Posts Tagged ‘Sterne’

“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.

Digressing with Sterne

My intentions were good, that’s for sure. All those times I have bought books with impressive titles, impressive blurbs on the back covers, and, I am sure, even more impressive contents, I had every intention of reading them. And this despite already having scores of unread books on my shelves, and my normally slow reading rate having become even slower of late.

Right now, I should be reading Nietzsche. He is, after all, one of the most important and most influential thinkers of the era that, in literary terms, possibly interests me most – the latter half of the nineteenth century. How could I hope to get a handle on the intellectual currents of the time without knowing Nietzsche?

A great many writers and thinkers one could become acquainted with at second hand, through a process of osmosis, as it were. Of course, if you want to study these writers and thinkers properly, you will have to read their works: there is no royal path to understanding. But one can, nonetheless, get a very rough idea with secondary material. But with Nietzsche, it becomes very difficult: he has been interpreted in so many different ways, and with so many of these interpretations deemed dangerous misinterpretations, that one really has no option but to dive in and see for oneself. Which, given my lack of a background in philosophy, is not easy. So I bought myself the Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche, and read the various excellent essays in there, as a way of easing myself in. What’s more, I think I even understood these essays. Well, some of them, at least. And I was just about to dive into Beyond Good and Evil – when I got distracted.

It was Laurence Sterne who distracted me. And that is curiously appropriate, as Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (as well as his lesser known Sentimental Journey) are masterpieces of distraction. Here was a writer who, try as hard as he could, just could not keep to the subject at hand. Tristram Shandy is a sort of paean to the Art of Digression: the entire novel is but a series of digressions – though digression exactly from what is not very easy to figure out. But Sterne is so engaging a narrator, so genial, so personable, so delightfully dotty, and so scrupulously polite despite all the bawdiness that will insist on intruding, that it doesn’t seem to matter. And, one soon realises – the digressions are the point.

I won’t try to describe Tristram Shandy here. I’ll keep that for a later blog post – to be written once I’ve finished reading this. This is not my first reading: it is, if I remember correctly, my third. But it is strange how one’s receptivities alter over time. Not that I didn’t enjoy my earlier readings – I most certainly did – but I don’t think I enjoyed them to quite the same extent I am enjoying it this time round. I think, more than anything else, it is Sterne’s personality I am enjoying. In talking about books, we often undervalue the companionship afforded by the author: and what better company could anyone ask for on the commuter train?

It makes quite a change from the last book I read. (Apart from those essays on Nietzsche, that is.) I recently finished reading The Adolescent by Dostoyevsky, which I had started as I was a great admirer of that writer, and, given this novel’s reputation as one of his lesser works, had not read before. And I remain a great admirer still, despite my experience of having now read this novel. But either his remarkable powers deserted him when writing this, or he was working at some level beyond my comprehension. I do not know. I am currently debating with myself whether or not I should write a blog post on this novel: what’s the point, given that I couldn’t make any sense of it? Just a short post to register my incomprehension, perhaps. But be that as it may, whether the problem was with the book itself or with my shortcomings as a reader, it wasn’t a satisfying reading experience.

I have also been reading – and blogging on – the major plays of Ibsen. Now Ibsen, unlike Nietzsche, is a writer I have been acquainted with for a long time, and he is very close to my heart, for reasons I haven’t yet worked out. So I thought that reading those plays, and writing about them – not pronouncing upon them, as such, but, rather, recording my own thoughts and impressions, such as they are – would help me come to a closer understanding of what it is about these plays that affect me so. I have been reading these plays this time round in chronological order, and am now approaching his last plays; and, frankly, I feel intimidated. The next play I would like to write about is Rosmersholm, and that is so very difficult and complex that I really don’t think I am qualified even to try to untangle its psychological and moral depths. And, for this very reason, I have been delaying writing something on it: I am finding it difficult to grasp and to pin down something that I can sense is in there, and which is, I can tell, immense. I’m sure I’ll get down to it eventually. And, although it is unlikely that Ibsen ever read Nietzsche, the essays on Nietzsche I have recently been reading did seem to me to shed some light on these Ibsen plays. It is not, after all, any great surprise that major creative writers and thinkers, writing at the same time, should have similar concerns.

But, for the moment, let’s leave Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Ibsen aside for a while – all mere complexities. I’ll return to them later when I am so minded. Not that there aren’t complexities in Tristram Shandy also, but whatever complexities there are in it are so camouflaged with Sterne’s warmth and ludic dexterity that I find myself reading with a broad grin on my face rather than a with a furrowed brow. And that, for the moment at least, is how I like it.

Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Ibsen can all wait. I am now digressing with the greatest digresser of them all, and thoroughly enjoying every minute of it.

The sternness of Swift and the swiftness of Sterne

It was Joyce who suggested that Swift and Sterne should have exchanged names. Certainly, it’s difficult to imagine two authors more different in temperament and in outlook, and reading Gulliver’s Travels and Tristram Shandy back to back – as I did not so long ago – is quite an eye-opening experience.

Gulliver’s Travels is a most troublesome work. It is very funny, certainly, but it cannot be taken at face value: were one to do so, the book would be insupportable. In that final part especially, the earth really does open at our feet. If we are to take Gulliver’s voice as the authorial voice, then this final part would emerge as nothing less than an incitement to genocide.

The problem is that there are so many different levels of irony, we never know where exactly the author stands. This book is often regarded, quite absurdly, as a children’s book; it clearly isn’t, but neither is it adequate to class this merely as “satire”. Of course, there are elements of children’s fantasy; and one cannot deny that it is, indeed, satirical. But more than either, it is a most sobering and disquieting examination of the human condition.

I think it safe to say that Gulliver becomes mad by the end, but what is more problematic is the extent to which Swift shared Gulliver’s madness. What is unmistakable is the sheer blind rage in the writing: even granted that the rage is in Gulliver’s voice, and not necessarily Swift’s, it is hard to imagine anyone writing something so powerful without sharing, at least up to a point, his character’s perspective. We often praise a work for the author’s humanity, but there’s little humanity here: here, human beings are mere yahoos, fit only for extermination. I have read nothing that so powerfully and unremittingly conveys so intense a sense of disgust: it’s a bit too much to take at times.

Of course, there are many levels of irony. In the last part, it’s the Houyhnhnmns (horses) who are civilised and endowed with reason, while humans (yahoos) are debased and bestial. Gulliver soon comes to love this hippocracy, and is heartbroken at having to return to the land where mere humans, yahoos, held the reins of power. And when he does return, he feels so strong a sense of disgust at the very thought of humanity, that he recoils at the very idea of putting on a shirt that had been worn by another human (yahoo). Yet, he is at the same time wearing clothes made of yahoo-skin (human skin). The stench of burning flesh and the spectre of extermination camps never seem far away here. Indeed, this is the one point upon which the Houyhnhnmns, for all their reason, seem undecided: should the yahoos be exterminated?.

Gulliver (though not necessarily Swift) views Houyhnhnmns as perfect beings. All their thoughts and actions are governed by “reason”. And yet, perhaps inevitably given this, they show no particular affection for their offspring; and neither does death or bereavement occasion anxiety or grief. Is this what it means to be perfect? And, since they are all governed by the same “reason”, there is never any dissent, never any disagreement or controversy (except for the vexed question of whether yahoos should be exterminated). This is surely the most advanced form of totalitarianism: everyone polices their own thought to such an extent, that a thought police isn’t even required to enforce conformity. Yet the only alternative Swift gives us to this is the vile bestiality of the yahoos. And all this is couched in terms of the most violent rage and fury. Could it be that Swift gives us an overplus of disgust in order to, as it were, inoculate us? – to show where disgust with fellow human beings inevitably leads us? Or did Swift share in this disgust himself? The trouble is, I don’t think that the two are mutually exclusive.

In the midst of all this, it might seem a bit perverse to mention Swift’s humour. But one must – for Gulliver’s Travels is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. And this in itself adds to the disquiet, for even as we are laughing, we ask ourselves how we could possibly be laughing at this. Of course, it may be said that the entire book isn’t dark – that it becomes progressively darker, until, by the last of its four sections, it’s almost unbearable. But there are elements of this darkness even near the beginning. For instance, when Gulliver first discerns Lilliputians walking over him, he feels a curious urge to pick up as many of them as he could and dash them to the ground. He controls himself at this point, but even here, there are elements of him that are at best questionable. Nonetheless, one cannot but laugh at the passage where Gulliver in Laputa sees scientists engaged upon extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, and putting these beams into hermetically sealed jars to be released on sunless days. Immediately afterwards, Swift tells us of scientists who analyse human excrement to discover the thoughts of whoever had produced it. After all, it is well-known that at no time are humans more thoughtful than when expelling waste; and these scientists have discovered how to read the thoughts of people by chemically examining this waste. On the evidence provided by this analysis, people may be tried for treason, imprisoned, or even executed. Oh – if only Stalin had thought of that one!

Gulliver’s Travels is without doubt one of the most extraordinary books I have come across, but I did find it unnerving. After that, it was with some relief that I turned to the warmth and geniality of Tristram Shandy.

Tristram Shandy is known as a bag of tricks. Indeed it is, and a very funny one at that. It starts, famously, not with the birth of the hero, but with his conception. (At the moment of conception, his mother asks his father if he had remembered to wind up the clock, and, not surprisingly, this puts him right off!) The only real incident happens when the infant Tristram, pissing out of the window, is accidentally circumcised by a falling window-sash. There is a missing chapter, with the next chapter telling us why the last one had to be taken out, and relating what had been related in therein; there are blank pages so we may write in for ourselves a description of Widow Wadman (the reader is told that he may make it “as like your mistress and as unlike your wife as your conscience will permit”); there is a black page to mark the death of a character; there are chapters on noses, on buttonholes, on the significance of names; there are digressions within digressions within digressions – indeed, one of the digressions is actually on the subject of digressions; and so on. There are the silliest gags – made all the funnier by the very elaborate set-ups. And there are gags and double-entendres so smutty that even the Carry On team might have been embarrassed. All in all, it’s tremendous fun – still the greatest and the funniest and the most outrageous of all avant-garde novels. But it’s also more than that, I think.

It’s a very humane work. The characters may behave in an absurd manner, but, unlike Swift, Sterne likes people, and he allows us, the reader, also to like them. Uncle Toby and his manservant, Corporal Trim – two of the greatest comic creations – spend all their time recreating past battles in their back garden, and are yet the gentlest of people imaginable: Uncle Toby, quite literally, wouldn’t hurt a fly. And beneath all the clowning is an awareness of the passage of time, and of the transience of it all. In this sense, we may even think of this as a sort of forerunner of Waiting for Godot: there, too, we have the mad and frantic clowning against a backdrop where absolutely nothing happens – not even an occasional accidental circumcision. But instead of the bleakness of Beckett’s play, we have here a warmth and geniality. There is no cry of despair behind the humour, and a somewhat sad acceptance rather than despair at the sense of time passing. This sense of time passing is perhaps best exemplified in a marvellous passage where Sterne (as his alter-ego Tristram) muses that since it has taken him some five years to chronicle but two years of his life, he finds that the longer he writes and the further he gets into his narrative, the more there is for him to write, since the pace of the narrative can never catch up with the pace of life itself. In effect, his narrative is going backwards in time, and will never catch up with the time of writing. But before we are allowed to reflect on the sadness of this, Sterne is off again on one of his mad jokes: there is no time for reflection in what – as Sterne tells us at the very end – is the biggest cock and bull story ever devised.

This is one of those rare books that I felt rather sad at finishing, mainly because I enjoyed Sterne’s company so much. And I really did need this after Gulliver’s Travels, which, great book though it certainly is, isn’t one that I expect to be returning to shortly. I can understand, though, why Orwell chose it among the half dozen or so of books that meant most to him. On balance, though, it is Sterne rather than Swift I think I tend to turn to.