a Muscovite in Harold’s cloak?

Eugene Onegin, by Alexander Pushkin and translated by Tom Beck

How does one review a work like Eugene Onegin? It’s not that I’m nervous writing about classics, but Russian novels in verse which are so important they created a genre? That’s a big ask. Nabokov wrote an entire commentary on the poem, and a famously literal translation. Where to start?

Well, if there’s a point to blogging it’s to record a personal reaction. I’m frankly not qualified to speak to any technical aspects of Eugene Onegin. It’s only because I looked it up on Wikipedia that I know it’s in something called iambic tetrameter (and then I had to look up what that was). This then will not be an academic critique; it won’t be an analysis of the poem and its place in Russian literature. This is simply my reaction to a book written around 180 years ago in a language I don’t speak and in a style I’m unfamiliar with. I’m already thinking about reading it again.

Back in 2010 I read Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, written in the second decade of the nineteenth Century. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t read it for its own merits. I read it because without it there wouldn’t be a Eugene Onegin. Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is the bridge between the European romantic tradition and the later Russian concept of the “superflous man”. That makes it sound of mere historical interest, but Pushkin is far too good a writer for that. This is a delicious novel, still well worth reading.

Eugene himself is a young man about Moscow as the novel opens. He’s a womanising dandy waiting for a long-sick uncle to die so that he can inherit. Here’s how Pushkin introduces him:


Completing service long and faithful,
his father ended his career
and left his son debts by the plateful
from having given balls each year.
And yet my friend was saved from Hades
by his Madame, a Gallic lady;
and then Monsieur took on the lad,
a lively child but never bad.
Monsieur l’abbé, who hated quarrels,
thought learning ought to be a joy,
tried not to overwhelm the boy.
He didn’t bother him with morals,
and if annoyed, he didn’t bark,
but took Eugene to Letny Park.


When Eugene grew and first felt passion,
was plagued by love and hope and doubt,
they did what’s always been the fashion
and threw the wretched abbé out.
My friend was free from every pressure,
could live and act as was his pleasure,
so he was always finely dressed
in what was surely London’s best.
He spoke and wrote French to perfection,
bowed constantly, his hair well curled,
and when he danced he turned and twirled,
his light Mazurka no exception.
He didn’t have too long to wait
before the world thought he was great.

Eugene’s a dilettante. He spends his evenings at the theatre and at balls, his days at leisure. He has no need to work, and no enthusiasms beyond those custom would applaud. He has taste, or at least a sense of fashion. He is also, however, quite criminally bored:


Alas! His feelings were now cooling,
he wearied of the social round,
the constant flirting and the fooling
now seemed to him absurd, unsound.
Pursuing beauties now fatigued him,
betrayals, friends no more intrigued him,
nor guzzling beefsteaks, Strasbourg Pie,
champagne until the day you die,
dispensing piquant sayings, grimace,
and bicker, have an aching head
from everything you’ve done and said.
Although he was a fiery scapegrace,
he’d lost his love of having fun,
of sabre-fighting and the gun.

As Pushkin goes on to say, “Childe Harold-like, he was ill-humoured”. This is of course classic territory (what do you expect? It’s a classic). A bored young blade looking for some means to alleviate his ennui, even before Byron this wasn’t an unfamiliar character. Laclos would have recognised him. Coming just 15 years after Byron’s creation though the source is even more obvious. It’s a point which raises another question: if Harold was as many thought Byron’s thinly disguised autobiography, is Eugene actually Pushkin?

Oh flowers, love, you fields and meadows,
Oh idleness, yours is my soul;
I’m not Eugene, we’re different fellows,
that matters to me on the whole
in case some too sarcastic readers
or other bookish, slanderous creatures
should callously compare my quirks
with those of Byron and his works,
as if I were but merely scrawling
my effigy, just like that proud
fantast, as people put around
so shamelessly, (which I find galling),
as if we wrote of nothing else
but poems all about ourselves.

If I hadn’t thought of the question already it would be firmly in my mind after that denial. Pushkin’s well aware that readers will be looking at this wondering if it’s really about him. His narrator, who is of course also a character within the novel, loudly denies that he’s Eugene – “we’re different fellows”. The narrator’s a garrulous sort though, and he can’t resist throwing his own comments into the text, reflecting on how Eugene’s life reflects upon his own and generally digressing.

That split, between Eugene as protagonist and the narrator as meta-character, is what makes this so much fun. Eugene’s story is pretty straightforward. He leaves Moscow and goes to the country, where a young and innocent girl falls in love with him and where he becomes friends with a local poet. During his stay misunderstanding and lack of thought lead Eugene to commit to a duel which ends, as duels in Russian literature generally do, to tragic consequences. In case you don’t know the story I won’t say more, but knowing it wouldn’t harm the book any. Pushkin’s not aiming to surprise the reader with plot twists here.

While all this is happening the narrator is revealing his own character. His acerbic asides reveal his own past romantic misfortune, his loss of fashion and his world-weary cynicism. As with the Tales of Belkin what at first seems to be a framing device becomes as important as what it’s framing. Pushkin, on the strength of the two books I’ve read so far anyway, is an incredibly playful writer.

I’m conscious I’m quoting a lot in this review, but I’m keen that readers get a decent chance to see the style as it appears in Tom Beck’s translation. This isn’t a full stanza, but it’s a nice illustration of how the narrator (Pushkin within the fiction) lets his own character slip into the text:

He had a chaste and upright conscience,
which he quite guilelessly laid bare,
Onegin found that he could share
his friend’s naïve and heady nonsense,
emotions which, however true,
are not exactly all that new.

All this narrative dexterity is married to a rich vein of social commentary. Pushkin’s aim is as accurate as Onegin’s, and he turns it on Russian society, on earnest Romantic poets, on the superfluous men of Eugene’s generation, even on some public figures which (as the end-notes make clear) his contemporaries would have recognised. As so often country folk come out as better than anyone else, but then the myth of the pastoral idyll is always with us (and even that is shown here as stultifyingly dull).

This is the first time I’ve read Eugene Onegin, so I can’t compare Tom Beck’s translation to others. My impression is that a straight translation of Onegin is essentially impossible. The original poetry was innovative and unique, and translating it means making a choice between exactly how faithful you are to the exact meaning of the language and how faithful to the structure and style.

Tom Beck is a musician by training, and that shows here in a translation which emphasises flow over precision. It’s not that he writes his own text (I did compare the opening stanza as it appears in several translations and Beck isn’t rewriting as such), but he wants to keep the poem as a poem and since direct English equivalents of the original Russian words wouldn’t fit the sructure it’s fair to say there will be translations which hew more closely to the original meanings (Nabokov of course being the most striking example).

Meaning though is only part of being faithful. Beck preserves the feel of the poem, he preserves its rhythm and that too is a form of fidelity. Translating fiction is like interpreting music. Two orchestras performing the same piece will each give it their own stamp. Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky when performed by say the London Philharmonic becomes the London Philharmonic’s Alexander Nevsky by Prokofiev. It’s still Prokofiev, but it’s no longer purely Prokofiev.

Is this then a good translation? Well, yes, because I read it and enjoyed it and I felt the movement of it and left wanting to read more. Is it the best translation? Best for whom? Is it a worthwhile translation? Yes, because fidelity to structure is no less valid than fidelity to meaning. There were occasions when I found a rhyme jarred slightly (else and ourselves for example, above) or where I lost the rhythm for a moment and had to reenter the poem. After the first few pages though I found the verse as natural as prose, and if you’re to have any hope of reading a book like this that’s critical.

I’ve long been a fan of Dedalus Press, so when I saw they had their own version of Eugene Onegin I had to give it a try. I’m glad I did, and I hope others will too. This is a lively and fun book, tragic and witty and clever enough to leave many ambiguities unresolved (if the end of The Sense of an Ending left you frustrated this one really isn’t for you). Russian literature has a (undeserved) reputation for being heavy, depressing and difficult. Eugene Onegin is none of those things.


Filed under 19th Century, Byron, Lord, Poetry, Pushkin, Alexander, Russian, Superfluous Man

18 responses to “a Muscovite in Harold’s cloak?

  1. Another great post! You’ve got one of the best blogs going!
    As for how translation of verse should be carried out, I’m reminded of my introduction to Dante’s Divina Commedia in a college senior seminar in medieval literature in translation. The Professor used the Dorothy Sayers terza rima translation that matches the original form of the Italian poetry. I loved it! But when I got to grad school, I found the Professor belittling that verse translation and preferring a prose version (I can’t recall which one now). Sorry, sir, I still prefer the terza rima! The original WAS poetry, after all!

  2. Nabokov would have agreed with your professor’s grad school take (as I’m sure your professor knew), but poetry without poetry which has ceased to be poetic has lost something vital.

    Did the professor discuss why he changed approach? Presumably the verse version was more accessible, but accessibility isn’t a bad thing per se. A prose version may be better for academic study in that you are then probing underlying concepts and references, but it’s somehow less alive as a text.

    As you say, the original was poetry after all. Tom Beck’s version is poetry.

    Medieval literature in translation, what did that include? I’ve read The Song of Roland (Cliff Notes version, Roland’s a bit of a dick and a terrible military commander, not that that’s remotely the point of it), Beowulf which is early medieval, some Icelandic sagas, what am I missing?

    Thanks for the kind words by the way.

  3. Gad, I can’t remember a whole lot – this all took place in the early ’60s! These were two different professors – sorry I didn’t make that clear. My undergrad professor (small liberal arts college) was the one who liked Sayers. Grad work was at a different school. I don’t remember the grad school prof very well – this was an extra non-credit reading course with only four or five people, where we were to read in translation the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, and … one other, I can’t remember what it was. Since it was non-credit and not graded, I skipped the Dante part, which I had just studied the year before.
    Now the undergrad senior seminar used the text Medieval Literature in Translation, ed. by Charles W. Jones. I have it right here. We did Song of Roland, Beowulf, Dante, Mabinogion, Arthur, some Icelandic and other miscellaneous pieces. I’m not sure we hit on Chaucer – different course for that, I think. I was asked to present the initial paper, on Dante. I mostly remember writing about Satan’s drooling – that he was “driveling” – and I’ll always remember the professor (one of my favorite people) tactfully pointing out that what I meant was “dribbling.” “Driveling” was words!

  4. I should read the Mabinogion. It’s one of your favourites isn’t it? Is it difficult?

    Sounds like a cool course. We don’t have that kind of course structure in the UK, so those opportunities for side projects/investigations don’t arise in the same way (different educational systems, different strengths and weaknesses I guess – I think ours is quicker than yours to get to the same level but the price for that is greater focus on the core topic).

  5. You make me want to read it but I’d need to search for the right French translation. And by “right”, I mean “right for me” not “right” as an absolute truth. I agree with your passage about the translation. It’s always tricky to translate poetry. I read Dante in prose, I’m not sure I could have read it in verses (or perhaps with the help of a teacher).

    Now you need to read Confession of a Child of the Century by Alfred de Musset. Same period, same flavour according to your review. I’d be interested to read your thoughts about it and read about the links you’d make between Byron, Pushkin and Musset. Don’t you think Eugene and Pechorin have something in common too?

  6. Eugene is Pechorin’s ancestor, and the ancestor of a whole swathe of superfluous men in Russian literature – Guy knows much more about this than I do. Without Eugene though, no Pechorin, absolutely.

    Confessions of a Child of the Century, I don’t know it but I love the title. I’ll check it out. I have a bit of a reading backlog presently as I have several review books that have accumulated over months despite my no reviews policy (which is why I have that policy) and I want to get through them so I don’t feel guilty every time they look at me.

    Oddly enough I have read Dante as verse, but not a huge amount of him unfortunately. Emma, my wife, reads poetry in the original Italian, or certainly used to before her medical studies made time I think too tight to manage of late. I struggle to imagine that. Frankly reading it in English is sometimes hard enough. So much importance placed on each word.

  7. I’ve only found free translations (which tend to vary a lot in quality and are often 19th Century bowdlerised versions) of the de Musset so far and Sand’s Elle et lui doesn’t appear to be translated at all. How annoying.

  8. Thanks. I’m looking forward to Guy’s comment when he reads your entry.
    There are reviews of Confession of a Child of the Century on my blog if you’re interested.
    I envy your wife for being able to read poetry in another language. I can’t read poetry in English, I miss too much. I have a bilingual edition of Shakespeare’s poems and it’s frustrating: I don’t know English well enough to fully perceive the beauty of the poems and I know it well enough to notice the liberties the translator took in the French version. So I’m in the middle of two versions and none of them is satisfying.

  9. Ah, yes, the British educational system is quite different – I always think of lectures plus tutorials, where the student writes a paper and then sweats while the professor tears it apart one on one!
    You must have looked at my blog! Yes, I love the Mabinogion! It’s not a bit difficult – unless you wanted to tackle the original Welsh! If you want to read a translation, the Lady Charlotte Guest version is prim and a bit bowdlerized. I suggest the Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones translation. And focus on the Four Branches. The other tales are primitive Arthurian material. And then read Evangeline Walton’s retelling, available now in one volume, “The Mabinogion Tetralogy.” Absolutely wonderful adaptation! It’s fascinating to see how she took the bare-bones myth of the original and fleshed it out into a subtle character study without losing any of the primitive mythic feel. Great stuff!

  10. I haven’t read this Max. Mainly because I read somewhere that it wasn’t worth reading it unless you read it in Russian. But then again, I think I got that observation from Nabokov–although we know he was a bit touchy on the subject. And then there are those who thought Nabokov’s translation sucked (perhaps even on purpose).
    here’s an extract from Edmund Wilson on the subject:

    This production, though in certain ways valuable, is something of a disappointment; and the reviewer, though a personal friend of Mr. Nabokov—for whom he feels a warm affection sometimes chilled by exasperation—and an admirer of much of his work, does not propose to mask his disappointment. Since Mr. Nabokov is in the habit of introducing any job of this kind which he undertakes by an announcement that he is unique and incomparable and that everybody else who has attempted it is an oaf and an ignoramus, incompetent as a linguist and scholar, usually with the implication that he is also a low-class person and a ridiculous personality, Nabokov ought not to complain if the reviewer, though trying not to imitate his bad literary manners, does not hesitate to underline his weaknesses.

  11. I’ve always been a bit hesitant to try this as I’m defintiely one for prose, not poetry… Still, I know I should 😉

    As for The Mabinogion, have you heard of Seren Books’ New Tales of The Mabinogion series? They’ve commissioned writers to retell the stories in modern settings. Last year I reviewed one of them, and very good it was too 🙂


  12. Guy, you should try it, I think you’d find it interesting. Nabokov has a point, but not I think a dispositive one.

    Everyone, thanks for the Mabinogion tips. I’ll follow up. And Tony, I hadn’t but I suspect I should read the original first. Also, I tend to prefer prose to poetry, but shifting gears didn’t take that long. It’s easier than one fears, than I feared anyway.

  13. The Mabinogion is supposed to be a great influence on Tolkien, so it may appeal to LOTR and Hobbit fans. Tolkien used some of the tales from the Mabinogion as an inspiration for his own Silmarillion (I read about it in the internet, so it must be true).
    Back to Pushkin; Borges was a great fan of Pushkin’s short story Pique Dame (The queen of Spades?). A former girlfriend of Borges, Estela Canto wrote about it in her memoirs: “Borges a Contraluz”. Of Course, Miss Canto was a little resentful because she knew she had made the mistake of turning Borges down as a suitor. Nonetheless, she wrote that Borges hadn’t really read as much as people thought, and that he was almost completely ignorant when it came to classic Russian writers; that, as a matter of fact, the only Russian fiction he liked was Pushkin’s Pique Dame!

  14. I must admit to liking The Hobbit much more than LotR. LotR has terrible pacing, and the poems, my god, the poems. Also, Tom Bombadil. If I ever read it again I’ll skim read Tom Bombadil.

    The Borges story is nice. Must he have read everything? If he had he wouldn’t have had time to write himself.

  15. Really great review. Have you read any of Pushkin’s poetry?

  16. No, just this and a linked short story collection (also reviewed here). Is there any you’d particularly recommend?

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