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

print version  


Stanley Mitchell


When I was translating Onegin my shrink asked me, as they always do, what I ‘felt’ about it, how I responded to this or that character. I pondered and replied that I felt nothing, that I had only one concern - to get the translation as ‘right’ as possible in terms of style, vocabulary, rhyme and metre. In other words, my task was purely technical. ‘Feeling’ was confined to the intensity of the task. I was retired, but had never worked so hard at anything before. The translation took between seven and eight years. Every stanza was a struggle. With each successful final couplet I’d jump up, crying ‘erquickend!, for some reason choosing the German word. I certainly felt ‘quickened’. The process of translating each stanza resembled a Sisyphean labour except that I was always able in the end to topple the boulder over to the other side. The final couplet did that for me, resolving the complex rhymes of the preceding twelve lines and summing up or puncturing the preceding argument. So we were engaged in a parallel labour. The stanza left an indelible stamp on me. For a long time I could only write poetry using Pushkin’s fourteen lines. These seemed to capture the novel as a whole, capacious enough to include all the moods listed by Pushkin in his Dedication to Pletnyov:

Half-comic and half-melancholic,
Ideal and down-to-earth bucolic,
The careless fruit of leisure times,
Of sleepless nights, light inspirations,
Of immature and withered years,
The intellect’s cold observations,
The heart’s impressions marked in tears.

I think this is why so many English and American poets have tried to repopularize narrative verse by imitating the Onegin stanza.

But these are the exigencies of translation rather than the meaning of the story, although I know the two can’t be separated. As my good shrink remarked, I must have been reacting to the novel unconsciously. I wrote two unfinished accounts of the translation once I had completed it, and there my feelings began to emerge. I am glad therefore to have been invited to write yet another in which I can scrutinize more clearly what I felt. Translation and reading are two distinct activities. I had read Onegin a number of times and thought about it. But translation brings you unusually close to the original and enables you to see the text differently. Hitherto, I had read Pushkin intellectually, influenced by the Marxist critic Georg Lukacs, who saw in the Russian poet the embodiment of the ‘beautiful’. It didn’t need a Marxist to say this, but the ‘beautiful’ wasn’t a category used by Marxist critics. ‘Realism’ was their criterion. Lukacs singled out beauty as an autonomous sphere within a realist aesthetic, locating it in three periods - classical Greece, the Renaissance and the French Revolution, each of which, he argued, benefited from a pause between successive class societies. Pushkin he regarded as a late representative of the French revolutionary epoch in spite of Russia’s persisting feudalism. In the art of the beautiful, Lukacs found the Russian poet superior even to Goethe, master pupil of the Greeks in this age. There is no other kind of beauty for Lukacs but the classical. He ignores or discounts Romantic beauty and Romanticism in general. But here is not the place to pursue his theory further. 

I had always been attracted to the ‘beautiful’ and the ‘classical’. I was by nature predisposed to proportion, harmony and balance. The idea that these aesthetic qualities could be married to a materialist philosophy excited me as a young Marxist interested in the arts. From then on Pushkin became my principal object of research.

Translation changed my ideas. I should mention that I suffer from bipolar disorder, which involves the very opposite of harmony, balance and proportion. It is understandable therefore that I should seek them in art. There were several occasions during the translation when I was depressed or manic. When I was depressed I was unable to continue. During one manic phase I came near to destroying the already finished translation and substituting an inferior one. I took the manuscript from one hospital to another, not necessarily working on it, but keeping it as a talisman. I believe that my disability left no mark on the final version. Pushkin’s precision and clarity steadied me. And both my Penguin editor and my devoted helpmeet Barbara Rosenbaum tested the translation at every step. Angela Livingstone, a former colleague brought more precision to the text. She and I had planned a book on Pushkin of which only a few pages remain extant. We discussed Lukacs’s essay together. Stanley Mitchell, who encouraged me to submit the first chapter to Penguin, so making the translation possible, suggested some perceptive changes at the final stage. Above all, my thanks go to Barbara, who patiently withstood the blast of my mania and kept the original version safe. 

In my retrospective accounts I dwelt not unexpectedly on the suicidal moments in Onegin or what I took to be such. Towards the end of Chapter Two Pushkin writes of his generation:

Meanwhile, enjoy, friends, till it’s ended,
This light existence, every dram!
Its nullity I’ve comprehended
And little bound to it I am.

The concluding stanza of the poem expresses a similar feeling without the bitterness:

Blest who betimes has left life’s revel,
Whose wine-filled glass he has not drained

To these may be added the concluding lines to Chapter Six which, if not articulating a suicidal inclination, conjure a ferocious alienation:

Let not a poet’s soul be frozen,
Made rough and hard, reduced to bone
And finally be turned to stone
In that benumbing world he goes in,
In that intoxicating slough
Where, friends, we bathe together now.

The first quotation reminded me of Keats’s wish ‘to cease upon the midnight with no pain’. In the aftermath of the French Revolution Keats laments the beauty that can no longer ‘keep her lustrous eyes’ (‘Ode to a Nightingale’). The lure of death is common to Romantic poets. Pushkin is held back from the abyss by what he calls his ‘sad mission’, that is his poetic gift, and his desire for posterity. 

I feel now that the last stanza of Onegin is not so much an invitation to suicide as an Epicurean appeal to withdraw from the storms of life into congenial company. In the penultimate stanza he thanks his novel for giving him this shelter:
With you I’ve known
The things that every poet covets:
Oblivion, when the tempest buffets,
Sweet talk of friends.

Nor can it be by accident that Pushkin refers in the final stanza to the Persian poet Sadi, who in his poem Bustan celebrated a garden retreat similar to that of Epicurus. Pushkin’s last stanza is a gentle and accepting valediction.

It was natural that I should have been attracted by the dark sides of the novel. But it was a discovery I needed to make, for I was also discovering myself. My depressions impinged several times while I was translating and, costly though they were, led me to a more sombre view of the novel than hitherto. Yet it was not a subjective view. I believe the novel is objectively very pessimistic, and that I had previously approached it with a one-sided theory derived from Lukacs.

He sees Tatiana as the embodiment of beauty. Her fine ‘moral balance’, he says, is rooted in the people. But in the ‘benumbing world’ of St. Petersburg high society she is isolated from the people. Her beloved nurse has died. She is cut off from her adored countryside. She hates her new social milieu, although she adapts to it very well. Her marriage is arranged and her love for Onegin wasted. She is a broken woman who maintains an outward poise, who behaves ‘comme il faut’. Is this the embodiment of beauty? I now began to see Tatiana very differently. Her stoicism evoked compassion, and like Herzen I felt anger for the society that imprisoned and thwarted not only her but Onegin and Lensky too. Like her, they were broken people. Onegin withdraws from a shallow life, and experiences a helpless love too late. Lensky is prevented from realizing his impossible ideals, and sacrifices himself in a futile duel. No wonder Pushkin ends his novel before any further degradation takes place in his hero’s life (though it is witnessed in the fragments of his Journey). Likewise he refrains from following Tatiana any further into her marriage.

Translation brought me closer to the characters. I could never identify with Lensky, whom Pushkin himself nearly destroys in his prediction of the young poet’s philistine future. Nor could I identify with Onegin, but I now saw him as a tragic figure. I saw his frequent yawns not just as symptoms of boredom, but as entrances into a void, perhaps the ‘nullity’ that Pushkin found in his ‘light-headed’ generation. There is nothing metaphysical about Pushkin, yet when Onegin hears ‘the timeless mutter of the soul’ we are carried into a dimension beyond everyday life. The novel is laconic, therefore one has to read slowly to become aware of its depths which are often capped by irony. But the irony differs from the cutting tones of Lermontov or Heine. It does not undermine, but binds oppositions – illusion and reality, past and present, town and country, digressions and narrative, poetry and prose and the contrasting and self-contradictory characters. No single aspect of the novel acquires predominance, yet none is fragmentary. (The fragment was the goal of Romantic Irony.) Not even the most straightforward description (Onegin’s estate, the theatre, the duel etc.) escapes a touch of the ironic. Pushkin’s irony unites the novel, but it is a unity quite different from the ‘epic objectivity’ or ‘totality’ that Lukacs talks about. It is a unity of dissonance. Only nature here is entirely free of irony, providing the chronological canvas of the novel and the source for many of the similes, especially the monitory lines in Chapter Two:

Alas! Each generation must
By Providence’s dispensation
Rise, ripen, fall in quick succession,
Upon life’s furrows

Tatiana of course is most closely involved with nature, enabling her to grow. Neither Lensky nor Onegin grows. I could not only sympathize now, but positively fall in love with her, with her shyness, passion, imagination and waywardness. For Kuchelbecker she was a portrait of Pushkin himself, Pushkin combines dark and light. Pisarev, offended by what he saw as the brilliant triviality of the surface, could not see the depths. Ovsyaniko-Kulikovsky remarked that Onegin could only gain by the removal of the digressions, where the depths of the novel are mostly to be found. I was drawn more and more to the digressions. I had written an essay on them long ago. While translating Onegin I wrote another, which means that I had been thinking consciously about the novel despite my earlier disclaimer. But it was only after I’d finished the translation that I could discover my feelings about the characters. I saw the digressions and the narrative as a counterpoint of bass and treble or a chiaroscuro of depth and surface, longing and light, past and present. The surface depicted what is and what must be, the world to which the characters have to adapt or fall by the wayside. The digressions, like Pushkin’s urge to freedom, expressed unfulfillable desire or mourned an irretrievable past. Although Pushkin as author is at home everywhere in the novel, it seemed to me that the digressions were his true abode. I have in mind the lyrical digressions, not the commentary on the state of the roads or the debate between the ode and the elegy. All the characters leave home. Lensky of course dies, Olga joins her hussar in his regiment, Tatiana marries into an alien milieu, Eugene travels, returning to a hostile St. Petersburg, Pushkin sheds his digressions, bidding farewell to youth and poetry for a literature of prose.

I saw now a different beauty in Onegin, not just the familiar serenity, light-heartedness and harmony, but the disparity of dark and light, which reminded me of similar contrasts in the music of Mozart and the paintings of Leonardo. The surface sparkle rests ‘upon a base of suffering’ as Nietzsche said of the art of the Apollonian Greeks or, as Pushkin himself noted, upon ‘The heart’s impressions marked in tears.’

Before translating Onegin I had regarded my life as a failure because of the bipolar disorder which nearly ruined me. I had managed, as I have indicated, to write a few things about Pushkin, including a critical study, which was first accepted and then turned down by the publisher. This study which I longed to rewrite was superseded by the translation which I completed at the age of 75, earning me high praise. Having gone through Pushkin’s school, I am now much more eager to write poetry than to write about it. I’d rather have written this present piece as a poem. I’ve composed the odd poem since my adolescence, but I never regarded myself seriously as a poet. Pushkin was my only teacher. My translation goes back to a collective project at Essex University in the nineteen-sixties, when Angela Livingstone and I collaborated with our Head of Department, Donald Davie, an established poet, to translate Onegin. The project foundered and the poet died. Many years later I tried my hand at the first stanza and still more years passed until the translation was born. Only here do I recognize myself as a poet. Verse that I had written before or composed after the translation cannot compare with it. Reading it through recently with a small group, I marvelled at some of my lines. But that is not the main point. Since completing the translation, I know that I shall never have to feel a failure again. Repeating Pushkin’s self-congratulation on finishing a piece of work, I said of mine : ‘Well done, you son-of-a-bitch!’