“Eugene Onegin” by Alexander Pushkin

The extracts from Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” given in this post are taken from the translation by Tom Beck, published by Dedalus.

In Chapter 6 of Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin, the young poet Lenski is killed in a duel (and no, I am not prefacing this post with one of those tedious “spoiler warnings”: the effect made by this poem does not depend on discovering “what happens next”). It is, possibly, the most famous duel in all literature. Lenski goes into the duel with presentiments of his own death, and, the night before, writes a poem lamenting his lost youth and his possibly shortened life, and imagining that Olga, to whom he is betrothed, will mourn for him afterwards, and remember him. It is, inevitably under the circumstances, a deeply felt poem. But immediately after giving us this poem, the narrator mocks it:

That’s how he wrote, “obscurely”, “limply”,

(“Romanticism”, I believe,

though what’s romantic here I simply

am quite unable to perceive!

but then, who cares?) As dawn approaches …

This seems cruel and insensitive. Lenski may not have been a great poet, as Pushkin undoubtedly was. He possibly wasn’t even a very good poet. But given the situation, this is hardly, one might feel, the right time for literary criticism, and Pushkin’s scathing lines do seem harsh and insensitive. But here’s the point: a poet as harsh and as insensitive as these lines suggest would not have been capable of writing a poem so delicate and so sensitive as Eugene Onegin. We must, I think, in this of all books with its various different levels of irony, learn to distinguish between Alexander Pushkin the narrator, and Alexander Pushkin the author: the author Pushkin has created the narrator Pushkin as a sort of alter ego of himself – not entirely separate from himself, but not entirely the same either.

Of course, Cervantes had played with this sort of thing quite spectacularly in Don Quixote (especially in that dazzling second part), and Nabokov, a fervent admirer of Eugene Onegin, also made use of this technique: in Pnin, for instance, there is a remarkable passage where the eponymous Pnin breaks down in despair, and the narrator, who presents himself as a Russian émigré named Vladimir Nabokov, pokes fun at him mercilessly. But we must, at points such as this, learn to see beyond what this narrator is telling us. The real author Nabokov (as distinct from the Nabokov who is the narrator) is no more mocking Pnin than the real author Pushkin is belittling Lenski’s deeply felt emotions: the narrator’s mockery enlists our sympathy for the subject of the mockery.

But it remains a fact nonetheless that Lenski’s poetry is pretty poor stuff, and, however much sympathy we may feel for him, neither the author Pushkin nor the narrator Pushkin is going to pretend otherwise.

Those of a more romantic disposition have begged to differ. In Tchaikovsky’s operatic version of Eugene Onegin, Lenski’s poem forms the basis of an exquisitely beautiful and passionate tenor aria: the Lensky in the opera really is a poet, and, indeed, a great poet, for only a great poet could sing an aria so heart-stoppingly lovely. And the tragedy in the opera is that so great a poet should be cut down in his prime. But the tragedy in Pushkin’s poem is subtly different: here, for all Lenski’s depth of feeling, he never would really have amounted to much as a poet even had he lived. And he doesn’t even leave behind much of a memory: after his death, even his beloved Olga quickly forgets about him and marries someone else. The tragedy here is that Lensky’s death is as inconsequential as his life had been, and, most likely, would continue to have been had he lived. The tragedy here is that his fate isn’t even perceived as tragic.

When Pushkin comes to describe he duel itself, he adopts for a while a quite objective stance, almost as if he was writing a technical handbook on how to load a pistol:

The pistols gleam, the priming hammer

resounds against the ramrod head;

the bullets drop, pushed by the rammer,

The lever clicks, the powder’s fed

in little greyish streams to trickle

into the pan; the rough and brittle,

securely fastened flint is raised

again …

The duel takes place, and the expected happens: Lenski is killed. And then, Pushkin gives us an unforgettable poetic image that is way beyond anything that Lenski himself might have come up with – an empty house, bereft of people:

… but here, as in a house, unlightened

And bare, where all is empty, chill,

The heart forever remains still,

The shutters closed, the windows whitened …

This, one suspects, is Pushkin the author of the poem rather than Pushkin the narrator. But it isn’t always easy to distinguish.

The plot, such as it is, is built around what are, in effect, two non-events. The young, naïve Tatyana falls in love with Eugene, and writes him a love letter: nothing comes of it. And towards the end, it’s the other way round: Eugene this time falls in love with Tatyana, and writes her a love letter, but nothing comes of that either. In between, Tatyana has a very weird and surreal nightmare that seems to take us into the world of folklore and of mythical monsters; a duel is fought and the poet Lenski is killed by his erstwhile friend Onegin; and then, Tatyana visits a real empty house – that of Onegin’s, who, full of remorse and self-disgust after killing Lensky, has left the place.

This empty house is clearly a metaphor for Onegin himself, the man she still loves despite his having rejected her. But what the metaphor reveals about him is not entirely clear. Tatyana goes into his library, and finds an image of the almost stereotypical Romantic. There is a portrait of Byron, and a bust of Napoleon. The books are of Romantic literature. Tatyana herself has been moulded by literature of a pre-Romantic era (“… she read and then stayed staunchly loyal / to Richardson and to Rousseau …”), and by the traditional folklore she had taken in from her peasant nanny, and which had informed her strange dream. We are all moulded by our experiences, after all, and what we read is part of our experience: the relationship between fiction and reality, of how the former affects the latter, and, in particular, our perception of the latter, is, as in Don Quixote, one of the major themes of this work. Tatyana is still very much a simple and rather naïve village girl, and Onegin, as Tatyana discovers here, is a Petersburg sophisticate, a dashing dandy, almost a stereotypical restless Romantic. But also, perhaps, like the now empty house, Onegin is a frame without a soul. Perhaps. It is dangerous to impose so apparent and so fixed an interpretation on this most subtle and elusive of works, a work that so consistently pulls the rug from under our feet.

It is the titular character Onegin whom we meet first in this poem. He lives a dissipated life amidst the sparkling ballrooms and salons and theatres of Petersburg, and he is bored. He has a friend who is the poet Alexander Pushkin, the narrator of what we are reading. Onegin has to go out into the sticks to look after his ailing uncle, and that makes him even more bored. But it is worth it: the uncle dies, and Eugene becomes a man of property as well as the man of idle leisure he has always been. But the country life doesn’t suit our man about town. He is terminally bored. His friend in the country is the local landowner Lenski, and this Lenski introduces him to the Larins – the mother, a somewhat foolish widow, and her two daughters, Olga and Tatyana. Olga is betrothed to Lenski, and Tatyana, to whom we are now introduced, is a naïve and sensitive girl, and she soon has her head turned by the dashing Onegin. But the love letter she rashly writes him earns her only a stern and cold lecture from its recipient: she is well put in her place. Later, Tatyana has a strange dream in which she is at first lost in a fearful tumultuous winter night, but then a bear who at first frightens her leads her into a cottage, which is inhabited by all sorts of weird and wonderful monsters; and among these strange monsters is Onegin himself. One could have lots of fun trying to analyse the dream: Pushkin himself refuses to do so.

It is then that the duel takes place. Motivations are not clear: Pushkin refuses to spell anything out. Onegin is unhappy to be there among these uncouth country people who are so clearly far beneath him; and he is annoyed with Lenski for having brought him here. But why he should start flirting with Olga deliberately to make his friend Lenski jealous remains obscure. But there appears to be a sort of inevitability about it all – about little things leading to bigger things, until the sequence of events acquires such momentum that it becomes impossible to stop. Here, what starts off as no more than little annoyances lead to tragedy.

The last of the eight chapters forms a sort of epilogue. Once again, the central event of this chapter is in essence a non-event: a love letter is written, but nothing comes of it. But it rounds off with an almost formal symmetry the events that had occurred earlier. This time, it is Onegin who finds himself attracted to Tatyana. He has returned from his wanderings, and finds Tatyana no longer the naïve village girl, but a married woman, and a society hostess. And this time, it’s her turn to reject him. Her rejection isn’t cold and unfeeling, however, as Onegin’s had been: she freely admits she still loves him; she insists that she has not changed, and that the sophisticated front she now puts on is but a front. But nonetheless, she will not stoop to becoming Onegin’s mistress.

As ever, Pushkin does not delve into the psychology of these characters: he lets us do that. Why exactly does Tatyana reject Onegin? We have to piece that together. Why exactly does Onegin now fall in love with the country girl he had once rejected? Has he now changed, and become capable of loving that country girl that Tatyana insists she still is? Or does he now love the sophisticated society hostess he now sees, and which Tatyana says is but a front? Can we actually believe Tatyana when she says she hasn’t really changed? Would the Tatyana we had first seen have been capable of carrying out such a role? These are all questions we, the reader, can puzzle over, just as we puzzle over the imponderable questions of life itself.

Pushkin ends the poem leaving Onegin thus stranded, but not before he has given us an understated climax which, on repeated reading, strikes me as among the most moving things I’ve encountered in literature. As he is reading in his room, “between the lines there kept appearing / quite different lines …”

And then a kind of slow stagnation

Comes over him and dulls his thoughts,

And to his mind Imagination

Deals out a hand of cards … of sorts:

He either sees, as if reposing

Upon a melting snow and dozing

A youth, and then he hears with dread

A voice remark, “Well, well, he’s dead.”

Or else he finds long-gone detractors,

Base cowards and old enemies,

Young ladies famed for treacheries,

Departed, charming malefactors,

Or he espies a country place

And at a window sees … her face.

I remember well that sense of exaltation I felt when I had first read that scene in War and Peace in which the wounded Andrei is in the surgical tent at Borodino, and, in his delirium, seems to relive all sorts of feelings and sensations from his past; and finally, just before he passes out, he sees in his mind’s eye Natasha’s face. It remains one of the most wondrous chapters in fiction, but I hadn’t realised at the time just how much Tolstoy had taken from Pushkin. Having now read Pushkin’s novel in verse, I find echoes of it resounding through the entire range of Russian literature. Take, for instance, that scene in the final act of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, where Tusenbach, before going to the duel where he knows he will be killed, meets with Irina, but, not receiving any encouragement from her, fails to say anything of what he wants to say, and, after a few inconsequential words, leaves: this is Lensky meeting with Olga the night before his duel. This is not to say that either Tolstoy or Chekhov (or any other Russian writer) stole from Pushkin: it means that Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin was a permanent presence in their minds, a presence from which none of them could escape

For the poem itself is a marvel. It seems at times a series of contradictions: the narrative tone often appears casual, but the whole thing is very carefully structured; and it is written as a sequence of sonnets (only the two love letters escape the strict sonnet form). Each sonnet follows the same formal pattern, consisting of three quatrains followed by a concluding couplet. The rhyming scheme is abab ccdd effe gg. Each line is an iambic tetrameter, although the lines denoted above as a, c, and e have an extra unstressed syllable at the end. This form is applied strictly, and, for all the apparent looseness of the narrative, is never varied.

It is a product of Romanticism, but not really in itself Romantic: Pushkin was satisfied seeing the world for what it is, and wasn’t interested in the Romantic sense of striving for the transcendent, for something beyond. He plays all sorts of games with the narrative, and includes long rambling digressions – all in the manner of Byron’s Don Juan, or (an even greater influence, I think) Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. But Eugene Onegin is very different from either Don Juan or Tristram Shandy: alongside all the playfulness, and all the verve and gaiety and even the seeming mockery, there lies a sadness – a sadness all the more effective for not being stressed or pointed out. And it’s not a case of there being passages of gaiety and passages of melancholy: they all seem, somehow, to co-exist. The touch is of the lightest, but its impact, especially on repeated reading (this is one of those works that need to be lived with rather than read just once) is immense. The three principal characters, – Onegin, Tatyana, Lensky – haunt the reader’s imagination just as, clearly, they have haunted the imaginations of all Russian writers since. Indeed, Pushkin himself, in the course of the poem, often refers to these characters as “my Onegin”, “my Tatyana”, “my Lensky” – and one may suspect this is Pushkin the Author just as much as it is Pushkin the Narrator. It is a taffeta-like work, changing tints every time one looks at it, thus making it impossible to pin it down. In the end, as with all great art, one can but stare and wonder.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: