “Гамбринус” (“Gambrinus”) may be familiar to habitués of certain bars and restaurants in Russia and Brighton Beach.
“The Garnet Bracelet” (1911) is suffused with dualism: sisters whose appearances display the differing heritages of their parents, a cliff, and a mix of old and new social conventions and literary devices. I most enjoyed the mystery of the garnet bracelet itself, the relationship between the sisters, and Kuprin’s use of nature as a symbol. The most prevalent aspect of “The Garnet Bracelet,” though, is the agony of unrequited love.
I can tell you without spoiling anything that one character in “The Garnet Bracelet” says (in my translation), “Love should be a tragedy. A great secret in the world! No lifely comforts, calculations, or compromises should touch it.” These lines stood out vividly because I’ve been reading Daniel Rancour-Laferriere’s controversial psychoanalysis of Russia, The Slave Soul of Russia: Moral Masochism and the Cult of Suffering. It includes this line from Chapter One (page 3): “The literary image of Russian self-abnegation can be wide-ranging, even flamboyant.” “The Garnet Bracelet” is only one minor contribution.
Music is a common link between “The Garnet Bracelet” and “Gambrinus.” Kuprin invokes the “largo appassionato” movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 2, opus 2, No. 2, twice in “The Garnet Bracelet” and sets the final words of the story to Beethoven’s music. Although melodramatic and sentimental, the overall effect of listening to the music and reading the passage strengthened the story because, for me, the music is more beautiful than Kuprin’s ending, which relies too heavily on coincidence for my taste.
“Gambrinus” (1907) features music through Sashka, a Jewish violinist who plays in a bar called Gambrinus. Little happens in the first half of the story, but Kuprin’s settings are again vivid as he describes sailors and the seamy side of a southern Russian port city. He later contrasts Sashka’s goodness with the “sneaky devil living in each person, who whispers in his ear ‘Go. It will all be unpunished…’”
“Gambrinus” also includes a passage that reminded me of Rancour-Laferriere’s book. When Sashka sees English sailors, he dutifully plays “Rule Britannia,” which includes a line “Britons never will be slaves.” Kuprin notes Russia’s eternal slavery (вечное рабство) as a contrast, and the story concludes not long after the 1905 revolution.
I won’t mention how the theme of servitude works into the end of the story, but I will say that “Gambrinus” morphs from an atmospheric piece into a profile of personal and national history and tragedy. Kuprin manages to cover a lot in 30 pages, and my only complaint about the story is that he sometimes lacks subtlety and lapses into sentimentality as he describes the bar and Sashka. This is, of course, a matter of taste, and these passages might feel very different in translation, but the slightly false notes felt unfortunate, as did tacking on a last line that sums up the story’s theme.
Kuprin may not be a first-tier Russian classic, but I enjoy his clear style and blends of themes and techniques enough that I’m looking forward to reading more of my thick compilation book: I’m especially looking forward to Поединок (The Duel). I’ll be writing more soon about Kuprin and his Яма (The Pit), a novel about prostitution. In the meantime, for detailed summaries of Kuprin’s fiction, visit Nicholas J.L. Luker’s monograph. (Note: there are spoilers.)