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. 

*****

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 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 – 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