Sunday, August 17, 2008

Book #16 - Eugene Onegin (Alexander Pushkin)

I'm now in this pattern of reading books that have nothing to do with the previous book I just read. With this latest book I've gone from the deep south at the turn of the 20th century to the frozen hinterlands of Russia at the turn of the 18th century. Time to break out the ice cold vodka! I mean, reading a Russian novel is a good enough excuse, right? Well, too late anyway...

Alexander Pushkin is considered the father of modern Russian literature (I read that on Wikipedia, so you know it has to be true). His "Eugene Onegin" is a novel in verse. In other words, it's a really long poem that tells a story. From what I've read, translating Russian poetry into English is not so easy, and that makes sense to me...I mean, you have to translate the meaning and all the nuance, as well as make it rhyme, in order to capture the full effect of the original. And frankly, this is probably just not possible in many cases. The translation I read is by Charles Johnston, and it follows Pushkin's rhyme scheme. Vladimir Nabokov famously translated "Eugene Onegin" into English when he became disgusted with the other translations available at the time. He focused on getting the exact meaning right, and decided to ditch the rhyme scheme and translate it as free verse. I read a bit of Nabakov's translation just to see what it was like, and I have to say I liked the effect of reading the Johnston translation better, precisely because of the fact that it rhymed. I mean, if I'm gonna read a novel in verse, then WTF, let's at least have some rhyming action! And I really enjoyed the effect of reading page after page of rhyming creates a certain rhythm that propels the reader forward through the work. It's like the words are dancing on the page (or is that the vodka talking?). Anyway, since I can't read Russian, I have no idea how faithful either of these translations is to the original, so I just decided to pretend the version I read was close enough and went with it.

Anyway, the plot (spoiler alert!): "Eugene Onegin" is the story of a young Russian aristocrat dandy coincidentally named Eugene Onegin. He's young, well off, and bored with his frivolous lifestyle. He inherits a country estate from an uncle, so he decides to go and live there. He quickly befriends a young Russian poet named Lensky who lives on a nearby estate. One day Lensky invites him over to dinner at Olga's house, a girl Lensky is courting. At dinner Olga's sister, Tatyana, a brooding young woman, falls totally in love with Eugene. She writes Eugene a letter confessing her love. Eugene meets with her, and tries to let her down gently. He's a nice guy, I think, but wants to cat about with the ladies and not be tied down to some country gal. Tatyana is crushed, and still pines for Eugene. A long time later, Lensky again invites Eugene to Olga's house, for a small dinner party. Eugene reluctantly goes, and is pissed off when he finds it's not a small dinner party, but a huge social extravaganza of the type Eugene hates. Eugene's angry at Lensky and seeks payback by dancing and flirting with Olga at the party. Lensky is outraged, and challenges Eugene to a duel. Eugene, instead of apologizing and telling his friend he didn't mean anything by all this (he really didn't), just says "Yeah, like whatever" and agrees to the duel. Well, of course, Eugene, without trying, ends up killing Lensky. Oops. Eugene feels bad, and leaves the countryside for Moscow. This gives Tatyana, who's still in love with Eugene, the opportunity to go over to Eugene's estate and look through his library to see what kind of man he really is. When she reads his books, and notes the passages he's commented on or underlined, she realizes he's perhaps not all that clever after all. Flash forward two years...Tatyana has moved to Moscow because her mom wants her to find a husband. She meets a general and marries him. She becomes a socialite and host. Then she runs into Eugene at a party, and he's like "Woah, you're not the same old country girl any more! I was an idiot!" He sends her letters telling her he loves her now and he can't be without her. And in the final climactic scene, she tells him that he had his chance, and that while she's not all that into being the married society lady and she still loves Eugene, she's not going to leave her husband or cheat on him, and why the hell is Eugene writing these letters anyway, because they're not doing her any good. The end.

This is a great story in a number of ways, but one thing I particularly enjoyed was how the power structure of the relationship between Eugene and Tatyana changes. When he first meets her and blows her off, he appears as the sophisticated, worldly man, spurning the advances of an innocent country woman. But at the end, Tatyana is now a sophisticated society woman, spurning the rather desperate and pathetic advances of a washed up jerk. I had the sense that while she maybe does really still love Eugene, that she doesn't like or respect him anymore.

This is the first book I've read in this project where I really felt I'd love to sit in a class and listen to lectures about this work, and discuss it with other readers. There are notes in the back of the version I read which, among other things, discuss all the literary works that Pushkin is referring to in the poem. I feel like there's loads of stuff in here that I'm probably not getting...literary references, historical references, etc. And this gave me an idea...why doesn't someone write/publish a series of guidebooks to classic works of literature written for intelligent adults? Yeah, there are Cliff Notes and Spark Notes, but I'm thinking of something that goes into more level discussions of literary works that are written with intelligent readers in mind who are not academics or even necessarily former English majors. I dunno, maybe it's just my vodka-addled brain going on a tangent here, but it seems like there might be a market for this kind of thing. Well, maybe. I'm a scientist...what do I know about business?

One final question for any readers out there: does anyone know how "Onegin" is pronounced? Is it oh-nay-gin or oh-nuh-gin? Is the g in "gin" pronounced like the alcohol, or as in the word "beginning"? Let me know if you have a clue!


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Johnston's translation is an attempt to convert Nabokov's unpoetic, literal translation into something a non-scholar can read. So you get the best of both worlds.

My understanding of the pronunciation - this is from Nabokov's commentary - is "Oh-NAY-gin", "gin" like "beginning". And Eugene is "u-ZHAIN". More or less French.

notpoems said...

I love the idea of "background books" for intelligent readers! Sign me up...

Anonymous said...

Eugene is pronounced exactly like Eugene, because its a translation of the Russian Evgenii, or Yevgenii, into French/English Eugene.

Charles Fortner said...

I'll stop back by...Enjoyed your take on All The King's Men. I live in New Orleans and Charity Hospital stands there like some formerly venerated saint fallen into venality and decriitude. They'e afraid to tear it down because there is so much asbestos in it. I knew people who know Huey. OH, don't publish this.

I wanted to affirm your project and the good humor you are pouring into it. I'll look forward to reading your response to Absalom, Absalom.

I also like the Movie version of Onegin and Tchaikowski's Opera-although it hs to be a really great production to "live". Lenski's area is one of the better things he wrote.

I just finished Zola's The Belly of Paris, and even intranslation the description of Les Halles in the first chapter is one of the better and most evocative passages of description written. And he was a communist, which I much admire.

Hang in there. I suppose you can just bring up a few boxes of liquor to nurse you through Faulkner but don't let me encourage you-there is a great little video of Shelby Foote being interviewed about Faulkner and he sets the record somewhat straight about his fondness for liquid involvement. Also another about Will's stint teaching at the University of Virginia "since when has love had anything to do with respectability." I think he enjoyed every moment.

Better than Walker Percy is his uncle's book "Lanterns on the Levee" (William Alexander Percy) very politically uncorrect in so many ways, but it has the recipe I use for Mint Juleps. WAP was gay by the way. I could tell it after reading just a few pages. He lived life large anyway.

I'm helping some idiot from New York get various New Orleans nonsense organized, Storyville in Particular. The closest I've been able to get to Storyville and gay life (firsthand) has been to be referred to an ancient black man nominated "Mother Moses". He doesn't get out much, but eventually......