Saturday, October 25, 2014

Eugene Onegin

“My dreams, my dreams! What has become of their sweetness? What indeed has become of my youth?”

When we think of Russian literature, names like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gorky, and Solzhenitsyn are the most likely to come to our minds.  But the tradition of modern Russian literature began several decades before the works of these great authors.  It began in the early 19th century with the works of Alexander Pushkin whom many believe to be not only the father of modern Russian literature, but also Russia's greatest poet.  His serialized "novel in verse" Eugene Onegin first appeared in 1825 and it's well loved characters and story would gain immortality as an opera by Tchaikovsky.

The Plot:

Eugene Onegin is a young St. Petersburg socialite who has become bored with his life which consists of nothing but balls and parties.  When he inherits a landed estate from his uncle, Onegin seeks a change by moving to the country.  There he meets his neighbor, a dreamy poet named Vladimir Lensky.  Lensky offers to introduce Onegin to the other area families, including that of his fiancee, Olga Larina.  Olga's sister, the quiet and romantic Tatyana, is immediately taken with Onegin and develops an intense (though rather naive) passion for him.  

When she can no longer suffer in silence, Tatyana openly declares her love to Onegin in the form of a letter.  Onegin coldly crushes her dreams and suggests she learn to control her emotions.  Not long after, Onegin's thoughtlessness leads to a misunderstanding with his friend, Lensky, and the ensuing tragedy will change everyone's life forever.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I was first introduced to Alexander Pushkin through the Great Courses lecture series on the Classics of Russian Literature that I listened to.  I fell in love with his poetry and the plot of this story intrigued me, so I knew that I would have to read it one day.

This is truly a novel in verse and is about 389 stanzas in length.  It took awhile to get used to the rhythm of the poetry (like a Shakespeare play), but once that is done it flowed very smoothly.  It is also a little slow to start as the narrator spends a lot of time introducing the character of Onegin, discussing Russian society and the differences between country and city life, and reflections on his own muse.  But once the actual story gets going, it is rather enthralling.  In many ways, the poetry allows Pushkin to infuse the story with real emotion.  This is a story whose plot is less driven by action and more driven by the intense emotions of the characters.

The two characters whose emotions chiefly drive the plot are Onegin and Tatyana.  Onegin is consumed with an ennui that affect every aspect of his life.  Though he is included in social gatherings both in St. Petersburg and the countryside, he finds no real pleasure in them.  His pride and selfishness keep him at a distance from people, and make him unable to feel true sympathy with others.  This ultimately leads to the death of his only friend.  To Pushkin, Onegin represents everything that is wrong with Russia's high society.  Tatyana, on the other hand, is everything that Onegin is not.  She possess an inner strength and true compassion for others.  Though quiet, she is consumed with an intense passion.  Her declaration of love to Onegin is powerful, especially for a young woman in the 19th century.  And Pushkin doesn't fault her for this openness, but rather faults Onegin for his cruelty.  Tatyana is the Russia that Pushkin admires.  Unfortunately, society continues its work in the lives of both characters and by the time Onegin expresses his sincere love for Tatyana and remorse for his actions, she has armed herself against feeling and crushes him in return.

The difficulty in effectively translating Pushkin's works into English means that he is not generally well known to Western readers.  This is a real shame because the works I have read have been so full of passion and human emotion.  Though it lacks the epic scope of what we now consider to be real Russian literature, it makes up for that with intense feeling and a fascinating glimpse of early 19th century Russia.  I recommend it to anyone who enjoys romantic poetry, or Russian literature in general.

The Movie:

This story was most famously adapted as an opera by Tchaikovsky in 1879 and continues to be performed around the world.  I hope to find a good recording of it and watch it soon.

There is also a 1999 film version called Onegin starring Ralph Fiennes, Liv Tyler, and Toby Stephens.  I thought it was a wonderful adaptation that really captured the emotion of the original.  Worth a watch whether or not you have read it.    

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