Thursday, February 20, 2014

The eloquent crackbrain - joining the Eugene Onegin readalong

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’
luxurious contact.
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.


  1. Ah, I dearly love Russian literature. More so than poetry. Still, off to see the particulars of this read-along.

  2. Another bored dandy? Russian literature is full of them. Are there actual productive protagonists in 19th century literature?

  3. A love of Russian literature that does not include reading Pushkin - not necessarily loving him, who cares about that - is not true love. Pushkin wrote quite a bit of prose fiction, too.

    Yes, Miguel, Eugene Onegin is the original Superfluous Man. You can see why the much-hated scene in Anna Karenina where Levin works in the fields with his peasants is so important. The gentleman is working! Unbelievable!

    The other productive Russian protagonists, using productive in a perverse sense, are soldiers and bureaucrats.

    1. Who said I didn't love Pushkin? I was not throwing him out, so to speak, nor his poetry.

      Sadly, the readalong is too far advanced for me at this point. I'll have to carry on with Pushkin on my own.

    2. Ah, I misunderstood. I am very late on this readalong, but the book persists, and no one can stop me from writing about it.

    3. As soon as I wrote that I thought of Levin, but he doesn't feel protagonist-y enough for me.

  4. True, there are some productive crooks, con men, and killers.

  5. That forgotten genius, Jean Paul, on his masterpiece The Awkward Age writes this little joke: 'Be wise young Poet, and think of your father, whose estate, like that of a Russian gentleman, consists only of peasants, sadly just one, and that one, himself!'

  6. I thought I had never heard of that Jean Paul book, but I see it is the one Schumann liked so much.

  7. Everybody who reads it, loves Flegeljahre (AKA Walt and Vult, AKA The Twins, AKA The Feathered Years, AKA La Edad del Pavo, AKA Joyeuses années d’école). A few years ago a certain Spaniard publishing house released a book of lists of the Top 40 best books in different categories. The list of the best 40 German language books included Flegeljahre, a book: 'as funny, playful and ignored as Tristram Shandy, if not more so'.

  8. Jean Paul is quite hard to find in English, aside from a couple of novellas (Army Chaplain Schmelzle's Jouney to Flatz and - now I don't remember), and a strange book anthology, Jean Paul: A Reader. Really well-stocked university libraries might have some 19th century translations. I suppose some of those are available electronically, so maybe Jean Paul is actually widely and freely available in English, come to think of it.

    As ignored as Tristram Shandy, I wonder what that means. Jean Paul's books are by themselves proof that Tristram Shandy was not ignored.

  9. I think that the part about Tristram Shandy being 'ignored' meant by modern day Spanish language readers. I own a copy of Jean Paul: A Reader, and the writer who those scattered fragments remind the most of is... Kierkegaard!

  10. The frosts begin to snap, and gleaming
    With silver hoar, the meadows lie…
    (The reader waits the rhyme-word: beaming,
    Well, take it, since you are so sly!).

    I loved the teasing quality of the rhymer in relation to the translation was by Babette Deutsch...if you recall, how did Nabokov handle those passages where the rhyme is pointedly...mocked?

  11. Evgueni Oneguine is a great text not only for its Tristram Shandy like digressions but for all its wit and humour, its fine irony, its distance from its characters who act as caricatures of romantic personae.
    Yes, it’s strange that a novel should be in verse but it adds to this distance: a noble writing for a trivial story. And the language is most important, not only for the beautiful poetry of the whole but for some programmatic purpose : writing in Russian about love, something new that Pushkin explains in the following passage (this is Charles Johnston’s translation, the one I found on the web).
    Moreover, this letter that the writer announces as written in French and given in Russian, Tatyana’s letter, is also another kind of program: a program that goes up even to Chernychevski. Tatyana is the first female voice in nineteenth century Russian literature who tells freely her sentiments without any reference to morals, woman modesty and so on. The first sentence of the letter is “I write to you — no more confession is needed, nothing's left to tell”. Of course, she thinks of marriage, not of free love but she’ll be a model for Russian girls for decades: telling the truth, get free of men if they betray you, oppose your will to decadent dandies.

    I see another problem looming:
    to save the honour of our land
    I must translate -- there's no presuming --
    the letter from Tatyana's hand:
    her Russian was as thin as vapour,
    she never read a Russian paper,
    our native speech had never sprung
    unhesitating from her tongue,
    she wrote in French... what a confession!
    what can one do? as said above,
    until this day, a lady's love
    in Russian never found expression,
    till now our language -- proud, God knows --
    has hardly mastered postal prose.

    They should be forced to read in Russian,
    I hear you say. But can you see
    a lady -- what a grim discussion! --
    with The Well-Meaner on her knee?
    I ask you, each and every poet!
    the darling objects -- don't you know it? --
    for whom, to expiate your crimes,
    you've made so many secret rhymes,
    to whom your hearts are dedicated,
    is it not true that Russian speech,
    so sketchily possessed by each,
    by all is sweetly mutilated,
    and it's the foreign phrase that trips
    like native idiom from their lips?

    Protect me from such apparition
    on dance-floor, at breakup of ball,
    as bonneted Academician or seminarist in yellow shawl!
    To me, unsmiling lips bring terror,
    however scarlet; free from error
    of grammar, Russian language too.
    Now, to my cost it may be true
    that generations of new beauties,
    heeding the press, will make us look
    more closely at the grammar-book;
    that verse will turn to useful duties;
    on me, all this has no effect:
    tradition still keeps my respect.

    No, incorrect and careless chatter,
    words mispronounced, thoughts ill-expressed
    evoke emotion's pitter-patter,
    now as before, inside my breast;
    too weak to change, I'm staying vicious,
    I still find Gallicism delicious
    as youthful sinning, or the strains
    of Bogdanóvich's refrains.
    But that's enough. My beauty's letter
    must now employ my pen; somehow
    I gave my word, alas, though now
    a blank default would suit me better.

  12. Howdy! I am back. Let's see. In order:

    Tristram Shandy ignored in Spanish! How sad. Javier Marías translated it! That has to be good.

    How Nabokov loathed the Babette Deutsch version of EO. He renders that passage as (Four: XLII):

    And there the frosts already crackle
    and silver midst the fields
    (the reader now expects the rhyme "froze-rose" -
    here you are, take it quick!).

    But Nabokov has the advantage that he can discuss the problem in a page-long note.

    Catherine - you are getting ahead of me! Or perhaps sideways, since I will not try to cover all of those topics. I do not find the idea of a novel in verse at all strange.

  13. All of these posts are reminding me, not only that I haven't read Eugene Onegin in ages, but also that the only version I own, and have paid for, is a secondhand copy of the one that came out when a film was released in 1999 with Ralph Fiennes in the lead role and himself on the cover behind the word "Onegin" printed all in capitals as if it's waiting for an exclamation mark and a musical score. He's holding a duelling pistol, and I notice, looking at the covers of the other versions, that duels and ballrooms are the two ideas that the design teams tend to like. One day they should make a cover with those little objects (maybe laid out on a grid): the "yellow shawl," the "Amber on Tsargrad’s pipes," the thirty brushes -- perhaps just the thirty brushes.

  14. I know I have seen the thirty brushes, or something close to it, in a museum somewhere. They were in a leather case. That would be a good cover.

  15. I've been meaning to read EO ever since I read Vikram Seth's Golden Gate in the mid-eighties, and which I loved. It is modelled on E.O.