Jul 1, 2007

Book Review: Eugene Onegin

Pushkin, Alexander; translated by Walter Arndt

New York: E.P. Dutton, 1963 (1981), 224 pages

Alexander Pushkin was perhaps the single most influential Russian writer, and he worked in genres as diverse as poetry, fiction, and history. Eugene Onegin – which was first published in serial form between 1825 and 1833 - ranks among Pushkin’s most beloved works, and for many readers this novel-in-verse is the first work that comes to mind when his name is mentioned.

Containing some 5,600 lines in eight chapters, Eugene Onegin recounts the story of a Russian jeunesse dorée in nineteenth-century Russia. Pushkin includes himself in the story as a minor character who acts as a sort of omniscient narrator, but the experiences and thoughts of the titular protagonist have often been interpreted as a device Pushkin used to circumvent imperial censors.

Onegin inherits a mansion from his late uuncle, and strikes up a friendship with a neighboring poet, Vladimir Lensky. The young men are introduced to Olga and Tatiana Larin, sisters who are the daughters of a minor rural noble. Olga and Lensky become engaged, while Onegin rejects the declaration of love by the much younger sister with a speech that is deferential, yet somewhat patronizing.

Lensky and Onegin have a falling out, which is culminated in a duel between the former friends, and Lensky dies as a result of a gunshot wound. After fleeing and years of exile, Onegin visits Moscow and is stunned to find Tatiana hosting a gala; in the ensuing years Tatiana married a Russian general who found favor with the Tsar, and the couple is the toast of Moscow. Onegin realizes that he has always loved Tatiana, and composes verse declaring his love and the errors of his ways, but Tatiana elects to send Onegin on his way in much the same manner the he once spurned the love of the then-young Tatiana.

The verse follows a unique 14-line rhyming scheme in each stanza, following this pattern: a-B-a-B-c-c-D-D-e-F-F-e-G-G; masculine rhymes are represented with uppercase letters, while lowercase letters are used to denote feminine rhymes. There are thus three quatrains of rhyming schemes, written generally in iambic tetrameter, followed by a masculine couplet closing each stanza that often provides readers with some sort of epigram or aphorism.
(a) But then, our northern summer season
(B) Like southern winter comes, and lo,
(a) Is gone; and though for some odd reason
(B) We won’t admit it, it is so.
(c) Autumn was in the air already,
(c) The sun’s gay sparkle grew unsteady,
(D) The timeless day became more brief;
(D) The forest, long in darkling leaf,
(e) Unclothed itself with mournful rustle;
(F) The fields were wrapped in misty fleece,
(F) A raucous caravan of geese
(e) Winged southward; after summer’s bustle
(G) A duller season was at hand:
(G) November hovered oveland.

Portrait of Alexander Pushkin Left: Portrait of Alexander Pushkin

There are quite a few translations of Eugene Onegin in addition to Arndt’s 1963 version, which maintains the precise structure of Pushkin’s original verse. Nabokov, who previously criticized prior attempts to translate Eugene Onegin as “dove-droppings on your [Pushkin’s] monument,” denounced this translation as well, and he argued that Arndt favored aesthetically-pleasing English rhyme over the literal meaning of Puskin’s Russian verse. Nabokov then produced a 1964 translation, more exact in transliteration but which sacrificed the rhyming scheme Pushkin developed. Other well-received translations include Charles Johnston (1977), James E. Falen (1990), and Douglas Hofstadter (1999), all of which preserve the original rhyming scheme.

Eugene Onegin operates on many levels, and has value far beyond its stature as an iconic work in Russian literature. Throughout the narrative Pushkin provided ethnographic glimpses of a wide variety of lifestyles in imperial Russia, and his depictions of life on rural Russian estates demonstrates the relative poverty and backwardness of many nobles, who often lived in conditions little better than the serfs they owned. One can see, too, the variety of Western writers available to Russian intellectuals in this period, as Onegin’s book collection contained works as disparate as Byron, Rousseau, and Goethe. As Onegin returns from yet another night spent with the St. Petersburg aristocracy, morosely pondering the vapid inanities of dancing, drinking, and gossip with his fellow well-heeled elites, Pushkin pauses to describe the scene outside of Onegin’s carriage as the driver brings him home just before dawn:
The peddler struts, the merchant dresses,
The cabman to the market presses,
With jars the nimble milkmaids go,
Their footsteps crunching in the snow.
The cheerful morning sounds and hustles
Begin, shops open, stacks have puffed
Tall trunks of slate-blue smoke aloft;
The baker, punctual German, bustles
White-capped behind his service hatch
And more than once has worked the latch
It is as a work of poetry, however, that Eugene Onegin most affects a reader, and the beauty of Arndt’s translated prose leaves this reviewer awed. After the death of Lensky, Pushkin joins the reader in speculation about what the young poet’s life might have held. After positing a number of life scenarios for Lensky, Pushkin returned to the cemetery, and Arndt’s skillful translation captures well the melancholic emptiness experienced as one gazes upon the grave of a promising young life cut down by a bullet fired in a moment of reckless stupidity:
But futile, reader, to uncover
What once his future might have held-
Dead lies our dim young bard and lover,
By friendly hand and weapon felled.
Next where the Muse’s ward resided,
Turn left: There is a place provided,
Twin firs grow there, with roots entwined,
And underneath them, freshets wind,
That water the adjacent valley.
There girls replensih by the path
Their ringing pitchers at the math,
And there the plowhands like to rally.
There, where the shaded waters lilt,
A simple monument is built
One leaves Eugene Onegin with more than merely a greater appreciation of the literary genius of Pushkin. Throughout the text are hints of social discontent, culminated in the Decembrist uprising of 1825; certainly Pushkin’s choice of the name Lensky – derived from the river Lena in eastern Siberia – suggests a conscious, thinly-velied political commentary on the part of Pushkin, implying that idealists such as Lensky faced Siberian exile. The detached character of Onegin, who is an aristocratic intellectual aloof from society and seemingly unable to channel his idealism into useful activism, seems to be a direct influence on Turgenev’s Diary of a Superfluous Man and – to some extent - Tolstoy’s Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace. Finally, Eugene Onegin is the sort of book that lends itself well to multiple readings and varied interpretations, and serves as both a textual metaphor and biting criticism of the period in Russian history it mirrors.

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