August is traditionally women-in-translation month in the world of book-blogging and book-twitter. My blog is dedicated to the predominantly male world of 19th century Russian literature, but nowadays there are many great and interesting female writers out there, so why not digress a bit?
Let’s start with Lyudmila Ulitskaya. I once saw her at the Helsinki book fair, where she was so popular that the auditorium where she was speaking was literally filled to the brim with people eager to see her. I loved her novel The Kukotsky Enigma (Казус Кукоцкого) about a gynaecologist with a special gift who marries one of his patients, set against the background of communist Russia. Ulitskaya’s characters are people you know and care about from the first page on which they are introduced. And most importantly: her work has that special quality that so much of the best Russian literature has: it’s life-affirming.
Another Moscow based author is Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. She too focuses on family life in Soviet times. The recurring themes in her work are poverty, abuse, envy, alcoholism, unhappy love and unfulfilled ambitions. Although this may be something that many women in the former Soviet Union struggled with, her stories are surprisingly free from politics; the enemy is not the state, but the daughter-in-law who is after your apartment. Her stories may be dark, but so is her sense of humor. They always have a surprising ending that leaves you something to think and laugh about.
Then we have the stories of Tatyana Tolstaya, the granddaughter of the writer Aleksey Tolstoy and a distant relative of Lev Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev. Being born into such a family she had big shoes to fill, and she pulls it off very well. She definitely has her own distinct voice. Her stories start off perfectly normal, but at some point they turn into something impossible. One of the story collections is called Aetherial Worlds and that sums up her work pretty well: unearthly. I have a copy of her (only) novel The Slynx still waiting for me.
Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha (Зулейха́ открыва́ет глаза́), translated by Lisa Hayden, is set in Tatarstan. Zuleikha is a young Tatar woman who is sent to Siberia during the dekulakization. In Siberia she is forced to built a new life, literally from scratch, and there she discovers her own strengths and talents. Yakhina based the story on the experiences of her own grandmother and on eye-witness accounts from other dekulakization survivors. This intricate novel is a real page-turner; there are frequent cliff-hangers which leave the reader in suspense for whole chapters.
Now we move to the Caucasus, starting with Banine’s wonderful memoire Days in the Caucasus. Banine paints a colourful and delightful picture of her childhood in Baku (Azerbaijan) and the family’s summer house by the sea, set at the beginning of the 20th century. Her enormous (her words) grandmother is the head of the family, and besides praying five times a day, she loves to gossip, play poker and swears like a sailor. I hope that the wonderful Pushkin Press will also publish the sequel, Days in Paris.
A tiny and remote village in the mountains of Armenia is the setting for Narine Abgaryan’s Three Apples Fell from the Sky, another translation by Lisa Hayden. The village is so remote that even goats find the path leading to the village scary. The villagers live in their tiny world, unaffected by modern technology. The passage of time is noted by the seasons and just like in ancient times each villager has a particular trade, so that they can get by without needing the rest of the world, simply referred to as ‘the valley’ or ‘the North’, too much. This idyllic place is, however, plagued by all kinds of disasters. Abgaryan’s enchanting and charming book will keep you guessing until the last page.
Finally Nino Haratischvili, who gave us more than 900 pages to read with The Eighth Life, translated from German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin. Nino Haratischvili was born in Tbilisi in 1983 and moved to Germany in 2003. She clearly is a born storyteller and her pleasure in writing and love for Georgia shine through on every page. The Eighth Life tells the (his)story of the Jashi family through six generations of women, spanning about 100 years from the beginning of the 19th to the beginning of the 20th century.
The world is tough, but so are you!
A common thread seems to be a need to go back to the Soviet era and somehow validate the suffering experienced by the authors themselves and/or their ancestors. Not in the raw manner of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, but much more relatable, and always with at least a glimmer of hope on the horizon.
What were your highlights and discoveries this women-in-translation month?
By the way, I made a more extensive series for #WITMonth on my Instagram @arussianaffairig
Once again I’ve joined forces with Rebecca Budd from Tea, Toast and Trivia, and we’ve recorded a final podcast about Pushkin and Eugene Onegin. Many thanks to Rebecca and her husband Don for giving me the opportunity to discuss one of my favourite subjects!
Welcome to Tea, Toast and Trivia. Thank you for listening in. “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.” Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin Elisabeth Van Der Meer from the extraordinary blog, A Russian Affair, has once again joined […]
There are several memorable dogs in Russian literature, and it’s about time that they get the attention they deserve on this blog! Let’s take a look at four famous examples.
Tolstoy’s extraordinary psychological insights apply to dogs as well as humans; take for instance Laska from Anna Karenina. She is an enthusiastic, experienced and dedicated hunting dog. As soon as she notices that her owner Levin is planning to go hunting, she gets all excited with impatience. During the hunt she senses exactly how things are going. If her owner is unlucky, she doesn’t want to show her lack of faith in him and even though she does not believe that he really has shot a snipe, she still pretends to search it (part 6, c10). And although her sense of smell is infinitely better than Levin’s, and she is on the trail of some game, she does follow his orders to go and look somewhere else, just to please him, and thinking to herself “Well, if that’s what he wishes, I’ll do it, but I can’t answer for myself now” (part 6, c12). Who could wish for a better dog?
Chestnut Girl in the story of the same name, that is told completely from the dog’s perspective, is a nervous, dumb and endearing little dog. She lives with a furniture maker who is always drunk and does not look after her very well. One night she loses her owner and is taken home by a clown who has a circus act with animals. Her new owner treats her very well and calls her Auntie. At first she is very confused, especially by her new housemates; a cat and a goose. But she soon forgets all about her old home. One evening the clown takes her along to perform in his act, and it just so happens that the furniture maker is in the audience. He recognises her, calls her and in an act of panic and confusion she jumps off the stage and runs back to her old life. “And you, Chestnut Girl, you’m like a joiner ‘longside a cabinet-maker…” says the furniture maker on the way home.
Bulgakov gave us Sharik (A Dog’s Heart). A common street dog with a common name. He too is found outside in the cold one day and taken home. In this case by a very prestigious doctor, who thanks to his prestigious clients still lives in relative luxury after the Russian revolution. Sharik has no trouble at all adjusting to his new life, although he does have something against the doctor’s stuffed owl. But… the doctor uses him in a medical experiment. He implants the pituitary gland and testicles of a criminal in the dog. Slowly but surely Sharik changes into a man, or rather a scoundrel, and soon the doctor’s orderly household is turned completely upside-down, not to mention flooded with water. Sharik becomes Poligraf Poligrafovich Sharikov, has all kinds of pretensions and turns against the doctor.
In the story The Dog the narrator’s life is also disturbed by a sinister dog. One night the narrator clearly hears a dog rummaging around in his bedroom. But when he lights the candle no dog can be found. This goes on for six weeks; as soon as he blows out the candle, the dog sounds can be heard. He is advised to consult a ‘seer,’ who tells him to buy a puppy at the market and keep it with him at all times. The sounds should stop and the dog will be useful to him in another way too. The narrator does as instructed, and the nightly sounds stop. The puppy grows into a big dog and one day when visiting a neighbour, the narrator is attacked by a large, monstrous and rabid dog. The narrator is saved by his dog Tresor and the monster dog disappears. Later the monster dog reappears and attacks the narrator again, and again Tresor saves him, but this time Tresor does not survive.
A dog’s life
Four completely different dogs, each memorable in its own right. For Turgenev and Tolstoy the dog was something between a human and an animal. Laska is not only a good hunting dog, she also understands Levin better than he understands himself and she is always there for him when he needs her, whether out hunting or when he comes home a bit depressed. The Dog is one of Turgenev’s ghost stories, following the pattern of a traditional fairy tale. Turgenev was not superstitious and did not believe in ghosts, but he did have a fascination for such things. Dogs feature in many of Turgenev’s works, the most memorable being Mumu. Chestnut Girl may not be very smart, but she makes up for that with her faithful and endearing nature. She follows the ‘better the devil you know’ principle and happily goes back to her old owner. Sharik is a parody of the New Soviet Man and the illusion that the revolution could change the people.
Gogol fun facts
Sharik’s new name Poligraf Poligrafovich brings to mind the name of the protagonist in The Overcoat, Akaky Akakievich. This repetition of names, although not uncommon (as in Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin), has a comical effect when the names used are unusual, as in this case. And speaking of The Overcoat; in the Russian original the narrator in The Dog buys the puppy from an ‘overcoat’, a ‘шинель’, using the word ‘overcoat’ to indicate a person in an overcoat.
For non-Russian literary dogs I recommend Dave Astor’s blog post on this subject, which is also where I got the idea for this post.
Feel free to add your own favourites in the comments 🐶
I saw the inside and out book tag this morning on Karen Langley’s blog (who got it in turn from another blog and so on) and thought it was great fun. It’s always interesting to read about other people’s bookish habits, so I thought I’d share mine as well. Although my blog focuses only on 19th century Russian literature, my reading and book collecting is certainly not restricted to that area. I’m a real bibliophile with a soft spot for pretty vintage and beautiful new editions. Let’s get started!
1. Inside flap/back of the book summaries: Too much info? Or not enough?
Ideally they should provide a bit of tantalising information about the book and the writer, so that when browsing in a bookstore (always a pleasure), you’ll know if it’s something for you and be tempted to buy and read it.
Some publishers, however, think that it helps to put as many positive reviews of the book as they can find on the cover, back and flap. The fact that the literary critic from The Guardian liked it does not guarantee that I will too. And who even cares that the local weekly newspaper of Tollerton thought it to be ‘atmospheric and mesmerising’? I’d much sooner take the advice of bloggers and twitterers that I know to have a similar taste in books.
2. New book: What form do you want it in? Be honest: Audiobook, eBook, Paperback or Hardcover?
I much prefer paper books and have a preference for hardcover, especially if it is a book that I know I will keep forever and so is worthy of the investment.
For the purpose of my blog I do have eBook versions of books like War and Peace, because it’s much easier to search for certain passages or characters. I also listen to audiobooks sometimes when I’m out walking or doing chores. They make a nice alternative to podcasts and if the narrator is good, they can be great fun to listen to.
3. Scribble while you read? Do you like to write in your books; take notes, make comments, or do you keep your books clean, clean, clean?
Not in fiction, I use post-its or an eBook. But in the non-fiction books that I use for my blog research I’ll happily scribble away with my pencil. On the other hand I do not fold pages, nor the whole book, and I avoid putting it down upside down to keep it open on the page where I was. I also remove the paper covers from hardcopies before reading, so that they stay nice (although part 6 of Tolstoy’s collected works has travelled a lot with me, paper cover and all, but I suppose an obviously well read book also has its’ charms 😉)
4. Does it matter to you whether the author is male or female when you’re deciding on a book? What if you’re unsure of the author’s gender?
Not at all. All I want is a good, interesting and entertaining story, and men are as good or bad as women at providing that.
5. Ever read ahead? Or have you ever read the last page way before you got there?
Only when I was little!
6. Organized bookshelves or outrageous bookshelves?
Very organised. My shelves are categorised by country and genre, and placed in alphabetical order (by author, of course!). I do, however, put biographies next to the author. So Rosamund Bartlett’s Tolstoy is next to Tolstoy’s fiction. But general books about Russia(n literature) have their own shelf space.
We are in need of a few extra meters of shelf space though, there are piles of books everywhere in our house, both of the read and to-be-read variety. That said, I have no problems with selling or donating books that I know I will not read again.
7. Have you ever bought a book based on the cover (alone)?
Plenty of times! This cannot be avoided, I love books and if I find a pretty copy of a book that I already own, I’m often tempted enough to buy it. It runs in the family…
8. Take it outside to read, or stay in?
I can read anywhere. I love to relax by the lake or the sea with a book. Airplanes are never boarded without a book. But I mostly read in bed while my man is snoring next to me with his sleeping mask on because the light is still on 😄😴
That’s it! Of course I’d love to hear more about your bookish habits too. Take care and happy reading 📚
This is already the last part of the Eugene Onegin challenge. What a journey it has turned out to be! A lot has happened in the world since I started this challenge five months ago, and I hope that it has been a welcome form of distraction for you. It certainly was for me!
Now that we have discussed each chapter separately, it’s time to take a look at the novel as a whole and draw some conclusions.
First of all the structure; within this seemingly effortless product of his quill, Pushkin has woven an extremely clever web of symmetries, overlapping themes, links and parallels, down to the smallest details. Especially if we take into consideration the fact that when Pushkin started to write the novel in 1823 he had no idea how it would end in 1831. Also he originally intended it to have nine or ten chapters, which at the last moment he changed into eight chapters. The plot symmetrical, Tatyana falls in love with Eugene and is rejected and later Eugene falls in love with Tatyana and is rejected. Each chapter ends with the same theme with which the previous chapter ended, and chapter 8 ends with the same Saint Petersburg theme with which chapter 1 started. The exact middle of the novel (5:5:6) reads ‘All objects either scared or charmed her, with secret meanings they’d impart’ – right in the middle of the Russian countryside, celebrating the svyatki and far away from the Saint Petersburg society. All this gives the novel a perfectly balanced feeling, it all seems to be just right. And then there is the Onegin sonnet and Pushkin’s plain and clear use of language.
Onegin’s demonic side really shows when he is placed opposite the naive Lensky. It’s almost as if he cannot bear Lensky’s optimism. The revenge he takes on Lensky when it turns out that the name-day party is much bigger than promised is out of proportion. But Lensky’s reaction is even more out of proportion; even when it turns out that Olga is completely innocent, he lets the duel take place, with fatal consequences for him. Tatyana’s novels lead her to believe that Onegin is her perfect hero, but his novels show her that he is a fake hero. In spite of this discovery she continues to have feelings for him. She gives in to her mother’s wishes and the conventions of society and marries another man, but perhaps she also knew that a relationship with Onegin would ultimately lead to her downfall. Her husband sees her potential and appears to be worthy of her. The fact that Onegin does turn out to be capable of feelings after all and falls in love with Tatyana (the real one, because he pictures her in front of the window) is too little too late. His clumsy and inappropriate efforts to seduce her, emphasise his egotistical character once more. It’s ironic that in chapter 1 he has no trouble seducing married women, but in chapter 8 he cannot seduce the one married woman he actually loves.
Pushkin often writes ‘my Onegin,’ ‘my Tatyana,’ ‘my Lensky,’ ‘my reader’ and ‘my muse’. This implicates that the novel and its characters came from within Pushkin himself. Well, obviously, he wrote it all, but still it indicates how just connected he felt to each of them.
The Lensky in Pushkin
Lensky is a stylised young version of the poet Pushkin: full of poetic ideals, but hardly original. This is the poet before he was confronted with the realities of life and was visited by the demon. Lensky’s death is the result of a lack of potential as poet and his failure to recognise Onegin as a demon. By killing Lensky Pushkin has closed the youthful chapter of his life in a rather rigorous manner.
The Onegin in Pushkin
Onegin symbolises the bubbling society life in Saint Petersburg, from which Pushkin at the time when he started writing Eugene Onegin was excluded due to his banishment from the capital. If Pushkin had not been exiled and suffering from a case of severe ‘fomo’ while he was living in Moldavia, Eugene Onegin would most likely not have seen the light of day!
The Tatyana in Pushkin
We can recognise a lot of Pushkin in Tatyana: her passion for reading and nature, her longing for passionate love, het misunderstood feelings, but also her authentic ‘Russianness’, expressed in her love for the Russian traditions of story and fortune telling, combined with interest in Western culture, expressed in her foreign novels. Just like Pushkin and his muse, or even as his muse, she is capable of adjusting herself to her surroundings and triumph. The fact that she is the only character that he does not mock shows just how dear she was to him.
Byron has been an enormous source of inspiration for Pushkin. Onegin is the Russian version of the Byronic hero. He is rich, intelligent, well educated, but also maladjusted, egoistic and indifferent. No matter where he is or what he does, nothing can hold his interest. His life lacks a goal or purpose, hence the term ‘superfluous man’ (лишний человек), used in Russian literature.
The Muse and the Demon
Pushkin places his muse on a pedestal. He celebrates her in the first seven stanzas of chapter 8. Her development is completely synchronised with Pushkin’s development as a poet. She first comes to him when he is a student, together they have their first literary successes. She accompanies him to the South, where she runs ‘wild’. At Mikhailovskoye she turns into Tatyana. Back in Saint Petersburg she holds herself very well amidst the glitter and glamour, just like Tatyana. Her opposite is the demon who tries to unbalance the poet with his mockery and cynicism. As we saw in the previous post Onegin personifies the demon.
Pushkin has assigned himself an important part in Eugene Onegin as a very present narrator. He draws the reader into the story by directly addressing him, as if he is a friend writing you a letter. This creates an intimate setting and leads you to believe that you are hearing the story from a first hand witness. By treating the reader as his equal and simply telling the story ‘as it happened,’ the reader is free to draw his own conclusions.
Fact or Fiction?
The light tone, simple plot and poetic structure allow Pushkin to frequently lose himself in digressions. They make up one third of the novel! The details and people he talks about are mostly real. Often it’s obvious, but it can be difficult for the reader to distinguish between fact and fiction, especially so for the modern reader. Pushkin happily places the very real Zhukovsky next to the fictitious Tatyana at the table. Even his characters sometimes struggle between fiction and reality; both Tatyana and Onegin mirror themselves on the novels they read, with disastrous consequences! That even Pushkin himself was surprised by the development of one of his characters was evident from one of his letters: “My Tatyana has gone and got herself married! I should never have thought it of her!”
The importance of Tatyana’s dream
Tatyana enthusiastically throws herself into the svyatki rituals in chapter 5. There is a small contradiction here, as we know that she is not interested in marriage, and all the rituals are aimed at finding out more about your future husband. Although he himself was very superstitious, Pushkin mocks these ancient traditions. Nonetheless he lets the predictions come true: both sisters marry a military man (5:4) and Tatyana will become rich (5:8). In her prophetic dream Tatyana first sees the demonic side of Onegin and she also foresees him killing Lensky. And who knows, perhaps the name of her husband really is Agafon. Pushkin leaves us guessing. The episode gives the novel an authentic Russian feel, and emphasises Tatyana’s Russianness. And it turns out that there is more truth and wisdom in the ancient traditions than in those foreign novels.
Pushkin has used a mere 35000 words to write Eugene Onegin. He has inspired me to write a good 10000 words about Eugene Onegin. And then there’s Nabokov, who managed to fill more than a thousand pages dedicated to Eugene Onegin. And still it seems hard to really do justice to this wonderful and timeless classic. In spite of the sad turns of the plot, the overall atmosphere remains light and entertaining. Pushkin never forces his judgement upon the characters and leaves the reader room to form their own. Onegin can be seen as a fop who carelessly kills his friend and preaches the innocent Tatyana about love, only to later try to seduce her when she is married. But he can also be seen as a tragic hero, the sad product of an era, who has to live with the consequences of his actions forever. There are undoubtedly as many interpretations as readers, and also as many interpretations as readings.
An encyclopedia of Pushkin’s brain
The Russian literary critic Belinsky (1811-1848) called Eugene Onegin ‘an encyclopedia of Russian life.’ Thanks to Pushkin’s frequent digressions we have no doubt learned a lot about life in Russia at the beginning of the nineteenth century. But to me Eugene Onegin seems most of all an encyclopedia of Pushkin’s brain. He has given us everything he had: Greek mythology, Latin poets, western literature, Russian folklore, dreams, reality, human nature, psychological insights, superstition, satire, humor and the glitter and glamour in Saint Petersburg. It all came together in Eugene Onegin and formed a fascinating, sparkling and enchanting novel in verse.
As always I would love to hear from you in the comments, even those of you who came across this challenge at a later point. I am left with one burning question that I have not yet been able to answer: what does it mean that Onegin calls Tatyana ‘mine’ in her dream, when at that point he does not want her? Do let me know your thoughts about this.
I used the following (reference) works for this blog series:
Eugene Onegin in translations by James Falen, Roger Clarke and Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov’s Commentary on Eugene Onegin
Pushkin’s Tatiana – Olga Peters Hasty
An illustrated and annotated Russian edition of Eugene Onegin
Through the magic crystal to Eugene Onegin – Leslie O’Bell
The author – narrator’s stance in Onegin – J.Thomas Shaw
The muse and the demon in the poetry of Pushkin, Lermontov and Blok – Pamela Davidson
An extra blog post in which I explore the relation between Pushkin’s well known poem A Demon and his masterpiece Eugene Onegin.
I originally intended to save A Demon and its relevance for Eugene Onegin for the conclusion of this series, but it turned out that there was so much to tell and philosophise about, that I felt it deserved a separate blog post.
The poem A Demon
The poem was written in the autumn of 1823, a few months after Pushkin had started to write in Eugene Onegin. In chapter 8 the relevance of the poem becomes clear, as the first four words of chapter 8 are exactly the same as the first four words of A Demon: ‘В те дни, когда’, ‘in days when’ in the Falen translation, literally ‘in those days when’. In stanza 12 Pushkin makes a direct reference to the poem and links Onegin to the demon: ‘or even Demon of my pen’ followed in the next line with ‘Eugene, (to speak of him again)’.
In the poem a still young, pure and idealistic poet (Pushkin) is visited by a demon. This demon mocks all the pure and beautiful things that inspire the poet and causes him to doubt his talents. He personifies that little voice in your head that tells you that you’re not nearly as good at something as so and so, so why should you even start to write, study, do anything? He’s the main cause of your procrastination habits and writer’s block. The demon stands opposite the muse, the bringer of inspiration and motivation. Luckily for us Pushkin overcame his demon and continued to write.
The Poet – Muse – Demon triangle
You could say that Eugene Onegin is an elaboration (or processing) of the poet-muse-demon idea: the poet is the narrator / Pushkin; the muse is the narrator / Pushkin’s muse and Tatyana; and Onegin is the demon.
Pushkin assumes that the reader is familiar with his other work and private life. The hint he gives by starting chapter 8 with the same words as his well known poem, would have been picked up by the reader of that time: the demon (Onegin) will make his appearance. Only this time the four words are followed by the entrance of the muse first and Onegin appears later. Seven beautiful stanzas long praises Pushkin his muse, clear proof that she has conquered over the demon and is now his faithful ally.
Onegin became at some point in his youth bored and disillusioned (1:38) and the narrator, who was then in a similar life phase (1:45) (or possibly even infected by Onegin (1:46)), became friends with him. To escape their daily spleen they are planning to go travelling together. Due to the unexpected death of Onegin’s uncle, the narrator has to go alone. The narrator manages to find inspiration again, but Onegin is soon bored again. Now the naive Lensky becomes his friend. This goes well for a while, but eventually Lensky will bring out the worst in Onegin, which results in him killing Lensky, as foreseen in Tatyana’s dream.
Pushkin created some kind of alter ego with Lensky; a stylised version of his young self, full of poetic ideals, but also a lot of commonplaceness. Even the choice of his muse, Olga, is too predictable: ‘But glance in any novel – you’ll discover her portrait there; it’s charming, true; I liked it once no less than you, but round it boredom seems to hover’ (2:23). Pushkin lets Lensky take all the demon’s (Onegin’s) negative impact and even sacrifices him to the demon.
The naive Lensky fails to see that Onegin is a demon and allows himself to be tricked into jealousy by him. This failure shows his incapability to grow as a poet. In addition to this his choosing Olga as his eternal muse is a sign that he does not really have what it takes. And so he has to die as a young poet.
Onegin does not deserve Tatyana, who is a true and good muse, because he is no poet, and because of his incapability to grow out of this phase of imitation and negativity. Even if he eventually shows some capability of having real feelings for Tatyana, this is too little too late.
The muse, Tatyana, conquers. Onegin is left behind defeated while she leaves the room with her head held high (8:48). And so Pushkin has successfully turned his demon into a muse and a masterpiece was born.
I hope to see you all on Sunday for the grande finale!
I used the following works for this blog post:
Through the magic crystal to Eugene Onegin – Leslie O’Bell
The author – narrator’s stance in Onegin – J.Thomas Shaw
The muse and the demon in the poetry of Pushkin, Lermontov and Blok – Pamela Davidson
At first sight the appendix containing Onegin’s travels seems difficult to place in relation to the eight chapters that make up the novel Eugene Onegin.
The stanzas relating to Onegin’s travels were originally intended to be featured in chapter 8 and the novel was supposed to have nine or ten chapters. Feeling perhaps that they stood out too much from the ‘Russianness’ of the rest of the novel, Pushkin chose to exile them as it were to an appendix instead, rather than leaving them out altogether. This would have caused too large a gap in the story, with Onegin disappearing after the duel and reappearing some years later in Saint Petersburg. Had they been included in the novel, they would of course have mirrored Tatyana’s journey from the countryside to Moscow.
We have already seen that Eugene Onegin is a novel of contrasts, between the city and the countryside for instance. In Onegin’s travels that turns into a contrast between Russia and it’s southern territories, like the Crimea and the Caucasus. When Pushkin started writing Eugene Onegin in 1823 he was in exile (1820-1826) and living in Moldavia. His travels during his exile to the Caucasus and the Crimea had made Pushkin see Russia and his own Russianness in a new light. Not being able to go to Saint Petersburg himself, he imagined his hero Eugene Onegin and his reader there. It is more than likely that our very Saint Petersburg dandy Eugene Onegin would not have seen the light of day if Pushkin had not been exiled!
In a literary sense journeys often indicate personal growth. From some of the original stanzas of this chapter, it would seem that Pushkin did intend to have Onegin come to some insights, and even wanted Eugene to take part in the 1825 Decembrist Revolt. However, all the stanzas that were too political were left out of the final version and we are left with a Eugene who is once again bored (ennui!) So if Eugene has learned anything during his Byronic escape, it may well be that his boredom came from within, and not from his surroundings.
The travels can also be seen as an answer to Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Although Pushkin tells us not to confuse him with Byron, the references to Byron are there throughout the novel. In a draft he called the appendix a “playful parody” of Childe Harold. His playful tone of the first chapters of Eugene Onegin is certainly back. In the 9th stanza the narrator claims to have outgrown his love for exotic romantic landscapes, preferring the Russian countryside instead.
Fiction or reality?
The journey that Onegin makes corresponds mostly with Pushkin’s renewed (voluntary this time!) travels to the south in 1829. He travels from Saint Petersburg to Moscow to Nizhni Novgorod, where the bustling market fails to amuse him. In the Caucasus he is finally impressed by the majestic landscape, but it only seems to emphasize the ‘ennui’ that lies in store for him. In the Crimea the narrator takes over again, reminiscing his youth and taking the reader to Odessa. Sunny Odessa, where many Italians lived, was Pushkin’s answer to Byron’s Italy in Childe Harold.
All in all it remains an odd chapter. It contains some wonderful stanzas, but contributes little to the plot of Eugene Onegin. And although this chapter is called Onegin’s travels, it might just as well have been called Pushkin’s travels. It tells us a lot about how his travels made him grow as a poet. The wildness of the Caucasus particularly would continue to inspire Pushkin throughout his career. Only when seen from a distance could he find a new appreciation for the charms of the Russian big cities and countryside.
In which Eugene falls for Tatyana and she refuses him…
Tatyana is now Princess N.
We left Tatyana in chapter 7 where she had caught the attention of a corpulent general. When we see her next in chapter 8 she is married and goes by the title ‘Princess N’. Instead of a description of the engagement and subsequent marriage, Pushkin talks about his muse, who came to him in different guises at various stages in his life. At the end of stanza 5 we can recognise Tatyana as his muse. Now Pushkin has taken his muse into the salons of the high society in Saint Petersburg, where she holds herself very well indeed.
The lack of information about her engagement and marriage to general N, or even N’s full name (it is not even certain that he is the same as the corpulent general), is congruent with her own lack of interest in such things.
Now we also see Eugene again, in his natural environment this time. He has apparently been traveling* and is now in his late twenties. No, he hasn’t changed, he’s still bored with everything. Until he meets Tatyana again, that is. He can’t believe his eyes when he spots the transformed Tatyana and has to double check with his cousin, who happens to be the general himself, if that perfectly accomplished and composed lady is really the shy girl he used to know.
Whatever Tatyana may be thinking when she meets Eugene again, she shows no sign of it and greets him just like she would any old acquaintance. She has clearly taken the lessons that Eugene preached to her in 4:16:12 to heart. Although Tatyana has nothing fake or feigned about her, we are reminded of the opening of chapter 4: ‘the less we love her when we woo her, the more we draw a woman in’. Only now it’s the other way around; by not showing any interest in Eugene, she makes him fall in love with her.
When all his conventional attempts to woo Tatyana fail, he resorts to writing her a letter. By mirroring Eugene’s letter with Tatyana’s letter from chapter 3, Pushkin emphasises the differences between the two. Eugene’s letter is a strange mixture of reproach (she doesn’t acknowledge his attentions) and commonplace phrases (To swoon and pass away… what rapture!). When she does not reply, he writes another, and another. She continues to ignore him, although she does understandably begin to show signs of annoyance.
Like any self respecting literary hero would, Onegin loses himself all winter long in self pity and depression. When he has grown tired of that too, he hastens along the Neva’s bank to Tatyana’s house. There, as in a fairy tale, door after door opens until he finds himself in Tatyana’s boudoir. This scene echoes both Tanya’s flight into the garden (3:38) and the running away from the bear (5:13). Pushkin uses the same ‘interstrophic enjambment’ technique in stanzas 38-39 of chapter 3 as in stanzas 39-40 of chapter 8: “so fast that, panting, on a bench at last she falls..” and “But where in such a headlong rush has my Eugene directly hastened?” This continuation of one sentence into the next stanza is a literary trick that Pushkin employs to emphasise the parallels between the two scenes.
Tatyana sits not yet fully dressed crying over presumably one of his letters. Onegin kneels in front of her and for a second it looks as if she may give in, but then she resolutely rejects him. Now it’s her turn to teach Eugene a lesson. She explains that she only married because of her mother, that she does not care for all the glitter and glamour that now surrounds her, and that she misses her former beloved country surroundings. She ends her speech with the famous last words ‘but I am now another’s wife, and I’ll be faithful all my life
How are we to understand Tatyana’s words? Is she really unhappy?
She insinuates that she married the first suitor who came along, just to satisfy her mother’s wishes. According to Nabokov’s calculations she is now in her early twenties, and her husband is about 15 years older. Hardly an old man. The marriage has freed her from a mother who does’t understand her. She has a proud and loving husband. As Princess N. she is a respected and wealthy lady. There is nothing that indicates that she is not free to visit her mother whenever she wants, or visit her husband’s country estate if she’s longing for fresh air. She is certainly now able to buy as many books as she likes.
Onegin’s appearance has stirred up her old feelings (the simple girl he’d known before, who’d dreamed and loved, was born once more 41:13) and she is fondly remembering the time when her future was still undecided, when she did not yet know that Eugene was not he she thought he was.
She knows that Onegin’s sudden interest in her has everything to do with her transformation into Princess N. He does not intend now, any more than he did in the past, to marry Tatyana, even if such a thing were possible in 1825. She points out to him that he has had and missed his chance and that it is wrong of him to try to seduce her. When she asks him to leave while admitting that she still loves him, she appears to be talking to the old Eugene. As such we can also interpret her final words as a reminder to herself to move on.
*The stanzas about Onegin’s travels were added to the novel as an appendix by Pushkin.
The majority of chapter 8 was written during the so-called Boldino autumn. A very prolific period in 1830 when Pushkin was quarantined due to a cholera outbreak.
In the original Russian text Tanya wears a ‘raspberry beret’ in stanza 17, which has caused speculations about Prince having read Eugene Onegin.
Stanza 27 originally stated that Eugene was so blinded by the vision of the new Tatyana, that he did not even notice the tsar and tsarina entering the room. Naturally this could never have gotten through the censure.
In a famous and passionate speech about Pushkin, Dostoevsky refers to Tatyana and her famous last words. He saw her as a fine example of the Russian woman, who prefers the simple things in life to wealth and status. She sacrifices her own happiness and is faithful to her husband, even if he is an old man who she cannot possibly love: “No, a pure, Russian soul decides thus: Let me, let me alone be deprived of happiness, even if my happiness be infinitely greater than the unhappiness of this old man. Finally, let no one, not even this old man, know and appreciate my sacrifice: I will not be happy through having ruined another.”
Welcome to Tea, Toast and Trivia. Thank you for listening in. Elisabeth Van Der Meer from the extraordinary blog, A Russian Affair, has once again joined me from Finland, the far distance of 7,514 km from Vancouver. Elisabeth issued “The Eugene Onegin Challenge” which is happening on her blog, A Russian Affair. I have taken […]