Some works one reads throughout life. “Yevgeniy Onegin” is of them. When I was 11 years old, a friend dared me to memorize the entire novel. I was not particularly attracted to Onegin then, the plot seemed to me too anti-climactic, its characters distant, the main character too cold to love, but I felt up to the challenge. Re-reading the novel now, I have a different perspective and experience with the text. The poetry of Onegin amazes me with the musical virtuosity of its linguistic fluidity, such virtuosity of language that can afford certain almost carelessness in its poetic posture, when the reader (borrowing Nabokov’s simile) is purring like a satisfied cat who is being scratched in just the right spot behind the ear, forgetting the plot or even the content altogether, for a purely aesthetic joy of reading.
When I started on my task of memorizing “Onegin”, all the characters seemed to be distant adults from another world. I felt the sea of time between myself and Tatiana. Now, what strikes me is how terribly young they all are, how vulnerable in their youth. Onegin, the oldest, is only 24 years old, Lensky is a young boy of 18, Olga is only 16, Tatiana is 17. The readers grow old, yet the characters remain framed in their age forever, thus continuously evolving in their relationships to the readers.
Which has the greater influence: Art on life or life on art? A literary work – does it imitate life or is it perhaps more frequent that our lives actually imitate literary works? I find somewhat chilling how Pushkin’s own life imitates his writing. Isn’t it prophetic how Lensky’s premature death in a duel foreshadows Pushkin’s own death? Both were poets, killed very young, in a duel over a completely senseless argument concerning a flirtatious woman. Both women in question, Olga in “Onegin” and Pushkin’s wife Natalie in real life, do not seem to deserve or fully understand them.
Listen: Poetry [From Songs for Rebirth by Lera Auerbach • Text by Hilan Dov Warshaw]
There is a deeper parallel between Lensky’s and Pushkin’s fates: both involved two sisters. In Lensky’s case, Olga and Tatiana Larina, and in Pushkin’s, Natalie and Alexandra Goncharova. Their murderers were entangled in some way with the other sister: Onegin with Tatiana while flirting with Olga; and Georges d'Anthès, Pushkin’s killer, married to Alexandra Goncharova, while flirting with Pushkin’s wife, Natalie Goncharova. Both duels were essentially without justification. What we know of Georges d'Anthès reminds one of Onegin.
There is even a striking visual resemblance in how Pushkin describes Lensky: long black hair, romantic look, a well-educated idealistic young man. I do not think that Pushkin was consciously making Lensky into his younger double – after all Lensky is a minor poet, but the similarities of their fates are very disturbing. Did Pushkin’s art spilled into his own life? Did he follow his own writing and subconsciously or consciously craft his own death in a duel? We do know that Pushkin initiated the conflict and acted as though he was welcoming this death from that gunshot. “Onegin” was the greatest work-in-progress of Pushkin’s short life. Was it really an accident that the poet’s fate plagiarized his writing?
I have compared various translations of Onegin in English. While most of them are simply dreadful, the translation of Johnston seems to be much better than the others and combines rhythm and rhyme with meaning in a balanced way. All of the quotes here are in Johnston’s translation.
Here is Lensky’s portrait:
Meanwhile another new landowner
came driving to his country seat,
and, in the district, this persona
drew scrutiny no less complete --
Vladimir Lensky, whose creator
was Göttingen, his alma mater,
good-looking, in the flower of age,
a poet, and a Kantian sage.
He'd brought back all the fruits of learning
from German realms of mist and steam,
freedom's enthusiastic dream,
a spirit strange, a spirit burning,
an eloquence of fevered strength,
and raven curls of shoulder-length.
He was too young to have been blighted
by the cold world's corrupt finesse;
his soul still blossomed out, and lighted
at a friend's word, a girl's caress.
In heart's affairs, a sweet beginner,
he fed on hope's deceptive dinner;
the world's éclat, its thunder-roll,
still captivated his young soul.
He sweetened up with fancy's icing
the uncertainties within his heart;
for him, the objective on life's chart
was still mysterious and enticing --
something to rack his brains about,
suspecting wonders would come out.
“Onegin” occupied many years of creation – it took Pushkin eight years to complete. Pushkin had plans to continue it and wrote about it in a letter to one of his friends just eight weeks before his own death. The theme of a poet who is murdered by a mob or by high society’s false dogmas was very important to Pushkin. The duel becomes a machine of certain expected rules of conduct, inescapable, unstoppable and inhuman, even though by the time of the actual duel neither Lensky nor Onegin have any wish to spill each other’s blood. In the dark figure of Zaretsky, who oversees the duel, Pushkin embodies the weight of the imposed ‘proper behavior’ expected by the society.
Dreams (and nightmares!) are very present in Pushkin’s “Onegin”, and the unfolding of events has an overall dreamy quality with numerous deviations from the plot. Even the plot itself seems to be a dream, as some of the key moments of story-telling (such as how and why Tatiana was so transformed, where Onegin travel for all these years in between, what happened to the main characters at the end) are completely omitted, while other moments, such as descriptions, premonitions, and philosophical deviations occupy the central space within the novel.
"Perhaps Pushkin would have done even better to use the name Tatiana, not Onegin, as the title of his poem, for she is indisputably its main heroine’, was Dostoevsky’s comment. Tatiana Larina is certainly the favorite of Pushkin and perhaps the central figure of the novel, even more so than Onegin. The ending is most enigmatic. Pushkin simply ‘drops’ the novel and its wretched characters almost in mid-sentence, saying, with his charming virtuosity, “blessed is he who doesn’t finish his glass of wine”. In different sketches he left the possibility for the additional chapters 9 and 10, in which Onegin eventually dies. But Pushkin burned these chapters, as there were some criticisms of the tsar, and the novel with these chapters included simply would not have been published during that time. Actually, he burnt chapters 8 and 10, the current chapter 8 originally was chapter 9. Once Pushkin decided to keep only 8 chapters, the 9th chapter became 8th. Perhaps Pushkin was also not satisfied with these chapters artistically and preferred the reader to use his own imagination as to what would become of Onegin later on.
Pushkin was well aware that such an ‘ending without ending’ would bring about the harsh criticism of his contemporaries – it was simply unheard of. Such an (un)ending also gave a balanced arc to his “empty” stanzas: when he would simply indicate the number of stanzas, but leave them without any text. Some of these stanzas were, in fact, written and later deleted, while others were never written to start with. This way the reader is invited to imagine what happens in these stanzas, (for example, Onegin’s travels), and thus the reader becomes an active co-creator, co-writer of the novel. The best reading experiences are often this way.
Last meeting of Onegin and Tatiana:
“ ...He goes inside, corpse-like of feature...
the hall's without a living creature,
the big room, further, not a cat.
He opens up a door. What's that
that strikes him with such force and meaning?
The princess, sitting peaked and wan,
alone, with no adornment on;
she holds a letter up, and leaning
cheek upon hand she softly cries
in a still stream that never dries.
Who in that flash could not have reckoned
her full account of voiceless pain?
Who in the princess for that second
would not have recognized again
our hapless Tanya! An emotion
of wild repentance and devotion
threw Eugene at her feet -- she stirred,
and looked at him without a word,
without surprise or rage... his laden,
his humbly suppliant approach,
his dull, sick look, his dumb reproach --
she sees it all. The simple maiden,
whose heart on dreams was wont to thrive,
in her once more has come alive.
Tatyana leaves Onegin kneeling,
looks at him with a steady gaze,
allows her hand, that's lost all feeling,
to meet his thirsty lips... What daze,
what dream accounts for her distraction?
A pause of silence and inaction,
then quietly at last says she:
``Enough, stand up. It's now for me
to give you honest explanation.
Onegin, d'you recall the day
when in the park, in the allée
where fate had fixed our confrontation,
humbly I heard your lesson out?
Today it's turn and turn about.
Tatiana’s rejection of Onegin and her walking out is symbolic. Onegin is the one who is cursed and doomed to his loneliness. There is a saying in Russian: “The one who stays carries a double burden compared to the one who leaves”.
There is a lot of mirroring and doubling in the novel: the letter of Tatiana is answered in the letter of Onegin, the party at the Larinas’ in the first act is mirrored in the Petersburg ball of the 3rd act, the nightmares of Tatiana and Onegin mirror each other and mirror their realities, and Onegin’s rejection of Tatiana is mirrored in Tatiana’s rejection of Onegin.
Pushkin was hopeful that he would be allowed to travel abroad as he was writing Yevgeniy Onegin; he especially wanted to visit Venice. There is something Venetian in his mirror-writing. Or is it an influence of St. Petersburg’s canals where reality is doubled by the unsteady reflections of the water?
The novel is full of literary allusions. In many ways it is a novel about a novel in verse. Its heroes imagine themselves and are more related to the literary characters, rather than to real people. It is a typically romantic notion, even though the work as a whole is anti-romantic since both Onegin (the ‘half-dead know-it-all’ skeptic of the first chapters) and Tatiana of the last act (morally righteous woman, who would not be breaking up her marriage for love) are governed by reason rather than by the heart.
Here are some of the literary allusions:
Onegin imagines himself as a Byronic romantic type, imitating famous personalities of his time.
The illness with which he'd been smitten
should have been analysed when caught,
something like spleen, that scourge of Britain,
or Russia's chondria, for short;
it mastered him in slow gradation; thank God, he had no inclination
to blow his brains out, but in stead
to life grew colder than the dead.
So, like Childe Harold, glum, unpleasing,
he stalked the drawing-rooms, remote
from Boston's cloth or gossip's quote;
no glance so sweet, no sigh so teasing,
no, nothing caused his heart to stir,
and nothing pierced his senses' blur.
As I mentioned earlier, the portrait of Onegin reminds one of the actual Georges d'Anthès, whose immortality is ensured as Pushkin’s murderer.
Tatiana imagines herself as a heroine of her favorite novels. The novels act as substitutes for her real life. The novels are her life.
From early on she loved romances,
they were her only food... and so
she fell in love with all the fancies
of Richardson and of Rousseau.
Her father, kindly, well-regarded,
but in an earlier age retarded,
could see no harm in books; himself
he never took one from the shelf,
thought them a pointless peccadillo;
and cared not what his daughter kept
by way of secret tome that slept
until the dawn beneath her pillow.
His wife, just like Tatyana, had
on Richardson gone raving mad.
Seeing herself as a creation --
Clarissa, Julie, or Delphine --
by writers of her admiration,
Tatyana, lonely 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.
But ours, whatever he might be,
ours was no Grandison -- not he.
Olga, Tatiana’s little sister, is described as a typical cliché: ‘sweet as a lover’s kiss’, ‘gay and clear as morning’, ‘sky-blue eyes’ etc. reads like a quote from some imaginary encyclopedia of universal literary clichés. It’s a parody. Olga could easily be a heroine of a popular romantic novel. She is a Hollywood-version mass-appeal product for the 19th century reader. It’s a study in banality. Pushkin’s little Olga is flawless and thus completely boring.
Full of obedience and demureness,
as gay as morning and as clear,
poetic in her simple pureness,
sweet as a lover's kiss, and dear,
in Olga everything expresses --
the skyblue eyes, the flaxen tresses,
smile, voice and movements, little waist --
take any novel, clearly traced
you're sure to find her portrait in it:
a portrait with a charming touch;
once I too liked it very much;
but now it bores me every minute.
Reader, the elder sister now
must be my theme, if you'll allow.
Similarly, Pushkin’s wife Natalia Goncharova also had all the qualities of the mass-appeal beauty of her times which insured her numerous admirers.
Pushkin had African ancestors. One of his unfinished works is the “Blackmoor of Peter the Great” which relates some of the biographical material of the life of Ibrahim Gannibal, Pushkin’s black great grandfather. Pushkin’s own features were exotic. His dark skin was in striking contrast with his large blue eyes. He was short, but he had an incredible, legendary charisma and was a Don Juan of his time or at least this was part of his carefully crafted self-image.
In my studio, next to my desk I have a self-portrait of Pushkin, a sketch where lines do not connect and imagination fills the gaps. I see his unruly black hair, his African full lips, his romantic appearance so idolized by women. (Remember Tsvetaeva’s wonderfully personal essay “My Pushkin”?) His friends always said that he laughed more contagiously than anyone else. He died during a meaningless duel at the age of 37 at the height of his artistic power. And the gray skies of forever beyond seem not such a lonely place filled with his generous laughter. I see myself as a little girl memorizing the dancing rhyming lines, not fully understanding, but following their music. I see myself now, older than the immortally young characters of Pushkin’s novel in verse. The two reflections connect through the lines on the page as if for a moment touching hands through the mirror-glass of memory.
Brain-teaser [Day 2] Answer: all ten words are entirely comprised of odd-numbered letters of the alphabet.