I recently finished Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse by Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin (trans. by Douglas Hofstadter). This was my first Pushkin, and though it’s literary heresy, I have to admit that I was a little disappointed.
The translator’s preface says:
Those who have seen the Tchaikovsky opera will remember it as a lugubrious story of star-crossed lovers, of anger, jealousy, and tragic death. And yet, although that is indeed the “plot line” of the novel, it is but one facet of the work. What makes Pushkin’s book so marvelously alluring is not its sad plot line (which is fine as far as it goes), but the way in which that line like a single line in a piece by Bach, weaves in and out of focus, yielding the floor to other lines of quite different character.
Above all, the novel’s counterpoint involves an intricate, unpredictable bouncing back and forth between the characters in the story and Pushkin’s own droll, sardonic observations about life, about himself, about poetry, about women’s legs, about friendship, about wine, about truncated lives, about nature, about each of the seasons, about foreign words used in Russian, about hypocrisy, and on and on. All of this is executed in graceful, sparkling, yet mostly colloquial language[…] (xi).
I still kind of want to read the book Hofstadter is describing—it sounds wonderful. But now the question is why didn’t I enjoy Eugene Onegin?
Let’s start with the plot: The plot line of Onegin is, in many ways, your stereotypical Russian tragedy: Someone dies, someone’s heart is broken, there are some scenes with snow, there are some lengthy digressions about Russian society, there are too many balls. There is, interestingly enough, very little mention of the Russian Orthodox Church, unlike Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. Also, unlike the more romantic Tolstoy, both country life and city life seem to be equal platforms for ennui, and changing scenes doesn’t help Pushkin’s characters.
Side Note: From my little bits of Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky (who I don’t really consider tragic), and now, Pushkin, I assume that the Platonic ideal Russian tragedy would have all the expected tragic things (i.e. deaths, murder, guilt, broken hearts, suicide, adultery, etc.), but the added bonus of having most of them start with some sort of lack of communication that could be easily fixed, only the characters are predestined to have communication problems forever. Also, society is messed up—but you still have to keep going to balls, or at least, keep wishing that someone important will invite you to balls. Also, instead of ending with some nice melodramatic scene like, say, an English or French tragedy, the characters who are still alive in the last fourth of the Russian novel are doomed to continue miscommunicating their feelings and/or hating each other for their earlier miscommunication—to the point that they can only mutter, “Ah… Don’t you…? No, of course not.” This is a lot less cathartic than the usual, high body count, tragic ending.
Back to Onegin’s plot, there are some interesting scenes—particularly Tanya’s dream sequence—but overall I kept wishing I was reading something else. Maybe because I didn't care much for Eugene: a sort of world-weary, cynical, goalless protagonist. Most of the novel involves getting to hear about how world-weary and cynical he is in different settings.
But plot only a small piece of the novel. So let’s talk about “Pushkin’s own droll, sardonic observations,” which are supposed to be at least half the novel’s charm. And some of it was charming (particularly the parts where talks about writing and the poem itself), but after a while I grew tired of this too. I’m still trying to figure out why. Perhaps because I’m a dialogue person and, no matter the quality of the narration, I would have preferred to follow the characters without so most authorial interference? But I do enjoy some other authors who spend passages “telling instead of showing” in droll language (Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, for example). Perhaps Pushkin’s narrator reminded me too much of Eugene—bored with the world and announcing it every so many stanzas? Yes, I think that may have something to do with it.
Perhaps some of it was the translation. This is not to make light of Hofstadter’s hard work. My favorite part of the novel was actually his preface, in which he talks about his love of Eugene Onegin, his exploration of various Onegin translations, and how this eventually led to his learning Russian so he could translate Pushkin’s work. The preface really makes me wish I had enjoyed Onegin because Hofstadter is obviously moved by it. Hofstadter admits that his translation is not the most Pushkin-like, but more modern, more “jazzy.” (One translator remarked that parts sounded as if they “had been translated by Cole Porter,” and Hofstadter was flattered.) Hofstadter generously provides samples of other translators’ work that readers might prefer to his. (Hofstadter does not, however, recommend Vladimir Nabokov’s translation. And though it’s not hard to understand why--their philosophies on translation are completely opposed--I still find it humorous that most of Hofstadter's footnotes are about how he’s purposely doing the opposite of Nabokov.) I think I might have preferred Jim Falen, Walter Arndt, or Babette Deutsch just because their sentence structures seem to be a little less staccato, a little less overtly alliterative; outrageous statements seem more droll to me when said smoothly and subtly. Though many of Hofstadter's plays on words are fun, I prefer rhymes and translations that don't call so much attention to themselves. I'm willing to try again at some point, but I doubt another translation will make me love Onegin.