not in our stars, but in ourselves
Hello, it’s me: your devoted (albeit amateur) Russophile. As you may recall, I saw the Boston Ballet’s production of Onegin last month, and it’s instantly shot to the top of my very favorite performances I’ve ever had the privilege to experience. Almost immediately thereafter, I got two translations of Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse: one translation of Eugene Onegin by James E. Falen, preserving the rhymes of Pushkin’s poetry as best he could while also maintaining the sense – or at least the spirit – of the original; and another by Vladimir Nabokov. The Nabokov translation is more daunting, and a bit more like eating one’s vegetables: his commitment to the literal translation of Pushkin’s work, commendable as it is, can occasionally make for some clunky moments. Additionally, my dear Volodya could not resist showcasing his considerable scholarship. Volume I, which is a grand total of 348 pages, contains 102 pages of introductions and explanations and the like. Volume II consists solely of Nabokov’s annotations to the text, and it is well over 1000 pages. (One can’t help wondering if the real point of Pale Fire is for Nabokov – usually terribly serious on the subject of himself – a bit of self-mockery.)
Fortunately, his doggedly faithful translation (which other scholars have described as half-Nabokov, half-Pushkin) can and does sing at times. Perhaps it’s just because I am, emotionally, a teenage girl – but Chapter 3’s stanzas describing the onset of Tatiana’s obsessive love are absolutely glorious:
Tatiana listened with vexation
to gossip of that sort; but secretly
with joy ineffable
she could not help thinking about it;
and the thought sank into her heart;
the time had come – she fell in love.
Thus, dropped into the earth, a seed
is quickened by the fire of spring.
Long since had her imagination,
consumed with mollitude and yearning,
craved for the fatal food;
long since had the heart’s languishment
constrained her youthful bosom;
her soul waited – for somebody.
And its wait was rewarded. Her eyes opened;
she said: “‘Tis he!”
Alas! now both the days and nights,
and hot, lone sleep,
all’s full of him; to the dear girl
unceasingly with magic force
all speaks of him. To her are bothersome
alike the sounds of friendly speeches
and the gaze of solicitous domestics.
Plunged in dejection,
to visitors she does not listen,
and imprecates their leisures,
their unexpected arrival
and protracted sit-down.
With what attention she now
reads a delicious novel,
with what vivid enchantment
drinks the seductive fiction!
By the happy power of reverie
the lover of Julie Wolmar,
Malek-Adhel, and de Linar,
and Werther, restless martyr,
and the inimitable Grandison,
who brings upon us somnolence —
all for the tender dreamer
have been invested with a single image,
have in Onegin merged alone.
I mean, if you’ve never felt that way, you’ve never felt that way. Pushkin evidently did; Nabokov certainly did; and, you know, there have been some cases involving yours truly, too.
The ballet, which necessarily has to find a way to enact all of that internal and literary passion, seizes on the ardor and imagination of Tatiana to infuse her dream pas de deux with Onegin with some of the most potent eroticism I’ve ever seen in a ballet or anywhere else. This isn’t the entire dance, and it’s not nearly as good as the Boston Ballet’s (sorry), but it gives you an idea:
The gimmick is that Tatiana fell asleep while writing an impassioned letter to Onegin, confessing her love. She dreams that he appears in her mirror, steps out, and dances with her – all dashing ardor and swoon-worthiness. That letter is really one of the key moments in the novel, so it’s quite a feat for the ballet to find a way to express all that passion and pleading without a word.
Here, by the way, is Nabokov’s translation of the letter:
I write to you – what would one more?
What else is there that I could say?
‘Tis now, I know, within your will
to punish me with scorn.
But you, for my unhappy lot
keeping at least one drop of pity,
you’ll not abandon me.
At first, I wanted to be silent;
believe me: of my shame
you would never have known
if I had had the hope,
even seldom, even once a week,
to see you at our country place,
only to hear your speeches,
to say a word to you, and then
to think and think about one thing,
both day and night, till a new meeting.
But, they say, you’re unsociable;
in backwoods, in the country, all bores you,
while we … with nothing do we glitter,
though simpleheartedly we welcome you.
Why did you visit us?
In the backwoods of a forgotten village,
I would have never known you
nor have known bitter torment.
The tumult of an inexperienced soul
having subdued with time (who knows?),
I would have found a friend after my heart,
have been a faithful wife
and a virtuous mother.
Another! … No, to nobody on earth
would I have given my heart away!
That has been destined in a higher council,
that is the will of heaven: I am thine;
my entire life has been the gage
of a sure tryst with you;
I know, you’re sent to me by God,
you are my guardian to the tomb ….
You had appeared to me in dreams,
unseen, you were already dear to me,
your wondrous glance pervaded me with languor,
your voice resounded in my soul
long since … No, it was not a dream!
Scarce had you entered, instantly I knew you,
I felt all faint, I felt aflame,
and in my thoughts I uttered: It is he!
Is it not true that it was you I heard: you in the stillness spoke to me
when I would help the poor
or assuage with a prayer
the yearning of my agitated soul?
And at this very moment
was it not you, dear vision,
that slipped through the transparent darkness,
softly bent close to my bed head?
Was it not you that with [joy] and love
words of hope whispered to me?
Who are you? My guardian angel
or a perfidious tempter?
Resolve my doubts.
Perhaps, ’tis nonsense all,
an inexperienced soul’s delusion,
and some quite different thing is destined …
But so be it! My fate
henceforth I place into your hands,
before you I shed tears,
for your defense I plead.
Imagine: I am here alone,
none understands me,
my reason is breaking down,
and, silent, I must perish.
I’m waiting for you: with a single look
revive my heart’s hopes,
or interrupt the heavy dream
alas, with a deserved rebuke!
I close! I dread to read this over.
I’m faint with shame and fear …
But to me your honor is a pledge,
and boldly I entrust myself to it.
Peak teenage girl, as you can see. If you’ve never been there, you don’t know.
Incidentally, I’ll be attending the Boston Symphony Orchestra soon, where I’ll hear – you guessed it! – an excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s opera version of Eugene Onegin. Specifically: the letter. And perhaps after that, I’ll be able to write a slightly more cogent compare-and-contrast essay of Onegin across art forms, across languages, and across time and space.