Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
Published: 1825–1832 (serialized), 1833 (single volume)
Translated by: James E. Falen (from Russian, 1990)
Narrated by: Stephen Fry
I can’t remember where I found the link, but I came across Fry Reads Onegin a while back and knew I had to download it. Stephen Fry narrates the 1990 translation of Eugene Onegin, and it’s available to download for free. I didn’t know anything about the poem, but I will listen to anything narrated by Fry, so I decided to give it a try.
I read after listening to this that it’s the origin of the Onegin stanza (aBaBccDDeFFeGG), which did jostle some distant memory from English Lit class fifteen years ago, but otherwise I was completely unfamiliar with it. It’s a Russian classic, published serially over a period of seven years, and apparently Pushkin is thought of by many as the greatest poet to come out the country. His rhyming scheme was innovative, you don’t name stanza forms after just anybody, and his story-telling and characterization went on to inspire generations of Russian writers.
Eugene Onegin is a dandy, a Russian equivalent to someone you might find in an Oscar Wilde play. He is jaded, a bit lost, and has grown tired of concerts and partying. After inheriting his uncle’s estate and moving to the country, he meets and befriends the young poet Vladimir Lensky. Onegin eventually meets Lensky’s fiancée’s younger sister Tatyana, who falls completely for him, but he rather ruthlessly turns her down. This, and a spiteful evening of flirting with Lensky’s fiancée, leads to a tragic string of events.
In the poem, the poet Vladimir Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel after he finds him dancing and flirting with his fiancée, and it ends with Onegin killing him. Reading Pushkin’s Wikipedia entry, it seems he suffered the same fate. Pushkin heard rumours that his wife was cheating on him and challenged the man to a duel. He was shot through the spleen and died two days later. Maybe not that uncommon for the time, but it feels like a very odd coincidence looking back.
My head begins to hurt when I consider what it must take to translate a poem, keeping the line by line content the same, while adhering to a set rhyming scheme. I’m sure liberties had to be taken, and I’ll always wonder how it reads in Russian, but I was shocked at how natural the writing felt. I was ready for it to be somewhat rough and stilted, but it’s really well done. I may be wrong, but I imagine translation is a fairly thankless job, so I hope James E. Falen got due credit. There have been dozens of English translation of this, including one by Vladimir Nabokov, but Falen’s is said to be the most faithful while still sticking to the rhyming scheme.
This was really enjoyable, and Stephen Fry’s narration was great. I did have a few false starts on this, though. I haven’t listened to a novel in verse as an audiobook before, and while the language wasn’t all that complicated, I kept finding myself just following the rhythm and forgetting to listen to what was actually being said. It took a bit more concentration to begin with, but once I finally got into it, it was a fun listen.