Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

“My uncle, man of firm convictions …
By falling gravely ill, he’s won
A due respect for his afflictions —
The only clever thing he’s done.

I was so happy to get the chance to participate in Marian at Tanglewood’s Read-Along for my second read of Eugene Onegin in six months.  My first time I read the translation by Charles Johnston and this time chose to read James A. Falen’s translation.  But more comparisons on the two later.

It was such a joy to read such a lively and often tongue-in-cheek poem, yet Pushkin weaves his jaunty remarks throughout a tale of serious love, serious death and serious coming-of-age, crafting a remarkable masterpiece.

Since I already reviewed Eugene Onegin the first time I read it,  I will simply cover a couple of areas that stood out for me from a second read, that were not initially apparent.

First Edition of the novel
(source Wikipedia)

Comparing the two translations, I must say I enjoyed Falen more than Johnston.  Johnston’s words have a loftier tone and are perhaps more beautiful, but I think Falen captures the spirit of the poem more accurately.  A couple of times, his choice of words appeared awkward, yet he communicated the grave situations in balance with the bouncy, cheekiness of the narrator, with flair and apparent ease.  I would recommend him for a first-time reader.

This second read I noticed numerous instances of juxtaposition ………. Tatyana reading books that lead her to form a romantic infatuation with a man she’s barely spoken to vs. Tatyana reading books that lead her to a more mature and formed view of Onegin’s character; Tatyana’s love of the country and woods vs. her marital residence being in the city; Tatyana’s letter vs. Onegin’s letter; Onegin’s rejection of Tatyana, and then Tatyana’s rejection of Onegin; Onegin’s volatile response to a friend’s challenge that leads to that friend’s death vs. Onegin’s wish to seduce a friend’s wife which could have led to a similar circumstance.  It really became apparent to me this time that Onegin hadn’t learned anything.  It was clear to Tatyana, too.  She asks him pointedly, why he is suddenly pursuing her, and her harsh words demonstrate her mistrust of his motives:

” Why mark me out for your attention?
Is it perhaps my new ascension
To circles that you find more swank;
Or that I now have wealth and rank;
Or that my husband, maimed in battle,
Is held in high esteem at Court?
Or would my fall perhaps be sport,
A cause for all the monde to tattle —
Which might in turn bring you some claim
To social scandal’s kind of fame?”

Until he saw Tatyana the second time, he was the same foppish young man, sinking in ennui.  She revived him briefly, yet even in the ardent fog of love, his actions are not the actions of a man who has gone through a self-examination from the tragedy that had come from his initial conduct (the duel).  If he had managed to convince Tatyana to begin a relationship with him, it would have ended in another duel and another possible death of a friend.  I think Tatyana was wise enough to ascertain the baseness of his behaviour and foresaw the consequences.  She loved him as a man, yet rejected his ignoble character.

Statue of Alexander Pushkin
photo courtesy of Cliff (Flickr)
Creative Commons License

This quote by Onegin sums up his character throughout the poem:

“Yet I in futile dullness squander
These days allotted me by fate …..”

There is a pathos in his words and actions with which the reader can sympathize, hoping for a reversal in his chosen path, but at the end he is still walking the road of self-gratification and boredom, and we can only watch him disappear into the thickening mist …..

Eugene Onegin Read-Along Chapters 7 & 8

Marian @ Tanglewood’s Read-Along

Chapters 7 & 8

Chapter 7

Spring comes, yet Onegin has fled the country and Lensky’s grave, while at first visited by the two young girls, soon remains alone and forgotten.  In fact, soon after his demise, Olga marries, showing her attachment was rather a tenuous one.  With Olga’s marriage, Tatyana is now alone and spends her time walking throughout the countryside.  One day she comes upon Onegin’s estate, gains entrance and begins to pour through the books he has left behind and the notes he has made inside them.  Perhaps reality began to materialize with Lensky’s death, but now she really begins to search for the true Onegin and perhaps does not like what she finds:

“And modern man himself portrayed
With something of his true complexion —
With his immoral soul disclosed
His arid vanity exposed,
His endless bent for deep reflection,
His cold, embittered mind that seems
To waste itself in empty schemes.”

“And so, in slow but growing fashion
My Tanya starts to understand
More clearly now — thank God — her passion
And him for whom, by fate’s command …”

Tatyana’s mother, Dame Larin is concerned that she has turned down marriage proposals and decides to take her to Moscow and the marriage mart.  Tatyana laments their going, saying good-bye to all her woodland haunts.  We are treated to a grand show of Moscow, but Tatyana does not like her new surroundings or the people in them.  Will she be able to adjust to this new reality?

Chapter 8

Onegin turns up in town and it appears he has been travelling, perhaps trying to forget the tragic circumstances that caused his flight from the country.  Tatyana has married a general, who is much older than her, and Onegin spies them at a party.  Astounded by Tatyana’s poise and regal demeanour, he begs an introduction by the general who is a friend of his.  While Tatyana is polite, she treats him with no particular regard, which drives Onegin mad with love for her.  Eventually, after dogging her like a puppy, he writes her a letter, exposing his feelings.  He expected to touch Tatyana’s heart, as he had in her youth, but surprise! she was furious at what he had done.  When he finally confronts her at her house, she chastizes him and tells him, though she loves him, she is married and will remain faithful to her husband for life.

Onegin proposes to Tatyana
late 19th century illustration
by Pavel Sokolov (source Wikipedia)


In chapter 7, Tatyana finally begins to grow up.  The duel appears to precipitate the change, but reading Onegin’s books in a slow thoughtful manner, in direct contrast to her initial quick infatuation, demonstrates a maturing of soul.  Having to leave the comfort of her childhood home, also forces her to go down the path towards womanhood.

Chapter 8 certainly gives us a sense of how Tatyana’s view of Onegin has altered.  While she still retains the emotion of girlish love, she sees his character clearly.

The second reading of this poem (with a different translation) has certainly made specific situations and the sentiments of the characters come more alive for me.  I’ll write a review soon to summarize my discoveries!

Eugene Onegin Read-Along – Chapters 5 an 6

Marian @ Tanglewood’s Read-Along

Chapters 5 & 6

Chapter 5

Ah, broken-hearted Tatyana!  Suffering from unrequited passion for Onegin, Tatyana takes up yet another romantic diversion of superstition. Cats, moons, cards, stars, monks and fleeting hares, all set her heart palpitating with a foreboding of calamity.   She dreams a dream in which a huge bear helps her cross a raging river and takes her to a hut in the woods, placing her inside before disappearing.  Numerous fantastical creatures are revelling and among them, Onegin, the master of the party.  He calls Tatyana ‘his’, Olga arrives with Lensky, yet soon a heated discussion begins between Onegin and Lensky.  Onegin produces a knife and Lensky falls.  Awakening, Tatyana wonders about the symbolism of her vision but it is her name day and time for the party!  Lenksy and Onegin arrive late.  Initially Tatyana’s girlish discomfort and pain irritate Onegin, but later he takes pity on her.  Yet boredom is his boon companion and he looks for something to alleviate his ennui.  Olga!  He flirts with her, Olga is receptive but Lensky is horrified and enraged.

Chapter 6

With bitter indignation, Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel.  Onegin accepts.  Yet when Lensky speaks with Olga there is evidence that she is reasonably oblivious to the importance he places on her actions with regard to Onegin and slight doubt fills his mind.  However, the challenge has been issued and the duel must go ahead.  They pace, aim and fire and Lensky is shot dead.  Sense returns to Onegin and he feels horror at what he had done.  Pushkin very skillfully puts the reader in the place of Onegin, allowing us to search his emotions upon this terrible act.  He then muses on Lensky’s fate and on some repercussions it will cause, closing with sorrow and regret over the unnecessary death of the young poet.

Onegin by Dmitry Kardovsky
source Wikipedia

How do you interpret Tatyana’s dream?  Any ideas as to why it is usually omitted from major adaptations?

Tatyana’s dream is the foreshadowing of the duel.  My guess as to why it is usually omitted is that it is not really necessary to the story and, I think, visually may take away from it.  On paper though, it is effective and interesting.

Chapter 6 finds us in the middle of sudden disputes and high drama.  What might be the characters’ motivations for such extreme actions?  Is it substance, or superficiality?  Is anybody right or wrong — and if so, who?

The tragedy of the last chapter is that really no one wants the duel.  Tatyana, if she had known about it, would have been horrified and tried to stop it; the same with Olga.  After Lensky realized that Olga was innocent (or at least appeared innocent) in the seduction, his anger and resentment faded and there was a regret about his decision.  Onegin also mentally repented of his callous actions of the night before, yet even so, his pride demanded that he continue on the calamitous course that was set by Lensky’s youthful zeal.  The lack of maturity in both males characters lead to serious consequences.

Reactions or predictions?

I was a little puzzled during the duel scene.  My translation says:

“With quiet, firm and measured tread,
Not aiming yet, the foes took boldly
The first four steps that lay ahead —
Four fateful steps.  The space decreasing,
Onegin then, while still not ceasing
His slow advance, was first to raise
His pistols with a level gaze.
Five pace more, while Lensky waited
To close one eye, and only then,
To take his aim …… And that was when
Onegin fired ……”

They started off pacing boldly and equally, yet Onegin was the first to raise his pistol. And then there were five paces after that.  Why did Onegin have his pistol ready at four paces and Lensky had to still raise his after nine?  Was it a sign of Lensky’s ineptness with duelling?  In any case, I found it confusing and a little awkward.  I wonder if it’s just my translation.  Can anyone enlighten me?  Are there any duelling enthusiasts out there? 😉

Any quotes stand out?

He could have shown some spark of feeling
Instead of bristling like a beast;
He should have spoken words of healing,
Disarmed youth’s heart …… or tried at least.
‘Too late,’ he thought, ‘the moment’s wasted …..

It’s like a Greek chorus singing the upcoming tragedy.

Eugene Onegin Read-Along – Chapters 3 and 4

Chapters 3 & 4

Chapter 3

Lensky takes Onegin to meet his beloved Olga, and Onegin voices his preference for Tatyana, complaining of Olga’s dullness.  The neighbourhood gossip, combined with Tatyana’s dreamy idealistic yearning, provides a spark to ignite her infatuation with Onegin.

“Tatyana listened with vexation 
To all this gossip; but it’s true
That with a secret exultation,
Despite herself she wondered too;
And in her heart the thought was planted …..
Until at last her fate was granted:
She fell in love.  For thus indeed 
Does spring awake the buried seed.
Long since her keen imagination,
With tenderness and pain imbued,
Had hungereed for the fatal food;
Long since her heart’s sweet agitation
Had choked her maiden breast too much:
Her soul awaited ….. someone’s touch.”

Retreating to reading books filled with dramatic love, Tatyana pines away for her unaware lover until, in the throes of passionate frustration, the innocent young girl decides to write a letter.  The narrator digresses briefly to comment on how the flexibility of Russian in writing has been lost with the trend of communicating in French.  How does this relate to the story?  Well, let’s wait and see.  Tatyana paints her letter with great emotions coursing through her, begging Onegin to relieve her romantic sufferings with an indication of his feelings.  When he arrives at the Larin estate, she attempts to hide in the garden but Onegin waits for her.  There is a confrontation BUT …… bless Pushkin, as he chooses at this point to play with the reader, stating he is too tired to go on and will tell us what happened later.  Cheeky guy!

A Sketch by Pushkin of himself and Eugene Onegin
lounging in St. Petersburg
(source Wikipedia)

Chapter 4

Onegin is very candid with his feelings, telling Tatyana that even if he loved her now, he would make her quite miserable later and bring her great grief.  He shows a surprising understanding of both their natures.  In spite of his cynicism, he has great depth of human understanding.  The neighbourhood is unhappy with his treatment of her and then Pushkin leaps off into a rollicking discursion on friends who abuse us and how one should trust oneself, the truest companion.  Tatyana descends deeper into apathy upon her disappointment.  We further learn how ga-ga Lensky is over Olga and the narrator sets up a mock debate with himself over poetic forms which mirror the arguements between the archaists and the modernists of his time (at least I think that’s what he’s doing).  Tatyana’s name day party approaches and Onegin is invited.  Curiously, he agrees to go.  Oh, what mischief will he get up to?  Why does he agree to further expose himself to Tatyana after his refusal of her love?  Does he care so little about her feelings?  Does he dare the neighbours’ disapproval?  Or is there another reason?

In these sections, I was struck by Onegin’s almost tender treatment of Tatyana.  His response was very gentlemanly and he appeared to have an honest regard for her feelings.  He exhibits similar consideration towards Lensky when he controls his cynicism and does not tarnish his innocent, romantic view of the world.

Something that also comes to mind is the comparison I have heard of between Onegin and Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice.  What????  I still don’t see it ……. but I will keep an open mind …….

Eugene Onegin Read Along – Chapters 1 & 2

This is my second reading in two months of Eugene Onegin, this time for Marian’s Read Along at Tanglewood.  For the read-along, I am reading the James Falen translation (the first time I read the Charles Johnston translation) and I really wish I had read this one first.  It is more readable and clear, its simplicity charming for an initial introduction to Onegin.

First impressions of Onegin?

The shallowness of Onegin is even more apparent the second time round.  He enjoys his rounds of the parties and, of course, his pursuit of women:

“I have no leisure for retailing
The sum of all our hero’s parts,
But where his genius proved unfailing
The thing he’d learned above all arts,
What from his prime had been his pleasure,
His only torment, toil, and treasure,
What occupied, the livelong day,
His languid spirit’s fretful play
Was love itself, the art of ardour …….”

Sadly though, in spite of his incessant pursuit of pleasure, its golden sheen soon begins to tarnish and Onegin not only gets bored, but completely disgusted with his manner of living:

“We still, alas, cannot forestall it —-
This dreadful ailment’s heavy toll;
The spleen is what the English call it,
We call it simply Russian soul ……”

I really enjoyed the description of his friendship with Lensky.  They appear complete opposites yet they are drawn together.  Does Onegin see his younger self in Lensky?  He observes him with an almost teasingly sceptical eye, a patient condescension.

In spite of the flawed nature of Onegin’s character, Pushkin presents him in a playful manner and you can’t help but feel he would be an interesting companion.  However, even when he tires of his pleasure-seeking ways, he still cannot seem to find this soul, in spite of a cursory search through books, endeavouring to “make his thoughts the thoughts of others.”  Interestingly, Pushkin turns this perception on its head stating:  “He who has lived as a thinking being Within his soul must hold men small; …..,” as if Onegin thinks he is too great — his mind or stature — to be fully appreciated by ordinary men.

Alexandrinsky Theater, St. Petersburg
photo courtesy of Edmund Gall (sourced Flickr)
Creative Commons License

What do you make of the narrator’s commentary?

I’ve always found that the commentary sounds almost split.  It’s as if Puskin is speaking, yet also another, perhaps wiser, soul.  You sense a playful teasing tone at some times and a more mature introspection at others.  It’s something I’m trying to make note of and examine as I read.

Thoughts on the characters sketched out in Chapter 2?

I really enjoyed meeting Lensky in this translation.  His youthful joie-de-vivre and idealism really shine through.  Strangely, I think he made me like Onegin even more.  Perhaps it was due to Onegin’s restraint towards him.  He did not attempt to destroy Lensky’s untarnished view of life, which was certainly a possibility as it would have given Onegin something to do.

As for Tatyana, so far she appears to be a sheltered country girl, who lives in her books.  She has too much idle time on her hands and the time she spends staring out the window only seems to serve to increase her illusions.  I found it perhaps telling that, in my translation, it says that she never learned to show affection.  I wonder if this will be pertinent in an occurrence coming up in the poem??

Olga, Tatyana’s sister, seems quite one-dimensional but perhaps this is deliberately done, since the spotlight is not meant to shine upon her.

While I prefer the Falen translation over the Johnston translation, I bought it on my Kindle and the fact that it contains no stops between chapters is driving me nuts.  A small price to pay for increased enlightenment, I guess.  😉

Eugene Onegin Read-Along

Marian at Tanglewood is having a Eugene Onegin Read-Along for 5 weeks beginning January 7, 2014.  Pushkin was seen as setting the foundation for Russian literature so if you are looking for an introduction, this work is a wonderful place to start.

Here is the schedule:

Ch. 1 & 2 – January 7 to 16
Ch. 3 & 4 – January 16 to 25
Ch. 5 & 6 – January 25 – February 3
Ch. 7 & 8 – February 3 to 12

She has decided to allow 1 1/2 weeks per every two chapters, which seems like a decent balance between going at a regular clip and dragging on too long.

Please see the Tanglewood blog for further instructions and also a lovely calendar for a visual schedule of the read.

Since I just finished reading Eugene Onegin, I am very excited to be participating in the discussion of Pushkin’s “untranslatable” poem.  Thanks for organizing the read, Marian!

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

“My uncle – high ideals inspire him;
but when past joking he fell sick,,
he really forced one to admire him –
and never played a shrewder trick.”

Eugene Onegin is a fun-loving, rakish young man who lives carelessly among fashionable society and cares nothing for any of the responsibilities of life.  Yet soon his wild living becomes stale and, desperately bored, he moves to an estate in the country inherited from his uncle, to recapture the zest in life.  Onegin’s lack of growth and a stable character causes him to return to his constant feelings of ennui and he passes his days in careless endeavours.  Enter, Tatyana, a sheltered girl who falls passionately in love with Onegin.  Finally, amid her torments of love, she composes a letter to Onegin, confessing her devotion.  Giving her a surprisingly gentlemanly refusal, he then, on a whim, proceeds to seduce his friend, Vladimir Lensky’s, future wife, Olga, who is the sister of Tatyana.  Lensky, in a fit of poetic rage, challenges Onegin to a duel, where Lensky is shot through the heart.  A number of years later, Onegin spies a married Tatyana at a party and is immediately drawn to her.  He pursues her to the point of exhaustion and finally writes her a letter acknowledging his love and eternal devotion.  Tatyana, in spite of still harbouring tender feelings for Onegin, spurns him from the outset, and eventually declares that she would never be unfaithful to her husband.  Because Onegin has never made any effort to develop into anything other than an empty man, he is left with a bleak future ahead of him.

I’ve hear it mentioned that Tatyana is the true hero of this novel, and her strength and effect is certainly evident.  While she shows a naivety and a juvenile infatuation with Eugene when she first meets him, years later when they meet again, she exhibits the poise and maturity of a sophisticated and experienced young woman.  In the magnificent finale, she admits her love for him but says, “… but I’ve become another’s wife — and I’ll be true to him for life.”   Onegin has spent his whole life blowing around like a leaf in the wind, consumed by ennui, driven by precipitate decisions and self-absorption, while Tatyana grows and blossoms into a strong woman with firm convictions.  She became a truly admirable character.

One wonders at the commonalities between this work and Pushkin’s life story.  Pushkin, himself, was no stranger to duelling.  He was involved in many contests before being killed in a duel while defending his wife’s honour, echoing his poet Lensky’s fate in an ironic prophesy. And, of course, there was the question of Pushkin’s wife being unfaithful, as Olga was untrue to Lensky, which one can also contrast with Tatyana remaining true to her vows of marriage at the end of the tale.

In one way, the poem is an eerie premonition of future events, while on the surface it takes many forms; playful, romantic, humorous, mocking, tragic.  It’s a tribute to Pushkin’s genius that he was able to artfully blend a myriad of themes and emotions into a introspective classic that examines the human condition and began a Russian literary tradition.

(translated by Sir Charles Johnston)