Review published on July 17, 2017.
As noted in the introduction to this new edition of Yevgeny Onegin, which is (fittingly) published by Pushkin Press, this unusual, classic work is both a poem and a novel, and it has the advantages of both forms. It is indeed a surprisingly modern tale of love and loss, “with many fascinating incidents” and “a group of interesting characters who raise still unresolved questions of human psychology”. Alexander Pushkin is rightly revered as a key figure in Russian culture and Yevgeny Onegin is arguably his most important work. The story itself is relatively simple, although the nameless narrator works in innumerable literary references and historical asides.
Yevgeny Onegin is a self-obsessed Saint Petersburg dandy whose vapid life revolves around lavish balls, concerts and parties. Despite failing to extend his intellectual self in any meaningful way, he is wearied by the city milieu as well as the frivolous occupations of the society notables he mingles with. Fortunately, a wealthy uncle of whom he was not fond dies and leaves Onegin a country estate.
“And, sure enough, there came a letter
From uncle’s steward. My, oh my,
Uncle was ill, would not get better,
And he’d quite like to say goodbye.
With this sad missive in his pocket
Yevgeny set off like a rocket
In a post-chaise to visit him,
Yawning already at things so grim.”
Onegin promptly moves out to the country and strikes up a friendship with Vladimir Lensky, a young poet with a decidedly romantic bent. Lensky is engaged to Olga Larina, the vivacious daughter of a neighbouring landowner, and through his friendship with Lensky, Onegin becomes acquainted with both Olga and her sister Tatyana. Quiet and introspective, Tatyana is very different from Olga, but despite her apparently insightful nature, she quickly falls in love with Onegin.
“An inexpressible elation
Rose from her thoughts about this thing.
Thoughts stirred in her heart like a new seedling.
Love’s time had come; here was the feeling.”
It is Onegin’s response to Tatyana’s love as much as his innate character and fondness for fleeting pleasure seeking that allows Pushkin to use the charming yet unsubstantial hero of Yevgeny Onegin to explore the significant themes that are now seen to characterise Russian literature, that is, love, death, rivalry, identity, social conventions and the search for happiness. Who would have thought that the shallow Onegin could give rise to so many weighty issues?
This new edition of Yevgeny Onegin is translated from the Russian by Anthony Briggs, who also introduces the volume and provides an interesting overview of the translation process. That process was certainly not a straightforward one, since Briggs had to translate both the language and the metre of the original poem. Although Pushkin wrote Yevgeny Onegin in a tried and tested poetic form, namely the sonnet, he made two important alterations that render the so-called Onegin stanza unique. Briggs explains these peculiarities in manageable detail, and provides some insight into the decisions he had to make in order to both stay true to Pushkin’s intent and craft a version of the poem that reads well in English. While there are a few surprising linguistic choices, Briggs has very much succeeded in what he set out to do. He has captured the fun and frivolity of the story, as well as reflecting Pushkin’s insightful commentary on Russian life. In fact, unlike some other translations, the very Russianness of the work is emphasised, even in the sense that Briggs chooses to retain the Russian name Yevgeny Onegin rather than opting for the more common, anglicised Eugene Onegin.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the difficulties involved in its creation, Anthony Briggs’ translation captures the heart and inherent humour of the story, rendering this new edition of Yevgeny Onegin an eminently readable volume. It allows for a highly enjoyable encounter with an undoubted masterpiece of Russian literature. Additionally, the book itself is a thing of beauty; the cover design is compelling and elegant, and it even has a most pleasing texture.
Erin Britton 5/5
Yevgeny Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
Pushkin Press 9781782271918 pbk Feb 2016