The two novelistic works I examine in my paper appeared a year apart: Pushkin’s Hoffmanesque The Queen of Spades (Pikovaia dama) in 1834 and Lazhechnikov’s Walter-Scottian The House of Ice (Ledianoi dom) in 1835. Besides their reliance on captivating “Romantic” plots, these texts share a fascination with historical reconstruction, with rendering eighteenth-century Russian history in evocative detail. I propose to view description, at least one that is aimed at detailed representation of past lifestyles, as itself a generator of plots or cultural memory. While the thrilling plot in Pushkin and Lazhechnikov captivates readers and makes them forget their concerns over historical accuracy, description anchors these narratives in specific history and makes seemingly superficial and random objects available for imaginative deciphering and narrative unification.
The goal of my paper is to examine the descriptive techniques Pushkin and Lazhechnikov develop in the absence of publicly available historical documents of the eighteenth century. In my analysis, I bring into play two theoretical traditions: a) the theory of the novel, and b) the notion (developed by such critics as Pierre Nora) of “lieux de memoire,” the idea that memory, and specifically historical memory, can be attached to identifiable loci and objects.
Pushkin and Lazhechnikov approach history and memory quite differently. Pushkin depicts the Catherinian past indirectly: it is entirely contained, as a relic, in the mansion of the old Countess. In her outdated furniture and knick-knacks, the narrator and Gherman discern an exhilarating past of love affairs and mystical encounters. Even as the Countess takes her secret of the cards to her grave, her other secret is entirely exposed; her aging body, the withered body of the past and of the glorious Age of Catherine II, is suddenly stripped naked not simply in the privacy of the Countess’ miraculously conserved bedroom, but in Gherman’s intrusive presence. Eighteenth-century history in The Queen of Spades is meant to be hidden in the margins of contemporary life, but instead turns into a haunting revenant, motivating contemporary action and plunging modern-day heroes into madness. The Countess’ house, I argue, is not a Gothic castle, but a domain of history where objects yield their testimony under the cold scrutiny of the narrator.
While history is the unavowed protagonist of The Queen of Spades, the compelling historical representation of Anna Ioannovna’s reign is Lazhechnikov’s explicit goal. History is here not a secret, but a spectacle of extreme and exotic colors and flavors, a display of picturesque ethnicities, spies, jesters, and heroes, all in an unfamiliar setting that ranges from the murky dwellings of the courtiers to the whimsical house of ice. As I demonstrate, spectacularization of detail motivates Lazhechnikov’s narrative. Unlike in The Queen of Spades, where history resides in the shared lieux de memoire, Lazhechnikov’s history dwells in defamiliarized spaces which, no matter how the author himself protested in his letters to Pushkin, narrate history as a fiction rather than a memory or fact.