Eugene Onegin

Eugene Onegin and Other Poems by Alexander Pushkin, trans. by Charles Johnston, 3/5eugene onegin

This piece of literature ended up on my to-read list in a rather roundabout way.  I was first motivated to watch the Ralph Fiennes/Liv Tyler movie version, Onegin, after encountering beautiful screenshots from the film used to illustrate camera techniques in the book Master Shots.  The movie was captivating and I became curious about the novel-length poem behind it.

Top hats, duels, snowy landscapes, capes, 19th century shirt sleeves...this movie has it all...

Top hats, duels, snowy landscapes…this movie has it all…

It is difficult to talk about the story without completely spoiling it; I am certain that knowing the ending would have diminished my enjoyment of the movie greatly, in which case I might not have even bothered to read the poem.  Themes are safe to mention, I suppose, and Pushkin examines a variety of them, including love, flirtation, death, ennui, infatuation, the meaning of life, and the power of social norms.  It’s not the cheeriest fare to start with and the treatment is very…Russian.

The Johnston translation is impressive, somehow managing to preserve the original rhyme scheme, but I still sensed something lost in translation.  Though some stanzas were touching, witty and insightful, a great many more were difficult to understand and felt completely disconnected from the main story arc.  Given the rambly plot, I was unsurprised to later find out that Onegin was originally published in serial form over a span of some 8 years.  I found it challenging to connect with the characters and a lot of what I did get out of it was likely thanks to having seen the movie already.  This worked out well for me but, because of the overwhelming visual power of the film, I would be tempted to recommend reading the novel first, if possible.

I also read the two additional poems in this collection, “Onegin’s Journey” and “The Bronze Horseman,” but they failed to interest me in the slightest and I shall leave their reviewal to a more appreciative reader than I.

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