The Very Heart and Soul of Russian Literature: Alexander Pushkin’s Novel-in-Verse Eugene Onegin

Virtually universally, the Russians consider Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin to be the highest peak in the vast mountain chain of their noble literature, and yet weirdly enough, outside of Russia almost no one knows this great work, let alone loves it.  To be sure, vast numbers of people are familiar with the opera bearing the same name, but the truth is that Tchaikovsky’s opera and Pushkin’s novel have very little in common other than the story line, which is only a small part of the effervescent creation that sprang from Pushkin’s pen in the latter half of the 1820’s.
       My purpose in this talk is to expose non-Russians to the astonishing beauty of this work of Russian literature through a sampler that will include small bits of the original, but that mainly will feature high-quality translations into English, Swedish, French, and German.  I will select some of my very favorite stanzas (the work consists of roughly 400 fourteen-line “Onegin stanzas”, all sharing the same intricate structure), and will do my best to show how intoxicating they are — thanks to their precise meter, their elegant rhymes, their profound lyricism, their pungent humor, and their intangible, magical musicality.
       All the translators who will be showcased have done something that Russians consider to be self-evidently impossible:  transplanting their most beloved work of art from its native linguistic soil into an alien one, while preserving both its content and its form.  Clearly, this is a tough set of hoops to jump through simultaneously, but is making such a multi-faceted leap really “mathematically impossible” (as one famous Russian skeptic once quaintly proclaimed)?  Obviously, I don’t think so.
       To carry out such a delicate artistic transformation requires not only a poetic soul, but also a deeply devoted and patient one — and luckily, in every culture on earth, such souls exist.  What is sad, however, is that the products of these ardent souls’ blood, sweat, and tears have met with such little recognition that Eugene Onegin, novel-in-verse, is still virtually unknown outside its native soil.  One day, perhaps, this will change.  One can always hope!

Douglas Hofstadter
Indiana University

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