The Tanglewood book blog ran a readalong of Eugene Onegin (1825-32), Alexander Pushkin’s novel – or novella, or short story – in verse, a high point of Russian poetry and not so bad in English translation, either. The Tanglewood link should lead to many of the readalongers. They read on a schedule and posted regularly, which was enjoyable to read. Some Pushkin every week.
Onegin is a bored St. Petersburg dandy who inherits a country estate where he becomes entangled with young Tatiana, who falls in love with him, and young poet Lensky, with whom he fights one of the earliest in a long line of idiotic Russian literary duels. These are the only three characters of real consequence, and I am perhaps giving too much credit to poor Lensky.
The two translations I have both give the poem two hundred pages. If it were printed as prose, without the stanzaic form, it would be about half that, and if it were reduced to the story as such – I am imagining Chekhov retelling the story as some sort of formal exercise – I doubt it would need more than fifty pages. The “novel” is as digressive as Tristram Shandy, or at least Byron’s Don Juan. For example, Pushkin is describing Onegin’s dressing table:
Amber on Tsargrad’s pipes,
porcelain and bronzes on a table,
and – of the pampered senses joy –
perfumes in crystal cut with facets;
combs, little files of steel,
straight scissors, curvate one,
and brushes of thirty kinds –
these for the nails, these for the teeth.
Rousseau (I shall observe in passing)
could not understand how dignified Grimm
dared clean his nails in front of him,
the eloquent crackbrain.
The advocate of liberty and rights
was in the present case not right at all. (One: XXIV)
This is Vladimir Nabokov’s translation. One might object that this ain’t poetry. One might object that the first few lines ain’t English, although they ai, however bent the syntax. Nabokov’s is a literal translation that sacrifices rhyme and rhythm but introduces no extraneous matter, the great if necessary sin of any translator attempting any sort of poetry. He keeps all of the wonderful stuff, which is want I want here.
The entire passage – virtually the entire opening chapter – this rapid tour of a life of idle partying in the capital, is a digression from the story of Eugene and Tatiana, but note the digression within the digression, where the mention of nail files triggers an irrelevant anecdote about Rousseau. It is thematically relevant, part of the patterning of the novel, but in this spot it mostly serves to characterize the easily distracted narrator.
Onegin, having filed his nails and brushed his teeth is off to a ball. The narrator begins to describe the ball but wanders into the famous “foot fetish” section, where the dancers remind him of a beloved pair of feet from his past:
Ah, little feet, little feet! Where are you now?
Where do you trample vernant blooms?
Fostered in Oriental mollitude,
on the northern sad snow,
you left no prints:
you liked the yielding rugs’
It is long since I would forget for you
the thirst for fame and praises,
the country of my fathers, and confinement?
The happiness of youthful years has vanished
as on the meadows your light trace. (One: XXXI)
Mais où sont les pieds d'antan! Another advantage of literal translation is that with some luck the rhetorical mode of the passage is clear. Is this supposed to sound ridiculous? I mean, “fostered in Oriental mollitude”! Yes, yes it is. Eugene Onegin is a masterpiece of mode, parody, and allusion. Also image, character, and story. Also, I am told, Russian verse. I will have to live without that.