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 EUGENE ONEGIN

Aleksander Pushkin

Translated by Vladimir Nabokov

Princeton   ISBN 978-0-691-18101-1  £13.99

 

            This reissue of Nabokovís famous 1964 translation includes his erudition plus a foreword by Brian Boyd, Nabokovís biographer. Boyd is supportive of Nabokovís rendering but nevertheless argues it will remain controversial. The controversy centres, it seems, on the decision to put clarity of meaning before poetic similarity. ďÖit is when the translator sets out to render the ďspiritĒ, and not the mere sense of the text, that he begins to traduce his author,Ē writes Nabokov. This version gives the sense, precise and straightforward. In doing so its implicit message is that the poetry is available only in the original. It is a goad to the lazy: if you want to know not only the story of Eugene Onegin and its many references and allusions, you will have to learn Russian.

            The poem is preceded by a translatorís foreword, a brief EO Revisited, seven pages on the method of transliteration, the translatorís introduction which includes the detailed and helpful section on the structure of the poem, Pushkinís observations on the work, a brief publishing history, and a reference for the manuscripts. It is followed by seven pages of notes and the fragments of Oneginís journey. It is, therefore, a book for scholars and the putative ďgeneral readerĒ.

            Pushkinís poem-novel is regarded as perhaps the greatest poetic work in Russian. Those who canít read it in the original will have to take other peopleís judgment. Yet the wide and deep reach of its influence rests on its themes and their exploration perhaps as much as its poetic supremacy. Like Don Quixote, Madame Bovary and Northanger Abbey, Eugene Onegin is partly about the influence of reading. Oneginís favourite books are The Giaour and Don Juan and a few novels which bring to life the fashionable man of his epoch. Nabokov believes Pushkin read Byron shortly before beginning work on Onegin. The Byronic hero is complex and has many antecedents, but early in the poem Onegin displays its world-weary cynicism. It could be argued that his rejection of Tatyana is a function of his self-centred, indulgent (today we might call it narcissistic) personality. His fate of loneliness and regret could, in the same way, be seen as the inevitable outcome of his posturing.

            The question of whether, beneath the posturing, there is any substantial sense of selfhood is central to the poem. Its fascination lies, to a degree, in its suggestion that selfhood is nothing more than a selection of assumed poses. Onegin is a substantially self-destructive character; does he put on this self-destructive persona because he knows it exerts fascination? Is it mere attention-seeking? Itís because we donít know that Oneginís character remains compelling.

            Onegin, and the other principal characters, are, of course, victims of social convention. Onegin, like Pushkin himself, feels compelled to fight the duel which does him no good. Oneginís second, Zaretsky, fails in his duty to offer the chance of apology. Thus, slavery to convention and failure to meet its demands combine to produce tragedy. Though the conventions of early nineteenth century, upper-class Russian society are now outworn, the matter of how far to comply with convention, what it is, where is comes from, whether it should be resisted, remains interesting.

            Eugene Onegin is, essentially, a simple love story. The story of love gone wrong is always sure to attract, because through our varying economic, political, social and cultural transformations the need to love and be love remains constant. Romantic love may be a set of passing conventions and the culture of the harem or the brothel may suggest that love is no more universal than Cossak dancing, but the need for close affectionate relations is probably as much a biological inheritance as language. It is because Onegin begins the story at odds with himself, rejects what could fulfil him and ends up more or less bereft that the story and its resonances continue to have traction. Flaubert was of the view that happiness is always close at hand if we have the modesty and insight to see it. His tragic heroine destroys her potential happiness by categorical agreement with social conventions and exorbitant expectations, It seems there is a permanent tendency to overreach ourselves which constantly violates our happiness. Whether this is the reason Pushkinís great work endures, is impossible to know. Whatís certain is that anyone with a keen interest in it will find here both an excellent translation and fine erudition.