We all enjoy a fiction that attacks fiction don’t we? Madame Bovary and Don Quixote and so on. Eugene Onegin belongs on the list. Like the Cervantes novel, Pushkin’s poem both attacks and rehabilitates.
The title character, the bored dandy, is not much of a reader. The quotation I used yesterday, about how books were dullness, deceit and raving, ends with Onegin decorating his bookshelves “in taffeta of mourning black” (One: XLIV, Johnston). Books are dead. Later we discover that Onegin does read, but narrowly – Lord Byron, Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe, Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer. He seems to only like books in which he identifies with the main character. Literature as a mirror.
Near the end of the novel Onegin turns to books to escape from heartache – “Gibbon and Rousseau, Manzoni and Chamfort… and at times even a Russian” (Eight: XXXV, Johnston). Not surprisingly, none of this works. It does serve to remind me of one of the obstacles facing the reader of Eugene Onegin, a reason Nabokov wrote a thousand pages of commentary, why the Penguin edition still has over a hundred, one page of notes per two pages of text. Of course I have read all of those authors (the ones I have not read I hid in the ellipses), and of course you have read them. But some unintended distance is introduced. Or so I guess. This never seems to bother the Janeites.
The heroine’s reading is used more ingeniously. Young, innocent Tatyana Larin seems to be as corrupted by literature as Emma Roualt when the novel begins, although her models are more elevated. The perfect man is the title character of Samuel Richardson’s endless Sir Charles Grandison (1753), the perfect heroine the title character of Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise (1761).
From early on she loved romances,
they were her only food… and so
she fell in love with all the fancies
of Richardson and Rousseau.
Her father, kindly, open-hearted,
but dwelling in an age departed,
could see no harm in books; himself
he never took one from the shelf,
thought them a pointless peccadillo;
and cared not what his daughter kept
by way of secret tome that slept
until the dawn beneath her pillow,
His wife, just like Tatyana, had
on Richardson gone raving mad. (Two: XXIX, Johnston, ellipses in original)
The latter experience is common for readers of Grandison.
Tatyana is not completely corrupted, though, since it turns out she has not read Byron or Melmoth or similar books – too naughty, I suppose. She only reads them after she has fallen in love with her idealized Onegin, once he leaves his estate after his stupid duel (Sir Charles Grandison refuses to duel). She in fact reads Onegin’s books, in Onegin’s library (“Lord Byron’s portrait on the wall”). She reads not just the books but Onegin’s marginal notes, even noting passages “where a sharp nail has made a dent.” She reads, in other words, not to find herself but to find Onegin, and what does she find?
Just an apparition,
a shadow, null and meaningless,
a Muscovite in Harold’s dress,
a modish second-hand edition,
a glossary of smart argot …
a parody, an empty show? (Seven: XXIV, Johnston, ellipses in original).
Fiction is both cause and cure. Onegin just mimics his fictional models. Tatyana critiques them. He drifts, she matures.
Thomas Carlyle has a line in Sartor Resartus that always makes me laugh – “Close thy Byron; open they Goethe.” Pushkin proves Carlyle wrong. Tatyana finds wisdom by opening someone else’s Byron.