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 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 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. 

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

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

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