I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list, and my latest review is about Eugene Onegin. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels. This review will contain spoilers.
So there comes a point on any 100 novels list when you hit something like this: Eugene Onegin. A Russian novel written entirely in verse.
Purely from a technical viewpoint this felt like a bad idea. I can’t read Russian. Translating poetry is notoriously difficult, and this was a mega-poem of 389 stanzas.
From a personal perspective it also felt like a challenge. I don’t ‘get’ poetry. You can blame it on the education system, I guess. Or on a culture that is rapidly replacing oral communication with text. For whatever reason, reading poetry fills me with a deep terror.
So I did what any self-respecting former English student would do. I procrastinated. I read Vonnegut and 87th Precinct novels and occasionally told people that I was still deciding which translation to get.
Turned out that once I had started I couldn’t stop.
As a poem it is unpretentious; written in a witty but down to earth voice that quickly pulled me into the story. There is little in the way of dense and tangled imagery. Instead, Eugene is a rather straightforward tragic love story. There’s a couple of passionate letters, a duel that ends in murder, and a love affair that ends up unrequited for both people involved. There’s also, in the style of old books, a few amusing digressions – such as several stanzas all about feet.
I sniggered out loud a couple of times, which is pretty good going for a book written in the 1800s. I also felt genuinely sad for the characters, caught up in rigid social niceties that prevented them from achieving anything like a happy ending.
In short, it was everything I could have wanted from a train read.
It is generally considered a classic in Russian literature, and there is something haunting about it. Despite the witty, almost irreverent language, the actual story is horrible. Nobody wins – except, perhaps, Olga?
Overall, if you are looking to get into your classics, Eugene Onegin is a good place to start. I’m almost inspired to attempt a visit to the Opera!