Monday, June 1, 2009

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

After about 50 pages, I really thought I aws going to hate this book. In fact, I will with quiet shame admit, I had HOPED to hate this book. My recent review of William Blake had revealed to me the embarrasing fact that I very frequently leave unclear what my opinion is at all, and that I have a tendency to gush on and on about prettiness, and such, in a way that must get tiring. I had the good fortune (?) to read Beowulf next, which gave me opportunity to present that I don't just like everything, and I had supsicion after those fifty pages, that I would be able to reinforce that review with one on Eugene Onegin.

It is not to be. Eugene Onegin is a truly fascinating, surprising book.

Nabokov, apparently, was a huge Onegin scholar, and in fact wrote a translation of the poem (in typical Nabokov style, his edition spans four volumes. The poem itself is part of the first volume of the four, apparently). After reading this book, this doesn't surprise me. Pushkin has a stunningly Nabokovian ability to snigger at the whole world down his nose while simultaneously cuasing the reader to feel an enormous compassion for the characters. His Russians are not black and white, they are extremely imperfect -- frustratingly foolish even -- throughout the book, and in ways that anyone who has read a Russian novel since will recognize (in fact, I have now become convinced that every Russian novelist in the last 200 years is pretty much just writing variations and extrapolations on Eugene Onegin... ;) ). I won't give away the plot, as it's a fairly short and enjoyable read, but there is //SPOILER// a scene with a duel in it, where, after the pages of my unsurety about the book, I was suddenly, viscerally reminded how human, how real and pitiable, and familiar these characters area //SPOILER//. The genius of this book is in Pushkin's startling ability to combine a familiar, joking tone with the universality you expect in an epic poem. Like I told Amanda yesterday, it's sort of like a combination of Nabokov, Jane Austen, and Homer. Recommended to anyone, ESPECIALLY if you like Russian lit.


Amanda said...

Despite my not liking poetry, I definitely think I'm going to have to read this one. Only I want to read the Nabokov re-translation.

Can you really be Nabokovian if you wrote 100 years before Nabokov's time? ;)

Jen, if you see this - look! I'm not the only one using "Nabokovian" in a sentence! :D

Unknown said...

Go check the Wikipedia article on Pushkin, it uses the word Nabokovian, as well. Though, I should call Nabokov Pushkinian, insteaad, I guess.

L said...

I'm totally reading this! Thanks for the review.

Unknown said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Lula. It was an interesting book, and I was decidedly glad I didn't know what to expect, so I tried to leave the review vague...

hamilcar barca said...

Yay!! we can tell how you feel about Eugene Onegin! the next project will be to coax you into using the "one to five stars" rating system.

Julie said...

This does sound so interesting, Jason. There are two statements in your review that really stood out to me:
1. "...causing the reader to feel an enormous compassion for the characters."
2. "The genius of this book is in Pushkin's startling ability to combine a familiar, joking tone with the universality you expect in an epic poem."
Both of which, I think are good reasons for me to read it. Thanks!