Eugene Onegin, by Alexander Pushkin

September 25, 2017 9:40 pm by Crocodile

Eugene Onegin
by Alexander Pushkin

translated by Charles Johnson

I got this a few years ago, and the reason I picked it up is that when I was in elementary school my hometown of Worcester Massachusetts had a sister city in Russia, Pushkin. Some kids from Pushkin came over and hung out, I guess we probably sent some kids over there too. The fact that Pushkin (town) was named after Pushkin (poet) made an impression on me. Not like I suddenly wanted to become a reknowned poet and have a city named after me, not that kind of impression. More of a “that’s nice” impression. Worcester had a good poetry scene, or, I don’t know if it had a good scene per se but there were a good number of poets that had spent time there in the past- noteable bards include Elizabeth Bishop, Frank O’Hara, Stanley Kunitz, and Charles Olson, although he hated it. Anyway Pushkin was on the radar with fond associations, and while browsing bookshops I found this at a nice price ($3), so I grabbed it.

It sat on the shelf for a while as most books do, and then, I forget exactly what happened but I got super super stressed out and needed a pleasant escape, so I picked it up and read a few pages, and it was great so I kept going. I might’ve picked it up because the pull quote on the back says “sublimely appropriate”, which was an astoundingly good hook for me at the time.

Long form poetry like this is nice to read when you’re sort of spinning out because you have to both fight and submit to the music of it. You can’t (or I can’t) read the whole thing in a sing-song way, pausing between each line, that’s too distracting, and seems overly-respectful in that way that’s rude. It’s like not wanting to get a shovel dirty, or letting food get cold while you take a picture of it. It’s rude to the food. I try to just plow through as though it has the same linebreaks as prose. Then the music just sneaks up on me, and rather than struggling with the format and trying to master it I find myself just swinging along, floating like a boat on the ocean. This translation is great, the poetry flows beautifully, and each stanza ends with a couplet that serves as a wonderful punchline pulling you across the gap into the next stanza. Pushkin rules, and this is a great (or at least fun) translation.

Anyway I was really enjoying it, really having a great time, and Onegin is a great character who I was enjoying hanging out with. We had laughs and smiles and long sighs looking out the window and regular low-key hanging out drinking tea moments. For your humble narrator it was just what the doctor ordered. Then (and I should’ve seen this coming) the hammer falls and all this bummer shit starts happening! I (and again the fault lies entirely with me) felt betrayed. My bookmark is still there, I got to chapter seven. Not far from the end, but I had to bow out.

Looking back I realize that I do the same thing (unfairly) when I watch a horror movie. It’s different because I know in advance that a horror movie has horrible things happen in it, that’s why they call it that, but the first 20 minutes of a horror movie are oftentimes so nice, just a bunch of people getting ready to go on a camping trip, or having a romantic getaway, or… being a leprechaun (?), and as the music turns dissonant, I always think “I would love it if the whole movie was just the part where everybody’s having fun”. Would I really like this? I don’t know. Let’s take an extreme example– would I like a version of the leprechaun movie where it’s just the end credits and he’s rapping in a hotel room wearing Ringo sunglasses, but for 90 minutes? It’s unclear. But would I invest my $3 and my however amount of time to a book about a funny idler that loafs, pines, bails on a duel, then loafs and pines anew? If it swings, then yes. Or maybe.

I would like to return to this book now that I’m not so adrift, even though I’d have to start from line 1 page 1. It’s good and I was being unreasonable. I would recommend this book to anyone, but especially foot freaks, as there’s a nice passage about being a foot freak, which I won’t quote, just go out and get it. The main guy is great and even though he does stupid shit (has a duel), it’s just a stupid thing that happens. Others might disagree but I think the stupid stuff he does is not representative of his character. If there’s a lesson it might be “it’s ok to be a goof but not a goof with a gun”, or just “watch what you’re doing”. I support that.

I bought this for $3 but this 1979 edition is stamped $4.95, that’s $16.79 in 2017 money. Which is worth it! That’s like a movie at the theater in the mall, with popcorn. Or movies for 2 at the shitty theater and a 6 pack of not-even-the-cheapest beer. New Zealanders are advised to seek a cheaper copy- $NZ17.95 in 1975 US money is… $45? Did I do that calculation right? That’s too much. And twice as much as Australia??? There’s gotta be a pirated edition you can get. You’re not taking any food out of Pushkin’s mouth, he’s long dead (1837). Translator Charles Johnston did a great job but he’s also incapable of cashing royalties (1986).

                                                                                                 

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