Monday, July 18, 2016

Alexander Pushkin - Eugene Onegin

+Amazon India
+Penguin Classical

This is a book that was for a very long time on my to-be-read list.  Decades ago, I saw a beautifully illustrated copy of this book in one of those book stores that sold Russian books.  

I do not remember why I did not pick it up.  I was there to buy some books to gift little children and maybe did not have enough space in my bag (silly excuse). 

Anyway, I was reminded of that beautiful book when I read Vikram Seth's Golden Gate.  He admitted to being heavily influenced by Eugene Onegin while writing his own, a worthy successor, I must say.

The final version of the Eugene Onegin was published in 1837.  Pushkin used the iambic tetrameter for the verse.

Eugene Onegin is a world weary fop in his mid-twenties.  He is done with the society which is a mad repetition of parties, balls, opera, ballets.  He is careless with the feelings of society girls who vie to get close to him.  His father collapsed in debt like many aristocrats in Moscow.  He was fostered by some benevolent friends until, luckily for him, an uncle died leaving him a legacy; wealth and a country house.

He goes to live in the country, not completely appreciative of what it has to offer.  He makes friends with a neighbour Lensky and goes calling on the Larina family with him.  Lensky is engaged to the younger Larina girl, Olga.  Eugene is drawn to the silent and intelligent older sister, Tatiyana.

In her turn, Tatiyana falls absolutely in love with him.  She is a romantic creature, given to reading and spending time in solitude and reflection.  This unspoiled maiden of the country decides to declare her feelings for Eugene through a letter.  

Eugene lectures Tanya (Tatiyana) about not wanting to be tied down.  He is sure that he will be bored if he is married to her and her dreams would come crashing down.  He exhorts her to be more circumspect in her dealings with men in future as someone may take advantage of her innocence.

He leaves Tanya heartbroken to the core.  She weeps silently and mopes for a long time.  After Eugene's departure, she goes to his house and reads Eugene's books in an effort to understand him.

Will the lethargic Eugene ever see sense? Will not the pastoral surroundings help him redeem himself? Will he sink deeper in the mire of ennui? What happens to Tatiyana? Will the Olga-Lensky romance culminate in a wedding?

The poem is a classic of Russian literature.  There are breathtaking descriptions of the countryside and candid portrayal of the true feelings of the characters.

Eugene is not completely a fop, though he behaves like one.  He likes to read and ruminate.  He is charming.  If he had been just a fop, he would have lived like any other aristocrat.  He would have sown his wild oats, married, had children and spent his life gathering wealth and settling his children.

It is his restless mind that makes him seek more than what his life has to offer him.  But lack of self-awareness makes him fall between the two stools of being flippant and being serious. All the experiences of life, good or bad, do not seem to teach him anything.

Tatiyana, by contrast, grows immensely as a person.  She retains a sense of self and does not get mired in the commonness of the society around her.

At the heart of this book is, of course, Pushkin's brilliant verse.  This book is translated by Stanley Mitchell, about whom I quote from wikipedia:

His life's work was a translation into English verse of Pushkin's Russian verse novel Eugene Onegin, commenced in 1966 and published in 2008. In this he has been praised for capturing not only the precise meaning, but also the wit, the grace and the constantly varying intonations of Pushkin's voice.

Here is a sample of the verse, this is when Tatiyana finds herself in love. 

"I am in love," again she whispered

In sadness to the old above.

"My dearest, 'tis only illness" -

"Leave me alone: I'm in love."

Meanwhile, the moon in skies was shining
And with a languorous light was lightning
All Tanya's features, pale and fair,
Her splendid, loosely falling hair,
Her tears, and the old woman here,
With a kerchief on her gray head,
In her old, warm, too long jacket,
Sitting before our maiden, dear.
And all was sunk in silence soon
Under the pale inspiring moon.

Here is one about Eugene, the star of the Moscow Society:

They would bring him the morning letters,
When he's still lying in his bed.
What? Invitations? Yes, the matter's:
Three evening parties in a set.
There’ll be a ball, an evening children's.
Where will he go, this lad mischievous?
Who will be first? That's all the same:
It's simple to visit all of them.
But now in the morn's attire -
A wide hat, a la Bolivar,
Onegin rides to the boulevard,
And walks there, calm and free entire,
Until the watchful watch's alarm
Will advertise the dinnertime.

My copy of Eugene Onegin is plain.  I will keep looking for a better illustrated one, something that will showcase his beautiful verse better.


Madhulika said...

I have heard, of course, of Eugene Onegin, but had never read it (and, to be honest, had forgotten that it was a poem). This sounds intriguing, Ava - and that translation is very alluring. Just the sort of cadence and rhythm that I like. I will put this on my list (which grows longer every single day!)

Ava Suri said...

I have always loved ballads. All those poems by Walter de la Mare were my favorite in school. Later I loved Geoffery Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Spenser's Faire Queene. It is like reading a novel in verse, not too difficult. Which is why I was keen on reading this.

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