This 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.
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?
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.