Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin

Eugene OneginEugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well, this is a fun book. So fun, in fact, that I wonder why people go on about the “Pushkin problem”—the supposed problem that non-Russian readers do not understand the esteem in which the poet is held by Russians, especially as compared to other “national” poets or writers (Greece’s Homer, Italy’s Dante, Spain’s Cervantes, England’s Shakespeare, Germany’s Goethe, America’s Whitman, etc.). As Flaubert famously said when the Russian-speaking Mérimée pressed some French translations of Pushkin upon him, “Your poet’s flat.”

But there is nothing flat about Eugene Onegin, a verse novel written between 1823 and 1830. Pushkin was thoroughly steeped in French classicism along with the rest of the Russian aristocracy of the period, but he composed Onegin under the Romantic and Anglicizing influence of Byron, Sterne, and Shakespeare. The result is a novel paradoxically crystalline in its structure and effervescent in its tone, both totally clear and completely ambiguous; Pushkin’s enthusiastic and digressive narrator describes it toward the end as a “free novel.” In the introduction to the Penguin edition of Charles Johnston’s 1977 translation, John Bayley comments on this strange term:

What did Pushkin mean by the term ‘a free novel’? Apparently a work of art which did not conform to the rules of a single genre…For Pushkin, Byron’s poems were ‘free’ in this sense, and so were Shakespeare’s plays. Pushkin’s creative intelligence was direct, clear and logical; it did not concern itself with metaphysical disquisitions of the new and fashionable German kind. By ‘romanticism’, as he tells us in his essay ‘On Classical and Romantic poetry’, written in 1825, he meant no more and no less than the nature of this kind of literature, possessing the freedom of Byron or Shakespeare. In contrast to it was a classical art which conformed to strict rules and conventions, like that of Corneille and Racine, and the plays of Voltaire which he had studied as a schoolboy. If the label ‘romantic’ meant anything for Pushkin, it could be applied in any age to a work which obeyed no rules but its own, which was in turn grave and gay, comic and sad, thoughtful and frivolous, sophisticated and simple.

Pushkin was not a Romantic in the ideological sense, then, involving irrationalism or Gothicism or a metaphysical approach to literature, which he sends up in Eugene Onegin through the rather bathetic figure of Vladimir Lensky, “a poet, and a Kantian sage” who “brought back all the fruits of learning / from German realms of mist and steam.” Rather, to him, Romanticism seemed to imply an authorial freedom to be original, passionate, and metafictional, as well as rational and clear; Romantic irony—the poet confronting his own text to foreground the power of the imagination to exceed any text—is the essence of Pushkin’s Romanticism.

Leaving aside all this perhaps tedious literary theory, Eugene Onegin is first and foremost a compelling narrative. The titular bored young dandy retires from the enervating round of the Petersburg monde when he inherits a country estate from his uncle. In the country, he meets the aforementioned German-educated poet Lensky, who introduces him in turn to the Larins, a family with two marriageable daughters. Lensky has his eye on the younger and prettier Olga, while the less conventional Tatyana—a passionately inward lover of fiction, among other things—catches Onegin’s eye. But when Onegin rebuffs Tatyana’s declaration of love and falls out with Lensky, violence and tragedy ensue, and Onegin flees to travel the world. At the conclusion, six years have gone by and Onegin is faced with Tatyana again—and faced too with the consequences of his choice of cynicism and nihilism over love.

Such a plot summary sounds melodramatic, but the novel’s tonal richness is adumbrated by its interventionist narrator, who expatiates on his own loves and losses, and even on such seemingly remote topics as his adoration of women’s feet:

Diana’s breast, the cheeks of Flora,
all these are charming! but to put
it frankly, I’m a firm adorer
of the Terpsichorean foot.


On the seashore, with storm impending,
how envious was I of the waves
each in tumultuous turn descending
to lie down at her feet like slaves!
I longed, like every breaker hissing,
to smother her dear feet with kissing.

He also charmingly and movingly reflects on his own struggle to write the novel, sometimes ending a chapter by saying why he cannot go on just now:

But not today. Although I dearly
value the hero of my tale,
though I’ll come back to him, yet clearly
to face him now I feel too frail…
The years incline to gloom and prosing,
they kill the zest of rhymed composing,
and with a sigh I now admit
I have to drag my feet to it.
My pen, as once, no longer hurries
to spoil loose paper by the ream;
another, a more chilling dream,
and other, more exacting worries,
in fashion’s din, at still of night,
come to disturb me and affright.

And I love the part where he realizes belatedly—at the end of the penultimate chapter—that he was supposed to invoke the muse:

‘Muse of the epic, bless my work!
in my long task, be my upholder,
put a strong staff into my hand,
don’t let me stray in paths unplanned.’
Enough. The load is off my shoulder!
I’ve paid my due to classic art:
it may be late, but it’s a start.

Eugene Onegin is renowned for its verse—Pushkin invented a 14-line tetrameter stanza with a complicated ABABCCDDEFFEGG rhyme scheme to narrate his story. The short lines and quick rhymes, coupled with a striking use of enjambment, allow the reader to move in rapid and graceful rhythms through the poem as if dancing with its aristocrats. I can’t comment on the accuracy of Johnston’s translation, but he captures the clarity and energy of the poem by retaining its rhyme scheme and basic meter. Some purists (Nabokov being the most famous) say that such efforts are futile in rhyme-poor English, and Johnston does stoop to senseless doggerel once or twice (e.g., “The banquet’s given no cause for sneezing, / neighbours in high content are wheezing”). Nevertheless, I love translations of poetry that seek the capture the actual quality of the poem’s rhythm in the original; I appreciate Johnston’s Pushkin as I appreciate Sayers’s Dante, Kaufmann’s Goethe, and Dillon and Millay’s Baudelaire. (You can, by the way, read Johnston’s translation here.)

The biggest reasons to read Eugene Onegin, however, are probably the hero and heroine. Onegin, one of the first “superfluous men” in Russian literature, is mercurial and unpredictable, lovable in his obvious passion even as his embitterment toward a meaningless social world leads him to cruelty and nihilism. His is a social type that has only become more frighteningly relevant—it seems that once or twice a week now a 21st-century superfluous man in America or Europe commits some atrocious act of violence more reminiscent of Dostoevsky than of Pushkin. Here at the beginning of this figure’s estrangement from the modern world, he retains a poetic and erotic charisma he will later lose; one watches Onegin as closely as Hamlet. Tatyana is even more impressive. Pushkin grants her a lively inner life, fed on the literature of sensibility and sentimentality (the novels of Richardson and Rousseau above all), that makes the reader care for her as much as the hero does. Her celebrated letter to Onegin is a model of love poetry—

…you’d made appearance in my dreaming;
unseen, already you were dear,
my soul had heard your voice ring clear,
stirred at your gaze, so strange, so gleaming,
long, long ago… no, that could be
no dream. You’d scarce arrived, I reckoned
to know you, swooned, and in a second
all in a blaze, I said: it’s he!

—and her famous surreal dream is a proto-Freudian fantasia of sexual terror and buried passion—

Now she’s alarmed; in desperate worry
Tatyana struggles to run out—
she can’t; and in her panic hurry
she flails around, she tries to shout—
she can’t; Evgeny’s pushed the portal,
and to the vision of those mortal
monsters the maiden stood revealed.
Wildly the fearful laughter pealed;
the eyes of all, the hooves, the snozzles,
the bleeding tongues, the tufted tails,
the tusks, the corpse’s finger-nails,
the horns, and the moustachio’d nozzles—
all point at her, and all combine
to bellow out: ‘she’s mine, she’s mine.’

A “profoundly Russian being” according to the narrator, she is, as Bayley notes, the model for Tolstoy’s Natasha and Dostoevsky’s Dunya—and perhaps Bulgakov’s Margarita, though Bayley does not say. Comparisons of Pushkin to Shakespeare do not seem hyperbolic to me at all.

Finally, I recommend Martha Fiennes’s Onegin, her 1999 film adaptation of the novel. Ralph Fiennes and Liv Tyler are subtle and appealing as Onegin and Tatyana, and the painterly cinematography—which provides inventive visual corollaries for Pushkin’s literary devices—is spectacular. The film perhaps leans more toward Romanticism in the Germanic sense than the classicist Pushkin would appreciate, but it is witty, sexy, and moving; it is one of the best cinematic adaptations of classic literature in that decade so full of them, and, like the verse novel itself, it is too little-known.


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