Puškin’s Queen of Spades and Nabokov’s King, Queen, Knave

To the best of my knowledge, the rather obvious influence of Puškin’s story on Nabokov’s novel has previously been overlooked (suffice it to mention Sergej Davydov’s entry on “Nabokov and Pushkin” in The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov, pp.482–96). Specifically, it manifests itself in:

—An imperfect blend of Russian and German cultural conventions which serves as an impetus for the narration. Thus, in The Queen of Spades, Hermann’s “Russian” passion for gambling sits uneasily with his “German” stinginess, which initiates his attempts to circumvent the power of chance (it is curious, by the way, that Russia has borrowed its playing-card terminology from none other country than Germany, through such intermediaries as the Czechs, the Poles, the White Russians and the Ukrainians; see B. O. Unbegaun, Selected Papers on Russian and Slavonic Philology, pp.255–61). In King, Queen, Knave, Nabokov’s self-professed aversion to all things German brings forth “a realistic portrayal of the Russian émigré’s way of not seeing the natives of the countries into which he happened to fall […], except as celluloid or cardboard figures” (A.Field, Nabokov: His Life in Art, p.158). This, however, did not preclude such critics as M. Osorgin and G. Ivanov from pointing out that King, Queen, Knave reads as if it is a translation from the German (see Poslednie novosti of 4 October 1928, p. 3, and Chisla, no. 1, 1930, p. 234, respectively).

—A special significance attached to certain numbers. Cf., for instance, the “trojka, semerka, tuz” sequence as interpreted by Lauren G. Leighton in his article in Canadian Slavonic Papers, vol. 19, 1977, and the number plate of the taxi which takes Dreyer to a skiing holiday (Nabokov, King, Queen, Knave, chapter 7). Also, the surname “Dreyer,” a derivative from the German “drei,” might be used as a subtle reminder of Puškin’s “trojka.”

—The narrative device of an anecdote which is mentioned but remains untold (cf. The Queen of Spades, chapter 2; and King, Queen, Knave, chapter 11).

—The motif of half-dead, half-alive characters (cf., for example, the old Countess in The Queen of Spades and the three “flat, but very complicated” protagonists in King, Queen, Knave).

—The motif of insanity (the sordid end of Puškin’s Hermann and the delirium of Franz and Martha in Nabokov’s piece).

—The motif of the bitter irony of fate (cf. Puškin’s “Dama vaša ubita” and the unexpected death of Martha in King, Queen, Knave).

As for the motif of cards itself, this is where the difference between Puškin and Nabokov comes to the fore. According to Jurij Lotman (see his essay ““Pikovaja dama” i tema kart i kartočnoj igry” in his Izbrannye stat′i, vol. 2, 1992), in fiction, playing cards often symbolically represent an antagonistic conflict, whereas fortune-telling cards mostly function as a sui generis program of forthcoming events. Since in The Queen of Spades Hermann is challenging Providence in a game of cards, Puškin appears to follow the first literary pattern. In King, Queen, Knave, on the contrary, the images of cards are predominantly used by Nabokov as a metaphorical description of the process of story-telling, and therefore seem to belong to the second pattern.

Nabokov is not the only Russian writer who displays the preference for the “programmatic” function of cards. To name but one, Lev Tolstoj reportedly decided the fate of Katjuša Maslova in his Resurrection (1899) by recourse to a game of patience (his favourite pastime): had the patience come out, Nexljudov would have married her (see A. B. Goldenveizer, Talks with Tolstoj, p.181). As far as the theme of cards is concerned, the divergence in Puškin’s and Nabokov’s interpretations of it should be examined against a wider “leitmotif of gambling and divination central to Russian culture” (John E. Bowlt in The Cambridge Companion to Modern Russian Culture, p. 231).