The Eugene Onegin Challenge – Chapter 3

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In which Onegin receives a love letter

Elle était fille; elle était amoureuse – a line from a poem by Malfilâtre about the unrequited love of Echo for Narcissus, who is in love with his own reflection.

Tatyana falls in love with Onegin in the summer of 1820. The feelings that up until then she only knows from books, are now becoming her own. And now that we are getting to know her better, we might as well call her ‘Tanya’.

From fiction to reality

Tanya is the only member of her family who reads, and she has to make do with the books that are available to her: French and English romantic novels that were hugely popular in her mother’s youth. Among Tanya’s favourites we find Richardson’s Clarissa (1748), Rousseau’s Julie (1761) and Madame de Staël’s Delphine (1802). All three are sentimental epistolary novels in which the heroine’s passions threaten to destroy her. The modern novels mentioned in stanza 12 are yet unknown to Tanya; she will read them in chapter 7.

We do not know much about the first meeting between Tanya and Onegin, apart from the fact that Onegin mentions to Lenski that he finds Tanya more interesting than Olga. It is definitely not love at first sight for Tanya. If anything it’s almost as if she were talked into the idea. Due to the lack of any real news, Tanya’s country neighbours take to speculations. They even invent wedding plans for Tanya and Eugene. Although she finds the gossip embarrassing, it does make her think of Eugene in a different way…

Tanya, nyanya, Vanya

She falls head over heels in love. One night her feelings become so intense that she can’t contain them any longer (17). She wakes up her nurse (her nyanya) and wants to talk with her about love. The scene is delightful in every possible way: Tanya asks her worried nurse if she was in love when she got married. Her old nurse is taken by surprise by this sudden talk about love and replies that in her days they didn’t even know what love was. When she was 13 the marriage was arranged and her Vanya was even younger than she was. And that was that. 

The letter

Although the nurse is normally the confidante of the infatuated young lady, like Shakespeare’s Juliet, Tanya cannot talk about her passionate feelings to her nurse. But her feelings are so overwhelming that she needs to give expression to them in some way. And so she writes them down in a letter. She writes the letter in the moonlight as if in a trance. For a girl in 1820 it was a risky business to send a love letter to a man she barely knew, and her feelings must have been pretty strong to overcome her rational thinking. Not only does she write the letter, she actually sends it! 

Pushkin assures us from stanza 22 to 31 that Tanya’s letter is original and sincere. Even though Tanya only knows passionate love and its expression from the sentimental novels that she likes to read, her letter shows only minimal signs of that influence. In the letter, that lacks a heading and closure, she writes about hope, torture, fated love, dreams and their first meeting, when she knew he was the one (which we have reason to doubt). Halfway she switches from the formal ‘вы’ to ‘ты’, only to change back again in the last line.

According to the narrator/Pushkin the letter was written in French by Tanya, who like most girls of her class, spoke Russian very well, but felt gramatically more comfortable with French. Moreover her literary examples were also written in French. Pushkin is again blurring the lines between fiction and reality, because the letter never really existed of course. The letter does not follow the strict rhyming scheme of the rest of the novel, a clever trick to make the letter seem like freely written prose. By waiting ten whole stanza’s before showing us the actual letter, the anticipation is built up high.

Nurse, who apparently never experienced passionate love herself, has given all her love to Tanya and her sister. In stanza’s 33-35 she calls Tanya ‘my sweet, pretty one, my little early bird*, my pet, and sweetheart’. Clearly Tanya’s happiness and wellbeing are her main concern**. As she doesn’t understand Tanya’s sudden passionate feelings at all, she also sees no harm in helping to get the love letter from her little early bird delivered to one of the bachelor neighbours, the one with the questionable reputation (2:5).

A reply?

Tanya spends the whole day waiting for a reply that doesn’t come. It turns out that reality is different from the novels, in which there is always a written reply! In the evening Lensky comes to visit. Alone. Suddenly the sound of hoofs*** announces Onegin’s arrival and Tanya flies through the backdoor into the yard like lightning. Her (beautifully described) panicky flight (38) forms a sharp contrast with the calmness with which she wrote the letter. And it definitely forms a parallel with Onegin’s own escape whenever he sees a neighbour coming (2:5:2). Exhausted she sits down on a bench. Somewhere in the garden serf girls are singing a folksong (made up by Pushkin) about temptation, to prevent them from being tempted to eat the raspberries that they are picking. But Tanya is only listening for footsteps… Just as she thinks that the coast is clear, Onegin suddenly arrives. Unfortunately Pushkin is too tired to continue, so we’ll have to wait for chapter 4 to read what happened next.

*Tanya rises when Onegin goes to bed.

**A Russian serf was connected to the same family his or her whole life. The nurse, often a wet-nurse, took a special place in the family. She slept with the smallest children and even after all the children were big, she would continue to live in the house with them. Pushkin was extremely fond of his (actually his sister’s) old nurse.

***Most likely Onegin arrived in his carriage, but most illustrations depict Onegin on horseback. 

*****

Chapter 4 is scheduled for the 12th of April 2020:

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

The Eugene Onegin Challenge – Chapter 2

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In which Lenski and Onegin become friends and we get acquainted with the Larins

A cholera outbreak

Who would have thought that we would find ourselves in 2020 in similar circumstances as Pushkin in 1830, when he was kept at his family estate Boldino for a few month because of a cholera outbreak?! This period is now referred to as the ‘Boldino autumn’, a very fruitful period for Pushkin. He wrote among other things the final chapter of Eugene Onegin there. Pushkin was perhaps a bit unusual in the sense that he was always working on several things simultaneously. He loved the countryside, especially in the autumn. While he wrote to his fiancée Nathalie that he wanted nothing more than to be able to leave and see her again, the truth was that he was quite happy and making good use of his inspiring and quiet surroundings. 

Horace

The Roman poet Horace also enjoyed the countryside. Pushkin starts chapter two with a very short quote from Horace: O rus! The Latin word ‘rus’ means countryside (think of ‘rustic). This quote is immediately followed by Pushkin with ‘O Rus’ (О Русь!), a wordplay, ‘Rus’ being short for Russia. By combining these two exclamations Pushkin sets the reader up for an ode to the Russian countryside. Although according to Nabokov Eugene Onegin is anything but a realistic depiction of life in the Russian countryside;-) We shall stay there from chapter 2 to 7.

Rivers

Onegin’s new residence, that resembles Pushkin’s other family estate Mikhaylovskoye a lot, is standing next to a river (1:7). Rivers appear frequently in Pushkin’s works (which perhaps deserves a separate blog post some day). In chapter 1 (47) Pushkin and Onegin are often found staring at the river Neva during the short midsummer nights. Onegin’s name is derived from a river, the Onega. Following Pushkin, Lermontov named his hero in A Hero of Our Time, Pechorin, also after a river.

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He sang life’s bloom gone pale and sere—

He’d almost reached his eighteenth year.

Lenski

Lenski, who we first meet in chapter 2, is also named after a river, the Lena. Pushkin paints the portrait of a rather typical romantic poet. This dark-haired handsome stranger has just returned from Germany to his family estate which is close to Onegin’s. His poems are filled with all the usual romantic clichés. Nonetheless, Onegin, who does not like any of his new neighbours, takes a liking to the eighteen year old Lenski, and the two become good friends.

The Larins

Through Lenski we are introduced to the Larins. The Larins and the Lenskis are old friends. The fathers had agreed that one day their children would marry. By now both fathers are dead and the agreement is almost forgotten. Again Pushkin uses his sharp wit to describe the members of this family; the father was an old-fashioned man, loved by his neighbours for his generosity. His wife was a still very young and spoiled city girl when they married, who grew into liking being in charge of the household in the countryside. Their youngest daughter Olga was Lenski’s betrothed. A very pretty and skilled girl, but, says Pushkin, glance in any novel— you’ll discover her portrait there (23:8). 

Tatyana

Tatyana, now there’s another story. Olga’s older sister is pale, sad and pensive (25:5). She does not like to play with dolls, but prefers to read and sit silently at the window bay instead. She doesn’t fit in with the rest of her family (25:7 Tatyana seemed among her kin a stranger who had wondered in), just like Onegin doesn’t fit in with his countryside neighbours. Tatyana is a very popular Russian literary heroine that many Russian girls were named after and that many Russian girls identify with. A lot has been written about her. It’s probably because Pushkin is not too specific in describing her, that so many girls can identify themselves with her. 

Chapter 2

Chapter 1 was all about Onegin and the boredom that surrounds him. Chapter 2 has set the scene and introduced the cast. It’s a fine and promising example of Pushkin’s sharp pen and sense of humour. I think we are ready for some action!

*****

The next chapter post is scheduled for Sunday the 29th of March.

 

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

The Eugene Onegin Challenge – Chapter 1

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In which Eugene is bored with his life in the city and escapes to the country

Chapter 1 is all about Eugene Onegin and Pushkin himself. It starts rather vaguely in medias res: we are introduced to our hero as he is rushing towards his dying uncle*. Clearly he is not looking forward to the prospect of having to look after a sick man, but Pushkin keeps us in suspense for the next 50 of the in total 60 stanzas in this chapter, and tells us about the particularities of his life so far instead.

A Typical Day

Apparently he’s a good friend of Pushkin’s. He has had the usual upbringing and education and when he entered society he was an instant success with the ladies. In stanza’s 15 to 36 we can see what a typical winter day in the life of Eugene Onegin in 1819 looked like:  He wakes up in the afternoon, goes walking on the Nevsky Prospekt, has dinner in a fancy restaurant, goes to the ballet, goes back home to change and freshen up and goes to a ball. When he finally returns home again, the city is already waking up.

Boredom

Onegin is living a life of luxury. Everything is of the highest quality: his clothes, his perfume, the food he eats, the wine he drinks**, the ballet he visits. Nonetheless you get the impression that he is terribly bored with this life. The whole chapter reeks of boredom. Everything is repeating itself endlessly. Tomorrow will be the same as today. Eugene attempts to alleviate the boredom. He wants to go traveling with Pushkin, but just then his father dies unexpectedly, leaving behind mostly debts (51). He gives up the inheritance, and almost simultaneously receives a message that his uncle is dying and expecting his sole heir to look after him. And so he is on his way to his uncle’s estate where no doubt even more boredom awaits him.

Landowner   

Eugene arrives in the country and to his relief finds his uncle already dead. He is just in time for the funeral (53). Now he can start a new life as a landowner. “For two full days he was enchanted”, but alas, on the third day he is already bored again… There seems to be no cure for his boredom.

Digressions

Pushkin (or rather the fictional Pushkin) likes to digress***. In between telling us about Onegin, he also tells us about his own life and frequently reminisces about Saint Petersburg, although he admits that he “found it noxious in the north” (2) a reference to his banishment from the capital. Pushkin (the real one) keeps the lines between fiction and reality deliberately vague. The novel is full of people who really existed and real life facts.

The Omitted Stanzas

Perhaps you noticed that Pushkin left out several stanzas (9, 13, 14). It is not entirely clear why he did that. Of some drafts were found, and of others nothing. Because Pushkin did number the omitted stanzas, they remain a part of the novel, and he leaves it up to the reader to fill in the blanks.

Onegin’s Character 

Stanza 45 plays a key part in chapter 1 according to Nabokov: it summarises Onegin’s character and gives the reader a glimpse of what he may expect from Onegin in the future. And things promise to get interesting, because he is described as being dreamy, strange, clever and depressed. Nabokov also remarks that certain words are only used in the novel to refer to Onegin’s character: ‘sullen’, ‘gloomy’, ‘somber’, ‘clouded’ en ‘bemisted’. Apparently this was considered attractive in a man 200 years ago…

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*a reference to the at that time popular epistolary novel ‘Clarissa’ (1748) by Richardson, in which the villain Lovelace has to care for his rich and dying uncle. 

**1:16:8 The comet wine; the year of the great comet 1811 was a particularly good year for wine production. Wine from 1811 had a comet stamped on the cork. This is the same comet that Pierre observes when he is driving home in War and Peace. 

***1:30:10 And yet, how long it took me to forget two special feet… there has been much speculation about who’s feet these were. Most likely they were Maria Nikolayevna Volkonskaya’s (see photo below).

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So what did you think of the first chapter? What was you favourite line?

The next chapter post will go online in two weeks on the 15th of March.

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2020/02/16/the-eugene-onegin-challenge/

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2020/02/23/the-eugene-onegin-challenge-an-introduction-to-the-novel/

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

Special thanks to Markus@POINT BLANK for gifting me the beautiful Russian edition that you see in the photo above!

The Eugene Onegin Challenge – introducing the novel and its heroes

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When was Eugene Onegin written?

Eugene Onegin was written by Pushkin (1799-1837) over the course of eight years. He was banned from St Petersburg in 1820 after some of his verses had offended the tsar. During his six year exile Pushkin travelled to southern Russia, the Caucasus, the Crimea, Moldavia and Odessa. The last two years of his exile he spent at his country estate Mikhaylovskoye. Although Pushkin would probably have preferred not to be exiled, the authorities did world literature a huge favour: away from the distractions of St Petersburg Pushkin could write in peace and the change of scenery proved a huge inspiration for him. Indeed, it seems doubtful that Eugene Onegin (and a lot of other works) would have been completed otherwise. He started writing Eugene Onegin in Moldavia in 1823 and completed the first six chapters in exile. Chapter 7 was written when he returned to St Petersburg and chapter 8 was mostly written when a cholera epidemic kept him in Boldino for a few months in 1830. 

A masterpiece

The novel was published first in separate chapters and in 1833 as a complete novel. It was a huge success and it is considered Pushkin’s masterpiece.

The structure of the novel is incredibly clever: it consists of eight chapters containing in total 366 stanzas*. Each stanza has 14 lines of 8 or 9 syllables that are stressed on the even syllables. The rhyming scheme is ABABEECCIDDIFF. Pushkin thought up this so-called ‘Onegin stanza’ on the 9th of May 1823. There is a remarkable symmetry in the structure and the storyline. You’d think that this is a rather restrictive structure to use for a complete novel, but Pushkin manages wonderfully. Not only that, he makes it seem effortless. The language he uses is clear and simple. The novel is lively and full of humor. And he managed to get it through the strict and restrictive censorship of the time.

An introduction to the characters

According to Nabokov there are six main characters in the novel: the friends Onegin and Lenski; the sisters Tatyana and Olga; and Pushkin himself and his muse. 

Onegin is a young man from St Petersburg. He’s a real dandy, he lives a life of glitter and glamour. He always dresses according to the latest fashion, takes ages to get ready to go out and rushes from dinner to ballet. In his mid twenties he is already bored with life and he is the prototype of the superfluous man (лишний человек)**.

Lenski is an optimistic, contented and dreamy poet who lives happily in the countryside. He is engaged to Olga. Although they are quite different, he and Onegin become friends.

Now Tatyana… she is the perfect literary heroine! She loves to read and ramble around the countryside for hours. She is passionate and pure, and a little pale. Stares out the window a lot.

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Then Olga pushes through the door, more rosy than the dawn before. Was there ever a sister who entered the room more lovely? She is very pretty, social and well mannered, but  alas also a bit superficial.

Pushkin has given himself a part as well. He is not just the narrator, he is also Onegin’s friend. Through this clever trick the lines between fiction and reality become blurred. 

And finally the muse, what’s a poet without a muse? There are countless mythological references, so you may want to keep your Geek mythology copy close by. 

Finally

With this challenge I hope to add something extra to your reading experience that will make it more interesting, intense, attentive, and (even more) enjoyable. I will be eating, dreaming, thinking, hearing Eugene Onegin for the next four months and I can’t wait to find out what the end result will be!

So let’s read the first chapter and I’ll see you next week again for the first chapter post!

*A stanza is a set of four or more lines of a certain length and rhyming scheme.

**A typical character in 19th century Russian literature: a young man unable to reach his full potential. Famous examples are Lermontov’s Pechorin, Tolstoy’s Pierre Bezukhov, and Turgenev’s Bazarov.

*****

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 

Illustration from Wikipedia 

Previous post: https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2020/02/16/the-eugene-onegin-challenge/

The Eugene Onegin Challenge

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I’m challenging you! Not to a duel, no, although it does involve one… I’m challenging you to read Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin with me. Whether you’re a curious first time reader, a longtime lover, or something in between; anyone who is interested is welcome to join.

Now I know that you all have TBR’s that reach the ceiling, not to mention to-do lists as long as the neck of a giraffe, but don’t worry; we’ll do this at a very doable pace. Pushkin deserves more than to be read at a record speed anyway. 

Why?

Eugene Onegin is a ‘novel in verse’, something between a poem and a novel. That, among other things, makes it notoriously difficult to translate. If you translate a poem literally, it probably won’t rhyme. If you make it rhyme, you’ll probably have to adjust the text. I had very high expectations when I first read Eugene Onegin. But although I enjoyed it, I felt that I didn’t quite get it. Looking back that probably had a lot to do with the translation that didn’t do the work justice. Luckily I did not give up on Eugene Onegin. I made attempts at reading it in Russian and tried other translations. And with each read I loved it more.

The plan

The plan is to make ten more posts about Eugene Onegin. In the next one I’ll explain the rhyming scheme, introduce the characters and talk about how and when Pushkin wrote his masterpiece. The following eight posts will be dedicated to the eight chapters of the novel. After each of the eight chapter posts I would love to read your thoughts, insights, questions and feelings in the comment section. In the final blog post I’ll summarise the journey that we took together, exploring this wonderful novel. 

Taking it one chapter at the time allows us to pay attention to details such as the structure, references and characterization that make Eugene Onegin the masterpiece that it is. Your comments will be a valuable addition to the posts.

The details 

I’ll mainly use the James E. Falen translation. I think that it captures the cheerful and witty spirit of Pushkin really well. There is an audiobook version of this translation read by the marvellous Stephen Fry, which can be found on YouTube. I recommend that you use a translation that has plenty of notes. Sunday next week I’ll publish the introduction to Eugene Onegin, and Sunday in two weeks the first chapter post. After that I aim to publish a chapter post every two weeks. At the end of the series you’ll be able to not just say that you’ve read Eugene Onegin (again), but hopefully also that you love it (even more)!

Finally I’d like to emphasise that everyone is welcome to join at any time, and read at his or her own pace. The journey is more important than the destination, so enjoy it!

*****

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Eugene Onegin – Alexander Pushkin, translated by James E. Falen, ISBN 978-0199538645

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 

A visit to the enchanting ballet ‘Onegin’

Amsterdam, March 29th 2017

Onegin

Dutch National Ballet


”I am writing to you… need I say more?

Is there more I can say?

I realize you’re free now

to punish me with your contempt.”

In 1833 Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin was published for the first time. It turned out to be an inexhaustible source of inspiration. In 1879 Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin premiered and in 1965 the ballet Onegin by John Cranko followed.

On March 29th 2017 the opening night of the ballet performed by the Dutch National Ballet took place in Amsterdam, and I had to see it, of course!

The famous choreographer John Cranko first got the idea for the ballet in 1952 when he did the choreography for the dances in the opera Eugene Onegin, but it wasn't until 1965 that he was able to realise his dream, when he was working with the Stuttgart Ballet. And what a delightful ballet it has turned out to be! The tricky relationship between Onegin and Tatyana is wonderfully translated into dance, especially when they dance together in Tatyana’s dream in the second act. The folk dances in the first act are super contagious and a joy for the eye. A real masterwork.

Although the music is from Tchaikovsky, it isn't the same music as in the opera Eugene Onegin. The German composer Kurt Heinz Stolze arranged the musical score from different compositions by Tchaikovsky, glueing them together with leitmotifs. If you didn't know any better you would never suspect that, it was done so skilfully. Tchaikovksy’s music is, as always, magical, dramatic and vivacious.

The story is split into three acts:

In the first act the arrogant and bored St Petersburg dandy Onegin finds himself in the countryside. His friend Lenski introduces him to the sisters Olga and Tatyana. Olga is Lenski’s fiancee. The sweet and dreamy Tatyana falls head over heels for Onegin. She writes him a love letter.

In the second act Onegin tears up the letter. He is not interested in the simple and romantic Tatyana. To annoy Lenski, and a little bit out of boredom too, he tries to seduce Olga instead. Lenski challenges him to a duel and gets killed.

In the third act Onegin meets Tatyana again for the first time in years. Now she is married and the shining star of the St Petersburg society. He falls in love, he regrets the past, writes her a letter.. but now it’s Tatyana’s turn to tear up the letter and so Onegin is punished for his arrogance.

In order for the ballet to work, Pushkin’s story has been shortened and simplified. However, Tchaikovsky’s music and the artistic interpretation of the dancers, who have clearly studied their characters well, add an extra dimension.

The principals of the ballet were Anna Tsygankova as Tatyana, Jozef Varga as Onegin, Qian Liu as Olga en Remi Wörtmeyer as Lenski. I thought Qian Liu was absolutely adorable as Olga, I loved her expression and the apparent effortlessness with which she danced, no flew, across the stage.

The Dutch National Ballet is fantastic, so is the Ballet Orchestra and Onegin is an enchanting night out.

The photos are from bolshoirussia.com.

The fragment is from Tatyana's letter and was translated by Roger Clarke.

http://www.operaballet.nl/en/ballet/2016-2017/show/onegin

Would you like to read more about Pushkin? Click on the 'pushkin' tag below.

 

Typically Pushkin

Pushkin (1799-1837) is the Mozart of the literary world. He is light footed, crystal clear and highly musical. Everything is just as it should be. Even his sporadic imperfections are charming. Pushkin is from the Romantic era, like Byron, Scott and the Russian Lermontov.

Exotic relations

On his father’s side of the family he stems from ancient Russian nobility. His mother’s side of the family is exotic: his great grandfather, an Ethiopian, was given to Peter the Great as a present in 1704. Peter took a liking to the little Abraham, and gave him the patronymic Petrovich, after himself, and a proper military education. Abraham eventually became a general and took on Hannibal as a last name, a definite sign that he was no slave. The Empress Elizabeth gave him a country estate to thank him for his services, Mikhailovskoe. Pushkin would get banned to it at some point in his career. Abraham married a Swedish woman, and that makes Pushkin just as much Swedish as Ethiopian.

Father of Russian literature

Pushkin is generally considered to be the father of Russian literature. He adjusted the archaic Russian language to his own needs and created a modern language, suitable for both modern poetry and prose. With this modernised language he expressed himself in a wide variety of literary genres: stories, drama, narrative poems, poetry, novellas, fairy tales and a novel in verse. The novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, is typical for Pushkin’s innovative style.

Style and works

His stories and novellas are sheer perfection, everything is right: the subject choice, they are light, there is humour and there is mystery. Many Russian writers took them as a starting point for their own writings. As I have written before, that is considered a big compliment in Russian literature. As a result there are numerous stories that are called The Snowstorm, but Pushkin wrote the original. The novellas Queen of Spades and The Captains Daughter are true masterpieces.

His poetry is legendary. He started to write poetry at school, with a preference for patriotic, satirical or amorous subjects. These subjects remained with him throughout his career. Most Russians know at least one of his poems by heart. Pushkin’s own favourite work was Eugene Onegin. A unique work with an innovative rhyme scheme that became known as the Onegin Stanza. It’s a cheery tale, thanks to this rhyme scheme, in spite of the romantic subject. Tatyana is a typical romantic heroine, a pale and dreamy girl, who spends her nights staring out the window at the moon. Onegin is one of those superfluous men, a poet who is bored with life. Pushkin infused the story with a rich humour, folklore and fantasy.

Influences

His work did not only influence other writers, but also numerous composers. Tchaikovsky turned Eugene Onegin into an opera that is, at least in the western world, probably better known than the book. Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov and Rimsky-Korsakov were also inspired by the works of Pushkin.

So who was Pushkin influenced by? His dear old nurse, Arina Rodionovna, apparently. She narrated all the fairy tales and legends she knew to him, and even when he was already grown up, he loved to listen to her (she stayed at Mikhailovskoe until she died). His maternal grandmother, who looked after little Alexander and his sister more than their mother, told him all about the origins of his family and sparked his interest in history.

Translating Pushkin

Because his works are so playful and musical, he is notoriously difficult to translate*. Nabokov wrote two fat volumes about the translation of Eugene Onegin, and still his translation doesn’t work for me. The two volumes themselves are super informative, though.

Debt and exile

Like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Pushkin had to write to pay his debts. The lifestyle that was required of him was more expensive than he could afford. His often razor sharp pen earned him a couple of banishments.

In short

It’s not difficult to recognise Pushkin, like Mozart he has a unique style. Seemingly effortless, fluent and happy. He likes to converse with his reader too. Because he was not a Realist like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, there are no moral issues that he wants to force upon his reader. Almost two centuries later his work does not appear outdated in the least. You can pick up any of his works at any time of the day and enjoy it like listening to Mozart, or a fantastic wine. So lean back in a comfortable chair and enjoy, perhaps even all three simultaneously.

 

Booklist:

Pushkin by T.J. Binyon

Photos © by me, the illustrations are from a old book that I picked up at a book market.

*Before you buy, it’s probably wise to read the first page to see if the translation works for you. In English I really like Roger Clarke, he seems to hit the right balance and gets the right feeling across. His comments and notes are also very entertaining.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=0hOT2QtLhhk

*******

 

Pushkin’s Own Duel

Imagine that you’ve shot dead,
a young friend of your own,
because after a drink he offended you
with an impudent look or remark
or in some other trifling way –
or perhaps, his own honour slighted, in a blaze of anger
he challenged you to a duel.
Just imagine him lying on the ground before you
motionless, death spelt out on his brow,
his body slowly rigidifying:
desperately though you call him
he neither hears nor answers…
Tell me: what feeling now
will overwhelm your heart?

On January the 27th of 1837 somewhere in a field close to Saint Petersburg, two shots were fired. The first by Georges d’Anthès, the second by Alexander Pushkin. D’Anthès’s bullet hits Pushkin in the stomach and Pushkin’s bullet pierces d’Anthès’s arm and would have entered his chest, were it not for one of his uniform buttons. Two days later Russia’s ’all’ is dead. A tragic and senseless waste of a huge talent.

Duels were a recurrent theme with Pushkin, and he himself had taken part in more than one. The poet was quite a hotheaded guy. His wife Natasha was known as perhaps the most beautiful woman in Russia. They had four children and were fairly happily married. Pushkin was proud of his pretty wife and would have been disappointed indeed if other men hadn’t paid attention to her.

Georges d’Anthès

Georges d’Anthès was a young Frenchman* who served as an officer in the prestigious Imperial Guard. He lived with his rich adoptive father, the Baron van Heeckeren, Dutch ambassador in Saint Petersburg. Van Heeckeren was a homosexual and it seems more than likely that his relationship with d’Anthès was intimate. There were certainly rumours in that direction. But the biggest gossip in town was van Heeckeren himself, and he cunningly spread a rumour that d’Anthès was the illegitimate son of the Dutch king, William I, apparently preferring to slander his king than himself. D’Anthès didn’t seem to care much and happily spent his rich papa’s money, acting like a dandy and a womaniser.

In May 1834 Pushkin, together with his friend Danzas, met d’Anthès for the first time. The three of them had at that time no idea of the circumstances under which they would meet again in January 1837.

Rejected lover

D’Anthès fell in love with Natasha. He became obsessed with her, his avances quickly became more and more improper. The young and innocent Natasha didn’t know how to deal with him and d’Anthès convinced himself that she loved him too. In letters to van Heeckeren he even begs his adoptive father to try to convince Natasha, to lie to her, saying that d’Anthès is dying of his love for Natasha, begging her to leave or betray her husband**. D’Anthès even told Natasha that he would kill himself if she didn’t give in!***

The anonymous letters

Obviously Pushkin started to get more and more annoyed with d’Anthès and when in November 1836 anonymous letters, suggesting that d’Anthès and Natasha were having an affair, were going around in Saint Petersburg, he couldn’t take no more. The letters were addressed to several friends of Pushkin, but of course, he got to see them. It has never become clear who was behind them, Pushkin blamed van Heeckeren, but it was more likely the work of two well known pranksters from Saint Petersburg.

The challenge

The next morning Pushkin challenged d’Anthès to a duel. Because d’Anthès wasn’t home due to his officer’s duties, van Heeckeren accepted in his name and at the same time managed to arrange a fortnight’s delay. In those two weeks d’Anthès got engaged to Natasha’s sister Yekaterina. This was a big surprise for everyone and no doubt van Heeckeren had instructed d’Anthès to do so. Pushkin, however, thought it was a scheme of d’Anthès and van Heeckeren; by marrying the sister d’Anthès would have unlimited acces to Natasha. Pushkin was probably right. He refused to attend the wedding, but he saw himself forced to cancel the duel.

The duel

In spite of the marriage the rumours and avances continued and Pushkin challenged d’Anthès again for a duel only weeks after the marriage.

On Januari the 27th Pushkin leaves his house to go to the appointed place. Natasha knows nothing. On the threshold he turns around to go back inside and put on a warmer coat, the worst thing he could do; according to Russian superstition the threshold brings bad luck, and Pushkin was extremely superstitious. On his way he still has to find a second**** and finally finds one in Danzas, his old schoolfriend. The duel takes place and a couple of hours later Pushkin is carried over the threshold of his house again, seriously injured.

The death of the poet

He wants to be taken into his study. They lie him down on the sofa and send for a doctor. The first doctor they find is an obstetrician, who can’t do much, but later the tsar’s own doctor, Arendt comes to see him. He concludes that the injuries are fatal. Pushkin writes to the tsar and asks him for forgiveness, and for Danzas too. He also asks him to look after Natasha and the children. The tsar writes back, not to worry, he will look after Natasha and the children as if they were his own. Pushkin kisses the letter. He assures Natasha that she is not to blame in any way, tells her to remarry, but not with a scoundrel! He says farewell to his children and best friends.

For two days he lies on that sofa. It must have seemed an eternity. He suffers tremendously, he can’t bear to have others touch his wound and changes the dressing himself. At a quarter to three in the afternoon of January the 29th 1837 he complains that he is suffocating and dies.

After his death

Natasha and the children were taken care off. Nicholas kept his promise and paid the allowances and even paid off all of Puhkin’s debts. When the period of mourning was over, Natasha became maid-of-honour for the tsarina. She remarried and had four more children.

After an angry letter from Nicholas to William II, van Heeckeren was called back to the Netherlands. D’Anthès had to go to jail and was forced to leave Russia a few months later, his officer’s rank was taken away from him. He went to France where van Heeckeren and Yekaterina were waiting for him. Danzas got away with only a small sentence.

*Technically d’Anthès was of Dutch nationality after the adoption.

**On October the 17th d’Anthès writes a letter to van Heeckeren in which he begs him to speak to Natasha alone and to tell her that his son is dying of love for her and that he fears for his life.

***On November the 2nd d’Anthès tricks Natasha into a meeting alone with him and tries to convince her to betray her husband, threatening to kill himself if she doesn’t.

****Duelling was against the law. Participants and seconds risked even the death penalty. It was the seconds’ duty to not only make sure that everything went according to the rules, but most importantly to try to stop the duel from taking place at all. You could, for obvious reasons, refuse to be a second. Danzas, however, was asked by Pushkin at the very last moment (others had already refused) and as his old schoolfriend, he felt he couldn’t refuse. Because he did not have time to stop the duel, he got off lightly, he wasn’t to blame.

*****http://the-newspapers.com/2016/06/04/pushkins-blood-was-needed-to-confirm-the-authenticity-of-the-sofa

-Quote from Eugene Onegin

-Photos from Wikipedia (the fatal duel, Natasha, d’Anthès and the waistcoat Pushkin was wearing at the time of the duel) and from me

-Literature consulted:

Pushkin, A Biography van T.J. Binyon

and

A Passion for Pushkin

One of the nicest things about Pushkin is his simple writing style. When I first read his work at university, I immediately noticed that his Russian was very easy to understand. Even for a relative beginner like me. Now that is precisely his legacy: Pushkin was the first Russian writer to use clear, modern Russian for typically Russian subjects.

Exile

In 1820 Pushkin was sent into exile to the south because of his political opinions. First to the Caucasus and the Crimea, later to his mother’s estate. He was only 21 years old. There our young hero didn’t have as many (female) distractions as he would have had in his hometown St Petersburg. During these five years living in exile, he was able to fully concentrate on developing his literary talents. He learned English and Italian, and read many books, he particularly liked Byron. His environment proved inspiring too.

Eugene Onegin

Pushkin started writing on his most famous work, Eugene Onegin in exile. This novel in verse is generally considered to be the turning point in Russian literature. It is the most printed book in Russian history. Every self respecting Russian knows it. Eugene is actually an anti-hero, he is rich, bored, and a poet, like Pushkin. The sweet and romantic Tatiana falls head over heels in love with him. But does he love her back? Eugene Onegin is an irresistible mixture of western romanticism and Russian folklore. Like all Pushkin’s work (and come to think of it, many other Russian books), you have to read it primarily with your heart.

Pushkin’s influence

Later Russian literature is full of references to Eugene Onegin. All the Tatianas and poets you’ll meet there, all the duels that take place, they all refer to and pay tribute to Pushkin’s masterpiece. In Russian literature these kind of references are always considered as a form of flattery and never seen as plagiarism.

Pushkin developed the standard style of writing in modern Russian. A super simple but subtle way of telling stories, and that specific sense of humour and satire that became so synonymous with the golden age of Russian literature. Sending Pushkin into exile certainly turned out to be invaluable for modern Russian literature!

Before Pushkin hardly anything of any literary value had been written. After Pushkin came the other giants of literature: Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Goncharov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Chekhov.

 

 

Books to enjoy:

Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse (I read Nabokov’s translation)

Boris Godunov, a historic drama

The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin, short stories (I see here a reference from J K Rowling, with The Tales of Beedle the Bard)

And plenty of other stories, poems and fairy tales.