Monday, April 9, 2012

Eugene Onegin


I've been meaning to read Pushkin's famous verse novel for years. I don't even know how long it's been on my shelf, but probably since I took Russian in college. That was the first time I even heard of Pushkin. (The students in my textbook always seemed to be staggering about, mourning his early death. No, really!) I picked up a copy of Eugene Onegin at Black Oak Books, and then failed to read it for a good 15 years. Silly me.

The story concerns Eugene Onegin (Евгений Онегин, which I must say sounds much better in Russian--it's pronounced Yevgenii), a young and selfish fop. He becomes so world-weary and jaded that very little interests him. Tatyana naively falls in love with him, but he is unable to return her feelings and dismisses her. Onegin's arrogance and selfishness lead him to disastrous events, while Tatyana breaks her heart and ends up marrying an old and wealthy nobleman. When they meet again, Onegin realizes what he has lost and asks for her favors. Tatyana admits that she still loves him, but remains faithful to her husband.

The novel was actually published in separate sections written over a long period of time. One chapter got mostly written before Pushkin refused to publish it and skipped straight to the final chapter, which makes the story confusing because there is no hint that several years have elapsed. I got tripped up by that, but reading the notes will fix it.

I had some doubts about the translation, which imitates the original poetic form exactly: it is put into stanzas of iambic tetrameter with an odd rhyme scheme. The trouble with that is of course that you're still not going to get the real flavor of the original, and it's difficult to do very well. Some of the lines made me giggle, as at the end of stanza 7 in chapter 1, which could have been written by Edward Gorey:

His father listened, frowned, and moaned,
And mortgaged all the land he owned.

Here is a more typical verse from near the end:

How changed Tatyana is! How truly
She knows her role! With none to thank--
Tutored by her own wit--she duly
Bears the proud burden of her rank!
Who, in this cool majestic woman,
The ballroom's ruler, scarcely human,
Would dare to seek that gentle girl?
And he had set her heart awhirl!
When nights were dark and she, forsaken
By Morpheus, her dark eyes would rest
Upon the moon, and her young breast
By virginal desires was shaken,
Then in a dream that naught could dim
She'd walk life's humble road with him.

I did get used to the writing, though, and found it easier to understand than I had expected. I don't suppose I got anywhere near to understanding what it was like in the original Russian, and it makes me wish I could read it properly. But I'm glad to have read it.

This counts as the romance selection for the Back to the Classics Challenge. And it's my 12th TBR title. And April is Russian Authors' Month at the 52 Books Challenge!

6 comments:

Libby Rodriguez said...

Good for you! I need need NEED to read this. I have read most of those who are considered the great Russian novelists, and they all cite Pushkin as their inspiration. Thanks for the review!!

Cassandra said...

Congratulations on finishing this! If I were you I would have kept putting it off for another 15 years, this one verse was enough almost make me scream. I almost have a phobia of strange rhyme schemes and this is VERY strange!

Jean said...

And I did not, at first, even notice the weird rhyme scheme. It had to be pointed out to me! I'm not all that good at poetry.

Yes, Libby, I've heard so much about Pushkin that I just had to read him. But I'm sure I missed an awful lot, not being able to read Russian. Sigh.

Sarah Reads Too Much said...

Wow - 15 years? So glad you finally got to read this! It is on my list... I'll try not to wait so long!

cleopatra said...

Jean, I'm not sure if you'll get this comment buried away here, but I just read Eugene Onegin and I wanted to know if you remember who translated the version you read? I read the Sir Charles Johnston translation; I'm beginning to think with this poem, the translator is directly related to the enjoyment that is felt by the reader.

Biblio Atlas said...

I thought it was incredible how Pushkin had a dichotomy going throughout the entire novel-poem. Young and old are the very first stanza. Then his plots followed a dichotomy with Eugene as the common thread. Tatyana is the bomb!!