Books

Eugene Onegin

A novel in verse about the romance between the cynical dandy Eugene Onegin and Tatyana, a bookish country girl. The story itself is not particularly unique or special, but I liked this novel from the first page. I can easily see myself rereading it in years just because I find the writing style wonderful and engaging. It is written entirely of iambic tetrameter. Aleksandr Pushkin is considered as the founder of modern Russian literature; his Russian style influenced all the writers after him. He even appears as a character and tells the story as if he personally knew them all in real life. He is a bit meta in the story telling, such as in this passage:

O flowers, and love, and rustic leisure,
o fields — to you I’m vowed at heart.
I regularly take much pleasure
in showing how to tell apart
myself and Eugene, lest a reader
of mocking turn, or else a breeder
of calculated slander should,
spying my features, as he could,
put back the libel on the table
that, like proud Byron, I can draw
self-portraits only — furthermore
the charge that poets are unable
to sing of others must imply
the poet’s only theme is “I.”

I found it difficult not to love the witty yet beautiful verses. On the surface, the story is melodramatic, maudlin and romantic, but told so excellently. His descriptions are fun and wonderful:

So she was called Tatyana. Truly
she lacked her sister’s beauty, lacked
the rosy bloom that glowed so newly
to catch the eye and to attract.
Shy as a savage, silent, tearful,
wild as a forest deer, and fearful,
Tatyana had a changeling look
in her own home…but rather
in silence all day she’d remain
ensconced beside the window-pane.

Pushkin being shrewd and witty through Onegin:

“I’d choose the other quarter
if I, like you, had been a bard.
Olga’s no life in her regard:
the roundest face that you’ve set eyes on,
a pretty girl exactly like
any Madonna by Van Dyck:
a dumb moon, on a dumb horizon.”

I found myself empathising with Tatyana who does show naivety when she falls in love with Onegin, but it’s her reactions and feelings are so genuine and sincere. We also seem to share a similar nature inclined to books, dreams, and a simpler and modest life:

“…all this glory
is tinsel on a life I hate;
this modish whirl, this social story,
my house, my evenings, all that state —
what’s in them? All this loud parading,
and all this flashy masquerading,
the glare, the fumes in which I live,
this very day I’d gladly give,
give for a bookshelf, a neglected
garden, a modest home…”

This novel has been adapted most famously into an opera by Tchaikvosky which seems to be a wonderful adaptation of this novel in verse. As music would be the only way to translate Pushkin’s story. I would be interested in seeing the opera as I am a fan of Tchaikvosk’s work.
There is a duel in this story, and when I was reading it, I was reminded about how utterly silly duels are. Pushkin himself died during a duel he challenged of another only a few years after Onegin was published in full.

I read the Penguin Classics edition translated by Charles Johnston. You can read the e-text here. He was influenced by the more famous translation by Vladmir Nabokov. This was read for the Russian Reading Challenge, and I have a feeling I’ll like all the books I read. I love Russian literature, and it’s one of the times when I give authors the benefit of the doubt just because they are Russian. Another great Russian read.

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