“I am writing now not a novel, but a novel in verse – the devil of a difference. Something like (Byron’s) Don Juan – there’s no point in thinking about publication; I’m writing whatever comes into my head.”
Pushkin writing to a friend, 1823
Eugene Onegin is magnificent. Do not be fooled by Pushkin’s glib suggestion that his poem contains the fleeting fancies of his mind. Written over the course of eight years – started during his exile and finished in the year of his marriage –Eugene Onegin is informally autobiographical, a social commentary and a timeless love story.
Touching briefly on Pushkin Part 1, it is clear that if you read a translated text a good deal of Pushkin’s technical ability and talent as a wordsmith is lost. In particular, feminine rhymes at the end of lines are not easy to replicate without some degree of word replacement. Translating Russian to English requires around one third more words so we also lose some of the acute, direct nature of Pushkin’s text. That is not to say that he is ever verbose or overly wordy, far from it. My copy is the Penguin Classics translation by Stanley Mitchell. Wherever words and phrases are untranslatable, they are often substituted for lines from Pushkin’s contemporaries, idols and influencers; Byron is used often. As a result, the translator appears to have done an excellent job replicating the character and style of the original. One might hope that the author himself might have been proud of the translation. A slight quirk of Eugene Onegin and Pushkin’s work is that French is frequently used for both description and conversation – as was the case amongst the Russian ruling class of the time. This provides an escape route of sorts. On occasion, his characters cannot describe something in Russian or simply prefer to use French. For translation purposes it is beneficial when a romantic language is used in these tricky spots.
Epic poetry is rarely easy to read. This grand literary tradition began as a format for entertaining story telling and an outlet for extraordinary imaginations. It was then somewhat hijacked by the intelligentsia through the middle and industrial ages so as to advance authors’ personal agendas and advertise their intellect alongside the original purposes. A good example of this (very bias, admittedly) theory can be found in Dante’s Inferno in Cantos 4 and 8 where he encounters history’s greatest poets, exposes their limitations through allegory and moves swiftly on. Eugene Onegin is a refreshing diversion from this trend. The tone of the text, narrated by Pushkin himself, is almost chummy. The reader is directly addressed on a frequent basis and the audience’s feelings often anticipated and read out loud. Pushkin demonstrates kinship with his fellow, contemporary poets (some of whom appear as minor characters) and far from exalting his art or his intellect he seems to acknowledge its waning influence:
“To Spartan prose the years are turning,
Coquettish rhyme the years are spurning;
And I – I with a sigh confess –
I’m running after her much less.”
Pushkin is refreshingly honest and plain in his reflections and descriptions. As a result the reader is favourably disposed to the writer: I have rarely felt more rapport with an author, let alone one nearing their 180th birthday.
Eugene Onegin is a difficult book to review or summarise without spoiling the plot. The story is not long and moves apace; there are occasions where months pass between stanzas and years pass between chapters. This actually leaves the reader intrigued by what the characters have been doing and how they have been developing rather than encouraging a sense of bewilderment. This pace and the quixotic verse in which it is written yield characters that are more silhouettes than anything else. They flash between scenes giving you glimpses of a dark romance, torment and duty. In many ways, it reads more like a play or indeed an opera.
The two central characters are Eugene and Tatiana. Eugene, a wealthy twenty-something becomes bored with and resentful of Moscow society and moves to his estate in the countryside. Nonetheless he never attempts to rid himself of his dandy habits:
“One can still be a man of action
And mind the beauty of one’s nails”
Unsurprisingly, his fancy ways and disaffected personality do not enamour him to the locals. Still he strikes up a friendship with the youthful, slightly green, poet Lensky who is part of the regional gentry. Through Lensky, Eugene is introduced into local society and, in particular, Lensky’s fiancée Olga and her older sister Tatiana. The elder sibling becomes infatuated with this worldly newcomer and falls into a deep love:
“(Tatiana) Your fate already you’ve relinquished
Into a modish tyrant’s keep (Eugene’s)
Imbibe the magic bane of yearning,
Daydreams will court your every pace,
And you’ll imagine in each place
A tryst to which you’re always turning;
In front of you and everywhere
You’ll see your fateful tempter there.”
Tatiana’s love is rejected. The apathetic Eugene masochistically denies himself pleasure at every turn and refuses to entertain Tatiana’s pleas. His response to her letter of love and devotion is almost as pathetic as it is sad. Through the poem, love letters and responses to them provide the most detailed look into the characters’ personalities. In this neo-classic romance we are forcefully drawn into Eugene’s world of sadness and spurned hope. It is marvellous.
(Spoiler alert!) The damage caused by Onegin’s self-pity continues to the end. He courts jealousy, which ends in him being challenged to a duel by his great friend Lensky whom he shoots dead. Tormented by these events Eugene leaves the countryside and travels. Tatiana is left torturing herself with memories. She frequently visits Eugene’s deserted house to read his books in his study. The hero of the story is truly lethal, physically and emotionally.
Years later we find that Tatiana has journeyed to Moscow to find a husband; she marries a famed general. She becomes a woman, a paragon of society, embodying truly Russian values and virtues. Gone is much of the simple country girl, replaced by an urbane yet unpretentious princess, the toast of Moscow: “the city’s flower”.
Eugene returns to Moscow following his travels and forces himself to re-enter society circles. He falls in love with Tatiana, his tragic infatuation matching the young girl whom he encountered in the countryside years before. The crushing inevitability of this emotional inversion has the reader squirming with ineffectuality yet slightly rejoicing in Eugene’s plight. It is one of the oldest stories in the book. Eugene writes to his love, he begs her for forgiveness and fulfilment. Tatiana, the once-lovesick youngster, responds and reaches a zenith:
“Your heart is honest and I prize it:
And there resides in it true pride
With candid honour, side by side.
I love you, why should I disguise it?,
But I am someone else’s wife,
To him I shall be true for life.”
The ephemeral scenes and the mysterious ‘cut-scenes’ provide a dream-like quality to the book. The occasional meetings that the reader has with the characters provide intrigue and engagement in equal measure through the quality of the writing and the timeless yet tough subject matters. For all Eugene’s self-absorption it is hard to dislike him. Tatiana is loveable and Lensky likeable. The characters showcase parts of Pushkin himself and you will aspects of yourself in all of them. Above all else Eugene Onegin is a letter of love and of guidance to the young:
“Blest who in youth was truly youthful,
Blest who matured in proper time,
Who, step by step, remaining truthful,
Could weather, yearly, life’s bleak clime
To curious dreams was not addicted,
Nor by the social mob constricted,
At twenty was a blade or swell
And then at thirty married well;
Ridding himself, on reaching fifty,
Of debts and other bills to foot,
Then calmly gaining rank, repute
And money, too, by being thrifty;
Of whom the world’s opinion ran:
An estimable man.”
Eugene Onegin is a gift, a brilliant work, and this verse buried deep inside Chapter VIII seems to have been echoed seventy years later by our very own Rudyard Kipling.