Sunday, July 29, 2012

Book a Week, July 29

When I was working through my options for another book-a-week candidate, my eye happened to fall on a slim volume, which turned out to be another verse novel. Unlike The Devious Way, however, this one is a famous one: Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin was a poet for a Romantic age: he died at the very young age of 37 from wounds received in the course of a duel, which was apparently his twenty-ninth duel. There are disputes, however, over how much his poetry should itself be considered Romantic. He is considered one of the great authors of Russia, and is sometimes called the Russian Byron, although almost everyone agrees that his versification is more technically consistent than anything Byron himself gives us.

Eugene Onegin, like many other major Russian works, is apparently about a 'superfluous man', i.e., it follows the life and psychological complications of a man who does not fit into his society, a Byronic hero tinctured with Russian fatalism. It was written in iambic tetrameter -- good for a verse novel, since it moves more quickly than iambic pentameter -- with twelve-line stanzas bearing a curious rhyme scheme: AbAbCCddEffEgg, where the lower-case letters are feminine rhymes and the upper-case letters are masculine rhymes.

The particular version I have is a Heritage Press (New York) version. It is really one of the best-looking books I've seen: unusually good paper (what is known as toned laid-paper: it has texture, like a very thin version of what fancy cards are often made of); bold, crisp lettering in a version of Bodoni font; and a specially patterned cover, repeating an image of Moscow's Cathedral of Peter and Paul over and over again, a feat that is easy to do today but at the time would have been extraordinarily difficult. It also has very striking lithograph illustrations by no less than Fritz Eichenberg, one of the finest engravers and illustrators of the twentieth century, who, as with many talented German Jews of his day, left Germany at the rise of Adolf Hitler and came to the United States. Although he was never Catholic, he became a good friend of Dorothy Day, and was involved in a number of charitable projects. In short, it is in the finest tradition of the old Heritage Press: books as works of art in themselves, available to ordinary readers at affordable prices. (The Heritage Club was created by George Macy to be the common man's version of his Limited Editions Club.) This is the way books were meant to be made; you just don't generally find books this extraordinarily nice for the twenty dollars or so that Heritage Press books usually end up being priced at in used bookstores.

Eugene Onegin is in Russian, of course, so it is in translation. The particular translation is that of Babette Deutsch, an accomplished poet in her own right. One of the interesting features of her translation is that she maintains the same rhyme scheme as the original -- very difficult to do with any accuracy. So there's a good chance that it's as much Deutsch as Pushkin. Nonetheless, some light comparing with other versions available online suggests that it is at least reasonably accurate as to general gist. It has an introduction by Avrahm Yarmolinsky, her husband and a famous scholar of Russian literature.


  1. I just thought I'd link to Nabokov's short poem on translating Onegin:

    I haven't read any of Deutsch's translations of the novel (she had a few different versions), but I was warned, many years ago, to stay away from them by a friend who is a native Russian speaker. 

    I have read several other translations: Arndt's, Johnston's, Falen's, and of course Nabokov's. Nabokov's is unreadable, Johnston's is pretty, and Arndt's is probably my favorite. Falen's is OK. I have Hoyt's, which I found at Half Price books recently, and it looks like it might be good, but I've only read the first few stanzas.

    All of this is to say, reading Onegin is hard work. As someone who's mildly obsessed with Russian novels, though, it's a necessity. 

    I hope you enjoy this version of it.

  2. So far I'm liking it, although I'm not very far into it. Just comparing various stanzas in this translation with various ones that I've found online, I think that, with a few slips, Deutsch repeatedly proves herself the best poet among the translators, but, perhaps precisely as such, she also is more willing just to be in the neighborhood if precision would make for odd English. Arndt's translation seems to have a very good reputation for striking the right balance, though.


Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.