The Eugene Onegin Challenge – Chapter 7

In which Tatyana discovers the real fake Eugene Onegin 

You may well have been expecting to find a remorseful Onegin and a grieving Olga, but Pushkin wouldn’t be Pushkin if he hadn’t decided differently. We do get a glimpse of Lensky’s grave where indeed two sisters stood grieving in the moonlight a few months ago, but now it’s spring; the path to the grave is full of weeds, Olga has married another and has left her childhood home, and Onegin has apparently returned to Saint Petersburg.

Tatyana is now all alone. She’s struggling with her feelings; the passion that she feels for Onegin is still growing stronger, in spite of everything that has happened.

Literary context

Like fellow blogger Benn Bell wrote here, it’s virtually impossible to read a literary work without placing it in a literary context, whether we realise this or not. This context is made up of all the books that we have previously read. Benn saw large similarities in style between Eugene Onegin and The Raven (1845) by Edgar Allen Poe.

Chapter 7 of Eugene Onegin kept reminding me of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813): in both works the heroine is suddenly confronted with the estate of their love interest, who happens not to be home at that time, leaving our heroine with an excellent opportunity to investigate. Both are let into the house by a talkative housekeeper. Once inside the domain of the man in question his true nature is discovered. In the case of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy the outcome is unexpectedly positive, but Tatyana finds out that Eugene Onegin is not the romantic hero that she thought he was.

Tanya’s quest

To describe Tanya in her quest to know more about Eugene Pushkin uses the word ‘pilgrim’ (20). Tanya is a reader and we are therefore not at all surprised that she instinctively turns to his library to find out who he really is. The contents, or indeed lack of contents, of the bookshelves are always a good indication of the character of the owner. This explains the popularity of the #showusyourshelves hashtag and the sudden importance of a good ‘zoom background’. Our clever girl also understands that she has to focus particularly on the books that he has clearly read, and pays extra attention to the passages that Eugene had marked with a pencil or his nail (23).

With Pride and Prejudice in the back of our minds, we keep expecting Onegin to burst in on Tatyana at any moment, but that does not happen and she can read in peace. And what does she discover… Onegin is a fake! He apparently merely imitates the heroes of popular modern literature. Had Tatyana had access to the same modern novels at home, she would have seen through him immediately.

Tanya saw her ideal literary hero in Onegin, but he turns out to be just a copy of a literary hero. The essential difference between the Tanya and Eugene is that Tanya grows with her experiences, whether they were from a book or from her real life; Onegin copies what he reads, but he does not interpret it.

To Moscow, to Moscow, to Moscow!

While Tanya is busy discovering the real fake Onegin in his study, her mother is planning to take her to Moscow to find her a husband. The next January they depart with ‘almost all that they possessed’ (31:11) to spend the rest of the winter with an aunt in Moscow. And the attentive reader will notice that this is exactly one year after the Svyatki celebrations and Tanya’s prophetic dream.

The first thing that Tanya sees when she wakes up for the first time in Moscow are ironically the stables* in an unfamiliar courtyard (43:11). But at least she could probably hear the familiar sound of her own chickens, because they too were brought to Moscow! Our poor Tanya, who doesn’t even want to have a husband anymore, is being dragged from dinner to theatre. By the end of chapter 7 she has inadvertently caught the attention of a corpulent general.

Remarkable in chapter 7

Tatyana takes the centre stage again in chapter 7, in which farewells play an important part: the farewell to Lensky, implied by the grave scene in stanza 6; the farewell to Olga in stanza 12*; the farewell to Onegin, implied by the reading of his books; Tanya’s farewell to her beloved countryside, which echoes Pushkin’s farewell to the countryside at the end of chapter 6. Mrs. Larina hasn’t been in Moscow since her own wedding, and now she returns with the prospect of her daughter’s wedding. January 1821 was all about predictions regarding Tanya’s future husband, and January 1822 is all about finding Tanya a husband. In the first half of chapter 7 Tanya is exposed to Eugene’s library. In the second half she is exposed to Moscow.

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  • Although Austen was apparently not widely read in Russia in Pushkin’s time, it is not completely unlikely that Pushkin had access to a French translation and was familiar with her work.
  • Moscow was rather provincial compared to Saint Petersburg; all the big houses had courtyards with stables where pigs and poultry were held.
  • This touching farewell must come as a surprise to the reader, because as we know the sisters were not that close. Tatyana for instance never told Olga about her love for Onegin.

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

Chapter 8 is scheduled for the 7th of June, happy reading! 

The Eugene Onegin Challenge – Chapter 6

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In which Onegin kills his friend Lenski in a spine-chilling duel

At the end of chapter 5 we read that Lenski intends to challenge Onegin to a duel because he had been flirting with his fiancé Olga. To us, 200 years later, this may seem like a trifle, but in 1821 this was a valid reason for a duel; you were expected to defend your and your fiancé’s honour.

Zaretsky delivers the challenge to Onegin

The morning after the name day party Onegin is visited by a certain Zaretsky*. As Lensky’s second he has come to present the challenge to Onegin. Onegin has mixed feelings about Zaretsky, who enjoys a rather dubious reputation. It’s a fact that Onegin accepts the challenge at least in some part because he doesn’t want to lose face in front of Zaretsky (11). Nonetheless he is troubled by his decision. Lensky meanwhile is still fuming and impatiently waiting for the reply. But as the day progresses he too is starting to doubt. First he was determined not to go and see Olga, that heartless flirt, but somehow he finds himself in front of her door anyway (13) and spends the evening with her. It becomes painfully clear to him that she is completely unaware of the pain she has inadvertently caused him and that she loves him as much as ever.

The duel

But what’s done is done and when he returns home Lensky writes his final poem (21-22). Early the next morning Zaretsky picks him up and together they go to the appointed place. When Onegin, who has overslept, has finally arrived, the two friends take their positions. Onegin shoots first and… Lensky is shot dead!

It’s a nightmare

It all seems like a huge misunderstanding. In stanza 18 Pushkin uses ‘когда бы’ (if only) three times. But nobody knows what is going on in the other person’s head and as if in a dream the events leading up to the fatal duel take place. We keep thinking that the duel will be prevented, and that when it does take place, that it will turn out to be someone’s nightmare.

The reader is deliberately put into this dreamlike state. Chapter 6 starts with the guests of the name day party going to sleep. We see them sleeping and snoring in various outfits and positions. Only Tatyana can’t sleep, but she is sitting in the moonlight by the window. The actions of both Lensky and Onegin on the day before the duel are very strange and seemingly out of character. Lensky inexplicably finds himself at Olga’s door. And Onegin, well, his behaviour is much too nonchalant for the circumstances. He should have apologised* as soon as he received the invitation, but instead he accepts. He wakes up on the fateful day when the sun is already up, while they were supposed to meet at dawn, and leaves Lensky waiting for hours on a cold January morning. He has not troubled himself to find a decent second and brings his valet instead (the second should be someone from your own class). Because he had offended Lensky and caused Lensky to challenge him, he should have let Lensky have the first shot, but instead he shoots first himself. He could have fired in the air or aim at Lensky’s leg (12:14), but instead he shoots to kill. Surely this is all a horrible dream! 

An unprincipled second

Zaretsky’s part in all this is highly questionable, to say the least. As a second his main objective should be to try to reconcile both parties. When he handed Lensky’s note to Onegin, he should have asked him if he wished to apologise. Instead he leaves as soon as Onegin has accepted. He arrives at Lensky’s just after 6 on the appointed day, but the sun rises only around 20 past 8 in that place and time of year. This shows his keenness. Before the duel the seconds should make an ultimate attempt to reconcile. We can hardly blame poor Guillot for this oversight, he could hardly have imagined that he would suddenly be appointed the part of a second in a pistol fight and he’s hiding behind a tree, but the experienced Zaretsky should have been very aware of his obligations as a second. 

When Lensky has fallen into the snow, Zaretsky looks at him and concludes without any emotion* “well then, he’s dead.” It’s only then that Onegin seems to wake up and realise that he has just killed his friend. But now it’s already too late! Lensky is buried in an idyllic spot* (stanzas 40-42), befitting a romantic poet (death by duel was considered akin to suicide and this meant that you could not be buried in the churchyard).

Farewell

In stanza 46 Pushkin says farewell to Mikhailovskoye. His house arrest has been lifted after two and a half years. What happens to Olga, Tanya and Onegin will hopefully become clear in chapter 7. 

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* Nabokov claims that only amateurs think that Zaretsky has anything to do with Tolstoy the American. In that case I fall into the amateur category as well, because the biographical details that Pushkin gives Zaretsky, combined with the fact that chapter 6 was written at Mikhailovsoye, where Pushkin had been banned to, and where he was planning to challenge the American at the first opportunity, and even practising for that duel, and thus being somewhat obsessed with the American, make it very plausible that Pushkin had the American in mind when he created Zaretsky.

** Excuses could prevent a duel without damaging the reputation of either party.

*** These words reminded me of what Dolokhov said standing next to poor Petya’s dead body in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. 

**** A similar romantic setting with ‘two pine trees’ is used by Turgenev when he describes Bazarov’s grave in Fathers and Sons.

Bonus Material

In spite of his wise words in stanza 28 (but enmity in their class holds shame in savage dread, alas), Pushkin will die in a duel himself in 1837, although he does make peace with the American, whom he does indeed challenge immediately after leaving Mikhailovskoye in 1826.

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*****

Chapter 7 is scheduled for the 24th of May:

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

The Eugene Onegin Challenge – Chapter 5

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All objects either scared or charmed her, with secret meanings they’d impart…

Svyatki

It’s January and the first snow has fallen. Tatyana, like a good Russian girl, loves winter. She hasn’t seen Onegin since his rejection last summer, but has she gotten over him yet? The beginning of January marks the time of the ‘svyatki’* in Russia, a time when traditionally rituals were performed to predict the future. Tanya, who is very superstitious, just like her creator**, is very eager to see what the future will bring and performs several rituals, focussing specifically on love and marriage. Apart from finding out that Tanya’s future husband will likely be called ‘Agafon*, we do not find out what kind of signs Tanya received so far.

Appealing to dark forces

The ultimate ritual she performs is to conjure a prophetic dream, and this dream turns out to be the most written about dream in the history of Russian literature. 

Because she is appealing to occult forces, she has to remove her silken sash, which normally protects her against the occult, before she goes to bed. A portrait of Lel, the old slavic equivalent of Eros, hangs above her bed and she has placed a mirror underneath her pillow.

The dream

Her dream is awesome and prophetic indeed! She is walking in a snow covered landscape and comes to a seething torrent that she dares not cross. A bear appears and offers to help her across. Although she is terrified she lets the bear help and tries to run away from him as soon as she is on the other side. Eventually she falls and the bear picks her up and carries her to a hut. Inside the hut grotesque monsters are sitting around a table. To her horror she sees Eugene between them; clearly he is the leader of the monsters! As soon as they spot Tatyana they start to shout “She’s mine! She’s mine!” and then Onegin cries “She’s mine!” and the monsters disappear. Onegin carries the terrified girl to a bed and then Olga and Lensky come into the hut. Angry that they were disturbed, Onegin stabs Lenski with a knife.

The dream is full of common elements of Russian fairy tales: the bear, the forest, the hut and the monsters. Freud had not been born yet, and the purpose of the dream was to show the future rather than to dig into Tanya’s psyche, but Tanya did have a book that explained dreams. Nabokov actually managed to find a copy of Martin Zadeck’s book and looked up the same symbols that Tanya looked up in her copy. He could only find three from the list: the crow predicts the death of a relative, the fir predicts marriage and the bear stands for wealth. As we shall see, all three will come true. 

In spite of the promised wealth and marriage the dream is rather ominous. Especially Onegin was a pretty dark figure in her dream; very different from the Onegin that Tanya addressed in her letter. But there was an erotic tension between them in the dream, which was broken by the arrival of her sister and her betrothed. It is therefore not exactly surprising that she struggles to control her emotions when she sees Eugene in real life only a few days after the dream. 

Tatyana’s name day

The name day celebrations echo the monster meeting that she saw in her dream. Onegin sees that Tanya is struggling to compose herself and guesses that he is the cause. For a tiny moment she manages to get his sympathy and he gives her a tender glance that reawakens her feelings for him. But Onegin is mostly furious that it is not the small family gathering that Lensky had promised, and he wants to punish his friend. He flirts with Olga the whole evening. We can only imagine how this must have made poor Tanya feel! At any rate, chapter 5 ends with Lensky galloping away, planning to challenge Onegin for a duel…

Pushkin at his best

In this chapter Pushkin really shows us what he can do. All his talents come together here. There is not just fantastic poetry brimming with alliterations and emotions; there is a mysterious fairy tale atmosphere, there are ancient Russian traditions, and there is an intriguing story line. I can almost guarantee you that you have already grabbed your copy to re-read certain stanzas.

Pushkin also managed some clever structural elements: in chapter 5 we find the exact middle of the novel: stanza 5, lines 6-7: All objects either scared or charmed her, with secret meanings they’d impart…

The beginning of stanza 13 is almost the same a stanza 38 in chapter 3, when Tanya flees into the garden. Within chapter 5 we find Olga, more rosy than the dawn before (21:11) opposite Tanya, paler than the moon at dawn (30:2).

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Svetlana

This chapter was dedicated to Svetlana, the heroine of a romantic ballad by Zhukovsky, who in her nightmare is carried to her grave by her lover. She is also mentioned in chapter 3 (5).

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Bonus material

  • The days between January 6th and 19th (the birth and christening of Jesus) are called the ‘svyatki’. In this period the normal (church) rules did not apply and the occult became more accessible. In order to find out what the new year would bring (a good harvest, marriage, family), you could consult the occult forces through a wide variety of rituals. For instance, in order to find out what the name of your future husband was, you had to ask a random stranger on the road his name. One of the more scarier rituals involved going into the bath house (where there are no icons) to stare into a mirror until you saw a face of a man appear. People also dressed up, as bears for instance, which would also explain the bear in Tanya’s dream. Russian people were (and are) quite superstitious, something that the church wanted to rule out, and only during the svyatki were these kind of rituals allowed. Tolstoy described the svyatki traditions as well in War and Peace (book 7, chapter 10).

** In stanza 6 Tanya sees a hare and a monk dressed in black. When Pushkin once spotted the same two omens on his way to Saint Petersburg he turned around and went back home.

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Chapter 6 is scheduled for the 10th of May. Happy reading!

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

The Eugene Onegin Challenge – Chapter 4

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Tatyana had fled into the garden as soon as she heard Onegin’s carriage approach. What would be his reaction to her letter? Pushkin left us in suspense at the end of chapter three and leaves us there a bit longer still. 

Women

The first six stanzas of chapter 4 have been left out of the final version of Eugene Onegin in 1833. By then Pushkin was married and in the omitted stanzas he talked candidly about his relations with women. In stanzas 7-11 we learn all about Onegin’s relations with women. Conquering women has almost been like a sport for him, and his relationships have been without any sincere feelings so far.

His reaction

The sincerity of Tatyana’s letter catches him by surprise and it even makes him think. But the first sentence of his reply to Tatyana, although echoing her first sentence, shows that he has misunderstood the letter completely. She wrote I’m writing you this declaration; what more can I in candour say? and he replies You wrote to me. Do not deny it. As if he accuses her! Poor Tanya. In the monologue that follows Onegin explains that he is not interested in married life, that he loves her like a brother and warns her to be careful with such letters. Tanya hears his sermon out quietly while tears fill her eyes.

Misunderstanding

Onegin wrongly assumed that Tatyana wanted to marry him. We have just seen what his previous experiences with women were like. He does not believe in marital bliss and as if to prove it, has affairs with married women. Although he finds Tatyana attractive, Onegin would hardly want to create a scandal by having an affair with her. So the letter makes no other sense to him. 

Tanya’s perspective is completely different; there is no room for passion inside, nor outside for that matter, the marriage of her parents. The love that she feels for Onegin is a love that she knows only from her novels. The letter was not a marriage proposal, it was an expression of the intense feelings that she was experiencing. The letter was not directed at the real Onegin; she barely knew him, but to a romantic ideal, who would understand her like no other. But Onegin understands her no more than her old nurse does.

Contrast

Onegin is probably right when he says that a marriage between them couldn’t work. Nonetheless the reader can’t help but feeling that he is dismissing his chance to experience sincere love and happiness. Tatyana is terribly sad and disillusioned. While she’s wasting away her sister Olga is rosier than ever and stanzas 25-34 describe a happy engagement time with Lenski, who does believe in marital happiness. 

Pushkin’s dear nurse

From Lenski reading his poetry to Olga we move on to the narrator, who has to make do with reading his poetry to his old nurse in stanza 35. Now according to Nabokov we read far too much into this endearing scene: Pushkin wrote  chapter 4 between October 1824 and January 1826. During this period he had been banned to his estate Mikhaylovskoye, where a certain Arina Rodionovna, his sister’s old nurse, was now the housekeeper. Although Pushkin was indeed fond of her, and she did inspire him with her fairytales, it is unlikely that he read his work to her. While we picture her as a sweet old woman, she apparently terrified the maids and was fond of the bottle.

All seems good

And Onegin? He’s beginning to enjoy life in the countryside. Every morning he goes swimming in his Hellespont, he drinks coffee, goes rambling and drinks wine with his dinner. He even has an affair with a peasant girl. In winter he adjusts his activities accordingly and seems content*. In the last stanzas of chapter 4 a cheerful Lensky comes to dine with him and invites him to Tatyana’s name day next  Saturday. In two weeks he and Olga will get married.

 

* The description of Onegin’s activities are pretty autobiographical. A propos the Hellespont is not a reference to the Greek myth, but to Byron, who swam across it (now known as the Dardanelles) in 1810.

Bonus material

** In chapter 4 Pushkin refers to two Tolstoys: the artist Fyodor Petrovich Tolstoy (30) and ‘the American’ Fyodor Ivanovich Tolstoy (both related to Lev). In stanza 19 he talks about vulgar gossip being repeated. A rumour had been spread claiming that Pushkin had been flogged in Saint Petersburg before he was sentenced to be exiled in 1820. This hurt Pushkin’s pride so much that he even contemplated suicide and apparently fought a duel about this slander just before he left the city. When he was already on his way to the Caucasus, he found out that the American was behind the gossip, supposedly to pay Pushkin back for accusing him of cheating with cards (which was true). The American was a real rogue, he had fought plenty of duels and killed many of his opponents. He was the inspiration for Dolokhov in War and Peace as well as for Zaretsky, who we shall meet later on in Eugene Onegin. I have written about him here. When Pushkin hears that he was behind the rumours, he is determined to challenge the American for a duel at the first opportunity. He’ll have to wait six years because of his exile, but he uses this time to practise shooting. In order to strengthen his pistol hand, he even carries a heavy iron cane around. A neighbour describes seeing Pushkin in 1825, dressed in a read peasant shirt, straw hat and carrying this iron cane. In September 1826 he finally gets to challenge the American, but the seconds manage to reconcile the two and the much anticipated duel never takes place. 

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Chapter 5 is scheduled for the 26th of April 2020, let’s see what happens there:

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

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 

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