Eugene Onegin

A Novel in Verse

Translated with an Introduction and Notes by JAMES E. FALEN

James E.Falen 1990, 1995

ISBN-13: 978-0-19-283899-5




Note on the Translation                                                      


Select Bibliography                                                            


A Chronology of Alexander Pushkin                                  


EUGENE ONEGIN                                                         1

Appendix: Excerpts from Onegin's Journey                          


Explanatory Notes                                                              



Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) is the poet and writer whom Russians regard as both the source and the summit of their literature. Not only is he revered, like Shakespeare in the English tradition or Goethe in the German, as the supreme national poet, but he has become a kind of cultural myth, an iconic figure around whom a veritable cult of idolatry has been fashioned. This exalted status that Pushkin has been accorded in his own land has been something of a disservice to the living reality of his works, and it contrasts oddly with the more modest reputation that Pushkin has secured abroad. To many non-native readers of Russian literature the panegyrics of his compatriots seem excessive, and indeed, in their eyes, Pushkin has been somewhat overshadowed by the great Russian writers who came after him. They do not comprehend why these writers themselves generally grant him the first and highest place in their pantheon of artistic geniuses. For those who do not read Pushkin in his own language, the situation remains perplexing and the questions persist: just who is he and why, almost without exception, do the most perceptive of his compatriots regard him as one of the world's greatest artists?

Within the Russian tradition the scope of Pushkin's achievement is essentially clear and well established. He is unarguably a figure of protean dimensions, the author in his own right of a formidable and enduring body of work and at the same time the seminal writer whose example has nourished, enriched, and in large part directed all subsequent literature in the language. He came of age at a historical moment when the Russian literary language, after a century or so of imitation of foreign models, had been roughly shaped and readied for the hand of an original genius. Pushkin was to fulfil that role.

He began his career in an era when both the writers and the readers of literature belonged almost exclusively to the limited

milieu of aristocratic society and at a time when poetry rather than prose was the dominant mode for high literature. Well read in both the ancient classics and in Western European literature, especially French literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Pushkin was the most dazzlingly talented member of a younger generation of writers who were attempting, under the banner of romanticism, to reform and invigorate the language and the styles of poetry. If Pushkin's early work (he began composing as a schoolboy prodigy) was facile and conventional, consisting mainly of light verse suitable for the literary salons of the day (frothy Epicurean pieces, witty epigrams, album verse), it already displayed an impressive plasticity of language that was new in Russian literature; and quite soon he exhibited a mastery of virtually all the poetic genres and styles known to the writers of his era. The eventual range of his creativity was enormous, embracing not only all the prevailing forms of lyric verse (which he reshaped into his own freer medium of expression), but including brilliant examples of narrative verse as well. He also achieved stunning success in poetry based on the idioms and themes of Russian folklore, and he experimented fascinatingly in the field of verse drama, both on a large Shakespearian scale and in intensely concentrated, minimalist studies of human passions. He is, in sum, a poet of astonishing versatility. Possessed of a uniquely supple linguistic instrument, he is the master of an apparently effortless naturalness, a seamless blend of appropriate sound, sense, and feeling. During the last decade of his life, when literary activity was being democratized and commercialized, and when a larger, more broadly based readership was emerging, Pushkin turned increasingly to prose, which was fast outdistancing poetry in popularity, though it had yet to achieve the same high level of excellence attained by Russian verse. Pushkin's prose fiction, which is characterized by an unusual terseness and precision of expression, includes several masterpieces in the short-story form, one completed historical novel (as well as the beginnings of several others), and a number of unfinished drafts of a

contemporary social novel. He also made significant contributions to Russian culture as a journalist, as a literary critic and editor, as an accomplished letter-writer, and as a gifted, if amateur, historian. He became in effect Russia's first complete man of letters.

All his creative life Pushkin suffered from the indignities and impositions of an autocratic state: exile in his youth, the frustrations of police surveillance and a grossly interfering censorship in his later years, the constant and onerous obligations of government service, and the continuing humiliation of having to rely on imperial favour. In an effort to secure his independence from such state control over his affairs he gave his political allegiance to a kind of 'aristocratic party', seeing in the old Russian landed gentry, the class to which he himself was born, the only viable check on the arbitrary power of the autocracy. This aligned him as well, in a literary sense, with the notion, prevalent among the educated members of 'lite' society, that the writer's appropriate role was that of the gentleman littrateur, a view of the artist that probably hindered Pushkin in his effort, during the last decade of his life, to transform himself into a truly free and independent professional writer. He never succeeded, finally, in escaping from either the constraints of court pressure or his own persistent allegiance to a fading aristocratic culture. His further development as an artist was abruptly terminated by his death in a duel

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