Eugene Onegin

It’s a tricky thing, reading a “novel in verse” in translation.

While the actual narrative asks a bunch of interesting questions, the story feels rather shallow and unmotivated: Hopeless dandy rejects a girl, kills his friend in a duel, completely unravels, only to fall desperately in love years later with the self-same girl he rejected in a past life, only to be rejected in his own turn.

It’s hard not to consider the story as a vehicle for exploring ideas, for using the poetry (it is a novel in verse, after all) to layer on any additional meaning and depth that the narrative is lacking, the way Shakespeare did with Romeo and Juliet.

And so we come to the tricky thing with reading a novel in verse in translation. While I generally liked the translation by Stanley Mitchell, it’s hard to know whether you’re reading Pushkin or Mitchell. In a novel where the verse is so eminently important, it’s a shame to have that verse be closed off by a wall of translation. Whether or not Mitchel actually does Pushkin justice, in capturing the nuances, the rhythms, the imagery, is something I won’t know until I learn Russian. Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed Mitchell’s poetry, his rhyme and rhythm.

Writing a narrative in meter, you can’t help but put yourself in direct conversation with the entire history of epic poetry, from Homer to Virgil and Dante. It got plenty of smiles, then, at the way Pushkin leans into this, treating his “epic” of the quintessential superfluous man in the same vein as Homer.

Opening the book with a dedication to his Muse, addressing the reader as he prepares to recount his story, consistently referring to Eugene as “our Hero”: all of this makes the contrast all the more poignant between the wanderings of ennui-ridden protagonist and the wanderings of the likes of Odysseus and Aeneas. In this way, it’s hard not to compare the novel to a similar experiment in James Joyce’s Ulysses.