At my Big 10 university, we amused each other with what I call “smart-dumb” chat. Feminism was in, but bubbly blondism and dangly earrings were not out. We Midwestern women had not gone to prep schools, we were studying hard for the first time, and we were neither pompous nor very competitive. When I went out for coffee at Things & Things & Things with a friend from Russian Literature in Translation, we chatted about Russian names. (We were not Russian students.)
“How does one pronounce Knyazhnin?”
“I skip over the middle letters of the names and just see the K and N.”
I still don’t know how to pronounce Knyazhnin. He was a writer, an imitator of French tragedies and comedies, according to a note in the Penguin translation of Eugne Onegin.
Our effervescence over Russian literature came back to me because I reread Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (pronounced Oh-nay-gin) in Stanley Mitchell’s 2008 translation (Penguin).
It is just as much fun as it was the first time, in whatever edition that was.
In this brilliant novel in verse, Pushkin tells the story of Eugene Onegin, a rakish Byronic hero who, bored by carousing, wine, women, song, writing, and even books, moves from St. Petersburg to the country after inheriting an estate. He befriends a young poet, Lensky, to whom he is very devoted, but thoughtlessly wrecks their friendship by flirting at a dance with Olga, Lensky’s fiancée. The fiasco results in a duel with Lensky. (Eugene doesn’t want it, and yet somehow he doesn’t say no.) And the whole thing is complicated by Eugene”s rejection of Olga’s sister, Tataina, who writes a love letter to him.
The narrator’s voice is almost always ironic, and the poem is a mix of irony with realism. Olga soon forgets Lensky and marries someone else. Tatiana visits Euegene’s deserted house and falls in love with his library. .Eugene only falls in love with Tatiana years later, after it is too late.
So what is love anyway?
I very much appreciate the introduction and notes when I read books in translation. And yet there weren’t always notes in paperbacks then. I’m sure I depended mainly on class notes.
In the Penguin edition, Mitchell has written an exceptionally good introduction. He quotes a letter by Pushkin:
I am writing now not a novel, but a “novel in verse”–the devil of a difference. Something like Don Juan–there’s no point in thinking about publication; I’m writing whatever comes into my head.
Pushkin, one of Russia’s most beloved poets, was of the second generation to write literature in Russian. He took European themes and made them Russian. Aristocrats spoke French before Russian, and literary Russian was “new” in the late 18th and 19th century.
But what I want to do is share my love of Eugene Onegin. (You can read the introduction and notes on your own.) Whether you like reading about bookishness, boredom, poetry, intensity, love, partying, rejection of all of the aforementioned, or strong women, it’s all here.
It is winter here on the prairie. What better description can I find than in Eugene Onegin?
What pastime can you find that’s pleasing?
Out in the backwoods? Walking? Try.
For all the countryside is freezing.
The naked flatness tires the eye.
A gallop in the bitter prairie?
The very mount you ride is wary
In case its blunted shoe should catch
Against an icy patch.
Under your lonely roof take cover,
Let Pradt and Scott divert your mind
Or check expenses, if inclined,
Grumble or drink, somehow or other
Evening will pass, the morrow too:
With ease you’ll see the winter through.
I very much enjoyed it. So entertaining!
But I can’t stress how important it is to have notes. How did we survive in the old days when even Penguins seldom had notes?