Classics Club #40: ‘Eugene Onegin’ by Alexander Pushkin ****

I had wanted to read Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin since before I went to Russia on a school trip, but have, for some reason, only just got around to picking up a copy.  Eugene Onegin, a sweeping story told in the form of an epic poem, is widely considered to be a ‘Russian masterpiece’, and I was so excited to begin it.

The preface and introduction, written by John Bayley and Michael Basker respectively, in the Penguin Classics edition of Eugene Onegin are fascinating, both in terms of assessing the context of the whole, and talking about Pushkin’s life.  The introduction speaks of the way in which the whole unfolds ‘with dream-like inevitability and dazzling energy’.  Pushkin himself called this a ‘free novel’, ‘a work of art which did not conform to the rules of a single genre’, but instead ‘offered ‘a collection of parti-coloured chapters, half-funny, half-sad, ideal and folk-simple’. 

The premise of Eugene Onegin is absorbing, and rather typically Russian in its plotlines and characters: ‘Tired of the glitter and glamour of St Petersburg society, aristocratic dandy Eugene Onegin retreats to the country estate that he has recently inherited.  There he begins an unlikely friendship with the idealistic young poet Vladimir Lensky, who welcomes this urbane addition to his small social circle and introduces Onegin to his fiancee Olga’s family.  But when her sister Tatyana becomes infatuated with Onegin, his cold rejection of her love brings about a tragedy that encompasses them all’.

The omniscient narrator in Eugene Onegin addresses the reader directly, and this makes the whole feel immediate.  Pushkin demonstrates feelings so well, particularly with regard to Tatyana’s: ‘Seeing herself as a creation – / Clarissa, Julie, or Delphine, – / by writers of her admiration, / Tatyana, lovely heroine, / roamed the still forest like a ranger, / sought in her book, that text of danger, / and found her dreams, her secret fire, / the full fruit of her heart’s desire; / she sighed, and in a trance coopted / another’s joy, another’s breast, / whispered by heart a note addressed / to the hero that she’d adopted…’.

Each stanza throughout, almost all of which are comprised of fourteen lines, is so well drawn: ‘Idle again by dedication, / oppressed by emptiness of soul, / he strove to achieve the appropriation / of other’s thought – a splendid goal; / with shelves of books deployed for action, / he read, and read – no satisfaction; / here’s boredom, madness or pretence / here there’s no conscience, here no sense; / they’re all chained up in different fetters, / the ancients have gone stiff and cold, / the moderns rage against the old. / He’d given up girls – now gave up letters, / and hid the bookshelf’s dusty stack / in taffeta of mourning black’.  The descriptive phrasing is often sublime: ‘The sky breathed autumn’, for example, was a particular favourite of mine.

Charles Johnston’s marvellous 1977 translation was the one which I read.  The whole was so meticulously changed into English, even down to a taut and constant rhyme scheme.  It felt, in many ways, as though I was reading Eugene Onegin in its original language.  Johnston’s use of vocabulary is pitch perfect, and the whole is rendered both absorbing and fascinating to read.

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