Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Review: 'Yevgeny Onegin' by Alexander Pushkin, trans. by A.D.P. Briggs

My first encounter with Onegin was in the form of Tchaikovsky’s famous opera at the Royal Opera House in London, years ago. It was one of my first ever operas and I was enraptured, both by the singers’ abilities and by the story which moved from comedy to tragedy and everything in between. What remained in my memory of the story, however, was the immensity of the story, its epic feel despite its straightforward story. So of course I wanted to jump into Pushkin’s beautiful novel-in-verse the first chance I got! Thanks to Pushkin Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 12/07/2016
Publisher: Pushkin Press
 The aristocratic Yevgeny Onegin has come into his inheritance, leaving the glamour of St Petersburg's social life behind to take up residence at his uncle's country estate. Master of the nonchalant bow, and proof of the fact that we shine despite our lack of education, the aristocratic Onegin is the very model of a social butterfly - a fickle dandy, liked by all for his wit and easy ways. When the shy and passionate Tatyana falls in love with him, Onegin condescendingly rejects her, and instead carelessly diverts himself by flirting with her sister, Olga - with terrible consequences.
Yevgeny Onegin is one of the - if not THE - greatest works of all Russian literature, and certainly the foundational text and Pushkin the foundational writer who influence all those who came after (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, etc). So it's no surprise that this verse novella has drawn so many translators. It's a challenge, too, since verse is always harder to translate than prose. (Vikram Seth, rather than translating Onegin again, updated it to the 1980s in San Franciso in his The Golden Gate). A.D.P. Briggs is arguably the greatest living scholar of Pushkin, certainly in the UK, and as such he's spent a lifetime thinking about how to translate Pushkin. Briggs is an experienced and accomplished translator, not only for Pushkin (Pushkin's The Queen of Spades) but for Penguin Classics (War and Peace, The Resurrection) and others. Briggs has not only been thinking about Pushkin for decades, he's been working on this translation for nearly as long. It's a landmark event in the history of Onegin translations and this edition is accompanied by a thoughtful introduction and translator's note.

Written in the early 1800s, (1823-32 to be precise), Yevgeny Onegin is often considered Alexander Pushkin’s finest work. He himself is considered by many to be one of the most important authors and figures in Russian cultural history. As Briggs puts it in his Introduction: ‘He is to Russia what Dante is to Italy, Shakespeare to England and Cervantes to Spain’. Onegin is a masterpiece of intricate complexity. Rhymes seem to come naturally, flowing as simply and melodically as can be, yet a closer look reveals the skill hidden artfully behind the words. Everyone who has read a beautiful poem has felt inspired to pick up poetry themselves, and has subsequently discovered the difficulty of producing such beauty themselves. Reading Pushkin’s Onegin is a beautiful spectacle, which only Pushkin himself could have orchestrated.

Since I read a translation I cannot comment on how the novel reads in Russian, yet Pushking shows an incredible awareness of language. His novel is full of little asides, author’s comments and general observations on the beauty of women, the boredom of youth, the tragedy of friendship, etc. This makes Pushkin himself a key character in his novel, which starts with his addressing the reader and finishes with a simple farewell to the same reader. Yevgeny Onegin is a meta-narrative of the highest order. It is incredibly difficult to discuss the nature of story-telling within a story, without destroying the flow of the story. It takes skill to make a reader think and read at the same time, but Pushkin does so very well. His characters are both characters within the story and noticeable trope characters: the roguish, Byronic and almost inexcusable Onegin, the romantic and tragic poet Vladimir Lensky, and the quiet country girl Tatyana Larina. They work in his story but at the same time his novel is also an assessment of these types of characters. The critical response to Onegin himself is an example of how well Pushkin did his work: critics can't help but want to forgive Onegin, paint his as wounded and flawed but essentially good, yet the text does not necessarily give any indication to this. 

The story of Yevgeny Onegin is both frivolous and tragic, sad and uplifting, revelatory and mysterious. Pushkin combines the qualities of both genres he engages in: prose and verse. Onegin is a novel in its structure and content, a story of passion and death, but flows as beautifully and musically as a poem. As such it shouldn't come as a surprise that Onegin has proven a challenge to translate. English has an advantage, when it comes to translating Onegin, since it is written in the sonnet form which works so well in English. But it has to be said that this novel in verse is uplifted by its translation. A.D.P. Briggs, one of the mot noted Pushkin scholars, not only writes a fascinating introduction to his work, his translation is beautiful. At times I forgot that I was reading Onegin in translation, so clearly did I feel and understand Pushkin's intentions and humour. I was so impressed by his translation I am currently actively searching for his other translations of Russian works.

I give this novel-in-prose...
5 Universes!

Yevgeny Onegin has become one of my favourite foreign works. Russian literature has been shaped by Pushkin and his Onegin and after reading it for myself I can see how far their influence has reached. To fans of both prose and of Russian literature I can only say: get yourself a copy, as soon as possible.

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