A Romance of Russian Life In Verse
Title: Eugene Onegin
Original Title: Евге́ний Оне́гин
Subtitle: A Romance of Russian Life In Verse
Author: Alexander Pushkin
Translated by Henry Spalding
First Published in 1833
Year of Publication of this Edition: 2012
Published by Delphi Classics
This Work is included in The Works of Alexander Pushkin
Rating: 5/5 stars
Note: This review may contain a few spoilers!\
For me, literature is like a locked chest in which every book is a priceless jewel that awaits to be discovered, analysed and treated with care. Let’s allow ourselves to welcome a bit of romanticism in our lives every once in a while, even if it’s fictional. Therefore, allow me to tell you a few things about a book very dear to my heart and its author. Before I came across this novel, I thought that Russian literature is hard to read and understand, but time shows me every now and then that generalisations are foolish and unjust.
Eugene Onegin (Евге́ний Оне́гин, pronounced Yevgeniy Onegin), with its subtitle A Romance of Russian Life In Verse, is a verse novel written by Russian poet Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, published in serial form between 1825-1832 and as a complete novel in 1833. The edition that inspired this review is Henry Spalding‘s 1881 edition — the first English translation of Eugene Onegin. The book comprises of the following sections: the Preface, Mon Portrait, A Short Biographical Notice of Alexander Pushkin and Eugene Onegin.
Mon Portrait is a poem written in French by Pushkin when he was fifteen years old and the auto-irony found there may help us understand the resemblance between Pushkin and Eugene Onegin. Even though the poem suggests that the Russian poet may be the true source of inspiration for his beloved protagonist, no character can be completely identified to its creator.
In A Short Biographical Notice of Alexander Pushkin, we are informed that the poet was born in 1799, in Pskoff (though in other sources Moscow is his birthplace) in an aristocratic family. His literary talent may be inherited because his father and uncle were friends with poets such as Dimitrieff and Joukovsky; not to mention that Uncle Vassili Pushkin was a minor poet. Pushkin was not too fond of school, but of general reading, learning languages such as French, English, Latin, German, Italian and Spanish and writing poems. Besides poetry like Ruslan and Ludmila or The Gypsies, he also wrote prose and drama, of which I will mention The Queen of Spades (1834) and Mozart and Salieri (1832) Pushkin’s life was very tumultuous as it happens with all great writers and composers who changed our world. He moved from place to place, whether in Russia or Bessarabia because he often fell out of favour with the Tsar and some of the noblemen. A very intriguing fact is that Pushkin seemed to have foreseen his death when he wrote about Lenski’s death in Eugene Onegin (Canto VI) As well as his character, Pushkin was a literary genius who hastened to challenge his presumed rival to a duel without giving himself time to seek the truth. Therefore, the Russian poet’s life was prematurely cut short at the age of 38 because he wanted to save the reputation of the woman he loved.
Eugene Onegin comprises of eight cantos with eight titles, eight mottos and 86 notes of which I will talk about later on. The story is set in St. Petersburg at the time when Eugene Onegin is about to inherit his uncle’s estate in the countryside. Eugene is eighteen years old and he lives his life eccentrically and to the fullest: he dresses like a London dandy, spends the money he has inherited on expensive dinners, likes going to balls, and he enjoys ephemeral pleasures. He is selfish, superficial, and snobbish and behaves like his favourite characters. However, Onegin is an educated young man who speaks fluently in French, knows how to dance the mazurka and is adored by the ladies. Life is pretty uninteresting for Onegin in his uncle’s mansion because the young man loves more hustle and bustle of the city than the tranquillity of the countryside. But things are about to change when he befriends his neighbour, Vladimir Lenski, a handsome young man, a dreamer, an admirer of Kant and poet of genius, who has just returned from Germany.
Though Eugene is often bored by his new friend, he indulgently listens to Lenski’s heated poems about the glory of man and love. Eugene also hears that his friend is in love with a young woman named Olga Larina. When Lenski is invited to Olga’s house, he takes Onegin with him to meet his fiancée and her family. Olga is very outgoing and sociable; but she has a sister, Tatiana, who is her opposite. Tatiana is introverted, romantic and melancholic like Svetlana (a Russian Lenora, a poem written by Joukovsky) and she is also an avid reader of romantic novels.
Onegin’s presence has a big impression on Tatiana, who begins to be fond of him. Being touched by love and eagerly wanting to know how Onegin feels about her, Tatiana writes a passionate love letter to him, but she doesn’t receive any reply; thus her anguish grows. When the two eventually meet in the garden, Eugene politely rejects her love, saying that he is not worthy of her, that he only has brotherly love for her and that their union would bring grief to both of them. Lenski tries to bring Eugene and Tatiana together again, but Eugene is fed up with balls because of the atmosphere and guests who gossip about him and Tatiana. In order to take revenge against Lenski who had forcefully brought him to Tatiana’s anniversary, he dances and flirts with Olga to make his friend jealous. Lenski is hurt by Eugene’s gesture; therefore he challenges him to a duel. Unfortunately, this will not be a good idea because Lenski and Onegin’s friendship will end abruptly and innocent blood will be uselessly shed. What will happen next? I will let you find out for yourselves.
Henry Spalding’s edition informs us through the help of 86 notes about Russian culture, how rich and poor people lived in Imperial Russia and there are also many literary allusions, which the Russian poet hides between the lines of his novel. For example, Onegin is considered a Russian Childe Harold — Byron’s protagonist from an eponymous narrative poem — or Tatiana is seen as Lenora from Burger’s well-known poem. There are also references to Ovid, Horace, Homer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Richardson, poets who are friends of Pushkin and his own works such as Ruslan and Ludmila and The Fountain of Bakhchisaray.
The narrative voice is very close to the reader, witty but also a master of words. Although the narrator is anonymous, he tells us that he is a close friend of Onegin’s, who knows the entire story of his life. He is very fond of the protagonist because he calls him my Eugene or Onegin mine. The digressions found in the story serve as small breaks from the main plot and they are mostly about society, love and literature. The narrator calls his muse between the storyline and the digressions as if he were an ancient poet. At the end of the novel, he apologises to the reader for living Onegin in an uncomfortable situation and also for the grammar mistakes, if there are any.
I really enjoyed this verse novel because it was easy to read and I finished it faster than I have expected. Eugene Onegin is a priceless jewel of Russian literature and everyone should read it. If all of Pushkin’s works are as magnificent as this one, I will read more of his books.