Friday, July 31, 2009

Nineteenth Century Russia Never Fails Me

37. Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

Pushkin makes me wish I could read Russian. I read the Penguin classic translation, translated into English by Charles Johnston, and the narrator uses such amusing language and asides as makes me sure I am missing much from the original. Johnston used rhyming verses, as the Russian rhymes, though apparently there is a non-rhyming Nabokov translation. The non-rhyming version may be more technically accurate, but Johnston contends that rhyming better captures the spirit and intent of the original. I'm inclined to agree with him, if only because I think Nabokov was a pretentious (though gifted) asshole.

Eugene Onegin is ostensibly the story of a jaded Russian aristocrat, who trades his dissipated flirtations in Moscow for a solitary life in the countryside. Our hero, Onegin, is befriended by Vladimir Lensky, who is enamoured of his youthful love Olga Larin. Lensky introduces Onegin to the Larins, where Olga's brooding older sister Tatyana falls in love with him. However, her love goes unrequited. The bitter Onegin, to force his jaded outlook on Lensky, flirts with Olga, and wins himself a challenge to a duel. Onegin kills Lensky, Olga marries another, Tatyana goes to Moscow, and the story leaves off for many years. Finally, Onegin meets Tatyana in Moscow, as his cousin's wife. Now, passion seizes him and he addresses her as she once addressed him. The poem ends with Tatyana's rejection of Onegin.

Yet Eugene Onegin's chief attraction is the narrator, who spends verses on his own opinions and hardships, describing himself as a friend of Onegin, yet careful to consistently differentiate between the two. Is the narrator Onegin, or Pushkin, or someone else? It is evident that the narrator is infatuated with Tatyana, long before "Evgeny" (a nickname for Eugene) sees her value. He speaks of Olga, "take any novel, clearly traced, you're sure to find her portrait: a portrait with a charming touch; once I too liked it very much; but now it bores me every minute (47)." After this one verse on Olga, he devotes five to her sister.

Pushkin's obvious intimacy with French and English literature of his time, and ancient Greek and Roman mythology and philosophy, is even more endearing to me. He often references Byron, as well as Tolstoy, Cicero as well as romance writers like Grandison and Lovelace. His descriptions of feasts, of people and food, remined me of Anna Karenina and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. In him, as in other nineteenth century Russian authors, I think I have found a faithful friend.

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