Eugene Onegin is the master work of the poet whom Russians regard as the fountainhead of their literature. Set in 1820s imperial Russia, Pushkin's novel in verse follows the emotions and destiny of three men - Onegin the bored fop, Lensky the minor elegiast, and a stylized Pushkin himself -and the fates and affections of three women - Tatyana the provincial beauty, her sister Olga, and Pushkin's mercurial Muse. Engaging, full of suspense, and varied in tone, it also portrays a large cast of other characters and offers the reader many literary, philosophical, and autobiographicaldigressions, often in a highly satirical vein.Eugene Onegin was Pushkin's own favourite work, and it shows him attempting to transform himself from a romantic poet into a realistic novelist. This new translation seeks to retain both the literal sense and the poetic music of the original, and capture the poem's spontaneity and wit. Theintroduction examines several ways of reading the novel, and text is richly annotated.
Eugene Onegin's eponymous main character is a young man who enjoyed the social whirl and was a hit with women but he became jaded and tired of this life, retreating to his country estate and a fairly hermetic life there until Vladimir Lensky, a young poet moves into the area and the two men strike up a friendship. Lensky takes Onegin to dinner with his love Olga's family where Olga's older sister Tatyana falls for the experienced Onegin. She writes him an impassioned letter and is coldly and effectively rebuffed. After a disastrous evening at a country ball where Onegin unthinkingly flirts with Olga, Lensky calls him out and a duel ensues. Our hero flees the countryside, wandering for a couple of years, during which time Tatyana goes to St. Petersburg and marries, becoming a cosmopolitan young woman. And now Onegin falls head over heels in love with her, now that she is unavailable.
I expected this to a tough read for a couple of reasons. I am (too many to count) years out of school and so not liable to find anyone willing to discuss this with me to help tease out meaning. I have never been a wild poetry fan and the thought of an entire novel in verse was daunting (Sharon Creech's lovely middle grade book Love That Dog being my only other attempt at it and while charming, that one is hardly in the same league as this one). I have to be in the proper mood for the dour Russians (which is why a class for moody high schoolers was genius, I tell you, genius). But I was pleasantly surprised. While tragedy and frustrated love abound here, the mood of the poem is not bleak and unremitting. There is much playfulness and light in it. The depictions of Russian society are detailed and wonderful as are the contrasting depictions of the regular Russian. I know much has been made of the difficulty of translating this poem in particular given the unnaturalness of the rhyme in English but I hardly noticed the oddness of the Pushkin stanza and since my own Russian was never very good, I'm unlikely to ever read it in the original to make an unflattering comparison. In any case, this Johnston translation captures the romance and the heartbreak of this long but engaging work. Those not too intimidated by poetry who want a less dense entry into Russian classics would be smart to start here.
Tatyana is a fascinating character, and it's ironic reading Onegin duel with Lensky in light of Pushkin's own death at age 38 from a duel with his wife's alleged lover.
On unrequited love:
"It was for you that I neglected
The call of fame, for you forgot
My country, and an exile’s lot –
All thoughts, but those of you, rejected.
Brief as your footprints on the grass,
The happiness of youth must pass."
"One who has lived and thought, grows scornful,
Disdain sits silent in his eye;
One who has felt, is often mournful,
Disturbed by ghosts of days gone by."
On the transience of life:
"Alas! by God’s strange will we must
Behold each generation flourish,
And watch life’s furrows briefly nourish
The perishable human crop,
Which ripens fairly, but to drop;
And where one falls, another surges…
The race of men recks nothing, save
Its reckless growth: into the grave
The grandfathers it promptly urges.
Our time will come when it is due,
Our grandchildren evict us too."
"But at the late and sterile season,
At the sad turning of the years,
The tread of passion augurs tears:
Thus autumn gusts deal death and treason."
"But oh, how deeply we must rue it,
That youth was given us in vain,
That we were hourly faithless to it,
And that it cheated us again;
That our bright pristine hopes grew battered,
Our freshest dreams grew sear, and scattered
Like leaves that in wet autumn stray,
Wind-tossed, and all too soon decay."
"Youth’s fever is its own excuse
For ravings that it may induce."
On youth and the human condition:
"And you, oh youthful inspiration,
Come, rouse anew imagination –
Upon the dull mind’s slumbers break,
My little nook do not forsake;
Let not the poet’s heart know capture
By sullen time, and soon grow wry
And hard and cold, and petrify
Here in the world’s benumbing rapture,
This pool we bathe in, friends, this muck
In which, God help us, we are stuck."
It's a "novel in verse," which means epic poem, wtf, in iambic tetrameter. It's organized in stanzas that are almost sonnets, but far enough off to kindof fuck with your head, or mine anyway. The scheme is abab, ccdd, effe, gg, so he's switching it up in each quatrain, which leaves me constantly off-balance. But in a good way! Tetrameter has a dangerous tendency to sound sing-songy to me, and this helps counterbalance that somehow.
It also makes a tough challenge for a translator, and for a long time Onegin was considered untranslatable. My boy Stanley Mitchell has done what feels like an admirable job; I'm sure if I knew Russian I'd say he brutalized the thing, but one takes what one can get and this version felt readable and elegant. He's no Mos Def, but he's pretty good with the rhymes.
The story ends abruptly at Chapter VIII; Pushkin had to do some last-minute rearranging, by which I mean burning most of a chapter that was critical of the government, which really throws the pace off there. The version I have includes some fragments after VIII - stuff that survived the flames for whatever reason - but it's really not enough to be more than a curiosity.
Tolstoy called this the major influence for Anna Karenina, and you can see it. He kinda took this story and said what if, at a crucial moment, things had gone differently? So if you read these two together it's basically like a really long Choose Your Own Adventure with only one choice. Rad!
And as an added bonus, Pushkin includes what I can only assume must be the most beautiful ode to foot fetishes ever written. It's five stanzas long, so that's 70 lines of foot fetishing. I almost wish I had a foot fetish so I could've really gotten into that bit.
Here's a stanza that's not about feet, so you can get a feel for how good this shit is:
Let me glance back. Farewell, you arbours
Where, in the backwoods, I recall
Days filled with indolence and ardours
And dreaming of a pensive soul.
And you, my youthful inspiration,
Keep stirring my imagination,
My heart's inertia vivify,
More often to my corner fly.
Let not a poet's soul be frozen,
Made rough and hard, reduced to bone
And finally be turned to stone
In that benumbing world he goes in,
In that intoxicating slough
Where, friends, we bathe together now.
And if that doesn't kick your ass, you're no friend of mine.
Frankly, even if it does we're probably not friends. But we could be, if you want.
(The opera and movie versions are both good too.)
The less we love her, when we woo her,
The more we please a woman's heart,
And are the surer to undo her
And snare her with beguiling art.
Men once extolled cold-blooded taking
As the true science of love-making,
Your own trump everywhere you blew...
And it strikes me as quite close to the Russian: yes, Pushkin's "heart"
isn't in line two, but four; but Pushikin's хладнокровны
doesn't modify "debauch"--probably an English addition in one translation.
Also, Elton has a feel for easy monosyllables and rhyme absent in the newer ones. After all, Pushkin was "translating" Byron, who would only have used "debauch" ironically.
I have imitated it in my own 65-pp Parodies Lost, yet to be published, though a few stanzas appear in my Westport Soundings, 1994, under the title "Onagain." It begins, "He knew--from a picture of Rod McKuen--/Of all his race, the poet makes/ The saddest face, and next to a hound/ The saddest sound. Despair, he found/ Came hardest on a sunny day/ With a butch haircut. But in the rain,/ Bedraggled, "Loneliness," he thought,/ "has wet me through." And going in / He wrote of going out again./ Though all alone, he never felt / At all poetic while he wrote."
Vikram Seth beat me to publishing his fine quasi-Pushkiny Golden Gate, though I began mine more than a decade earlier than his 1991.
As for Pushkin, I think the film Mozart stole from his play, Mozart an Salieri. And his Onegin is unprecedented in world literature, and remarkably uninfluencial in English--Seth and Powers aside.
Suppose your pistol-shot has ended
A comrade's promising career,
One who, by a rash glance offended,
Or by an accidental sneer,
During a drunken conversation
Or in a fit of bind vexation
Was bold enough to challenge you -
Will not your soul be filled with rue
When on the ground you see him, stricken,
Upon his brow the mark of death,
And watch the failing of his breath,
And know that heart will never quicken?
Say, now, my friend, what will you feel
When he lies deaf to your appeal?
I hadn't realized that this would be a novel in sonnets. What a treat to find out that this translation was the inspiration for Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate which I read 20 years ago. I kinda feel that I should seek out Nabokov's non-rhymed translation for comparison.
Regarding the work itself (not the translations which all must fall short) Pushkin's Eugene Onegin is a work of genius. It is truly genius, but written over many, many years so indeed a work. I found it absolutely hilarious at times. The humor stands out in my mind. So read this edition or any other. If you have not read it you are missing out.