Classics Club Challenge Reading Challenges Reviews

Eugene Onegin (1825), in One Really Terrible Sonnet

Eugene OneginThis book is #35 on my Classics Club List.

Pushkin’s Euegene Onegin, what can I say?
He was a great looker, a fine young dandy;
an aristocrat, all work and no play,
danced the mazurka and drank much brandy.
Most readers, they prefer Tanya though;
lovely girl, Pushkin’s finest creation,
‘Russian spirit’, quite why I don’t know
Just the thing to inspire an emerging nation.
Pushkin, he loved Byron and Shakespeare;
Russian aristos they knew English and French
But not their mother tongue, it’s decidedly queer
an appetite for Europe, Pushkin wanted to quench.
How to sum up this novel in just one word?
All the characters are wealthy and extremely – bored.

The atrocious poem above took me far longer to compose than I care to admit. But although it’s quite possibly the worst thing I’ve ever written in my life (seriously – I’ve got some stories about seahorses that I wrote when I was seven years old; this poem makes them look like Shakespeare), it was a useful exercise. Because it taught me just how difficult it is to write a sonnet (or, indeed, any poem – there go my plans of becoming a bohemian and moving to Paris to live in a loft). And if I was on the point of tearing my hair out over a joke-poem about a famous piece of literature, I can only imagine how frustrated Alexander Pushkin must have been as he sat composing Eugene Onegin, his famous verse novel, which is entirely made up of sonnet-length stanzas. And then I feel still more pity for the tireless translators who had the monumentally difficult task of rendering those stanzas into some kind of readable English version.

Yes, I think it’s safe to say that I’m entirely in awe of creative people. And I have no wish to disparage Eugene Onegin, which was a refreshing change of pace for me, reading-wise.

I always looked upon Russian literature with slight fear and dread. After all, what immediately springs to mind when one thinks of Russian novels are great behemoths of books, War and Peace and the complete works of Dostoevsky; enough to make even the most determined reader pause with trepidation.

Repin Eugene Onegin
Painting based on Eugene Onegin (Image Source

But starting with Pushkin is nothing like this. Eugene Onegin, with its sing-song verses, is as good an introduction to Russian literature as I can think of. Although it’s a novel entirely in verse, don’t let that daunt you; find the right translation and you immediately fall into the rhythm of the language. Reading becomes a breeze (and I just realised I totally sound like a television commercial for some sort of surface cleaner: ‘BAM! And the aristocracy’s very purpose is questioned! Eugene Onegin: For All Your Nineteenth-Century Social Critiquing Needs!’).

At its heart, there really isn’t much plot; it’s a simple case of a) young, aristocratic man is bored with his very existence (surprise surprise) b) young girl from the country falls in love with him c) things happen, most of them not jolly. It’s greatly inspired by Byron’s poetry, particularly Childe Harold; but although Onegin acts the part of the Byronic hero, moping around the place and generally bringing the mood down, he doesn’t really have the opportunities to shine that Harold does. He is, perhaps:

Just an apparition,
a shadow, null and meaningless,
a Muscovite in Harold’s dress,
a modish second-hand edition,
a glossary of smart argot…*

(Chapter VII, Stanza XXIV)

When the author of a novel suggests that their main character may be just “a modish second-hand edition”, you know you’re probably not going to end up loving them. Like many people, I found myself preferring Tatyana, the girl who falls in love with Onegin, much more than I liked the main character himself. Eugene, despite being the titular character, is a bit of a closed book. But Tatyana is different – Pushkin conveys her passions and desires much more powerfully than he does with Onegin. There’s something vivid about her that is lacking in the main character. Dostoevsky made a pretty intense speech about this particular novel, and, I’ll just say it – revealed a massive book crush in the process. He went so far as to suggest that the novel should be called Tatyana rather than Onegin; personally, I’m not sure about this, because although Onegin is a miserable old sod, I feel like his sense of disconnectedness – from society, from his mother country, from his own self – is the real subject of the book. Perhaps, I might humbly suggest, the title could be amended: Eugene Onegin: or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Russians?

Onegin by Pushkin sketch
Pushkin’s sketch of Onegin (Image Source)

In either case, if you’ve never read any Russian literature, Eugene Onegin might very well be a good place to start. If you’re a fan of the English Romantics you’ll find much that’s familiar here, and Pushkin’s debt to other great European writers, particularly English and French, is obvious. And, to conclude, I’ve composed a final little ditty (I think I’m getting the hang of this ‘poetry’ thing now!):

He may not be a jolly chap,
Old Eugene with his great top hat –
But give him just a little time,
And he’ll soon have you speaking rhyme.

If you enjoyed the poetry I shared in this review, then look out for my upcoming collection, Famous Works of Literature Retold in Shockingly Bad Poetry That Doesn’t Entirely Make Sense (And Also There Are Some Seahorses For Some Reason). Coming February 2016 to absolutely no self-respecting bookstores anywhere.

Rating: 4.5 Stars


*All quotes are from the Charles Johnson translation.


12 replies on “Eugene Onegin (1825), in One Really Terrible Sonnet”

Well, I’d never have believed I’d be even half-tempted by a novel in verse but this reviewed has shattered my preconceptions –bravo! I even think I’d give a second glance to your imagined poetry collection … :)

Ha ha! Great review! And I’d buy your poetry book ……. really! ……. as long as it wasn’t too expensive ….. ;-)

I really loved Eugene Onegin and actually read and reviewed it twice. The juxtaposition of themes and actions were so well done, and I particularly liked how books become a window into the soul. Have you read Madame Bovary? Same theme there and in a few other books I can’t remember off the top of my head.

In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed your review and am looking forward to seeing more poetry from you. And I’m very curious about the sea horses …….. ;-)

Haha, thanks Cleo! I always like books that talk about books, and I definitely liked that aspect of Eugene Onegin. I haven’t read Madam Bovary yet, although after reading Anna Karenina last year I’m quite curious to read it, since those two novels are often read together too.

The verse novel form definitely took some getting used to! But I had a fairly good translation, and the verses really had a very good flow, so I was glad to find it wasn’t as challenging as I thought it would be.

I haven’t read much Dostoevsky, but I did find myself (much to my surprise) liking Tolstoy when I read him last year, which surprised me because when I was younger I really didn’t like him. I think he gets better with age. :)

I’m sorely tempted by the gorgeous Folio Society version of this. Your review makes me even more intrigued (though I think I should read it first before laying out that kind of cash). And put me down for a preorder of your book. Bad poetry can be good, at least when it’s meant to be funny!

Haha what a lovely review! I especially enjoyed the extremely descriptive title of your future poetry collection :-)

I’ve never read Eugene Onegin – in fact, I’m a little lacking in the whole Russian Lit side of things, though I have read War and Peace for a class devoted entirely to that single book (and I enjoyed it too). However, I am a little intimidated by the Russian writers in general, and though I do like Gogol a lot, and find him less overwhelming, he was originally Ukrainian, so maybe that’s why?

I suppose one of these days I will get over my general avoidance of the Russians and pick up Eugene Onegin.

Wow! An entire class devoted to War and Peace – that sounds intense! You must have learnt a lot, though!

I’m exactly the same – until last year the only thing I’d really ever read from the Russians was Anna Karenina, which I found really difficult. I think that’s why Pushkin was such a breath of fresh air – he wasn’t at all daunting, and he turned out to be so easy to read. :)

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