The very thought of reading a verse novel wasn’t exactly comforting: I found Sir Charles Johnston’s translation of Eugene Onegin thrust into my reluctant mitts last week by a friend who is totally enamoured of both the story and the opera based on this poem. It is certainly a strange genre – a verse novel that claims realism as a key element (or at least for which realism is claimed as a major virtue). The octosyllabic line, and the limited range of rhyming words in English makes realism much more difficult to achieve, and as I am schooled on the poetic realism of Shakespeare’s heroes, who speak in blank iambic pentameters, Pushkin’s verse does seem strange to me, and certainly not real in the same way as Hamlet.
Some lines easily show the difficulty of translating this into English – yet better informed judges than me assert this is an excellent translation.
How could she? why, he’d never heard….
scarce out of bibs, already fickle,
fresh from the cot, an infant pickle,
already studying to intrigue,
already high in treason’s league!
An infant pickle??? There were other occasions when my mind boggled, just like this – though even here, the rest of the lines and rhymes suggest the skill of the translator.
There are patches of beautiful poetry – descriptions of Russian landscapes in the different seasons, Tanya’s nightmares vividly evoked, the petty rural domesticity of the earlier sections, the richness of the court where Tanya, now married, is found at the end of the novel.
Tanya (profoundly Russian being,
herself not knowing how or why)
in Russian winters thrilled at seeing
the cold perfection of the sky,
hoar frost and sun in freezing weather,
sledges and tardy dawns together
with the pink glow the snows assume…
Pushkin is also rich and subtle in his ironic treatment of Russian characters and situations – moving from flowery romance to mundane events in a way that neatly satirises his targets. Of Lensky, the young, over-romantic and sentimental poet, one verse concludes:
he sang of lifetime’s yellowed page –
when not quite eighteen years of age.
Similarly, of Tanya’s romantic illusions about Onegin:
this Grandison of hers was splendid,
a fop, a punter on the cards,
and junior ensign in the guards.
It’s a story of love and perhaps a tragedy in the true sense; the end is not death, but Onegin faces consequences caused by his own poor moral choices, whilst, in a way that is often found in Coronation Street, it is the woman who finally makes a strong and correct moral stance, holding society together with her love and self sacrifice. There’s violence and beauty, love and death by duelling – a fate that eventually befell Pushkin himself: in this sense we can see the contemporaneous relevance of the story. What I liked most was the romantic beauty of the settings, and descriptions of the mundane, bourgeois life of Russia at this time:
Her loving spouse with approbation
left her to follow her own line,
trusted her without hesitation,
and wore his dressing gown to dine.
Speaking of which – lunch is ready. Yum yum, as they say on Australian Masterchef