Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Miscellaneous Eugene Onegin: shandrydans, true Gibraltar pies, Toby Keith, or any other kind of nonsense

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.


  1. I've always wanted to read Eugene Onegin, but have the idee fixe in my mind that it must be the Nabokov version (I don't know why - his artistic sensibility, I suppose - the poetry in Pale Fire doesn't entirely convince me though), which I've never been able to get hold of.

    I certainly think I'll have trouble with anything that translated it into rhyming couplets or the like.

  2. Ha ha, so Nabokov's commentary to his translation eventually turned into Pale Fire? That's a great thing to keep in mind when I tackle it next month. Now that's what I call turning your life into writing. And they say Nabokov wasn't a realist...

  3. The Eugene Onegin book also taught Nabokov to write his novels on index cards, with what effect I will leave to others.

    I think it was EO and not his butterfly research. Maybe it was the butterflies that led to the index cards.

    In every rhymed version, no matter how good, there are places where you can really feel the strain required to get to the rhyme. With Nabokov, I can just acknowledge what is missing and move on. It is quite readable.

    If only Byron had lived to a ripe old age and adapted Eugene Onegin.

    1. What effect do you think it has, writing novels on index cards? I'm curious to know your opinion.

    2. I know it allowed Nabokov to

      1) more easily work anywhere in a book. No writing from beginning to end. He said it was like working on a painting.
      2) more easily write in the car.

      See this fellow for some relevant index card photos. I do not know which novel is in the box.

  4. I don't know, Byron, at least when he's on his serious mode, seems to be at his best when beautifully rhyming commonplaces. It's almost like he wanted to be the second coming of Pope, but with Romantic plots.

    Woe waits the insect and the maid,
    A life of pain, the loss of peace,
    From infant's play, or man's caprice:
    The lovely toy so fiercely sought
    Has lost its charm by being caught, 405
    For every touch that wooed its stay
    Has brushed the brightest hues away
    Till charm, and hue, and beauty gone,
    It's left to fly or fall alone.

    With wounded wing, or bleeding breast, 410
    Ah! where shall either victim rest ?
    Can this with faded pinion soar
    From rose to tulip as before ?
    Or Beauty, blighted in an hour,
    Find joy within her broken bower ? 415
    No: gayer insects fluttering by
    Never droop the wing over those that die,
    And the loveliest things have mercy shown
    To every failing but those of their own,
    And every woe a tear can claim 420
    Except an erring sister's shame.

  5. Second coming of Pope, exactly. I would have picked Pope to translate Eugene Onegin, but the chronology was too far off.

    Beautifully rhyming commonplaces is just want I want, since the substance will be Pushkin's, not Byron's. I just want Byron here for his skill with English poetry and rhyme and tone, and what I presume would have been sympathy with Pushkin's purpose.

  6. Off the topic of Eugene but relevant to "sins of omission": VIDA has just released their "Dudesville" list of magazines that publish mostly male reviewers and review mostly male books.

    Don't think that would apply here. But it still makes me mad.

  7. I dunno, Shelley. In a typical year 10% or fewer of the books I read are by women. Last year, a high number of those books featured Moomintrolls. So I would go on the list of sinners.

  8. "Neglection" is my new talisman to protect me from Nabokov's smothering contempt. Thanks for this post, and this whole series.

  9. Let's not forget Pushkin's fellow basilisks of bad fortune, Lermontov and Pechorin (he of Journal fame, whom Nabokov also raptured into English). Here's some of that plunder, The Triple Dream:

    In noon’s heat, in a dale of Dagestan,
    With lead inside my breast, stirless I lay;
    The deep wound still smoked on; my blood
    Kept trickling drop by drop away.

    On a dale’s sand alone I lay. The cliffs
    Crowded around in ledges steep,
    And the sun scorched their tawny tops
    And scorched me—but I slept death’s sleep.

    And in a dream I saw an evening feast
    That in my native land with bright lights shone;
    Among young women crowned with flowers,
    A merry talk concerning me went on.

    But in the merry talk not joining,
    One of them sat there lost in thought,
    And in a melancholy dream
    Her young soul was immersed—God knows by what.

    And of a dale in Dagestan she dreamt;
    In that dale lay the corpse of one she knew;
    Within his breast a smoking wound showed black,
    And blood ran in a stream that colder grew.

  10. Erik, my pleasure!

    That Lermontov poem is almost a sufficient argument against Nabokov's literal EO. Imagine if he had done a poetic version! What a loss!

    But it might have cost us Pale Fire - it is not like VN was wasting his time.

  11. I haven't heard many good things about Nabokov's translation, but your posts have got me curious now. Maybe I will read that one next year. I'm so glad you decided to re-read EO again; your analysis has been enjoyable to read!

  12. You have to decide what you are willing to surrender. In most cases, we do not have enough varieties of translation to make the choice.

    Since all of the later translations are so dependent on Nabokov, it is fun to rummage around in Nabokov's commentary even if you are not bothering with his translation. There are amazing things in there.

    Thanks again for the event!