It’s often said that only those who know Russian can fully enjoy Alexander Pushkin’s masterpiece, Eugene Onegin. They may be right. But until the time when you or I can read the original, I recommend Charles Johnston’s translation, published in 1977 by Viking Press. For a non-Russian speaker like myself, it gives a sense of the beauty and originality of the phrasing. Written in the form of a poem, Onegin is at once playful and deeply serious; Johnston captures the humour, the irony, and the pathos of the story. He also, in his translation, has cast the narrative in what is known as the Onegin stanza, a form of sonnet invented by Pushkin and substantially different from the traditional Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnets.
I’m not a poet and if you want to learn more about this verse form, you can go online and check it out. Apart from stating that the Onegin stanza is almost impossible to accomplish in English, I’ll say no more about it. Except that Johnston seems to have done it, and done it astonishingly well.
Pushkin’s story is deceptively simple: Eugene Onegin, a handsome, worldly young man, adept at seducing young women and casting them aside, grows jaded and bored with high society, and retreats to an estate in the country left to him by his uncle. While there he makes friends with a neighbour, a good-looking young poet named Vladimir Lensky who embodies all the youthful ideals Eugene has discarded. Lensky is romantic and naive and deeply in love with Olga Larin, the beautiful but rather thoughtless daughter of a local landowner. Onegin, curious to get a glimpse of the girl, accompanies him to dinner at the Larin home. While there he notices Olga’s older sister, Tatyana, and suggests to his friend that while Olga is pretty but essentially shallow, her sister is more interesting.
At 17, Tatyana is shy, quiet, and reserved, and capable of an intensity of feeling that rivals any poet. From an early age she’s devoured romantic novels, especially those by Samuel Richardson and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and when she meets Eugene Onegin she sees in him the embodiment of the dark, brooding Romantic hero. After waiting in vain to see or hear from him again, she writes him a letter in which she declares her passion. He doesn’t respond and so she writes to him again, and then again. When they do finally meet up, he lets her know politely but in no uncertain terms that he’s not in love with her and marriage between them will never happen. He also, rather condescendingly, gives her some advice about keeping her emotions under control in the future.
Tatanya is devastated. She can’t sleep, can’t eat . . . her whole being is focused on Eugene, to the exclusion of any other possible suitors. One night she dreams that a large black bear chases her, then carries her into a house full of monsters having a party. The host of the party is Onegin, who appears as a kind of demon. Olga and Lensky enter the room and Onegin, furious, picks up a carving knife and appears to kill Lensky. She awakes anxious and uneasy and searches a book for answers but receives none. Several days later Lensky invites Onegin to attend Tatyana’s name-day celebration, insisting it will be a small affair, just a few family and friends. It turns out to be a large, noisy party, with half the county in attendance. Angry at Lensky for tricking him into coming, Onegin decides to take his revenge by flirting with Olga and monopolizing her for the entire night. Believing he’s been gravely insulted, Lensky challenges his friend to a duel; Eugene, who now regrets his actions, feels compelled to respond in kind. They meet at the appointed place, raise their pistols, and shoot. Lensky falls to the ground; by the time Eugene rushes to his side, the young poet is dead. After a brief period of mourning, Olga marries a cavalry man and Tatyana, still brooding over Eugene, is persuaded to travel to Moscow to stay with an aunt. There she’s brought to one social event after another, with the aim of finding her a husband. She hates the city and pines for the natural beauty of the countryside. As for Eugene, he’s overcome with guilt and remorse over Lensky’s death, and has left the country.
When he next sees Tatyana, she’s a composed, sophisticated young matron, married to a fat, older military man and living in St. Petersburg. There seems to be almost nothing left of the shy, vulnerable country girl he once rejected. Now it’s his turn to fall in love . . . and his turn to be rejected. He writes to her, but she doesn’t reply – writes again, and again. Just as Tatyana wrote to him. He spend the winter in seclusion, reading his books. As spring appears, he goes to her home and finds her in tears, reading his letters. Now she confesses that she loves him as much as she ever did, but she will not allow him to ruin her. She is married, and plans to stay that way. And there Pushkin leaves them – Tatyana, mature and strong within herself, Eugene Onegin alone and distraught.
Tatyana Larin is probably the best-loved character in Russian literature. She feels very real, much like Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet – a strong, complicated young woman who refuses to fit into a mould. Pushkin, I think, adored her, the way a writer comes to love a character he’s created who lives life on her own terms. He’s reported to have said to a friend, while writing the end of Onegin: “Do you know, my Tatiana has rejected my Eugene. I never expected it of her.” Don’t you love that?
As for Eugene Onegin, he and Pushkin have much in common – educated, articulate, and wealthy – but Onegin is essentially hollow at the core, something that could never be said about the author. In an unhappy twist of fate, Pushkin’s own life ended when he fought a duel with his brother-in-law over his wife’s affections. He was 37.