EUGENE ONEGIN, A VERSE NOVEL BY A. PUSHKIN (BOOK REVIEW AND RECOMMENDATION)

Hello, dear readers! In this post, I shall review Eugene Onegin, a verse novel by Alexander Pushkin. I decided to reread this surprisingly short novel, so that's what I did. In fact, I finished it yesterday. If you want to read a Russian classic that isn't desperately long, this is a solid choice. 

I first read it years ago, probably during my student days. Speaking of student days, this is the novel that your Slavic literature professors will pull out of their hat when you define a novel as a work of prose. What about the famous verse novel Eugene Onegin, they will ask you with a triumphant smile on their lips (and that'll teach you the value of precision). 

“But whom to love?
To trust and treasure?
Who won’t betray us in the end?
And who’ll be kind enough to measure
Our words and deeds as we intend?”
Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin



My strict Slavic professors taught me many important things and I'm grateful for that. For example, the value of speaking fluently and enunciating your words properly. You couldn't get an A if you used a filler word in your exam (repeating any word, even something as simple as for example 'really' would automatically mean a B). They didn't grade us based only on our knowledge, but also on the way we spoke and presented ourselves. Our speech had to be absolutely perfect in order to get an A. This kind of perfectionism is stressful, but also ultimately useful, especially if you really want to perfect yourself.

 In contrast, my English professors (by that I mean professors from English speaking countries, not necessarily ethnically English, some of my teachers were Irish, some American, some Canadian and so on) were a lot more relaxed and easy-going during their oral exams. Upon meeting their students, they joked and talked about their allergies and random stuff. They didn't care about filler words in our speech. The English professors weren't as strict when it came to form and speaking. From them, I learned in other ways. I learned that professors can also be very friendly and casual. In addition, I learned something about the culture of English speaking countries. A culture that is, after all, quite different from my own Mediterranean Slavic culture, so the lesson was all the more appreciated. Every culture is beautiful in its own way. Slavic people get very serious when discussing literature. Perhaps that is why the Slavic literature professors are expected to speak in a rather formal way. There is beauty in this for this striving for perfection in form reflects the love we have for literature. English professors, on the other hand, seem to be less serious. I don't know did it have anything to do with the fact they were teaching in a foreign country, but they didn't seem to take themselves so seriously. From them I learned there are more playful ways to examine literature. It doesn't all have to be strict literary theories, formal speech and striving for perfection. One can also talk about literature from a personal perspective.



I wonder sometimes what kind of teacher am I?  Especially considering that I teach English? Am I strict like the Slavic teachers or friendly like the English teachers? The answer is that I really don't know, especially since I always end up being offered new English teaching jobs and gigs.  Sometimes I miss hearing myself teach in my native Slavic tongue.  When your profession is connected to languages in any way, there is always so many psychological, cultural and emotional things to consider in your every day life.  Language is such a complex field to work in! That's  both the curse and the blessing of working with languages. It's as beautiful as it is complex. Sometimes it seems it's all about asking yourself questions and not being quite sure about the answers. 

I imagine it might have been like that for Pushkin as well. As a writer, he perhaps ask himself many questions connected to language and identity. As a member of nobility, he would have been either bilingual or multilingual, yet he choose to write in his own language. Pushkin's considered the father of modern Russian literature and not without a reason.




EUGENE ONEGIN, A NOVEL BY A. PUSHKIN 4.6/5

Published in  mid 19th  century, this verse novel is one of the founding works of Russian literature. Not only is Onegin is considered a true classic of Russian literature, but its protagonist is considered the literary model for Russian heroes (especially so the superfluous men). 

As it was common in those days, Eugene Onegin was serialized (it was published in serial form between 1825 and 1832). The first complete edition was published a year later. However, the 1837 publication is considered the one most widely accepted.

A NOVEL THAT IS UNIQUE IN ITS SHAPE AND FORM

This novel is quite unique in many ways, mostly in that it is written in a quite an original rhyme scheme and made up of 389 fourteen-line stanzas (5,446 lines in all) of iambic tetrameter. Quite a poetical achievement! How does this verse novel functions? Well, it employs a framed narrative of sorts. 

A FRAMED NARRATIVE

The story is narrated by a narrator that might as well be Pushkin himself. The narrator mentions many of Pushkin's friends by name and seems to have a lot in common with the poet himself. Even if the poet dismisses the idea that the character is connected to him, one can assume there are autobiographical elements in both the narrator and the novel's protagonist. The narrator of Eugene Onegin could basically be considered to be a fictionalized version of Pushkin's public image.

   XLI

   How oft, when on a summer night
   Transparent o’er the Neva beamed
   The firmament in mellow light,
   And when the watery mirror gleamed
   No more with pale Diana’s rays,(17)
   We called to mind our youthful days—
   The days of love and of romance!
   Then would we muse as in a trance,
   Impressionable for an hour,
   And breathe the balmy breath of night;
   And like the prisoner’s our delight
   Who for the greenwood quits his tower,
   As on the rapid wings of thought
   The early days of life we sought.

   [Note 17: The midsummer nights in the latitude of St. Petersburg
   are a prolonged twilight.]

   XLII

   Absorbed in melancholy mood
   And o’er the granite coping bent,
   Onéguine meditative stood,
   E’en as the poet says he leant.(18)
   ’Tis silent all! Alone the cries
   Of the night sentinels arise
   And from the Millionaya afar(19)
   The sudden rattling of a car.
   Lo! on the sleeping river borne,
   A boat with splashing oar floats by,
   And now we hear delightedly
   A jolly song and distant horn;
   But sweeter in a midnight dream
   Torquato Tasso’s strains I deem.

   [Note 18: Refers to Mouravieff’s “Goddess of the Neva.” At St.
   Petersburg the banks of the Neva are lined throughout with
   splendid granite quays.]

   [Note 19:
   A street running parallel to the Neva, and leading from
   the Winter Palace to the Summer Palace and Garden.]

   XLIII

   Ye billows of blue Hadria’s sea,
   O Brenta, once more we shall meet
   And, inspiration firing me,
   Your magic voices I shall greet,
   Whose tones Apollo’s sons inspire,
   And after Albion’s proud lyre (20)
   Possess my love and sympathy.
   The nights of golden Italy
   I’ll pass beneath the firmament,
   Hid in the gondola’s dark shade,
   Alone with my Venetian maid,
   Now talkative, now reticent;
   From her my lips shall learn the tongue
   Of love which whilom Petrarch sung.

   [Note 20: The strong influence exercised by Byron’s genius on the
   imagination of Pushkin is well known. Shakespeare and other
   English dramatists had also their share in influencing his mind,
   which, at all events in its earlier developments, was of an
   essentially imitative type. As an example of his Shakespearian
   tastes, see his poem of “Angelo,” founded upon “Measure for Measure.”]





What is the narrator like? Well, he is certainly very educated. Every verse seem to have a literary, political or reference of some sort. If you are to read the fusnotes (especially in my edition translated by Ivan Slaming one of best Croatian translators) the novel suddenly becomes much longer.



   I

   “My uncle’s goodness is extreme,
   If seriously he hath disease;
   He hath acquired the world’s esteem
   And nothing more important sees;
   A paragon of virtue he!
   But what a nuisance it will be,
   Chained to his bedside night and day
   Without a chance to slip away.
   Ye need dissimulation base
   A dying man with art to soothe,
   Beneath his head the pillow smooth,
   And physic bring with mournful face,
   To sigh and meditate alone:
   When will the devil take his own!”
 II

   Thus mused a madcap young, who drove
   Through clouds of dust at postal pace,
   By the decree of Mighty Jove,
   Inheritor of all his race.
   Friends of Liudmila and Ruslan,(1)
   Let me present ye to the man,
   Who without more prevarication
   The hero is of my narration!
   Onéguine, O my gentle readers,
   Was born beside the Neva, where
   It may be ye were born, or there
   Have shone as one of fashion’s leaders.
   I also wandered there of old,
   But cannot stand the northern cold.(2)

   [Note 1: Ruslan and Liudmila, the title of Pushkin’s first
   important work, written 1817-20. It is a tale relating the adventures
   of the knight-errant Ruslan in search of his fair lady Liudmila, who
   has been carried off by a kaldoon, or magician.]

   [Note 2: Written in Bessarabia.]



The narrator isn't always intellectually inclined, sometimes he's emotional and his tone is less  scholarly and more personal. The narrator is a worldly and educated man, who is prone to humour, often humour of sarcastic and ironic kind, yet somehow he manages to be authentically warm and emotional nevertheless. The narrator is not solely focused on Onegin, for the narrator digresses at times to explores his thoughts on different matters. He makes comments about his country, his class and his social circle. However, the narration remains approachable and fairly easy to follow and read. 

This non complicated if erudite verse narration is what allows the novel to be truly a novel and not just a verse comment on its times. The narrator doesn't forget about the characters and the story. It definitely enables a psychological exploration of its characters and the development of the plot. The versus are beautifully written, but the reader can still concentrate on the plot and the characters. 

   IX

   How soon he learnt deception’s art,
   Hope to conceal and jealousy,
   False confidence or doubt to impart,
   Sombre or glad in turn to be,
   Haughty appear, subservient,
   Obsequious or indifferent!
   What languor would his silence show,
   How full of fire his speech would glow!
   How artless was the note which spoke
   Of love again, and yet again;
   How deftly could he transport feign!
 .....



Basically, this verse novel has a lot going for it. From memorable characters to an interesting if simple plot. Eugene Onegin manages to tell an entrancing story. It invokes feelings in its reader, while it tells its tale rich in both humour and tragedy. This novel is both humorous and sad in tone. 

The novel opens in the 1820s, with a bored Eugene Onegin. His father dies, not leaving Eugene with much due to debts. However, when his uncle dies, there's an inheritance so Eugene travels to his estate. Already bored of Saint Petersburg and the high society it might happen that Onegin ends up enjoying the land estate. At any rate, it gives the narrator the chance to contrast between the Saint Peterburg and rural life, a contrast that will be emphasized several times in the plot.  Moreover, the verses introduce us to a man Eugene befriends, a young poet only eighteen year of age. Eugene is not much older himself, but due to his dandy lifestyle, Eugene feels older than he really is.

VIII


   This he believed: a kindred spirit

   Impelled to union with his own

   Lay languishing both day and night—

   Waiting his coming—his alone!

   He deemed his friends but longed to make

   Great sacrifices for his sake!

   That a friend’s arm in every case

   Felled a calumniator base!

   That chosen heroes consecrate,

   Friends of the sons of every land,

   Exist—that their immortal band

   Shall surely, be it soon or late,

   Pour on this orb a dazzling light

   And bless mankind with full delight.


   IX


   Compassion now or wrath inspires

   And now philanthropy his soul,

   And now his youthful heart desires

   The path which leads to glory’s goal.

   His harp beneath that sky had rung

   Where sometime Goethe, Schiller sung,

   And at the altar of their fame

   He kindled his poetic flame.

   But from the Muses’ loftiest height

   The gifted songster never swerved,

   But proudly in his song preserved

   An ever transcendental flight;

   His transports were quite maidenly,

   Charming with grave simplicity.


   X


   He sang of love—to love a slave.

   His ditties were as pure and bright

   As thoughts which gentle maidens have,

   As a babe’s slumber, or the light

   Of the moon in the tranquil skies,

   Goddess of lovers’ tender sighs.

   He sang of separation grim,

   Of what not, and of distant dim,

   Of roses to romancers dear;

   To foreign lands he would allude,

   Where long time he in solitude

   Had let fall many a bitter tear:

   He sang of life’s fresh colours stained

   Before he eighteen years attained.


   XI


   Since Eugene in that solitude

   Gifts such as these alone could prize,

   A scant attendance Lenski showed

   At neighbouring hospitalities.

   He shunned those parties boisterous;

   The conversation tedious

   About the crop of hay, the wine,

   The kennel or a kindred line,

   Was certainly not erudite

   Nor sparkled with poetic fire,

   Nor wit, nor did the same inspire

   A sense of social delight,

   But still more stupid did appear

   The gossip of their ladies fair.


   XII


   Handsome and rich, the neighbourhood

   Lenski as a good match received,—

   Such is the country custom good;

   All mothers their sweet girls believed

   Suitable for this semi-Russian.

   He enters: rapidly discussion

   Shifts, tacks about, until they prate

   The sorrows of a single state.

   Perchance where Dunia pours out tea

   The young proprietor we find;

   To Dunia then they whisper: Mind!

   And a guitar produced we see,

   And Heavens! warbled forth we hear:

   Come to my golden palace, dear!(25)


   [Note 25: From the lay of the Russalka, i.e. mermaid of the Dnieper.]





   XIII


   But Lenski, having no desire

   Vows matrimonial to break,

   With our Onéguine doth aspire

   Acquaintance instantly to make.

   They met. Earth, water, prose and verse,

   Or ice and flame, are not diverse

   If they were similar in aught.

   At first such contradictions wrought

   Mutual repulsion and ennui,

   But grown familiar side by side

   On horseback every day they ride—

   Inseparable soon they be.

   Thus oft—this I myself confess—

   Men become friends from idleness.




Lensky and Onegin become friends, whether from idleness or not, it's for the reader to judge.  Lensky tells him of his love Olga. Lensky and Olga have known each other since they were kids and their love feels very innocent. Lensky accepts Onegin into his inner circle, invites him to meet not only his own family but also to dine with the family of his bride to be Olga Larina.

XXI

   When but a boy he Olga loved
   Unknown as yet the aching heart,
   He witnessed tenderly and moved
   Her girlish gaiety and sport.
   Beneath the sheltering oak tree’s shade
   He with his little maiden played,
   Whilst the fond parents, friends thro’ life,
   Dreamed in the future man and wife.
   And full of innocent delight,
   As in a thicket’s humble shade,
   Beneath her parents’ eyes the maid
   Grew like a lily pure and white,
   Unseen in thick and tangled grass
   By bee and butterfly which pass.


 XXIII

   Obedient she had ever been
   And modest, cheerful as the morn,
   As a poetic life serene,
   Sweet as the kiss of lovers sworn.
   Her eyes were of cerulean blue,
   Her locks were of a golden hue,
   Her movements, voice and figure slight,
   All about Olga—to a light
   Romance of love I pray refer,
   You’ll find her portrait there, I vouch;
   I formerly admired her much
   But finally grew bored by her.
   But with her elder sister I
   Must now my stanzas occupy.

Eugene is not particularly impressed with Olga. He describes Olga as a modest if pretty girl.  Lensky's love interest is not an only child, she has a sister Tatyana who is to become an important character in the novel. Eugene shows an interest in her sister Tatyana. Olga's sister Tatyana (alternatively spelled as Tatiana) is more interesting because she is not ordinary.



   XXIV

   Tatiana was her appellation.
   We are the first who such a name
   In pages of a love narration
   With such a perversity proclaim.
   But wherefore not?—’Tis pleasant, nice,
   Euphonious, though I know a spice
   It carries of antiquity
   And of the attic. Honestly,
   We must admit but little taste
   Doth in us or our names appear(26)
   (I speak not of our poems here),
   And education runs to waste,
   Endowing us from out her store
   With affectation,—nothing more.

   [Note 26: The Russian annotator remarks: “The most euphonious
   Greek names, e.g. Agathon, Philotas, Theodora, Thekla, etc.,
   are used amongst us by the lower classes only.”]

   XXV

   And so Tatiana was her name,
   Nor by her sister’s brilliancy
   Nor by her beauty she became
   The cynosure of every eye.
   Shy, silent did the maid appear
   As in the timid forest deer,
   Even beneath her parents’ roof
   Stood as estranged from all aloof,
   Nearest and dearest knew not how
   To fawn upon and love express;
   A child devoid of childishness
   To romp and play she ne’er would go:
   Oft staring through the window pane
   Would she in silence long remain.



Her silent nature puts her into contrast with Olga. In fact, you could say that Tatyana and Olga are, in many ways, complete opposites.  Eugene is not the only one struck here, for Tatyana shows an interest in him as well. You could say that Tatyana is instantly drawn to Onegin. Is it because of her poetic and silent nature? Is it because he is something new and different? Is it because she didn't really know anyone else? Or is it because they are truly kindred spirits? A reader can ask so many questions. The narrator certainly devotes a lot of time to describing Tatyana, so we know right from the start, she will play a crucial part:

   XXVII

   But Tania ne’er displayed a passion
   For dolls, e’en from her earliest years,
   And gossip of the town and fashion
   She ne’er repeated unto hers.
   Strange unto her each childish game,
   But when the winter season came
   And dark and drear the evenings were,
   Terrible tales she loved to hear.
   And when for Olga nurse arrayed
   In the broad meadow a gay rout,
   All the young people round about,
   At prisoner’s base she never played.
   Their noisy laugh her soul annoyed,
   Their giddy sports she ne’er enjoyed.

   XXVIII

   She loved upon the balcony
   To anticipate the break of day,
   When on the pallid eastern sky
   The starry beacons fade away,
   The horizon luminous doth grow,
   Morning’s forerunners, breezes blow
   And gradually day unfolds.
   In winter, when Night longer holds
   A hemisphere beneath her sway,
   Longer the East inert reclines
   Beneath the moon which dimly shines,
   And calmly sleeps the hours away,
   At the same hour she oped her eyes
   And would by candlelight arise.





 Tatyana eventually writes a letter to Onegin, bearing her emotions and confessing her love to him. That's where the plot really starts. Not long after, it's her name's day and Onegin is invited. Will he come? Yes, he comes and they talk. She learns his answer. What is it? I won't say because I don't want spoilers in this review. I will say that their story is far from over. What follows you will have to find on your own as readers.

“Tatyana’s Letter to Onegin

 I’m writing you this declaration— 

What more can I in candour say? 

It may be now your inclination

 To scorn me and to turn away; 

But if my hapless situation 

Evokes some pity for my woe, 

You won’t abandon me, I know. 

I first tried silence and evasion; 

Believe me, you‘d have never learned

 My secret shame, had I discerned 

The slightest hope that on occasion— 

But once a week—I’d see your face,

 Behold you at our country place, 

Might hear you speak a friendly greeting, 

Could say a word to you; and then, 

Could dream both day and night again 

Of but one thing, till our next meeting. 

They say you like to be alone 

And find the country unappealing; 

We lack, I know, a worldly tone,

 But still, we welcome you with feeling. 

Why did you ever come to call?

 In this forgotten country dwelling 

I’d not have known you then at all, 

Nor known this bitter heartache’s swelling.

 Perhaps, when time had helped in quelling 

The girlish hopes on which I fed,

 I might have found (who knows?) another

 And been a faithful wife and mother, 

Contented with the life I led. 

Another! No! In all creation 

There’s no one else whom I’d adore; 

The heavens chose my destination

 And made me thine for evermore! 

My life till now has been a token

 In pledge of meeting you, my friend; 

And in your coming, God has spoken, 

You‘ll be my guardian till the end…."


CONCLUSION- THE UNDISPUTABLE LITERARY MERIT OF A TRUE CLASSIC

 What makes this novel so famous, revered and respected? First of all, the form for it is truly a triumph of  poetry. The beauty of its verse narrative is certainly worth admiring.  Secondly, this novel asks so many questions and invokes philosophical meditation. One must appreciate it for its rich social commentary as well as for its personal  and philosophical exploration of life, death and love. It is a novel that questions the very time it is set in, referencing and examining ennui, convention, and passion. Thirdly, it is a novel with memorable characters. The characters of Tatiana and Eugene are timeless for a reason. Fourthly, the novel is quite easy to follow and read. It's neither too long, nor too short. It offers food for thought, but it's not overbearing. It's truly a work of art!


“People are so like their first mother Eve: what they are given doesn't take their fancy. The serpent is forever enticing them to come to him, to the tree of mystery. They must have the forbidden fruit, or paradise will not be paradise for them.”
Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin


For anyone who might be wondering, the location for the photography is Međugorje in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Because I'm pretty sustainable in my fashion choices, I'm wearing clothing items I've had for years: an animal print dress, a camel coat and brown boots.

Thank you for reading and visiting!

Comments

  1. Thanks for another recommendation for reading Ivana! You and your husband look very beautiful :) And, yes, that cake in front of you looks so delicious :)))

    ReplyDelete
  2. Always great to find a novel in verse. Thanks for your back story of your native language too. Loving the color palette of this outfit as well. Such a fascinating post, indeed! And such yummy foods!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I will definitely take note on this author. Thanks so much! Lovely travel photos too..and your sustainability too. Wonderful to see your post! All the best to your creativity!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great Outfit, i love the photos.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thank you for the introduction to this novel, and I thought your discourse on the difference between your Slavic professors and your English-speaking ones was very interesting. I have little or no knowledge of Mediterranean Slavic culture, but from my experience, my French and German language teachers have always been stricter and less casual than my English teachers. Definitely food for thought! xxx

    ReplyDelete
  6. No es un genero que suelo leer, pero le daré una oportunidad. Te mando un beso.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I know this novel but I have never read them but I see it is worth to read cause it is classic:-)
    Awesome pictures- I can feel spirit of spring on them xx

    ReplyDelete

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All your comments mean a lot to me, even the criticism. Naravno da mi puno znači što ste uzeli vrijeme da nešto napišete, pa makar to bila i kritika. Per me le vostre parole sono sempre preziose anche quando si tratta di critiche.

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