2 January '21

Eugene Onegin

by Alexander Pushkin

4/5

Surprisingly modern-feeling, for a novel in verse that's almost 200 years old at this point.

I like my novels to have a message. Don't get me wrong--I'm always up for a bit of narrative swashbuckling with no further end than entertainment--but if a novel uses its narrative to make a point about the world, or people, or how to live my life, or how other people live their lives: it sticks with me. I can take that novel away with me, though it's up on the shelf.

Onegin satisfies on that front. Pushkin's commentary isn't particularly pointed: it's more of an exploration. There's not a ton of story on display here, but through a series of episodes, Pushkin produces an effective exploration of how we create our personal characters, how we come to let our social and cultural networks determine how we live our lives, and how depression can overwhelm us and turn us into different people than we'd like to be (although Pushkin doesn't address Onegin's ennui qua depression, exactly, I think that through a modern lens it's not a stretch to say that Onegin (the character) is wildly, spirallingly depressed).

From a formalistic perspective, it's nothing short of outstanding. I've read that Pushkin doesn't read very well in translation, but Charles Johnston's translation definitely captured a certain voice (whether it's Pushkin's or not remains to be seen: I don't speak Russian). And the internal stanza rhyme structure and rhythm matched, from what I understand, how Pushkin himself wrote. The fact that the Pushkin stanza is extremely formally strict speaks to Johnston's skill in translating not only the meaning, but the shape of Pushkin's verse.

Continuing on the formalistic criticism: Onegin stands out from 10,000 feet as well. The book is structured largely symmetrically between its two main characters:

  • Eugene: Rejects Tatyana's proposal -> gets disillusioned -> gets rejected by Tatyana
  • Tatyana: Gets rejected by Onegin -> get disillusioned -> rejects Onegin's proposal

Of course there's a bit more to it than that, but I like big structural gestures like this. How the whole book rhymes with itself. Not that I think it necessarily means anything; but Onegin just feels like a big symmetrical building full of lovely rooms that you want to spend plenty of time in.