Thursday, 23 January 2014

Eugene Onegin, by Aleksandr Pushkin.

1837 edition of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin.
Pushkin Museum.
Eugene Onegin, or Евге́ний Оне́гин in Russian, was written by Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin and published in serial form between 1825 and 1832, before being published as a complete edition in 1833, and despite having been published over seven years, it's rather short - my edition (translated by Charles Johnston, Penguin 1977) is, without endnotes, 233 pages. What also surprised me was that whilst Nikolai Gogol subtitles his novel Dead Souls as a poem, Pushkin refers to his epic poem as 'a novel in verse'. I can explain Gogol (and indeed will when I come to writing about Dead Souls), but I don't quite understand Pushkin. 

Reading Eugene Onegin was supposed to be a readalong with Marian of Tanglewood, but it didn't quite work out like that for me: I didn't start until a week after everyone else, and once I began catching up I ended up finishing it that same evening. I did, clearly, very much enjoy it, but I do have a problem with it, namely the translation. About six or seven years ago I read my copy, which I do believe (but am not sure) was by James E. Falen (published by the Oxford University Press). I loved it, I loved it so much and I was incredibly moved by the end. Now, whether it be because of the translation (I had to buy a new copy because I leant someone my old one) or because I'm six or seven years away from that first read, I didn't have that same experience. It could be either, but it leaves me in a slightly awkward position of how I truly feel about Eugene Onegin!

Whatever the case, one of the elements I most liked was Tatyana, the heroine of the tale, and her love of reading, particularly Samuel Richardson.
Romances pleased her from the first,
Her all in all did constitute;
In love adventures she was versed,
Rousseau and Richardson to boot.
[Chapter II, canto XXIX]
And, referring to Richardson's Clarissa:
Dreaming herself the heroine
Of the romances she preferred,
Clarissa, Julia, Delphine,
Tatyana through the forest erred,
And the bad book accompanies.
Upon those pages she descries
Her passion's faithful counterpart,
Fruit of the yearnings of the heart.
She heaves a sigh and deep intent
On raptures, sorrows not her own,
She murmurs in an undertone
A letter for her hero meant:
That hero, though his merit shone,
Was certainly no Grandison.
[Chapter III, canto IX]
Eugene and Tatyana, by Lidia Timoshenko. 
Tatyana is about seventeen at the beginning of Onegin, and is innocent, romantic, and very influenced by novels, so much so she puts me in mind of a passage from Jerome K. Jerome's The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (1896), which is too good not to quote!
Young ladies take their notions of our sex from the novels written by their own, and compared with some of the monstrosities that masquerade for men in the pages of nightmare literature, Pythagoras’ plucked bird and Frankenstein’s demos were fair average specimens of humanity.
But, back to Pushkin - this influence of romance on Tatyana is to her detriment, although, particularly in the third chapter, it produces some of the most beautiful poetry I've ever read. She creates Eugene as an idealised man, something he's not worthy of. In Chapter IV he rejects her; as Pushkin predicts, "Dear Tanya, you're condemned to perish". She listens,
... Almost dying,
blinded to everything about
by mist of tears, without replying
Tatyana heard Evgeny out.
It is heartbreaking. The whole thing is, but what will stay with me is Tatyana's growth, her passage from innocence to experience. She is, as I'm sure is clear, by far my most favourite character in this, and possibly one of my most favourite characters in anything I've come across, despite, as I've said, having some translation issues.

Whatever the case may be, I can say one thing definitively: Pushkin translates passion in all stages wonderfully and believably. And fear, too - Tatyana's dream in Chapter V is absolute brilliance. I love, as I've said, the influence of art and literature on human character, and, in Eugene's case, society and convention. Both are victims, but as I've said, Tatyana has the majority of my sympathy. It is a very good book (how good, I suppose, depends on your translation), and is one of the most important Russian (world, even) works of fiction there is. I only wish I had my 'proper' translation!

Before I end this: tonight I learned that Eugene Onegin was turned into an opera by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in 1879. I've listened to as many clips as my internet connection allows and I thought I'd share a clip:


  1. With the lines in Russian ringing in my ears, I really pity that verse translation can't be as good as the original. I know that English verse is a bit different than Russian verse, and the rhyming must not be so perfect (preferred/erred would never do in Russian, for example; heart/counterpart is OK), but I still wish it to be better! That said, I think it's really difficult to translate verse at all, and I guess I shouldn't ask for much :)

    Anyway, it's great that you liked it even in the translation! I guess he called it a novel because he wanted to underline all the drama happening in it. Helps the sales, you know :)

    1. I'm so jealous that you can read it in English and Russian to compare. I did like it, but the more I think about it, the more I think I was let down by the translation. I'll have to try and hunt out the first translation I had! :)

  2. Glad you shared your thoughts, these beautiful pictures, and quotes! I totally understand reading Onegin one sitting - it's hard not to. :)

    I'm also reading Johnston for the first time and certainly prefer Falen. Johnston's word choices pack a lot of punch, sometimes for the worse. However, that part you quoted, ".. Almost dying, blinded to everything about" was one of the highlights, for sure! Tatyana is one of my most favorite characters, too.

    Incidentally, the Tchaikovsky Polonaise was how I first found out about Onegin. It's unfortunate the book itself is not so well known here! It bothers me to think I may never read it if it weren't for listening to that piece (already somewhat obscure!).

    1. I'm glad you said that about Johnston - I felt a little let down, and I'm glad to see it's not just me!

      Thanks for hosting the readalong. I may not have read along, but you did motivate me to re-read it :)


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