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the queen of spades

12 december 2008

Pushkin's "Queen of Spades" is a classic short story – one of those classics of Western fiction that, in the unfathomability of my ignorance (which only seems to get deeper the more I read), I had never heard of till I recently opened the program of the Metropolitan production of Tchaikovsky's opera of the same name. The tale can be read in less than an eighth of the time it takes to listen to the opera, suggesting that the two works are only loosely related. But they share the theme of a way-over-the-top depiction of a great obsession.

In both opera and short story, the protagonist Hermann is obsessed with knowing what's going to happen next. Tchaikovsky (with his librettist brother Modest) cast the story as a romance – can't have soprano/tenor duets without a romance – and it works beautifully as opera on that basis. But in Pushkin's tale, Hermann's love for the young Lise is entirely subordinate to his desire to know the identity of three playing cards. These three cards are known only to Lise's guardian, the impossibly superannuated Countess, who has learned their identity decades before from the Count Saint-Germain, the most eldritch member of the 18th-century Paris monde.

One should digress here to note that, in both story and opera, the card game in question resembles nothing ever codified by Hoyle. Evidently the object of the game is to predict the identity of certain cards before they are turned over, though Pushkin also conceives of these cards as pitted against cards held by others. Whatever this game is, I'm sure you can't really play it. It resembles nothing so much as Mark Harris's TEGWAR: The Exciting Game Without Any Rules.

In her youth, to recover a squandered fortune, the Countess had in fact played the cards, but everybody except her seems to have forgotten what they were. (Three, seven, ace!) In fact, the Countess dies without revealing them. Hermann learns their identity only from her vengeful ghost.

When a card game gets this fantastic, one suspects that it is no actual game at all, but a MacGuffin. Indeed, the plot of "The Queen of Spades" doesn't give a hoot about the rules of the card game, if there are any at all. All that matters is that the third card Hermann "calls" should be, not the ace he names, but the title dame. Once she is revealed, Hermann loses everything and goes mad (in Pushkin) or shoots himself dead (in Tchaikovsky).

Hermann is not a gambler at all, though the story is sometimes interpreted as a cautionary tale about the addictiveness of gambling. (By "sometimes" I mean in that same Metropolitan program's production notes.) Pushkin makes clear early on that Hermann isn't a gambler. He is fanatically retentive of his money, and only observes other people gambling, as a sort of hobby.

Alas, once he's got a sure thing via the old lady's ghost, Hermann can't resist the plunge. He reminds me of meta-pollster extraordinaire Nate Silver in the days before the 2008 election, insistent beyond measure that he knew what the 4th of November held (as, in the event, he did, saving Nate from gibbering away in an asylum or taking a fowling piece to his breast).

At the heart of "The Queen of Spades" is the desire to be lead-pipe certain about inherently contingent uncertainties. True compulsive gamblers lose too often to be fooled about sure things. In fact, losing is part of the appeal of true gambling addictions. Hermann's obsession is instead that of the sabermetrician, the futurologist, Isaac Asimov's "psychohistorian." It just has to be the ace! And when it turns up the queen, life is no longer worth living.

In the Metropolitan performance I saw last month, the great tenor Ben Heppner as Hermann sat down to his fatal hand of cards in the climactic scene. The first thing he did, I noticed through my opera glasses, was to peek at the three cards dealt in front of him. Methought, Hermann, you know right now you are riding for a fall – why not fold while you still can? Heppner, breaking the illusion of the scene in a most operatic fashion, pretty much had to peek, of course. If some dunce of a Met property master hadn't set out the Queen of Spades as the third card to be turned over in the the last scene of The Queen of Spades, that would be a problem. The vast audience would certainly be perplexed if Hermann had shot himself over the four of diamonds.

Sometimes you want to know what's coming, and sometimes you really need to know what's coming. Pushkin's "Queen of Spades" is the great concentrated study of the obsession with needing to be ahead of the game.

Pushkin, Alexander. "The Queen of Spades." 1833. In The Complete Prose Tales, trans. Gillon R. Aitken. London: Barrie & Rockliff, 1966. 275-305.