The plot, as always with Pushkin, is simple. A bored, Byronic man about town, Eugene Onegin, retires to the country. There he befriends a young neighbour, Vladimir Lensky, a Romantic poet who is in love with a local girl, Olga Larina. Olga’s elder sister, Tatiana, falls in love with Onegin; she confesses her love in a long letter. Onegin tells her that he is too disillusioned with life to be capable of love. On Tatiana’s name-day, Onegin flirts with Olga. Lensky challenges him to a duel; Onegin kills him. Onegin goes on a long journey. Three years later Onegin meets Tatiana once again; she is now a St Petersburg grande dame, the wife of a general. Onegin writes her a love letter – a mirror image of hers to him. She says she still loves him, but that she will remain faithful to her husband.
Return to Boldino, Autumn 1833
The mid-nineteenth-century radical critic Vissarion Belinsky famously referred to Onegin as ‘an encyclopaedia of Russian life’. Pushkin’s poem-novel is indeed all-inclusive; it is hard to describe it except through paradoxes. Its sparkling levity proves able to incorporate tragedy, and the simple plot has room for the wildest, most inconsequential digressions. For all the artifice, there is a density of realistic detail that has led some critics to see Onegin as the beginning of Russian realism. And for all the realistic detail, there is a delight in sound and rhythm, a high-spirited playfulness, that has led others to see Pushkin as a believer in ‘art for art’s sake’. Pushkin is often at his most ‘literary’ when describing details of everyday life – and at his most realistic when showing how his characters model themselves, with disastrous results, on the heroes and heroines of fashionable books they have read. And he resolves the linguistic controversies of the time by asserting – often through making a mock apology – his right to employ every kind of vocabulary: simple Russian, archaic Russian, Church Slavonicisms, or borrowings from French, German and English. Few novels embody more of the openness of real life. Onegin repeatedly surprises the reader, and it clearly retained the capacity to surprise Pushkin himself. In an often quoted letter he wrote, ‘My Tatiana has gone and got married! I should never have thought it of her.’
For all the hypocritical attempts of politicians and ideologues to enlist Pushkin to their cause, there have always been many people who have felt that Pushkin embodies something deeply precious; this ‘something’ can perhaps best be defined as ‘grace’ – and none of Pushkin’s works is imbued with more of this grace than Eugene Onegin. In a speech at the Petrograd House of Writers in 1921, on the eighty-fourth anniversary of Pushkin’s death, the poet Vladislav Khodasevich (who was soon to emigrate) talked of how the ‘Pushkinian sun’ would soon be eclipsed. He ended: ‘our desire to make the day of Pushkin’s death a day of universal remembrance is, I think, partly prompted by this same premonition: we are coming to an agreement about how to call out to one another, by what name to hail one another in the impending darkness.’
Melancholy time, enchantment of the eyes.
Pushkin, ‘Autumn’, 1833
Pushkin’s second autumn in Boldino was still more fruitful than his stay there in the autumn of 1830, shortly before his marriage. During this second stay he not only completed the second draft of Pugachov but also wrote ‘Andzhelo’ (a narrative poem distilled from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure), two verse fairy-tales and two of his masterpieces, The Bronze Horseman, The Queen of Spades.
We are fortunate to have several accounts of Pushkin during this autumn, from different viewpoints. We have the report of a government informer: ‘The aforesaid Pushkin [...] during the whole time of his sojourn occupied himself exclusively only with composition alone [sic], he called on none of his neighbours and received no one.’ From a letter to his wife, we can see Pushkin as he believed he was seen by his neighbours: