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 Ekaterina 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.