Thursday, 10 March 2016
Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
published between 1825 and 1837 in various versions
translated from the Russian by Stanley Mitchell
Chapter 6 stanza 18
If he had known what wound was burning
My dear Tatiana’s heart! If she
Had been aware, in some way learning,
If she’d been able to foresee
That Lensky, Eugene would be vying
To find a grave for one to lie in;
Who knows, her love perhaps might then
Have reconciled the friends again!
But no one had as yet discovered ,
Even by chance, their angry feud.
On everything Eugene was mute,
Tatiana quietly pined and suffered;
The nurse might have just known of it,
But she, alas, was slow of wit.
commentary: Links with two recent entries: Vesna Goldsworthy’s Gorsky has a strong Pushkin thread, and Tatiana was one of my women-making-their-moves in a Guardian piece for February 29th.
Eugene Onegin is a verse novel - a classic of Russian literature, as Pushkin is a hero of Russian literature. Tchaikovsky then wrote an opera based on the book - it is one of my favourites, a sweeping and romantic and very sad story played out in incredible, memorable, beautiful music.
Both book and opera tell the story of the eponymous Eugene, a rather Byronic man-about-town, who visits his newly-inherited country estate and makes friends with a neighbour, the poet Lensky. The two young men go over to the Larin estate, where a widow is bringing up her two daughters, Tatiana and Olga. Lensky is courting Olga very seriously: Tatiana and Onegin seem to make a good pair too.
Tatiana – who reads novels and feels she doesn’t fit in – writes a letter to Onegin (who considers the whole setup to be rather provincial and old-fashioned and uncultured), saying she is in love with him. When he sees her, he says he is unfit for love, and fears that there is no future for them. Harsh, but fair enough. But then he ends up by saying she really shouldn’t have written a letter like that - not everyone would take it as well as he would, she should be more restrained and proper. It’s just words, but still is one of the most crashing and crushing and humiliating moments in any book ever. Any woman reading it can imagine how she would feel at this point. And there is worse to come.
At a party for Tatiana’s nameday, Onegin gets drunk and flirts and dances with Olga, who plays along. Lensky is so upset that he challenges Onegin to a duel.
It ends badly: Onegin kills Lensky, and then goes off to travel the world, restless and unhappy. After some years, he returns to St Petersburg. Meanwhile, Tatiana has made a very good marriage to a Prince: she is now an important society matron, a Princess. Onegin realizes he has always loved her, and tries to persuade her to leave her husband and come with him. But she refuses.
It is very sad, although readers and opera lovers are generally of the opinion that Tatiana is sacrificing herself and Onegin to her marriage vows and convention. I think that, although she does say she loves Onegin, she is maybe taking a considered decision on what will make her happy in the future. Onegin is a very well-drawn character, but not a nice one, and not reliable. I feel sorry for him at the end, but I don’t feel sorry for Tatiana, because I think there’s no need, and I don’t think she is storing up unhappiness for herself. Tolstoy was a great admirer of the book, and the intro to my edition suggests that Anna Karenina describes what might have happened to Tatiana had she given in to Onegin….
According to the critic James Wood, Pushkin said to friends while writing the end of Onegin: ‘Do you know, my Tatiana has rejected my Eugene. I never expected it of her.’
Rather chillingly, Pushkin’s own life ended when he fought a duel over his wife’s affections. He was 37.
Pushkin’s Queen of Spades (also an opera) is on the blog here, and there’s a link with Nabokov’s Speak, Memory here. Nabokov published his own, slightly controversial, translation of Eugene Onegin in 1964.
The picture of the duel scene is an illustration by Repin.
The picture of Tatiana is by Klodt.