Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse
Aleksandr Pushkin, translated from the Russian, with commentary, by Vladimir Nabokov
Revised edition, 1975
Princeton, four volumes, $60.00

The glory of Pushkin is one of the few big open questions in Comp Lit whose mere existence, for non-Russians, constitutes a large part of its answer. Many works of and about that marvelous era keep their power to shock us with their newness, their prophetic force—Hardy’s The Dynasts, the early political poetry of Coleridge and Shelley, Keats’ and Byron’s letters. But in most private revelations of this sort we read with a seasoned, hyperconscious collective mind behind us to serve as prompter and coach. We think we bring our whole equipment of taste and sensibility to bear. Translations of Russian prose usually convince us, if not the Russians, that we know where we stand. Pushkin is different. As a poet he is beginning to fill a place in the dwindling penetralia of Comp Lit much like Shakespeare’s in nineteenth-century Germany—a mystery that must be plumbed, and at the same time, to the degree of  one’s interest and enthusiasm, forever remain unplumbed. He is becoming the great question-abider of the Romantic age as Shakespeare was of the Renaissance.

Pushkin’s apostle to the heathen, like an infidel inside the Kaaba, stands under a terrible judgment. The case he makes is on a par with Homer’s for Greek literature or Dante’s for Italian literature and self-understanding, yet he must shepherd his Russian-less reader toward the sanctum in a series of wide, digressive circles during the execution of which the postulant is told that he can glimpse the naked truth only out of the far corners of his eyes. Some of the thrill of the old hermetic religions gets involved in this, to be sure, but also some of the frustration. Never by the gateway of English will the pilgrim enter “the acoustical paradise of Pushkin’s tetrameter” (Nabokov) with all his senses gratified. And now in 1976 we find this boyar of a Nabokov waiting with renewed determination at every turn in the path, blocking our way to the more decadent pleasures held out by those houris the rhymesters, Messrs. Henry Spalding and Oliver Elton, Mmes. Babette Deutsch and Dorothea Radin. It finally comes down to the injunction that before all else we keep our minds on a primary shaping intelligence, like Goethe’s in its effect on language and form but superior in immediacy, its aboriginal creative divination from which all the best later Russian literature is now seen to flow—fiction, drama, and opera as well as poetry. Nor should we ever forget that it is a literary intelligence we seek, a mind sweetly and fiercely embodied, fully in act.

At a moment when literature has ceded large chunks of its former domain to the more lucrative logoi,  the quest for Pushkin is worth a good deal of frustration. As Paul Tillich once recommended, we should try to combine protestant principle with catholic substance as best we can. In every feature of this Nabokov opus the first of the two is much in evidence. Once more he comes down like a wolf on the  fold, scattering the rhymesters’ sheepish pleasantries, crunching their very bones to dust. Who would have thought that the (sometimes) gentle satirist of Pnin and Pale Fire, Johnsonian or Chesterfieldian wit, should have so much venom in him? We tremble—but also wake up to the radical Pauline or world-denying energy in Pushkin, as we do to the Scythian ferocity of Stravinsky’s magnificent setting of Oedipus Rex. Sentimentalizing Russia has been so often, if intermittently, a booming enterprise that the Nabokovian Pushkin, like the Pushkin of Edmund Wilson’s splendid short essay of 1937, comes as a relief from the adoring platitudes of Prince Mirsky, of Avrahm Yarmolinsky in the Modern Library edition, or even from Renato Poggioli’s sober enthusiasm in The Poets of Russia. This is unquestionably the right roughed-up, clean and concentrated Onegin for the age.

In the act of proffering much lexical aid and incitement to further study—his volume 4 still features a complete photocopy of the 1837 edition; the Commentary is as rich as ever in transliteration, the index as copious, the Notes on Prosody as stimulating—Nabokov considerably blunts his ferocious crotchets. He has added a Correlative Lexicon of “signal words” to justify what may in interpreted either as tactical laziness—always the same English word for its Russian congener—or a noble taste for the archaic.

But first things first; before starting to enjoy ourselves we must make a supreme effort to understand that Pushkin, though, an obvious adept in textbook Romantic Irony—his attraction to Byron, Voltaire, Pope, and the French wits confirms as much—was not like anyone else a bourgeois romantic ironist. Just as he insists on his own descent from a gentry of soldiers and landowners, Nabokov turns an  indulgent if not wholly blind eye to Pushkin’s many self-indulgences. Wilson observed that Onegin’s doom rests on the conventionality that led to his first rejection of Tatiana for the sake of an artificial “Byronic” persona bestowed on him, reflexively, by society. He was the dupe of a seductive but ultimately hollow bourgeois myth. At a certain point Pushkin’s Byronism abruptly fades and the boyar takes over. His contempt for his hero, though slowly and very subtly unveiled, is complete—a circumstance often lost in popular Pushkin studies and within the rhymesters’ flowery mazes. That he  shares a few of his author’s well-known traits only complicates the drama of Onegin’s collapse. If Tatiana’s misfortune stems not only from her high naturalness, her flawlessly Russian humanity (as  Pushkin conceived it) but also from her merely being a woman at that time and place, then Onegin’s downfall is an aspect of his having been condoned in Moscow and Petersburg as a model of aristocratic honor.

No pussycat for all his genius in the use of homely detail, Pushkin jolts us further with equally harsh, oblique reflections on the literary culture to which he owed what little fame he had earned. Both Onegin and Tatiana are creatures of literature. When she invades his abandoned study and examines his books, Tatiana discovers Onegin’s unworthiness by comparing her own reading with his. Hers had been a sibylline reverie, brought to life by all traces of a familiar Nature found in her French and English novels; his had been a despairing laughter, a ritual disgust. Somehow her love survives the discovery, but not her real existence nor her trust in life. A heavy burden of guilt to lay on a pastime that both of them would have thought quite accidental!

I don’t know how to deny the truth of Wilson’s postscript to this dual tragedy (triple if one counts Pushkin’s own).

There was for the man of imagination and moral passion a basic maladjustment to society in which only the student of society—the social philosopher, the historian, the novelist—could find himself and learn to function. And to deal with the affairs of society he had to learn its language: that is, giving up the old noble language, he had—as Goethe and Hugo did, and as Pushkin did just before he died—to train himself to write in prose.

So much at least of our own Depression-bred wisdom still seems true. But time has revealed how little  even the prose intelligence that Pushkin’s example inspired was worth in the general collapse that Russia had to endure. That was the protestant principle gone entirely berserk.

Edmund Wilson’s response to Nabokov’s first Englishing of Eugene Onegin was a prophetic irony with  wide implications for the future. Had there ever been a better apparent occasion for detente, entente,  peace, and eternal brotherhood than in the meeting over Pushkin of these two missionary enthusiasts, already partners in a translation of Lermontov? As it happened, their meeting resembled one of those famous battles in murk and fog when two great ships of the main rake each other’s rigging, fill the air  with ball and grape and bloody outcries, but leave both hulls intact. Nabokov had been right to insist on the strictest literalism, however awkward; Wilson was right in pointing out at length how very awkward it had in fact proved to be. But when a translator’s faith in the letter extends to two stout volumes of Commentary, we can, after a refresher course in his other published works, take our bearings with confidence.

We already know the savagery with which such otherwise blameless parties as Freud, Marx, Balzac, Stendhal, Dostoevsky, and Gorki can expect to be treated. Kinbote’s creator will, we know, try to drown us in scholia, most of them sound, some silly or beside the point. Chiefly we know that at no matter what cost the whole undertaking will be made to look like a game of wits. Somehow he will manage to weave around us, on the order of Wagner’s Magic Fire, a huge parody of the virtues and vices of both scholar and layman. Wasn’t stanza xxiv of chapter 7 climaxed by Tatiana’s anguished question: “Might he [Onegin] not be, in fact, a parody?” Might Pushkin’s Nabokov not be the same? Was the layman impressed when he read in Wilson that Pushkin was the Voltaire as well as the Shakespeare of Russia? Well then, our automated ironist says to himself, a good swift kick for Voltaire! Let us keep Reason and Creative Intelligence strictly separate. Did Professor X write that Pushkin had transformed the Romantic epos by giving Tatiana the prize for moral character? Then denounce all literary categories, reduce Romanticism to eleven distinct versions, no one of which in its thus attenuated form could possibly account for Pushkin.

In the long run I doubt if this fun-fair, aspect of the work—this Gounod Mephistofeles—will prove to be very damaging or even (may he forgive me for saying so!) very distracting. Whether in his many diverting notes on costume and manners, in his potted biographies of other poets whose lives got entangled with Pushkin’s, or in his fragrant expertise in every nuance of early nineteenth-century Arcadianism, he gladly drops the mask of sorcerer for the becoming, if novel, role of a modest, conscientious worker in the vineyards.

Why then bother to recall the brimstone atmosphere of the great Nabokov-Wilson blowup? Is most of the translation not straightforward enough—transparent, as critics used to say? Is it not often, especially in the later, somber chapters, edged with feeling—propulsive, as critics used to say? Eccentric by plan rather than by accident? Even such mildly irritating “signal words” as “pal,” “mollitude,” “ancientry” (a favorite with Henry James), “dit,” “plangorous,” “dolent,” and “enluring,” meant to preserve the flavor of archaisms, gallicisms, and other peculiarities in the original, are elaborately defended in the notes, together with his frequent inversions and borrowings from English Arcadian diction of the same period. One smiles at the exuberance of his doctrine of “scuds” (false pyrrhics) and “tilted scuds” (false trochees), a procustean effort to force on English, which revels in vagueness about such matters, a theory that may suit Russian, and its multitude of long words with a single accent apiece, quite well. But his discussion of the English iambic tetrameter is first-rate as far  as it goes. (If he had read Northrop Frye’s “Theory of Genres” he would have realized that “If we read many iambic pentameters ‘naturally,’ giving the important words the heavy accent that they do have in spoken English, the old four-stress line stands out in clear relief against its metrical background.”)

So what is it that persuades one to come down finally in Wilson’s corner? Walter Benjamin hastens to the rescue. Nothing Benjamin wrote better contradicted his pose of the worldly flaneur than the exquisite Plotinian intensities of his great essay, “The Task of the Translator.” The usual European thirst for translation gets mixed in the German mind with a powerful but not unreasonable utopian Drang. As models Benjamin had not only the standard works but also Hölderlin’s late and extremely literal version of two plays by Sophocles. “In them,” he wrote, “the harmony of the two languages is so profound that sense is hardly touched by language, touched like an Aeolian harp by the wind. . . . In them sense plunges from abyss to abyss until it threatens to vanish in the unsoundable depths of language.” What a good translation can do that its original cannot do is to advance the evolution of its own language toward the inevitable coming-to-birth of a universal language. The “germ of universal language” is fragmentary and still hidden in existing literature. But to the extent that a translation can match its original in indifference to mere sense and meaning, so far is it successful. “And it is precisely this universal language—to glimpse or describe it is the only perfection the philosopher can hope for—that is concealed, intensively, in translations.”

Does Nabokov’s Eugene Onegin put so much as a foot inside the porch of Benjamin’s temple of universality? Of course not. No great fault of his—the times and the occasion were just not right. It is much too inconsistent in its idiom, its amiable intent to satirize, ever so lightly, the complex of French and English conventions out of which Pushkin’s wit and Arcadianism derive. It commits a number of ordinary solecisms. And it has more “sense” in the humble, time-bound meaning that Benjamin gives the word than Pushkin himself. It addresses a much more self-consciously antiquarian audience, playing funny word games like those in Pnin or Pale Fire for the delectation of a special mid-Atlantic readership. No doubt the universal language will provide for comedy, but Pushkin never intended to be this amusing. For example:

Happy who knew their agitations
and finally detached himself from them;
still happier who did not know them,
who cooled with separation love,
with tattle, enmity; at times
yawned with his friends and wife,
by jealous anguish undisturbed,
and the safe capital of forefathers
did not entrust to a perfidious deuce!

Lucid as the above may be (when one has mastered the transition between lines four and five) we are surely in trouble if the universal language is going to sound anything like this. It’s a nice question, how many of our descendants will decide on Nabokov’s prompting to call their enemies perfidious deuces.

Luckily all I have to say about his idiom is deducible from his use of “pal.” Far be it for me to doubt that it is one of the meanings of priyatel’, listed in the Correlative Lexicon. Or that it faithfully appears  whenever priyatel’ pops up in the text, which is often. So far so good. But that it adequately expresses all shades of feeling latent in even the tenuous Lensky-Onegin friendship is hardly to be credited. Consider the bathos:

But, reader, be it as it may
alas, the young lover,
the poet, the pensive dreamer,
is killed by a pal’s hand!

A society that knows thirty-two ways to tie a cravat is not likely to be so crippled in its expression of  affection. Obviously for lack of a usable synonym priyatel’ had to work much harder in Russian than pal can or should be asked to work in English. A consistently archaic diction like Hölderlin’s is one thing; Nabokov’s archaism à deux sous is quite another. So much for the unhappy theory of signal words as Nabokov enforces it here.

One cannot very well be neutral about a writer who so ostentatiously shuns neutrality himself. But having growled one’s ungracious growl, one’s mind and (I hope) one’s heart swing back to gratitude for the broad, sensible, humane outlines of the whole, immense task, the sane and shrewd hard work accomplished. One can deplore the price of this new set and question if it really justifies itself for the ordinary groping layman. He has made a few mild substitutions—”descant” for “expatiate,” “anguish” for “torment,” “flamingly”‘ for “fiercely,” “sad” for “woeful,” and so on—has reshuffled phrases, made line length more uniform, multiplied inversions, all presumably in answer to the goads of conscience. But to the untutored eye it is substantially the same text as the edition of 1964, not appreciably better or worse.

In any event, whoever decreed that one supreme master could only be viewed through the eyes of another? Eccentric optics are far better than none.