Eugene Onegin's eponymous main character is a young man who enjoyed the social whirl and was a hit with women but he became jaded and tired of this life, retreating to his country estate and a fairly hermetic life there until Vladimir Lensky, a young poet moves into the area and the two men strike up a friendship. Lensky takes Onegin to dinner with his love Olga's family where Olga's older sister Tatyana falls for the experienced Onegin. She writes him an impassioned letter and is coldly and effectively rebuffed. After a disastrous evening at a country ball where Onegin unthinkingly flirts with Olga, Lensky calls him out and a duel ensues. Our hero flees the countryside, wandering for a couple of years, during which time Tatyana goes to St. Petersburg and marries, becoming a cosmopolitan young woman. And now Onegin falls head over heels in love with her, now that she is unavailable.
I expected this to a tough read for a couple of reasons. I am (too many to count) years out of school and so not liable to find anyone willing to discuss this with me to help tease out meaning. I have never been a wild poetry fan and the thought of an entire novel in verse was daunting (Sharon Creech's lovely middle grade book Love That Dog being my only other attempt at it and while charming, that one is hardly in the same league as this one). I have to be in the proper mood for the dour Russians (which is why a class for moody high schoolers was genius, I tell you, genius). But I was pleasantly surprised. While tragedy and frustrated love abound here, the mood of the poem is not bleak and unremitting. There is much playfulness and light in it. The depictions of Russian society are detailed and wonderful as are the contrasting depictions of the regular Russian. I know much has been made of the difficulty of translating this poem in particular given the unnaturalness of the rhyme in English but I hardly noticed the oddness of the Pushkin stanza and since my own Russian was never very good, I'm unlikely to ever read it in the original to make an unflattering comparison. In any case, this Johnston translation captures the romance and the heartbreak of this long but engaging work. Those not too intimidated by poetry who want a less dense entry into Russian classics would be smart to start here.
I read this book as a part of the Classics Circuit White Nights on the Neva: Imperial Russian Literature Tour.