Ideas from the scrap heap, posts I thought about writing. I mean, pick a stanza of Eugene Onegin at random. There will be something interesting in it. Or work through a chapter, not just the famous duel in Chapter 6, but any of them.
Or write about the dancing, or the furniture, or the food:
and in passing
I’ll just remark, my verses talk
as much of banquets and the cork
and eatables beyond all classing
as yours did, Homer, godlike lord,
whom thirty centuries have adored! (Five: XXXVI, Johnston)
But see One: XVI for a feast, including a “Strasbourg pie,” for which I need Nabokov’s note. It is a goose-liver pie (not a terrine):
The pie was un vrai gibraltar (as Brillat-Savarin describes it somewhere) that had to be attacked and “cut into by a carving knife” (as Brummell says in a letter). (Commentary Book I, p. 74)
Or if drink is preferred, try Four: XLVI, in which Pushkin renounces champagne for “sedate Bordeaux,” for his health of course:
But you, Bordeaux, are like a friend
who is, in grief and in calamity,
at all times, everywhere, a comrade,
ready to render us a service
or share our quiet leisure.
Long live Bordeaux, our friend! (Nabokov)
“Both this and the previous stanza, XLV, are very poor, bubbling with imported platitudes,” says Nabokov (Commentary, I, 483). Similar language was used in Toby Keith’s 2011 smash “Red Solo Cup,” which I will forever after call Pushkinian.
Nabokov’s commentary eventually inspired Pale Fire, and by that standard it is disappointing, since it is not written by a madman, but still (VN is working on Onegin’s thirty brushes):
The boredom of reading through the English, German, Polish, etc. “translations” of our poem was much too great to even be contemplated, but I find in my files copies of the following atrocious, incredibly “expanded,” and abominably vulgar versions of this stanza. [examples snipped] (I, 102)
Or how about, in an evisceration of Babette Deutsch’s version:
The sins of omission are too simple to be noted; but there is one sin of commission that is typical of this particular version of EO, in which all kinds of images and details are bountifully added to Pushkin. What, for instance, are those birds and trees doing here: “And wake the birds in beech and larch”? Why this and not, for instance: “And take in words to bleach and starch” or any other kind of nonsense? The charming point is that beeches and larches, not being endemic in west central Russia, are the very last trees that Pushkin would imagine growing in the Larins’ park. (1, 286-7)
After that, you can bet there ain’t no birds or trees in Charles Johnston’s translation of 2: XXVIII.
Nabokov begins that stanza “On the balcony she liked \ to prevene Aurora’s rise,” and here we have another element that makes Nabokov’s translation something more than plain prose. “To prevene,” huh? The Russian is Preduprezdhát’, obsolete in Russian so fair game in English, says Nabokov (see Commentary I, 285). I remember that Edmund Wilson particularly hated these archaic words, proof that immigrant Nabokov’s English was better than his.
I began the series of posts with “Where do you trample vernant blooms?” Some more:
along the highway \ one heard their lonely shandrydans (Two: V)
with neglection \ harking their ringing voice (Three: XL)
a taboon of cast steeds \ the breeder from the steppes has driven (Onegin’s Journey IX)
Even a literal translation can have a personality.
Thanks again to Tanglewood for inspiring my return to Eugene Onegin.