Pushkin is to Russian literature what Shakespeare is to English literature. And the most important, the most influential, work of Pushkin's is EUGENE ONEGIN. So it is with Pushkin and ONEGIN that I begin a personal survey of Russian literature in translation (continuing on to Gogol, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Solzhenhítsyn, with many stations in between - a multi-year project, no doubt).
Many Russians born before the Bolshevik Revolution knew by heart lengthy excerpts from ONEGIN. (I wonder whether any born after say 1960 do.) Such memorization feats are facilitated by the fact that the novel was written in verse. And not free verse, mind you. All but a few of the approximately 5500 lines are written in very formal, structured stanzas with a consistent rhyming pattern (aBaBccDDeFFeGG) and four iambic feet per line. By this very formal structure there proceeds an unconventional, discursive, often informal narrative.
The plot of the novel is disarmingly simple. Eugene (more properly "Yevgeny") Onegin is a young Russian man of comfortable inheritance. He is "sensitive", perhaps one of those new "Romantics" (the time of the novel is the 1820s), but he also is somewhat of a fop and a dandy, the sort of man liable to squander his youth in idleness. Curiously, he ends up being a not very attractive or sympathetic title character. A young woman, Tatyana, falls head over heels in love with him. Tatyana, on the other hand, is one of the more attractive and sympathetic women in literature. Onegin rejects her proffer of love but with time the tables are turned. In the course of the novel, there are several balls and parties, two lovesick letters, and a duel. That pretty much covers it.
But in truth, the plot takes up only about a third of the narrative. Another third, approximately, is given to descriptive passages - such as the Russian countryside in autumn and the approach to Moscow - and the final third to a potpourri of Pushkinian digressions - among them literature, food and wine, the ballet, and (most famously) ladies' feet. The novel includes all sorts of commentaries on Russian society - some admiring, some disapproving. Among the latter there is a biting critique of the social conventions of honor and dueling.
The most conspicuous theme of the novel is lost youth. For example:
But sad to feel, when youth has left us,
That it was given us in vain,
That its unnoticed flight bereft us
And brought no harvest in its train[.]
Ironically (and prophetically?), Pushkin died at age 37, having been mortally wounded in a duel.
EUGENE ONEGIN is a wonderfully inventive and protean work. It is charming and it is playful. It contains much exuberant authorial showing off - with considerable justification. It is a distinctively Russian amalgam of both comedy and tragedy.
Amazon lists at least six different English translations of ONEGIN, and a good number of the reviews of each translation discuss and debate their respective merits and demerits. I have two different translations. One is by Vladimir Nabokov. As is his wont, Nabokov's approach is a singular one. He does not attempt to replicate the formal elements of Pushkin's Russian, such as rhyme and iambic rhythm. Instead, his lodestar is "completeness of meaning". It's an interesting and instructive translation, but by forgoing the formal elements Nabokov abandoned the music and soul of the work. My other translation is by Walter Arndt. The first version of it, published in 1963, has been on my shelves for nearly 40 years. I am posting this review under the listing for the second revised edition. Regarding the merits of Arndt's translation (as well as the problems with Nabokov's approach), I commend the review by Oldthinker of September 17, 2009.
There is no question that any translation of ONEGIN will strike a modern English reader as somewhat alien and fusty. My guess is that the original Russian would strike a contemporary Russian reader as rather archaic. It, emphatically, is a work from a different age -- just like a Shakespeare play. But, as with Shakespeare, if the literate reader approaches EUGENE ONEGIN with an open mind and gives herself up to it, reading it will be quite rewarding.