"Cardinal Points" litetrary journal: www.stosvet.net

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Robert Chandler


Eugene Onegin

‘The house is full; the boxes brilliant;
Parterre and stalls – all seethe and roar;
Up in the gods they clap, ebullient,
And, with a swish, the curtains soar.
Semi-ethereal and radiant,
To the enchanting bow obedient,
Ringed round by nymphs, Istomina
Stands still; one foot supporting her,
She circles slowly with the other,
And lo! a leap, and lo! she flies,
Flies off like fluff across the skies,
By Aeolus wafted hither thither;
Her waist she twists, untwists; her feet
Against each other swiftly beat.’

                     Eugene Onegin, I, 20
                     (translated by Stanley Mitchell)

Pushkin has sometimes seemed in danger of being buried beneath a crushing weight of reverence. As early as 1834, two years before the poet’s death, Gogol wrote that Pushkin was ‘perhaps the only manifestation of the Russian spirit [...] the Russian [...] as he perhaps will appear in 200 years.’ In a famous speech given at the unveiling in 1880 of a statue to Pushkin, Dostoevsky claimed that Pushkin was a ‘unique and unprecedented phenomenon’ in world literature, a ‘diviner and prophet’ of Russia’s future messianic role in European history. And the 10th February 1937 front-page editorial of Pravda (the Communist Party newspaper) began: ‘A hundred years have passed since the greatest Russian poet, Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, was shot by the hand of a foreign aristocratic scoundrel, a hireling of Tsarism.’ The editorial continued: ‘Pushkin’s creation merged with the October socialist revolution as a river flows into the ocean.’
Gogol, Dostoevsky, the anonymous editorial-writer – and thousands like them – have lost sight of Pushkin and his individuality. Instead, Gogol sees him as the embodiment of ‘the Russian spirit’; Dostoevsky sees him as the embodiment of ‘the all-human and all-uniting Russian soul’; and the editorial-writer sees him as the embodiment of Sovietness. There have, of course, always been writers who have tried to save Pushkin from the cult that has grown around him. Two of the most important of these are Vladimir Nabokov and Andrey Sinyavsky, both of whom ended their lives as exiles. Sinyavsky writes, ‘Lightness is the first thing we get out of his works... Before Pushkin there was almost no light verse [in Russia]... And suddenly, out of the blue – curtsies and turns comparable to nothing and no one, speed, momentum, bounciness, the ability to prance, to gallop, to take hurdles, to do the splits…’ Pushkin, in Sinyavsky’s view, is a dancer – like the ballerina Pushkin describes in the stanza above from Eugene Onegin.
The ‘Onegin stanza’ – the set of rules that allows Pushkin to dance – is Pushkin’s own creation. It is typical of Pushkin to have called Eugene Onegin ‘a novel in verse’, thus asserting his freedom from conventional genres, yet to have chosen for his free-flowing novel an unusually tight and demanding stanza form. Each stanza is made up of fourteen lines, and each line of four iambic feet. The rhyme scheme can be described as aBaBccDDeFFeGG; the lowercase letters represent feminine rhymes (stressed on the penultimate syllable), and the uppercase – masculine rhymes (stressed on the final syllable). In a fine description of the effect Pushkin achieves, Nabokov compares the opening quatrain and the final couplet to ‘patterns on a painted ball or top that are visible at the beginning and at the end of the spin’. He goes on to say that ‘the main spinning process’ involves lines five to twelve, ‘where a fluent and variable phrasing blurs the contours of the lines so that they are seldom seen as clearly consisting of two couplets and a closed quatrain.’

Pushkin began Eugene Onegin on 9th May 1823 and completed the main body of the poem on 25th September 1830 in Boldino; he added Onegin’s letter to Tatiana in August 1831. A complete edition was first published in 1833. The poem is a perfect unity, even though the tone changes from chapter to chapter. Mirsky has written that:


Eugene Onegin is like a living growth: the same throughout, and yet different. We recognise in the eighth chapter the style of the first as we recognise a familiar face, changed by age. The difference is great and yet the essential proportions are the same. It is a face of unique beauty.

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.
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.’

Return to Boldino, Autumn 1833

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:


Do you know what people nearby are saying about me? Here’s how they describe my activities: ‘When Pushkin writes poetry, he has a decanter of the finest liqueur standing in front of him. He downs one glass, a second, a third – and then he gets writing!’ There’s fame for you!

And we have Pushkin’s own account of his activities – also from a letter to his wife:


I wake at seven o’clock; I drink coffee, and I lie around until three o’clock. Not long ago I got into a writing vein and I’ve written a mass of stuff. At three o’clock I mount my horse, at five, I take a bath, and then I dine on potatoes and buckwheat porridge. I read until nine o’clock. There’s my day for you. And they’re all just the same.

It should be added that Pushkin often composed while lying in bed, his manuscript propped on his knees; this is what he means by ‘lying around’.
Pushkin’s words tally with the informer’s report. Nevertheless, but for the claim to have ‘written a mass of stuff’, it would be hard to guess from this letter, or from Pushkin’s other letters to Natalya from Boldino, that he was being visited by inspiration. At least half of these letters are taken up by money worries, and Pushkin seems more obsessed than ever with his wife’s flirting. Earlier in this letter of 30th October, for example, he writes:


Look here: it’s not for nothing that flirting is out of fashion and is considered a sign of bad ton. There’s little sense in it. You rejoice that male dogs are running after you, as after a little bitch, raising their tails like pokers and sniffing you in the arse. Is that really something to rejoice over?

In subsequent letters Pushkin half apologises for his rudeness, but he proves unable to keep off this subject.
One more glimpse of Pushkin at this time is provided by ‘Autumn’, an autobiographical poem of eighty-nine lines in which he expresses his delight in this season. The prose meaning of the last four stanzas is as follows:


And every autumn I blossom anew; the Russian cold is good for my health; once again I feel love for the habits of everyday life. Sleep comes at its proper time, as does hunger; the blood plays lightly and joyfully in my heart; desires seethe. Again I am happy and young, again I am full of life – such is my organism (excuse this uncalled-for prosaicism).
They bring me a horse; shaking its mane, it carries its rider through wide-open spaces, and the frozen valley rings out beneath its sparkling hoof, and the ice cracks. But the short day fades, and fire burns again in the forgotten fireplace, now pouring out bright light, now slowly smouldering; I read in front of it, or nourish long thoughts in my soul.
And I forget the world – and in sweet silence am sweetly lulled by my imagination, and poetry awakens in me; my soul is gripped by lyric agitation, it trembles, sounds, and seeks, as in a dream, to pour itself out at last in free manifestation; and then an invisible swarm of guests comes towards me – old familiars, fruits of my own dreaming.
And thoughts stir boldly in my head, and light rhymes run to meet them, and fingers beg for a pen, pen for paper; another minute – and verses will flow freely. So a ship dozes motionless in motionless water; but look – suddenly the sailors all rush about, climb up and down, and the sails swell, filled with the wind, and the vast bulk moves forward and cuts the waves apart.
Off it sails. Where then shall we sail?

During his stay in Boldino, Pushkin sailed in his imagination to many places – but his two most important journeys were back to St Petersburg. In The Queen of Spades we glimpse the St Petersburg of Catherine the Great. In his pursuit of a gambler’s secret that will guarantee him a fortune, the hero, Hermann, treats two women – the old Countess and the young Lizaveta Ivanovna – with absolute ruthlessness. He himself is in the grip of dark forces over which he has no control. How we understand these forces is unimportant; what matters is that, having abandoned both religious faith and moral values, Hermann has no protection against them. The story ends tragically; Hermann unwittingly brings about the death of the Countess and then goes mad himself.
In The Bronze Horseman we see the St Petersburg of two other epochs. The poem’s introduction begins with an account of Peter the Great standing in the desolate marshes of the Gulf of Finland and deciding to build a city there, ‘to break open a window into Europe’. This leads into a panegyric to the beauty and grandeur of St Petersburg as it was in Pushkin’s day. Parts One and Two of the poem are set at the time of the flood of November 1824. There are two central characters: a minor civil servant by the name of Yevgeny; and Peter the Great, in the guise of the ‘Bronze Horseman’ – the famous equestrian statue commissioned by Catherine the Great.
Part One focuses on Yevgeny’s dreams of independence and marriage. His beloved, Parasha, lives with her mother on Vasilevsky Island; he himself lives on the mainland. The storm makes it impossible to cross the Neva for several days, and the young couple are unable to meet; then the river bursts its banks in the worst flood since the city was founded. Desperately anxious about Parasha, Yevgeny finds shelter near the Bronze Horseman; he sits down on a marble lion by the entrance to a new palace.
In Part Two, Yevgeny crosses the river as the flood begins to subside. Seeing no trace of Parasha’s house, he loses his mind. A year later he is once again standing beside the Bronze Horseman. Blaming Peter for founding the city beside the sea, he utters a vague threat. The Bronze Horseman appears to respond angrily. Yevgeny runs away; the Horseman gallops after him. Soon afterwards Yevgeny dies. His corpse is found where Parasha’s house had once stood.
The poem is usually seen as a study of the conflict between the rights of the individual and the claims of historical necessity. It has been said that Pushkin remains neutral in regard to this conflict; it would be truer to say that he sympathises passionately with both sides. Pushkin sincerely admired Peter the Great throughout his life. His assertion of Russia’s ‘historical destiny’ is also, in part, a retort to Adam Mickiewicz. Upset by Pushkin’s and Zhukovsky’s The Taking of Warsaw, the Polish poet had accused the two Russians of sycophancy. Pushkin’s indignant retort is that it is as futile for the Poles to rebel against Moscow as for Yevgeny to threaten the Bronze Horseman.
Pushkin’s sympathy for Yevgeny is equally real. Like Yevgeny, Pushkin felt persecuted and powerless. His moving and sombre short poem ‘God grant that I do not go mad’ was written during this same stay in Boldino – as, of course, was the description of Hermann’s madness in The Queen of Spades.
The Bronze Horseman has continued to excite controversy. Anatol Lunacharsky, the first Bolshevik Commissar for Enlightenment, insisted that Pushkin’s sympathies were on the side of Peter the Great. In an article written for the centenary of Pushkin’s death in 1937, the great Soviet prose writer Andrey Platonov replied that the everyday values represented by Yevgeny, the ‘little man’, matter no less than the values embodied by the Bronze Horseman. Without Yevgeny and people like him – Platonov wrote – we would be left with ‘nothing but bronze [...] and the Admiralty spire would turn into a candlestick beside the coffin of the dead (or destroyed) poetic human soul.’
In both The Queen of Spades and The Bronze Horseman human life is seen as fragile and delicate. In The Bronze Horseman it is at the mercy both of the elements and of the bronze might of emperors. In The Queen of Spades people are constantly in danger of turning into stone, into automata. By the end of the story Hermann’s soul has turned to stone and the Countess, whose soul had long ago turned to stone, is dead. What will become of Lizaveta Ivanovna is unknown. She may follow the example of the old Countess; or the quivering flame of the ‘poetic human soul’ may continue to live in her.