Eugene Onegin, Pushkin’s Paradoxical Gem
Professor Douglas Hofstadter
SLAV S320-28847 / S540-28849
and CMLT C400-28885 / C603-28886
Tuesday/Thursday, 2:30–3:45 p.m.
Woodburn Hall 119
In this course, we will study several different English translations of Alexander Pushkin’s immortal novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin (dating from roughly 1830) — namely, those done by James Falen (1990), Babette Deutsch (1936), Charles Johnston (1977), Walter Arndt (1963), Douglas Hofstadter (1999), Oliver Elton (as touched up by A. D. P. Briggs) (1937), Marilyn K. Stone (2004), and last but least, Vladimir Nabokov (1964).
We will explore why this lilting, lyrical work has such a powerful grip on the minds of virtually all native speakers of Russian, being nearly universally considered by Russians not to be merely “a masterpiece” but indeed the masterpiece of Russian literature. We will examine the tripartite essence of Eugene Onegin — namely, its lugubrious plot, its unpredictable and often humorous digressions, and its sparkling verse form. We will delve deeply into the so-called “Onegin stanza”, and into the role that this stanza has played in Russians’ love for the work. We will look at two other books, both written in Onegin stanzas in English in the 1980’s, each of which imitates Eugene Onegin in a profound and beautiful fashion — namely, Vikram Seth’s virtuosic novel-in-verse The Golden Gate, set in contemporary California, and Diana Burgin’s profoundly touching biography of her violinist father, Richard Burgin (subtitled “A Life in Verse”).
We will compare all of these books in detail, and will try to figure out why it is that no English (French, German, etc.) translation of Eugene Onegin, no matter how sublime, has captured the imagination of English-speaking (French-speaking, German-speaking, etc.) readers to any significant degree, and whether this extremely sad failure is due to the intrinsic nontranslatability of poetry, or due to the extremely different histories and sets of values belonging to Russia and Western European countries, or due to the failure of marketing efforts by publishers, or due to arbitrary prejudices and fads in the intelligentsia and in the public at large, or due to apathy or laziness on the part of the reading public, or even possibly due to the inordinate amount of sway held by certain key influential naysayers, most of all the Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov, whose non-verse translation of Eugene Onegin was also, in effect, a vehement, vociferous, and in some ways violent assertion of the supposed “mathematical impossibility” of successfully translating Eugene Onegin into any other language.
We will also consider, although only briefly, the operatic adaptation of Eugene Onegin by the romantic Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and the recent film adaptation of the novel, produced by the British actor Ralph Fiennes (and directed by his sister Martha). We may also briefly consider other works (in English translation) by Pushkin, such as his blank-verse play Boris Godunov (also made into an opera, by Modeste Moussorgsky) or his short blank-verse plays collectively called Four Little Tragedies (one of which is Mozart and Salieri, which also inspired an opera — this one by Nikolaï Rimsky-Korsakov — as well as the famous movie Amadeus).
For their projects, each student will look at some lesser-known translation of Eugene Onegin into English (or into whatever language the student’s mother tongue is, if the student is so inclined), and they will evaluate the given version’s merits and demerits, presenting their findings orally before the class. Each student will also write a short personal narration of some event in their own life (or of some fictitious event), in the style of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (and thus also in the style of Seth’s Golden Gate and Burgin’s Richard Burgin), which will consist of a sequence of roughly ten Onegin stanzas (or possibly using another type of stanza, provided that it is sufficiently closely related to the Onegin stanza). Lastly, in a profoundly reverential imitation of what Russian children universally do in school, students in the course will be required to memorize several stanzas of Eugene Onegin, either in an English translation or in a translation into their mother tongue or in the original Russian, and they will recite those stanzas from memory out loud before the class. (The professor will do the same, have no fear!)
Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse, by Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin (translated by Walter Arndt). Ardis Editions (1963/1992).
Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse, by Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin (translated by Babette Deutsch). Dover Press (1936/2000).
Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse, by Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin (translated by Oliver Elton, adapted by A. D. P. Briggs). J. M. Dent (1937/1995).
Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse, by Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin (translated by James Falen). Oxford University Press, World’s Classics Series (1990/1995).
Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse, by Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin (translated by Douglas Hofstadter). Basic Books (1999).
Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse, by Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin (translated by Charles Johnston). Penguin (1977).
Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse, by Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin (translated by Vladimir Nabokov). Princeton University Press (1964).
Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse, by Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin (translated by Marilyn K. Stone). (Unpublished manuscript.)
Evgenij Onegin: Roman v Stixax, Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin. Bristol Classical Press, Russian Texts Series (1960/1991).
Alexander Pushkin: “Eugene Onegin”, by A. D. P. Briggs. Cambridge University Press, Landmarks of World Literature Series (1992).
Richard Burgin: A Life in Verse, by Diana Burgin. Slavica (1988).
The Golden Gate: A Novel in Verse, by Vikram Seth. Random House (1986).