Alexander Pushkin's Novel in Verse, «Eugene Onegin», and Its Legacy in the Work of Vladimir Nabokov

Renate Lachmann

Translated by Mark Pettus


Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin (1833) overcame thresholds imposed by the conventions of genre and style to become a threshold text itself over the course of its canonization; marked by inno­vation and a sharp break with tradition, it is a text that divides Russian literature into a “before” and “after.” Contemporary literary criticism la­beled it an “encyclopedia of Russian society”—a label that, throughout the history of its interpretation, certainly obscured the purely literary encyclo­pedism of the text. Eugene Onegin is a highly complex text, featuring self-commentary, meta-textuality, allusions to other texts, and parody, in which pre-Romantic and Romantic European literature is digested and broken down. The canonization process that produced Alexander Pushkin the “classic” author, and the strain exerted upon the Pushkin “legacy” by subsequent generations of poets, have played a decisive role in Russia’s cultural self-conception. Particularly prominent in this process was Vladi­mir Nabokov, whose émigré works reclaimed the Pushkin legacy, and who thereby made his own contribution to the canonization process, as Push­kin’s literary double.



     The year 1999 marked Pushkin’s bicentennial and Nabokov’s centennial celebration. Pushkin was celebrated as Russia’s national poet; enormous mass-produced banners emblazoned with his portrait, conspicuous and ex­hilarating, spanned Moscow’s central thoroughfare, Tverskaya. Nabokov, on the other hand, was an author who had returned to Russian literature after a long literary absence. Pushkin was everyman’s poet, whose verses anyone could recite from memory, while Nabokov was an author for the educated, an author’s author.

     These centenaries saw both authors—the consummate “classic” author and the “classic” author in progress—celebrated at symposia and in countless commemorative speeches. Editions of their collected works were republished. Those of Nabokov, including Russian translations of his English-language novels, were published in Russia, and work to restore his legendary familial estate, Vyra, was accelerated. In New York, it was decided to establish a museum and archive dedicated to both Nabokov the author and Nabokov the lepidopterist.

     While such Nabokov-inspired festivities remained unprecedented in Russia, Pushkin celebrations had long been a ritualized tradition. Already in the nineteenth century, Pushkin’s cultural presence was guaranteed not only literarily, by epigones of Eugene Onegin, but also musically and iconically. It became fashionable to set his romances to music; due to the success of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades and of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, several of his works could be celebrated in the form of operas—a circumstance of which Nabokov disapproved, par­ticularly with regard to Tchaikovsky. Pushkin’s “post-erotic” poem “I Loved You Once” (“Ia vas liubil”) has been set to music eighty times, most recently by a pop group in Halle (Saale).

PR14 Lachmann Fig1     The first bust of Pushkin (figure 1) was exhibited shortly after his death in a duel (1837).[1] In 1880, following a complicated prehistory in­ volving a request for proposals, selection of a design, and approval by the tsar, a statue by A. M. Opekushin was unveiled in Moscow at a ceremony attended by the intelligentsia and the people in equal measure. It was the first monument funded by national subscription, without the involvement of state authorities. An ekphrasis of this monument provides eloquent tes­timony to the Pushkinophilia that was to endure until the year 2000 and beyond. François-Xavier Coquin describes the statue as follows:

Et Pouchkine était apparu aux regards, […] seul, debout, la tête légèrement inclinée, la main droite glissée dans son gilet, son chapeau dans la main gauche, en costume de son temps, sur lequel était jeté le manteau qu’il affectionnait, […]. Remarquablement expressive, la tête rebelle, à la chevelure abondante et bouclée, tout comme les favoris qui lui encadraient le visage, attirait […] le regard: tout à la fois pensif et sérieux, avec une pointe de mélancholie et de tristesse, son visage exprimait plus encore […] la méditation du poète, à l’écoute de ses voix intérieures, immobilisé un bref instant dans sa marche, comme s’il cherchait à retenir l’inspiration. C’était là un Pouchkine souverain et sur de lui, muri par les épreuves, qui—sa mission accompli—semblait sur le point de se retirer, dans une pose dont la noblesse n’avait rien de théatral.

     And thus Pushkin appeared to the people, [...] alone, upright, his head slightly inclined, his right hand tucked into his vest, his left clutching his hat, in contemporary garb, on top of which he had thrown his beloved overcoat […]. Remarkably expressive, with hair abundant and curly, as were the favoris [narrow sideburns reaching near the chin— R.L.] that framed his face, his rebellious head drew one’s gaze: at once contemplative and serious, with a trace of melancholy and sadness, his face expressed […] a poet’s meditation, a poet given over to his inner voices, immobilized for a brief moment, as though seeking to retain some flash of inspira­tion. Here was a Pushkin who was sovereign and sure of himself, matured by experience, who—his mission accomplished—seemed on the point of withdrawing, in a pose that was noble yet without a trace of theatricality.

PR14 Lachmann Fig2     The wording of his ekphrasis suggests that Coquin views the statue as an apotheosis (figure 2).[2]

     Subsequently, monuments would appear in all Russian cities, depict­ing the poet sitting or standing, relaxed or solemn. The twentieth century continued this tradition. After the Revolution, a sort of competition arose between Pushkin and Lenin monuments with regard to the prominence of their location and the frequency with which they were erected. The Push­kin statue installed in front of the Russian Museum in Soviet Leningrad, with its right arm outstretched as if pointing the way, and its billowing coattails, seems to imitate the gesture so familiar from Lenin monuments. But it was the portraiture of nineteenth-century Russian painters that established Pushkin’s “image” (figure 3). Pushkin himself contributed to this image with his numerous self-portraits, which by turns emphasize and conceal the African traits he had inherited from his great-grand­father. One portrait in particular, a self-portrait produced using the writing instruments at his disposal (the quill pen and plume), leaves a lasting impression (figure 4). Nabokov’s image, on the other hand, is established by photographs. They show him both with and without his family, in poses now familiar from frequent publication (figure 5).[3]

     How might the two authors be viewed in tandem? Nabokov himself de­veloped analogies and parallels which speak of kinship. His oeuvre, which is “weighed upon the Pushkinian scale” (a line from his Unfinished Draft [Neokonchennyi chernovik], 1931), is replete with the motifs, themes, styles, and devices of Pushkin. One hundred years after Pushkin’s stay in Crimea, Nabokov composed a poem entitled “Crimea” [“Krym”], in which Pushkin suddenly appears aside the lyrical “I” and regards him with a smile: “Vdrug Pushkin vstal so mnoiu riadom / I iasno ulybnulsia mne” (Suddenly Pushkin stood alongside me / And smiled brightly at me). There are certain parallels in the biographies of Pushkin and Nabokov’s father: the former’s death in a duel, and the latter’s shooting by a terror­ist. Later, Nabokov found correspondences between his own biography and that of Pushkin, which he featured allusively in his works, as if in an at­tempt to mythologize himself. The same is true of his Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (1967), a masterpiece in the vein of Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit.

PR14 Lachmann Fig3     There are noteworthy parallels with regard to both authors’ conspicu­ous obsessions with certain activities, objects, and instruments: the duel for one, chess for the other. Dueling pistols and chessboards are duly de­ployed; for Nabokov, moreover, the butterfly net is regarded as a hunting weapon. Pushkin’s (literary) fetishization of the female foot can be fruit­fully compared with Nabokov’s (literary) fixation with “nymphets.” With his allusions to the city common to both authors, the lost paradise of Petersburg, Nabokov also establishes a closeness to Pushkin in terms of the world they inhabit. The Mikhailovskoe estate, to which Pushkin was repeatedly banished from the capital and which would serve as a sort of retreat where many of his works were composed, lies just a few kilometers from Nabokov’s nostalgically described estate, Vyra, where he spent a childhood he would later praise in his autobiography, and whither he would never return. Scandals, too, link Pushkin to Nabokov: the sup­pressed yet continuously surfacing rumors of the former’s affairs, and the true background of the duel that claimed his life—told in Serena Vitale’s 1995 novel, Il bottone di Puškin (Pushkin’s Button)—and the scandal un­leashed by the publication of Lolita.[4]

     Yet more compelling is the (self-imposed) link to Pushkin which Nabokov establishes in two of his works: his English translation of Eugene Onegin and the accompanying 2,000-page commentary. Both consumed more of Nabokov’s time than any other work, and both came about during the same period as his English-language novels.

PR14 Lachmann Fig4     While Nabokov called Pushkin a phenomenon of the origin of modern Russian literature, Valeria Narbikova views Nabokov as a phenomenon of its end.[5] While Nabokov’s statement suggests the notion of a threshold between convention and innovation, that of Narbikova points to a tran­scendence of the end—that is, to a threshold between the modern and the postmodern. In both attributions, the threshold metaphors connote the be­ginning/end of an “epoch,” and carry for both authors a plausibility that is more than merely figurative, given the caesuras which their oeuvresmark in the history of literature. But the threshold, from the viewpoint of Benja­min on the one hand and Bakhtin on the other, also points in other direc­tions. “The threshold must be starkly distinguished from the border,” writes Benjamin in his Passagenwerk.[6] Further, he writes: “The threshold [Schwelle] is a zone. Change, transition, and flux are contained in the verb ‘schwellen’ [to swell].” The threshold-moment eludes measurability and attachment to a particular place; it is unsettling in its potential openness to everything and its aggressiveness with regard to the past and future. In the threshold-moment, the accustomed parameters of development are suspended. Bakhtin’s concept of chronotope, on the other hand, takes up the in-betweenness, the transitoriness that announces the time-space of some “hereafter” that is to follow the fleeting moment of duration.[7] But the threshold may also be conceived as a chronotope of change and meta­morphosis. As creators of language, lovers of word-play, stylists, parodists, and artists of intertextuality who imbibed the European literary “heri­tage,” digested it, and subjected it to a violent metabolism, Pushkin and Nabokov seem to have contributed to this metamorphosis of literature—indeed, it is as though this metamorphosis takes place within their work.

PR14 Lachmann Fig5     However, in order to classify the work of both Russian authors as threshold-texts, and to qualify the authors themselves as threshold-au­thors, we must celebrate their “homecoming” from the chronotope of the merely eccentric; we must “place” their work, gaining insight into the transition that it initiated and brought to fruition.

     This occurs in national cultures whose devotion to their “exorbitant” authors involves subjecting them to a process of canonization. It is during this process that threshold texts are first recognized and established as such.

     While Nabokov’s canonization is just beginning, that of Pushkin, hav­ing passed through multiple stages, is now complete. In the case of the latter, the canonization process is closely tied to the concept of the classi­cal, which became the subject of much controversy in the Russian literary and cultural history of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Judgments as to what qualified as classical were significant not only for the literary historiography of the nineteenth century, but also for post-Revolutionary cultural debates, which revolved around the question of the classical heritage. The question of what qualifies for inclusion in the cultural heritage is, in its unsettling irresolvability, a part of Russia’s cul­tural self-conception, both official and unofficial, and is constantly being posed anew even up to the present day. It is burdened by spectacular dis­crepancies in the depiction of the very authors who are to be inherited. These discrepancies arose from the warring interpretations of contempo­rary criticism that were subsequently deepened and sharpened by subse­quent shifts in reception—such as, for example, an ambiguous picture of Pushkin, at one moment painted as the culmination of the classical litera­ture of the eighteenth century—that is, as a conservative—and as a romantic, as an innovator, the next. His canonization has come to resem­ble a battle to establish a way of reading him, in which literary historiog­raphy and literary criticism are every bit as involved as are emerging authors (as readers of their predecessors).

     Viewed typologically, the concept of the classical is in opposition to that of the avant-garde. This functional binarism reflects a culture’s con­trary tendencies towards consensus-building and archiving, on the one hand, and ventures, ruptures, and utopias, on the other. An insistence upon the “exemplary” reveals the concept of the classical that undergirds it as nationally oriented—that is, a “classical” concept of the classical (the exemplary as safeguard of a culture’s crowning achievements, as identity-building, and as ensuring consistency and continuity).

     The classical cannot be grasped independently of some opposing con­cept; it is precisely the interplay between two antipodes that determines a cultural model’s valuations concerning tolerable cultural practices. This finds articulation in meta-texts: works of aesthetics, literary criticism, and literary history. The emergence of binary oppositions in these meta-texts at once both describes and shapes, whether the opposition is between the classical and the avant-garde, the classical and the decadent, the classical and popular culture. Together, conceptions of the classical and conceptions of classical criticism make it possible to understand this process of exclu­sion, which is the foundation for the canonization in which the classical becomes a totalizing court for the assignment of value. Viewed function­ally, the classical canon requires consensus (even if it is but the consensus of a small group that has monopolized the assignment of value), and must ideologically or aesthetically legitimize its exclusionary activity.

     Without doing so deliberately, Russian literary historiography oper­ates in a zone of tension between official and unofficial culture. Whatever makes it past the censor (or any selection process equivalent to censor­ship) joins the classical canon, which is a “canon from above.” The “canon from below,” on the other hand, warehouses all that has been excluded. That which is excluded finds its voice in the anti-canon, just as texts that have been abridged or disambiguated through chastening readings retain a volatile semantic potential that constantly provokes new interpreta­tions. Even those works or portions of works that are censored cannot be completely erased. If such a thing existed, the history of texts left unpub­lished or pulled from circulation shortly after publication due to censor­ship might be read in parallel with the official history of the works that were published—or of those authors who, like Nabokov, were shut out as émigré authors and were, until recent years, relegated to a cryptic literary existence in Russia.

     Pushkin stands at the center of Russia’s controversies regarding its heritage. He has become the exemplar of the classical. Yet the images of Pushkin diverge: is he the culmination of the classical literature of the eighteenth century, or the beginning of a new Russian literature? Such contradictions tend to irritate dévotés of any Pushkin-cult, since they preclude any unambiguous assessment. The Pushkin-cult itself is affected. It can only be consolidated by freeing Pushkin’s image from relegation to museums, and this is only possible when subsequent poets lay claim to him. Alexander Blok successfully revitalized the author in his Pushkin speech of 1921, which cited Pushkin as a source of inspiration, a leading figure and forerunner.  That which is exemplary and distant—the dead capital of the classical—is superseded through filiation. This too is a topos of Russian literature, although more so for its agents than for its historiographers.

     These claims of paternity particularly concern the canon from below, as established by the poets themselves. (Khlebnikov and the OBERIU po­ets are the fathers of the new avant-garde.) This invocation of fathers intersects with the debate over classical authors; indeed, it offers an alter­native paradigm to manipulation of the tradition. It proposes the further writing and re-writing of an author whose recently established “classi­cism” it annuls. This leads to a re-opening of an exemplary work that was held to be closed—that is, its de-canonization (its release from the fetters of the institutional canon). The borders of a past work are transgressed anew; a blending process occurs, and literary doublesemerge. In this re­gard too, it is again Pushkin who is consumed and restored by those who come later: by Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelshtam, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Boris Pasternak, in their poetic and essayistic texts.

     Yet, institutionally and officially, Pushkin emerges whole from the dis­cussion surrounding classical writers; his role as classical prototype is con­firmed. The “classicization” of an author, the elevatio of a cult figure, now proceeds according to the Pushkin model. Mayakovsky, who opposed the cult, himself became a new cult figure in the twenties. The heyday of the Pushkin era finds its counterpart in the heyday of the literature of the Revolution. Such reductionist reading stylizes the authors of a complex and thoroughly ambiguous oeuvre into unambiguous “heroes.”

     The cult of the poets (who are anti-saints in a dual sense: first with regard to the official political saints, and secondly with regard to the tradi­tional saints of the church) is accompanied by rites performed on the po­et’s day of remembrance. One example is the celebration—essentially a reenactment—of Pushkin’s death in his Petersburg apartment, now a museum, which is held annually with extensive participation of actual mourners (inside and in front of the building). These rites include the erection of monuments (and their veneration with fresh flowers) that at once remove the poet and make him more approachable as a visible and palpable symbol. These monuments are the documents of an ossified, con­gealed culture intended for viewing; they are also a magical presence. The aforementioned rites of remembrance are also marked by this same ambivalence. As an act of remembrance, bringing the past closer to the present takes on a magical dimension, in which the pomp of education appears to be superseded. The cult figure leaves the realm of education—whereby his veneration becomes uncontrollable—and becomes a role model. Cultural criticism discloses the sacred nature of this activity (the pagan version of icon veneration) and attempts, from a critical distance, to recover the poets as real people. This role may sometimes be assumed by literary theory.

     The Russian formalist Yuri Tynyanov views Pushkin as an innovator with archaizing tendencies. His monograph Archaists and Innovators, which features Pushkin as its central figure, uses this opposition to sug­gest a model that not only lends new contours to the twentieth-century discussion regarding heritage, but also allows for a new interpretation of the factional struggle of the first third of the nineteenth century that stretched back a hundred years.[8]

     In Pushkin’s case, the conflicts between the archaists and the senti­mentalists (with the ambiguous assignments of classical and romantic) coincide in a singleauthor. Pushkin revises the aesthetic dogmas of both sentimentalism and archaism. His experimentation with the old in new forms made him an archaizing innovator. As such, he moves from senti­mentalism through the archaism of the younger generation to romanti­cism, and crosses the threshold to realism. In a relatively brief productive period, Pushkin thus ran the gamut of literary movements and perfected their forms. Consequently, his poetry is noted for its mastery of form, its incisiveness, and concision. It was this convergence, in Pushkin, of all of the relevant currents of his age that won him the title of classical poet.

     Yet something more is required before a culture, including that part of it that maintains a polemical distance from institutions, can concede an author’s classical status. In Pushkin’s case, it is his ambivalence, or rather polyvalence (of both his personality and creative work): Pushkin the eclecticist, who maneuvered the no-man’s-land between insurgency and conformity, the poeta ludens, the master of the elevated ode, the romantic epic, the romantic tragedy, poésie fugitive, the frivolous poem, the realistic short story; captive of his social caste until his death by duel, and yet, at the same time, the poet of freedom; the exponent of Russian poetry with African ancestry. Pushkin becomes the central figure in the myth of the classical that is always retold whenever a culture is subject to reinterpre­tation. Certain epoch-making Pushkin-speeches also contributed to this myth. Dostoevsky’s speech is a clear example: in 1880, at a commemora­tive celebration dedicated to Pushkin, he declared the poet a singular exponent of poetry and sought to elevate him to the realm of the “super-classical.” Like no one before him, supposedly, Pushkin (above all with Eugene Onegin) had become a people’s poet (the “people” as a sort of mys­tical communicative community); without Pushkin, there would have been no hope for Russia’s future assumption of its rightful place in the Euro­pean family of peoples. Of all the geniuses of world literature, Pushkin alone had proven capable of “completely assuming a foreign national con­sciousness” (perevoploshchat´sia vpolne v chuzhuiu natsional´nost´]. This wondrous capacity for complete metamorphosis made Pushkin a unique phenomenon. He prophetically recognized the still-hidden power of the Russian people: their striving toward “universality” (vsemirnost´) and “universal humanity” (vsechelovechnost´).[9] In its day, Dostoevsky’s inter­pretation of Pushkin stood as a singular attempt to elevate the poet, and it proved highly influential subsequently. Amidst reinvigorated Slavic sen­sibilities in the Soviet Union, it became a basic text for those prophesying a messianic role for Russia.

     This same period saw a dismantling of Pushkin by dissident Andrei Sinyavsky (Abram Terz), who, while imprisoned, conceived the playful, frivolous, and ingenious poet of his Walks with Pushkin, in whom no trace remains of the classical poet demanded by Slavophile interpretations.[10] The dismantling attempted in the twenties by Daniil Kharms, a member of the absurdist OBERIU group, in his “From the Life of Pushkin!” anecdotes, certainly displays a more nuanced ambivalence. Its burlesque makes the classical poet visible again through its deconstruction of the classical:

It is generally known that Pushkin never grew a respectable beard. This distressed Pushkin greatly, and led him to envy Zakharyn, who, by contrast, had a magnificent beard. “It grows for him but doesn’t for me,” Pushkin would often lament, pointing at Zakharyn. And he was always correct.


Pushkin had four sons, and all four were idiots. One couldn’t even sit up straight in his chair, and kept falling off of it. Pushkin him­self was also unable to sit up straight in his chair. Thus, the fol­lowing nonsense once took place: while everyone was at the table, Pushkin kept falling off his chair at one end, and his son at the other. It was simply unbearable.[11]

In 1997, two years before the bicentennial, Pushkin appeared clothed in a striped shirt on the cover of the satirical newspaper Ogonek, with the caption Pushkin, pervyi iz Mit´kov, making him the leader of a Petersburg-based group of painters that subscribed to a stylized primitivism. Pushkin, the author of Eugene Onegin, was thus reduced to a Mit´ka—that is, a simpleton.



     What about the text itself, which, to a degree matched by few other Rus­sian poetic texts, has become the domain of both the popular imagination and the educational establishment? Up to the present day, it continues to inspire new readings, which develop yet uninterpreted details or unno­ticed semantic configurations into entirely new interpretations. Formalistic, structuralist, psychoanalytic, deconstructionist and purely “realistic” readings balance each other out. Such readings are centered around composition, versification, genre, plot construction, characters, societal portraiture, polysemy (concealed erotic or poetological meanings), the question of the text’s auto- or hetero-referentiality, etc.

     In its subtitle, Pushkin calls Eugene Onegin a “roman v stikhakh” (novel in verse); in so doing, he was doubtlessly aware of the hybrid nature of this genre.[12] Elsewhere, he refers to the novel in verse as “mon nouveau poème,” whereby he has in mind not only a new work, but the novelty of its form.[13] Completing this work cost him tremendous poetic effort. In a letter to his friend and fellow poet P. A. Vyazemsky in 1823, he notes: “What I’m now writing is not a novel, but a novel in verse—a devilish distinction.”[14] The genre-driven notions of Pushkin’s time associated the novel with eighteenth-century adventure prose and the prose of sentimen­tality, which had yet to fall out of fashion; both prose traditions developed specific traits with regard to stylistics and their conceptions of the hero, and were also marked by differing claims as to the “authenticity” of their depictions. The heated discussion surrounding the poetics of the novel that took place in the second half of the eighteenth and in the early nineteenth century provides information about the respective concepts.

     Metrically, the work builds upon the elevated verse of classicism, the heroic epic and the mock-heroic epic (the progressive camp of writers and critics held both forms to be antiquated). It also came to be associated with a variety of the epic, the (subjective) Byronic poem, that still offered a wealth of potential connections. Pushkin, a poet with full poetological awareness, condensed both antiquated and fashionable forms and distilled them into a highly complex “poème” that, within the text itself, is given the title of “roman,” to which one striking passage appends the adjective “svobodny” (free). The novel in verse combines freedom with discipline. The discipline is apparent in its observation of rules in composing its stanzas. Pushkin created a stanza with fourteen lines in iambic tetram­eter, and strictly adhered to the rhyme scheme of abba/cc/dd/effe/gg (that is, enclosed rhyme, two rhyming couplets, enclosed rhyme, rhyming coup­let). The final couplet of a stanza provides an epigrammatic punch line, and all lines are linked together by complex enjambments. This stanza not only offers a complex rhyme scheme, but inserts masculine and feminine rhymes in a semantically pointed manner, which endows the lexical mate­rial brought together in the rhymes with surprising connotations.

     Just as the novel in verse was understood as a hybridization in rela­tion to conventions of genre, so did the fourteen-line stanza seem unaccus­tomed to rhyming convention. Pushkin was playing with Tasso’s octave on the one hand, which he noticeably surpassed, and with the sonnet on the other hand, whose quartet/tercet structure he abandoned. The iambic meter, with varying ictuses, is so true to the prosodic qualities of the Rus­sian language that many lines take on the quality of prose.

     Despite this schematic discipline, the stanza develops a certain quality noted by Boris Tomashevsky, a theoretician of versification (as well as a researcher who belonged to the Formalist school): Pushkin’s “stanza-ness” (strofichnost´) allows him to maintain an effortless narrative tone while inserting lyrical digressions, since each stanza represents a short chapter, a small, self-contained poem. This facilitates a swift transition from one topic to another and allows him to stray from the plot itself.”[15] That is, the stanza scheme is contradicted by—or resists—the narrative aspect, which is disclosed amidst breaks and digressions, as well as what one might des­ignate as the central plotline: Tatyana’s failed attempt to win over Onegin and her marriage to a man she does not love. Onegin’s inopportune ad­vances, which she resists, and his prior duel with Lensky, his friend enamored of Tatyana’s sister Olga whose jealousy he wantonly arouses and whom he shoots and kills in the duel, do not unfold simply, but are set aside for long stretches at a time. Societal portraits, musings, and excur­sions related to the literary scene supplant the plot, with brief but pointed emphasis. On top of that comes “a succession of semantic-stylistic breaks,” which “provide no focused point of view, but rather one that is scattered and multifarious.”[16] Nevertheless, decentralization, stylistic dispersion, and digressions are integrated into the broader context of the stanza.

     It is therefore not surprising that the stanza is a focus of analytical interest for a particular current within Pushkin studies. The stanza as­sumes the role of the plot. Even in those lines that self-referentially em­phasize the stanzas’ composition—“Byt´ mozhet, v Lete ne potonet / Strofa, slagaemaia mnoi” (Perhaps Lethe will not consume / The stanza I have composed”; 2. XL, 3–4)—Pushkin thematically connects the stanza, and the entire work composed of stanzas, with his desire for immortality. Not long ago, Holt Meyer pointed out, in this context, a variant of the text in which Pushkin cites Horace’s “Exegi monumentum”: “I etot iunyi stikh nebrezhnyi / Perezhivet moi vek miatezhnyi / Mogu l´ voskliknut´ (o druz´ia)— / Exegi monumentum ia” (And this young [new] and heedless verse / Will outlive my seditious age / Perhaps, o friends, I can exclaim / Exegi monumentum; BPSS VI, 300), in which the combination of Latin and Russian, particularly in the rhyme “o druz´ia… Exegi monumentum ia,” is particularly striking.[17] The final year of Pushkin’s life produced the most vivid example of his self-glorification as the Russian poet, whom the entire empire, including the illiterate peoples of Siberia, would make an enduring part of their cultural memory: one of his most frequently cited poems, “Ia pamiatnik sebe / Vozdvig nerukotvornyi” (To myself I have erected / A monument made not by human hands), which bears Horace’s motto as its title. This poem’s memorability and its invocation of the mem­ory of posterity for the stanza form he had invented contradict the oppo­site tendency towards forgetting, the covering over of one’s tracks, and the disjointedness that distinguish his novel in verse.[18] The fact that the words Pushkin chooses to describe his own text, such as “bessviaznyi,” “nesviaznyi,” “nesviazannyi” (incoherent, inconsequential, unconnected), refrain from asserting any connection between narrative components is a further aspect of this drifting and wandering, and it stresses the freedom of the novel that is emphasized at its conclusion. Yet, at the same time, this freedom is one that is subjected to the rigors of meter.

     With the exception of three portions of the text (one folk song and two letters) that, as it were, put the structure up for negotiation during semantically significant passages, the entire text, comprising eight chapters and the subsequently published additional capital, “Onegin’s Journey,” is arranged in accordance with the stanza structure. This form would lead not only to occasional imitations, but also to the downright epi­gonic manufacture of stanza forms. Thus arose what in more recent ac­counts has been called the Onegin-Text of Russian literature, a text that has seen contributions and continuations by many nineteenth- and twentieth-century authors.[19] There are structural reasons for this within the text as well, alongside the sheer appeal of the stanza form and the rhyme scheme: Pushkin also throws provocative gaps into the mix. These are zero-stanzas with headings that continue the Roman numeration—un­finished stanzas or lines whose completion is suggested by the scheme. This aphoristic, fragmentary quality, playful and arbitrary in its calcu­lated openness, invites the reader to fill in the gaps, to continue the composition:


     The passages that are not subject to the stanza structure are “The Song of the Maidens,” a stylized folk-song, and the letters of the asyn­chronous lovers, Tatyana and Onegin, which recall the older conventions of the epistolary novel without adopting them fully. The fact that the nar­rative objects, who are described as speaking and acting and are com­mented upon in their respective moods, themselves become writers whose texts are cited by the narrator/author, is semantically constitutive.[20] The letter in which Tatyana seeks to win Onegin’s love is scandalous in its violation of socially sanctioned modes of erotic behavior. (Both letters are worthy of the full attention of commentators concerned with Pushkinian characterology: here, the Tatyana- and Onegin-images are created, the asynchronous lovers’ moral resources are discussed, and their behavior examined.) The narrator casts doubt on Tatyana’s mastery of the Russian language (according to the dominant practice in the provinces, Russian was the everyday spoken language, while French was the language of writing); moreover, he advocates the view that this sort of confession of love was lexically beyond the reach of the Russian language, and informs the reader that the letter was written in French. Still, he “transcribes” it into Russian. That is, the narrator acts as translator of a text whose orig­inal is withheld. This mystification of the text has aroused a good deal of speculation.[21] The formulas of sentimentality that characterize Tatyana’s letter (which Pushkin originally intended to present completely in prose, in order to maintain an unaffected tone) point to French sources, primar­ily Rousseau’s La nouvelle Héloïse.The letter’s sentimental topoi place Tatyana among the ranks of her literary comrades in suffering for love’s sake: Clarisse, Julie, and Delphine. Stylistically, Onegin’s letter goes in another direction: it suggests no French sources, and in contrast to Tatyana, who incorporates “chuzhoi vostorg, chuzhuiu grust´” (others’ joy and others’ pain; 3. X, 10), Onegin seems, at this point in time, to have been “de-literaricized” to some degree. The narrator disparages his letter as childish and pathological.

     In Eugene Onegin, Pushkin established a number of devices that would have an enduring impact on the subsequent course of Russian lit­erature: citation, parody and auto-commentary, as well as devices con­cerned with the act of writing itself. (These devices are part of a tradition that stretches back to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and The Sentimental Journey, to which Pushkin explicitly refers. Viktor Shklovsky introduced the concept of sternianstvo [Sterne-ism]—equivalent to the accustomed term in English, “Shandyism”—in order to designate the ensemble of de­vices that fall under this category.)[22]

     Pushkin’s hybrid genre, a cross between poetry and prose, with its multi-level parody involving mores, the literary scene, poetics, conven­tional plots, groupings of characters, and style, is at the same time a text fit for consumption by a wide readership; its stanzas were learned by heart. Thus, the parodic aspect is not readily apparent. The Russian for­malists were the first to systematically examine the parodic nature of this novel in verse—not only Yuri Tynyanov, but also, in programmatic fashion, Viktor Shklovsky, with his work on Sterne’s Tristram Shandy as paradigm of the parodic novel, and indeed of the novel in general. Push­kin’s case, according to the continuing analysis of parody, involves not a simple but rather a “twofold parody” meant for a readership already famil­iar with the parody genre, and it is precisely this readership that is confronted with this parody of parodic tradition.[23]

     Certainly, contemporary criticism—first and foremost the socially ori­ented criticism of Vissarion Belinsky—initially lay the emphasis else­where: Belinsky fatefully labeled the novel in verse an “encyclopedia of Russian life” of the 1820s, citing Pushkin’s descriptions of the Petersburg aristocracy, the landed nobility, social forms (the duel, balls), and fashion; he points to the role of authentic folk tradition in the novel in verse, and emphasizes the depiction of “Russian characters.”[24] “In Eugene Onegin, we see a poetically conveyed portrait of a society at one of the most interest­ing moments of its development. Accordingly, Eugene Onegin is a histori­cal poem […], despite the fact that its protagonists do not include any historical figures.”[25] Despite the diverging paths pursued by subsequent Pushkin criticism and Pushkin research, Belinsky’s voice has yet to fall silent. Lecturers continue to insist on the facticity and historicity of the text, and thus on Pushkin’s pronounced interest in the purely historical, pointing to his unfinished historical novel The Moor of Peter I and his high appraisal of Walter Scott. “Eugene Onegin depicts a panorama of contem­porary life.”[26] This reading is not without justification; Yuri Lotman’s Onegin commentary goes so far as to present the subtexts of the novel’s social milieu.[27] Lotman makes use of historical texts to reconstruct the customs of the Western-oriented aristocracy of Petersburg and Moscow, which are sharply distinguished from those of the landed aristocracy. He draws attention to the conventions that hold sway for social events, balls in particular, and investigates the circumstances that, according to the Russian code of honor, led to a duel and dictated its staging. The knowl­edge thus obtained is indispensable for understanding the novel. Yet Lot­man’s commentary does not prescribe a one-dimensional reading; rather, it provides a glimpse into the devices of transposition, particularly those strategies of semantic loading that Pushkin employs in order to produce polysemy in which the concrete raw data becomes blurred.

     Eugene Onegin is undoubtedly the work of Pushkin the man of letters, and not of Pushkin the historian. Tatyana, the reader of sentimental novels; Lensky, the romantic dreamer; Onegin, the Petersburg dandy who reads Bentham and Adam Smith while discarding Kant, are literary heros who are characterized by what they read, just as the storyline described above reworks literary sources and allows a literary encyclopedia to take shape. The decisive fact here is that the author/narrator himself con­stantly gives voice to this literary foundation; that is, he provides com­mentary to his text. The result is a text within the text about the text. This meta-textuality overarches the encyclopedia of Russian life and al­lows the literary encyclopedia to move into the foreground. The notion of an encyclopedia, used metaphorically by Belinsky, can still be supported in the sense of the French encyclopedists, since Pushkin was guided by the notion of the encyclopédie, even though he turned the principe encyclo­pédiste into a parodic device.

     Chapter 3, which presents the literary background of Tatyana’s ro­mantic fantasies, features the heroes and heroines of sentimentality and romanticism: Goethe’s Werther, Rousseau’s Julie, Sophie Cottin’s Mal­vina, Richardson’s Clarissa and Grandison, Maturin’s Melmoth the Wan­derer, Jan Potocki’s Wandering Jew, Byron’s (actually, Polidori’s) vam­pires, Nodier’s Jean Sbogar—such is the female encyclopedia of the 1820s.

     One variant of chapter 7 lists book titles from Onegin’s abandoned library. The list includes ancient authors, enlightenment figures and writers of Gothic novels, sentimentalists, and romantics: Hume/Rousseau, Mably, Helvetius/Locke/Fontenelle, Horace/Cicero/Lucretius, Maturin, and Chateaubriand. Byron figures in the final version: “I lorda Bairona portret” (And a portrait of Byron; 7.XIX, 11); “Pevtsa Giaura i Zhuana” (The singer of the Giaour and Don Juan; 7.XXII, 5). The library as recon­structed from the rejected versions is restricted to works held significant in the nineteenth century:

Да с ним еще два-три романа,
В которых отразился век,
И современный человек
Изображен довольно верно
С его безнравственной душой
Себялюбивой и сухой. (7. XXII, 6–11)

Along with two or three novels,
In which the age was mirrored,
And contemporary man
Depicted quite accurately
With his immoral soul,
Self-centered and dry.

Despite not being mentioned by name, one detects Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe, which played a central role in Pushkin’s development of his hero, as well as Chateaubriand’s René.[28] Following his rejection by Tatyana, Onegin once again becomes an indiscriminate reader of Gibbon, Rousseau, Manzoni, Herder, Chamfort, Madame de Staël, Bichat Tissot, Bayle, and Fontenelle; he becomes a reader of the very same journals that condemn his creator, Pushkin, and delves into the text of which he is the hero:

Он меж печатными строками
Читал духовными глазами
Другие строки. В них-то он
Был совершенно углублен.
То были тайные преданья
Сердечной, темной старины
Ни с чем не связанные сны,
Ургозы, толки, предсказанья,
Иль длинной сказки вздор живой,
Иль пимьма девы молодой. (8. XXXVI, 5–14)

Between the printed lines
He read, with the eye of his spirit
Other lines. And in these
He was completely submerged.
They were secret legends
Of a heartfelt, obscure antiquity
Incoherent dreams,
Threats, rumor, predictions,
Whether the living nonsense of a long fable,
Or a young girl’s letters.

Almost every chapter contributes to this encyclopedia by naming authors or titles of works. Any mention of Russian authors has poetological impli­cations, with either criticism or approval. Pushkin highlights or obscures his inter-texts, sub-texts and pre-texts. Their emphasis is as much a part of the semantic configuration of his text as their concealment.

     Despite his literary orchestration involving the names of authors, works and heroes, Pushkin is ultimately telling a story about tragic love (which the sentimentally inclined portion of the novel’s readership would consider its actual plot). Still, it is difficult to overlook Pushkin’s penchant for dismantling in his depiction of Tatyana as both a reader of sentimental English novels and a composer of sentimental letters. In any case, Push­kin creates another dimension for Tatyana: he transplants her into a dream scene populated by allegorically grotesque phantasms, laden with erotically sexual associations (the subject of inexhaustible interest on the part of psychoanalytically-minded Pushkin researchers). He pushes Tatyana into a tradition of folk usage in which soothsaying and magic play a role, and in which her convention-flouting courtship of the coy Onegin is grounded. In keeping with this tradition, the object of Tatyana’s love is the one chosen for her by Fate, who is likewise condemned by Fate (“suzh­dennyi”) to belong to her. This element of folk tradition is taken up again in part 2, when Onegin acts as though condemned to love—now attempt­ing, in his turn, to flout convention. However, Tatyana is not entirely derived from these two traditions (the sentimental and the “folkloric”), but rather takes on a further dimension—once again, namely, as a reader, but one who, through encounters with works of other intellectual and aes­thetic styles, begins to see through sentimentalism as a passing fashion of the heart. In Onegin’s abandoned library, she gives herself over to reading his books: “I ei otkrylsia mir inoi” (Another world was revealed to her; 7. XXI. 14); apparently, she is enjoying those books whose names Pushkin withheld in the final version. Instructed by literature, she apprehends the literary dimension, the “unsubstantiality,” of the object of her love:

Что ж он? Ужели подражанье,
Ничтожный призрак, иль еще
Москвич в Гарольдовом плаще,
Чужих причуд истолкованье,
Слов модных полный лексикон?
Уж не пародия ли он? (7. XXIV, 9–14)

What was he? A mere imitation,
An insignificant phantom, or
A Muscovite in Harold’s coat,
A commentary on the fancies of others,
A complete lexicon of fashionable words?
Is he really a mere parody?

This is also an emancipation from the sentimental that puts Tatyana far ahead of subsequent novelistic heroines.

     Lensky—the romantic poet, freshly returned from his studies in Göttingen, in love, and with shoulder-length black locks—is also a literary figure. His death in the duel to which he challenges Onegin, his imagined rival and the injurer of his honor, is at once a romantic relic and a farewell to romanticism. Pushkin ironically suggests as much by having Lensky read Schiller before the duel; in Russia, Schiller was received in a romantic context.

     Onegin’s anti-romantic dandyism, which inspires the translation of the English spleen as the Russian khandra and the French ennui as skuka, wins the upper hand, along with the dandy’s un-romantic, sophis­ticated activities, met by the narrator with sarcastic sympathy. Instead of the philosophy of German Idealism, which he finds unattractive, Onegin takes up works of economic and social theory (this too marks him as an anti-romantic). It was only around 1810 that the Russian fop began to imi­tate the English dandy in hairstyle—“ostrizhen po poslednei mode” (his hair cut according to the latest fashion)—and clothing: “Kak dendi london­skii odet” (Dressed like a London dandy).[29] Pushkin introduces the word “dandy” as a neologism, as he had done to designate certain moods and, further on, Western items of clothing for which Russian, he claimed, had no words: “No pantalony, frak, zhilet / Vsekh etikh slov na russkom net” (But pants, tailcoat, vest / There are no such words in Russian). Onegin fails as a dandy, however, despite his London clothing, his French per­fume and his collection of distinctive combs, because spleen and ennui (for the time being) have, literarily, run their course.

     But here a contrary principle is at work—that of the dream, which dispenses both with reality (of things and of society) and with economics, and nullifies the dandy’s theatrical attempts at self-stylization. Dream, sleep, dreamlike states, daydreams in which the border between reality and unreality become porous, contemplative dawns, drowsy awakenings, and other states in opposition to wakefulness pervade the text and are presented using a lexicon that is deployed in multiple ways: matter-of-factly, connotatively, or figuratively. As early as chapter 1, we hear of “tvorcheskie sny” (creative dreams; 1. LV, 4), which are responsible for the novel’s origin—a theme taken up again in the final chapter, which claims that the figures of Tatyana and Onegin appeared “v smutnom sne” (in a hazy dream; 8. L, 10). In this context belong not only the elaborated dream of Tatyana, with its animal monsters, whose connections to the sleeper’s daydreams the narrator clothes in easily decipherable insinuations, but also Onegin’s encounter with Tatyana as society lady in chapter 8, which is staged as an inversion of the enamored Tatyana’s previous dream. Len­sky’s oscillation between sleep and sleeplessness and Onegin’s belated awakening from a deep sleep before the decisive duel scene; Tatyana’s reading-as-dreaming during her sentimental reading phase; the nearness of dreaming to melancholy and sweet boredom; and the pleasure taken in the onset of forgetting are all semantically and structurally significant aspects. More pointedly, Yuri Chumakov argues that the dream, which allows various entities to change places, legitimizes the substitutions (Protagonist-Narrator/Author), transpositionings, and metamorphoses of the entire novel in verse. “Ainsi tout ce qui se passe dans Eugène Oné­guine obéit-il aux règles tacites et informulées du rêve” (Thus, everything that occurs in Eugene Onegin obeys the tacit and unformulated rules of the dream).[30] This makes it possible to attribute the devices of dispersion and digression to the rules of this dream-logic.

     Alongside the complex stanza structure, it is in polysemies that Push­kin proves his mastery. He displays them in allusive passages, in cita­tions, and in stylizations. One key semantic element is the bestowal of names containing manifold literary references. First off, there is the river-inspired name “Onegin,” which can be read as a parallel to “Pechorin,” the name of the problematic hero of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. Just as “Pechorin” is etymologically associated with the name of the Pechora river, “Onegin” may be traced to the name of the Onega river. Hydronymy also marks the name of Onegin’s counterpart, “Lensky,” which, by analogy with the Pechora and Onega, brings to mind another river, the Lena. This river-based etymology is further substantiated by the name of one of the seconds in the duel, that of “Zaretsky,” or “Beyond-the-river.” Of course, the name “Len-sky” does not fit completely into the Pechorin-Onegin pat­tern. Rather, the fully analogous name formation would have yielded the name of the leader of the Communist Party, “Lenin.” Pushkin’s duelists are not named Onegin and Lenin, but rather Onegin and Lensky. And it is precisely the ending “sky” that destabilizes the doppelgängerei of the two friends: “Lensky” happens to rhyme with the Russian “Gettingenskii” (of Göttingen)—the very attribute that distinguishes the educated poet from the dandy. “Gettingenskii” is marked by the tone of voice of the narrator, many of whose attributions contain a bit of sympathetic mockery, making him the mouthpiece of his protagonist as well—with the exception of those instances in which they become interlocutors. In those cases, a further doppelgängerei arises: that between Onegin and his narrator. Pushkin arranges a game between distance and vicinity, dissent and consensus, that also makes his own voice audible and his persona visible: his position with regard to society and culture were as well known to his contempo­raries as his penchant for self-stylization (as a dandy, for example) and for disguises. Incidentally, Pushkin’s name also ends in “-in,” although it ob­viously cannot be associated with a river. On the other hand, his given name, Alexander, and that of Onegin, Eugene, share a Greek origin: Alex­andros and Eugenios. Evgenii-Eugene also has a literary pre-history that stretches back into the eighteenth century, when it tended to name a negative, satirically drawn character. Hydronymically motivated last names are unusual in Russian onomatology; they appear as artificial names in comedy of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.[31] Pushkin knew the name “Lensky” from the comedy of his contemporary, Griboedov, entitled Feigned Infidelity (Pritvornaia nevernost´), while “Onegin” points to an influential and tradition-building comedy highly appraised in Pushkin’s time, entitled Don’t listen, if you want, but don’t keep others from lying (Ne liubo—ne slushai, a lgat´ ne meshai), by Prince Shakhovsky, in which a certain Onegin figures as a mediator, but never appears physically on stage; he is merely cited in absentia as a compiler of documents. “Onegin” is thus a citation of a name already established literarily. This too is poetologically important, since Shakhovsky’s literary ideology placed him in the archaist camp and into polemical contact with the opposition group with which Pushkin was associated. Consequently, Pushkin’s “Onegin” citation speaks to a turn toward an older tradition that he had initially dismissed. In a study by Holt Meyer, Pushkin’s ono­mastic poetics, with its citations and allusions, are subjected to a fresh, deconstructive reading of the text.[32]

     Also of poetological importance is the game Pushkin arranges (meta-) textually around the duel-obsessed Lensky—a game directed at two con­temporary poets, Küchelbecker and Yazykov, with erotic connotations. Only recently, these passages were given a completely new interpretation, and Pushkin’s complex, implicit, highly mediated yet, in places, entirely transparent art of allusion was brought to light in great detail: “Ne madrigaly Lenskiy pishet / V al´bome Ol´gi molodoi; / Ego pero liubov´iu dyshit, / Ne khladno bleshchet ostrotoi” (Not madrigals does Lensky write / In young Olga’s album; / His feather breathes with love, / And doesn’t glimmer coldly with wit; 4. XXXI, 1–4).[33] While “pero” (feather) not only takes on phallic connotations in the context of French erotic poetry, but also of a censored, erotic Russian folk tradition, the poetic doctrines of his friend and fellow poet Küchelbecker are counter-factually redeployed, and the attempt is made to apply archaizing tendencies (ode over elegy, ele­vated feeling over punch-lines, and the popular and pure over the artificial and literary) in a highly contradictory manner. With every line, Pushkin is his own double, as the author of his text, and the polemicist and parodist with an eye towards his poetically inclined (and ultimately, highly ap­praised) contemporaries.

     The aforementioned parody of parody opens up the genre to an ever widening spiral which attracts and absorbs a full range of opinions on the world and society. Parody of parody and the elegiac can be bound together within this spiraling movement. Namely, the playful orchestration of the text with its epigrammatic punch-lines, citations, and digressions by no means muffles an emphatically melancholy tone. Even the stanzas dedi­cated to women’s “tiny feet,” in which the author/narrator pushes his hero aside for several stanzas at a time, are nostalgic. These are elegies in honor of women’s feet, which signify amours, balls, riding, and ballet, by running, dancing, pattering, and climbing into stirrups, as the case may be. These are tiny feet, “nozhki,” whose charm seems every bit as fleeting as is the desirous gaze that falls upon them.

     Tatyana’s letter and Onegin’s reply, which is written years later and displays an inversion of his original behavior, constitute, if viewed outside of their sequence, a chiasmus. The chiasmus has no obvious temporal in­dex and indicates no telos, but is rather an arabesque of futility. Elusion and digression are fundamental movements of the entire text, in which ornaments of restlessness arise, and a semantics of changeability is main­tained. This slipping and sliding is, as it were, fixed within this chiasmus.

     At the close of chapter 8, the author/narrator takes leave of his reader, who he hopes will find some amusement in his “nebrezhnykh stikhakh” (nonchalant verses; 8. XLIX, 5). He goes on to say “prosti” (farewell) to his creation, the “sputnik strannyi” (strange traveling companion; 8. L. 1), Onegin, and to his novel in verse, which he calls a “malyi trud” (a small work; 8. L. 4). It is precisely in the final two, frequently interpreted, stanzas that the self-reflexive, poetological tone again becomes apparent:

Промчалось много, много дней
С тех пор, как юная Татьяна
И с ней Онегин в смутном сне
Явилися впервые мне—
И даль свободного романа
Я сквозь магический кристал
Еще не ясно различал. (8. L, 8–14)

Many, many days have flown past
Since a young Tatyana,
And with her Onegin, in a somber dream
First appeared to me—
And the wide expanse of the free novel
I, through the magic ball
Have yet to make out clearly.

The text’s origin in a dream, a motif that appears in the beginning of the novel, is linked to fortune-telling using a magic ball, in which the poet has not yet sharply discerned the “wide expanse of the free novel.” The author is a dreamer and magician who has produced a work whose tendency to wander is checked only by its metrical form.

     A further connotation of this romantic and melancholy ending is con­veyed by an apostrophe in the final stanza, which is frequently cited and whose interpretation is a matter of some controversy. It concerns the parting of ways with the friends to whom the narrator had once read lines from Onegin aloud, some of whom are no longer living. These are the men who were executed following the failed Decembrist uprising of 1825. This passage has yielded political and poetological readings, and readings that combine both aspects. This final stanza is a semantic palimpsest whose gesture of farewell leaves everything open:

Блажен, кто праздник Жизни рано
Оставил, не допив до дня
Бокала полного вина,
Кто не дочел Ее романа
И вдруг умел расстаться с ним,
Как я с Онегиным моим. (8. LI, 9–14)

Blessed is he who left the feast of Life
Without draining
The chalice full of wine,
Who did not read Its novel to the end
And managed to part with it suddenly,
As I have with my Onegin.

The tone of futility and transience and of restless wandering is taken up in the separately published chapter “Onegin’s Journey.” Here, the dandy has become a solitary, aimless wanderer, a transformed “Melmoth the Wanderer.”[34] He sets out on a journey through the Russian Empire, from Siberia to the Western border, from the Black Sea to the North Sea—the Caucasus, Crimea, and the multiethnic city of Odessa are especially prominent. His author and double accompanies him in spirit on this jour­ney, and meets him in person: the narrator becomes the speaking “I,” he is Onegin. The pronouncedly Romantic gesture of the journey chapter, with the fusion of hero and narrator and the motif of alienation from society, of aimless solitude, only apparently conceals the parodies, sarcasm, and ironic style of the first eight chapters. Rather, it too belongs in the “wide expanse” of the “free novel” bound by the stanza, with its melancholy truncations and its combination of epigrammatic and elegiac wit.



     The history of canonization sketched above remains incomplete, since another literary scene existed outside of Russia—namely, that of the Russian émigrés. Curiously enough, Pushkin’s reception in the 1920s and 1930s among Russian émigré writers in Paris was negative. Pushkin was rejected based on his perfection of form and poverty of content and, when­ever possible, because he had been co-opted by Soviet literary historiog­raphy. Vladimir Nabokov, who at the time was an unknown writer in exile in Berlin, vehemently contested this trend. In a twofold manner, he worked towards Pushkin’s canonization as a world author: first as his translator and interpreter, and, second, by making Pushkin, both as poet and man, into his lifelong model. In 1937, before a skeptical but interested audience that included James Joyce, he gave a brilliant speech in French, entitled “Pouchkine, ou le vrai et le vraisemblable,” which dealt with prob­lems of poetics, particularly those involving the translation of lyrical texts and the particular difficulty of transposing Pushkin into French in order to assure an adequate reception.[35] “The life of a poet,” he said in the speech, is a “pastiche of his works,” a dictum that suggests that turning life into art, and vice versa, both in Pushkin’s case and in his own, was en­tirely consistent—up to and including self-stylization and mystification.[36]

     Nabokov himself is somehow non-Russian, a foreigner within his own literature.[37] Émigré criticism recognized his mastery and genius, but con­demned his coldness, his snobbism, cynicism, and aestheticism. They were irritated by his shocking stylistic novelty, his conception of the person, and his construction of plot. “No one has written like this in Russian,” he once said, which also implies that no one had dared to do so.[38] The same charges had been made in the nineteenth century against (or in favor of) Pushkin. “Sirin,” Nabokov’s pseudonym in Berlin in the 1920s, does sup­port the opposite position, which emphasizes the Russianness in his work. This line of interpretation is also applied to his English works, comment­ing on the peculiarly Russian implications of Lolita or Ada, or Ardour. Alfred Appel’s The Annotated Lolita (1970) exemplifies the kind of com­mentary (indispensable, it must be said) that presupposes the knowledge of a Russianist to reveal the poetic distortions and cryptograms in which Russian literature, and Nabokov’s Russian childhood, conceals itself—often, nostalgically.[39]

     The controversy surrounding Nabokov as an “un-Russian” or, rather, profoundly “Russian” author seems to have ended. Andrey Bitov attempts to head off any continued controversy: “In him, the split in Russian cul­ture between Soviet and émigré culture is overcome, and crosses over into the universal phenomenon of continuity.”[40] In any case, the canon ques­tion remains unresolved. Rather, Nabokov presents literary studies with problems of classification: is he a symbolist, an avant-gardist, a neo-realist, or postmodernist?[41] The play with authorship, demiurgy, and meta-textuality; the device of fracturing the textual structure into differ­ent, surprising correlations; the role of contrasts between mimetic and trans-mimetic devices; delight in detailed description of concrete phenom­ena; and the fantastic element, which allows for the improbable, the gro­tesque, and the paradoxical; all give rise to readings that remain, in a sense, undecided.

     The Pushkin heritage, claimed previously by the Symbolists and Ac­meists, is explicitly claimed by Nabokov: with its motifs, its themes, and its style, his oeuvre participates in Pushkin’s legacy. He seems never to have left the semantic space of Eugene Onegin, the threshold text. Like Pushkin, who appears in his work as “Pushkin,” “Alexander,” or “I,” Nabokov leaves his trace in his works in the form of numerous anagrams, such as Vivian Darkbloom or Adam von Librikov; he presents the almost inexhaustible possibilities of producing new names from his own. The themes of authorship, the hero as writer, doppelgängerei, mystification, posthumous reputation, immortality, and the beyond binds him just as much to his predecessor as do his experiments with form. Pale Fire (which emerged in 1959 from an uncompleted Russian novel), a text that combines poetry and a prose commentary, seems in many respects to be the semantic equivalent of Pushkin’s novel in verse and Nabokov’s com­mentary on it.[42] The megalomaniacal commentary written by Nabokov’s hero, Kinbote, on four cantos by the fictional poet John Shade, is ironically stylized as the self-portrait of an inferior, even ridiculous poet whose homoerotic tendencies are barely concealed. Nevertheless, Kinbote proves to be an ingenious writer who, in monumental digressions, presents a fan­tastical Russian-European historiography. Moreover, Pale Fire is a roman à clef in which aesthetic views and a bitingly grotesque depiction of Ameri­can customs and taste decisively reveal Nabokov as the author, who, in Shade, presents his other, inapproachable poetic double. Nabokov—or Kinbote, as the case may be—is a perhaps overly subtle encoder who appears in his self-commentary as a misleading and triumphant poeta doctus. For this text, as for many others, the fictional disguise is simulta­neously a disguising of fiction, achieved through the indirectness of its allusion technique and the provocative framing of its statements by sar­casm. All of these devices are at home within the Pushkinian tradition.

     Nabokov’s commentary to his English translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (both of which appeared in honor of Pushkin’s 165th birthday), which is also a megalomaniacal text, is, alongside Lolita, his most hotly contested work. As was the case with Kinbote, the commentator usurps the place of the original. It is a highly erudite, in places dazzlingly researched commentary, detail-obsessed, pedantic, studded with curiosi­ties and beset by long-windedness, but also full of trenchant belles lettres expressions. Nabokov simultaneously overfulfills the expectations of the “Commentary” genre and oversteps his own rules. The result is a literary unio of the commentary with the commented text. In writing the commen­tary and translation, Nabokov’s aim was to integrate Pushkin once and for all into “world literature.” Once again, Eugene Onegin had become a threshold text.

     Nabokov also subjects details of Pushkin’s biography to historical analysis. In his commentary to Stanza L of Chapter 1 of Onegin, which contains the line “Pod nebom Afriki moei” (Under the sky of my Africa), he delves into Pushkin’s African heritage and corrects certain assumptions regarding the Abyssinian roots of his maternal great-grandfather, who served Peter the Great, by plausibly suggesting central African ancestry instead.[43] It even enters his head to “reconstruct” the French text of Tatyana’s letter—that is, a text that never even existed.

     Not only does Nabokov seek to integrate Pushkin into European lit­erature, but also to present him to a Dostoevsky-oriented American read­ership as Russia’s true literary heritage. In so doing, he pursues a twofold strategy for informing the American reader: first, he provides detailed explanations of Russian idioms, customs, concepts, names, and historical and cultural facts that figure in Pushkin’s supposed encyclopedia of society; second, like an intertextual detective, he points to the literary sources of this depiction of life and society, showing greatest interest for identifying the Western sources thereof. In this, Lotman’s previously men­tioned commentary can serve as a corrective. Lotman emphasizes the related Russian texts and tends to restore the living substance to the cul­tural and historical context that Nabokov literaricized. Nabokov’s Onegin commentary deals with the structure of the work as a whole, the stanza structure, meter, and rhyme. He inscribes the text into a European con­text of writing styles and views its Russianness as language-based. Push­kin, the renewer of the Russian language, finds his double in Nabokov, who not only leaves his mark on the Russian language, giving it what sympathetic critics have called a sound previously unheard, but also en­dows English with unsuspected nuances (Edmund Wilson). Indeed, his aim was to give Russian a new, almost deviant expressivity, to differen­tiate it, to enhance its semantic potential, to give it a playful, allusive, and fleeting quality, and to expose its phonic and rhythmic qualities.

     Nabokov’s literal one-to-one translation, relentlessly precise in its pursuit of every phonic and allusive detail, has been called “unreadable”; but it stands, at the same time, as a remarkable act of mimicry.[44] His con­cern is with the English reproductions of the Onegin stanza—those fourteen-line stanzas, their iambic tetrameter and rhyme scheme main­tained, which he, as translator into both Russian and English and as tire­less proponent of free translation, viewed as an impossible endeavor. Any rhyming, equimetric translation would destroy the original, resulting in a “feeble Byron.” The differences in prosody, rhyme, and metrical conven­tions, etc. between Russian and English cannot be overcome. Nabokov researcher Alexander Dolinin has subjected Nabokov’s translation efforts to a detailed analysis.[45] Nabokov attempts to imitate the game played by Pushkin’s language with norm and deviation, by applying English archa­isms and poetic expressions. For the Gallicisms and old-Russian words in the original text, he seeks equivalents that seem starkly exaggerated (since many Gallicisms had been fully assimilated by Pushkin’s time).[46] Where Pushkin uses the noun “nega” (tenderness), Nabokov uses “molli­tude” and “dulcitude” in order to suggest the semantic history of “nega” (a calque from the French, certainly, but also fully integrated by the Russian adjective “nezhnyi,” or “tender”).[47]

     It is the deviation, the disturbance, that interests Nabokov. The cum­bersome translation forces the reader to perceive the Russian beneath and behind the English, which is made un-English in order that the language of the original might be perceived as something foreign. In the afterword to the American edition of Lolita (1958), Nabokov comments on the prob­lematic nature of bilingualism. He writes of his forced abdication of a Russian mother tongue that was, for him, untrammeled, rich, and infi­nitely docile (he calls this abdication “lichnaia moia tragediia” [my private tragedy]), and of resorting to a second-rate version of the English lan­guage that was incapable of reaching back to “the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions—which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heri­tage in his own way.”[48] Critics of his work are nevertheless convinced that he successfully met this challenge. And certainly, he knew this himself.

     At the same time, Nabokov’s Onegin commentary is a dictatorial close reading in which the commentator assumes the role of the sole true inter­preter of Pushkin with the ability to decipher the polysemies and associ­ative strategies. This commentary, satiated with digressions, insertions, interpolations, nostalgic looks backward, structurally resembles Onegin itself.

     The attempt at such literary doppelgängerei is apparent in other works as well.[49]The Gift (Dar), the last of Nabokov’s novels written in Russian (in 1937 in Berlin), contains entire passages written in iambic tetrameter, which suggests a generic kinship with Pushkin’s experimental novel. The motif of anticipation of the as yet unclear contour of the un­written novel parallels the “magic ball” from chapter 8 of Eugene Onegin. The end of The Gift provides an interpretation of the end of Eugene Onegin:

Прощай же, книга! […] С колен поднимется Евгений, —но удаляется поэт, […] продленный призрак бытия синеет за чертой страницы, как завтрашние облака, — и не кончается строка.

Farewell, book! […] Eugene rises from his knees, but the poet departs, […] the delinquent phantom of existence glimmers, blue, behind the contour of the page, like the clouds of tomorrow, and the verse has no end. (Davydov 1995: 488–95)

This passage recalls the lines Pushkin uses in his novel to wrest the stanzas he has composed from oblivion: “Byt´ mozhet, v Lete ne potonet / Strofa, slagaemaia mnoi” [Perhaps, Lethe will not consume / The stanza I have composed].

     The Gift is characterized by the same encyclopedism and metaphysical aspect as Eugene Onegin. “The central character in The Gift is Russian literature,” according to Nabokov’s commentary to the English translation of his novel. “Not since Eugene Onegin has a major Russian novel con­tained such a profusion of literary discussion, allusions and writers’ char­acteristics,” reads the first critical article concerning the novel.[50]The Gift, as much as Pale Fire or Ada, or Ardor is marked by its encyclopedic na­ture, in the sense of the implicit or explicit revocation of the literary tradition into a literary present. The attempt, in writing, to remain cog­nizant of everything experienced and read, speaks to a desire for immor­tality that is clearly evident elsewhere. The meta-textual, meta-fictional, and auto-referential, which refers ironically to the writing process, the fictionality, the arbitrariness of fancy, stabilizes, at some level, the dis­creetly pathetic aspect of this gesture of revocation. The number of foreign texts alluded to, stylized, parodied, or inverted is every bit as extensive as the methods of their amalgamation are multifaceted.

     The themes of writing, authorship, doppelgängerei, and mystification mark one of Nabokov’s final novels written in Russian, Despair (Otcha­ianie,1936), which he himself translated into English, and to which a recently published anthology was dedicated.[51]Despair exemplifies the in­tertextual artism that filled the Russian and Soviet literature of the 1920s and 1930s with allusions and cryptograms. It is a text that simply insists on a postmodern reading, and could lay claim, once again, to the imagery of the threshold.

     Nabokov causes the protagonist of Despair, Hermann Karlovich—like so many of his heroes, a writer and criminal—to radiate an invincible hubris. Hermann, the namesake of the protagonist, Germann—also a writer and criminal—of Pushkin’s fantastical novella The Queen of Spades, heralds his “creative triumph” and invokes the “infallibility of the writer.” The triumph and infallibility of this Nabokovian writer (his alter ego) echo the claim Pushkin made for subsequent generations in his legacy poem, “I have erected a monument to myself not made by human hands” (“Ia pamiatnik sebe vozdvig nerukotvornyi”)—which revises and renews Horace’s poem “Exegi monumentum.” The doppelgängerei between the narrator/author and the hero, the literary encyclopedicity, and the fre­quent self-mirroring of the text that Pushkin showcased are imitated and developed further by Nabokov. One theme of Nabokov’s academic canoni­zation will undoubtedly be his doppelgängerei with Pushkin.


University of Konstanz


Download: Lachmann, Renate. "Alexander Pushkin's Novel in Verse, Eugene Onegin, and its Legacy in the Work of Vladimir Nabokov," trans. Mark Pettus. Pushkin Review 14 (2011): 1-33.

[1] I. P. Vitali, Biust Pushkina. Marble. 1837. St. Petersburg, Muzei Pushkinskogo Doma.

[2] François-Xavier Coquin, “Le monument de Pouchkine à Moscou,” in L’Univer­salité de Pouchkine, ed. M. Aucouturier and J. Bonamour (Paris: Institut d’Études Slaves, 2000), 393–414.

[3] Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (London: Chatto & Windus, 1990); Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991); Boyd and R. M. Pyle, Nabokov’s Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000); Boris Nosik, Vladimir Na­bokov: Die Biographie, trans. Renate and Thomas Reschke (Berlin: Aufbau, 1997).

[4] Nosik, Vladimir Nabokov, 371–81.

[5] Valeria Narbikova, “Unter den Großen der Letzte,” Die Zeitschrift der Kultur 6 (June 1986): 28.

[6] Walter Benjamin, Das Passagenwerk, ed. R. Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1983), 618.

[7] Mikhail Bakhtin, “Formen der Zeit des Chronotopos im Roman,” in Formen der Zeit im Roman: Untersuchungen zur historischen Poetik, ed. E. Kowalski and M. Wegner (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1989), 7–209.

[8] Iurii Tynianov, Arkhaisty i novatory (Munich: Fink, 1929).

[9] Fedor Dostoevskii, “Pushkin. Ocherk,” in Sobranie sochinenii, ed. L. P. Gross­mann and A. S. Dolinen (Moscow: Kniga, 1958), 10: 455.

[10] Andrei Sinyavski, Promenaden mit Puschkin (Frankfurt am Main: Ullstein, 1977).

[11] Daniil Kharms, Fälle: Szenen, Gedichte, Prosa, ed. and trans. Peter Urban (Zürich: Haffmans, 1984), 221.

[12] Alexander Pushkin, Jewgenij Onegin: Roman in Versen, trans. Rolf-Dietrich Keil (Giessen: Schmitz, 1980).

[13] Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, vol. 13 (Moscow: Izdatel´stvo Akademii nauk SSSR, 1937).

[14] Ibid., 73.

[15] B. V. Tomashevskii, “Strofika Pushkina,” in Pushkin: Raboty raznykh let (Mos­cow: Kniga, 1990): 466. My translation, here and below, unless otherwise indi­cated. (English citations translated from Lachmann’s German.—Trans.)

[16] Iurii Lotman, Analiz poeticheskogo teksta: Struktura stikha (Leningrad: Prosve­shchenie, 1972).

[17] Holt Meyer, “Byt´ mozhet v lete ne potone t / strofa, slagaemaya mnoi,” in Die Welt der Slaven 43 (1998): 42.

[18] Ibid., 45.

[19] Kirill Postutenko, Oneginskii tekst v russkoi literature (Pisa: EGIG, 1998).

[20] Yuri Murashov, “Schrift und Geschlecht: Zur medialen Pragmatik des Brief­motivs in A. Puškins ‘ Jevgenij Onegin’,” Die Welt der Slaven 43 (1998): 173–86.

[21] D. Kujundzič, “Tat’jana’s Purloined Letter,” Wiener Slawistischer Almanach 28 (1991): 29–40.

[22] Viktor Shklovsky, Die Parodie auf den Roman: Tristram Shandy, trans. G. Drohla (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1964), 131–62.

[23] Gary S. Morson, “Parody, History and Metaparody,” in Rethinking Bakhtin: Ex­tensions and Challenges, ed. Morson and Caryl Emerson (Evanston, IL: North­western University Press, 1989), 82.

[24] V. G. Belinskii, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh (Moscow: Aka­demiia nauk SSSR, 1953–59), 7: 503.

[25] Ibid., 432.

[26] Svetlana Evdokimova, Pushkin’s Historical Imagination (New Haven: Yale Uni­versity Press, 1999), 142.

[27] Iurii M. Lotman, Roman Pushkina “Evgenii Onegin”: Kommentarii (Leningrad: Prosveshchenie, 1972).

[28] Ibid., 320.

[29] Ibid., 124.

[30] Yuri Chumakov, “Les rêves dans Eugène Onégine,” in L’Universalité de Pouchkine, ed. M. Aucouturier and J. Bonamour (Paris: Institut d’Études Slaves, 2000), 164.

[31] Lotman, Roman Pushkina “Evgenii Onegin, 112–17.

[32] Holt Meyer, “Oneginych est´ mnogo: Der zitierte Name als Lesezeichen und performative Wiederholung,” Die Welt der Slaven 44 (1999): 335–66.

[33] Oleg Proskurin, Literaturnye skandaly pushkinskoi epokhi (Moscow: OGI, 2000), 229–59.

[34] Holt Meyer, Romantische Orientierung: Wandermodelle der romantischen Be­wegung (Russland): Kjuchel’beker – Puškin – Wel’tman (Munich: Otto Sagner, 1995).

[35] Julian Moynahan, “Nabokov and Joyce,” in The Garland Companion to Vla­dimir Nabokov, ed. V. E. Aleksandrov (New York: Garland, 1995), 433–44.

[36] Vladimir Nabokov, “Pushkin, or the Real and the Plausible,” The New York Review of Books (31 March 1988), 38–42.

[37] M. Cetlin, V. Sirin: Vozvrashchenie Chorba: Rasskazy i stikhi, in V. V. Nabokov pro et contra: Lichnost´ i tvorchestvo Vladimira Nabokova v otsenke russkikh i zarubezhnikh myslitelei i issledovatelei, ed. B. Averina (St. Petersburg: Izdatel´stvo Russkogo Khristianskogo Gumanitarnogo Instituta, 1997), 218–19.

[38] G. Ivanov, “V. Sirin: ‘Mashen´ka’, ‘Korol´, dama, valet,’ ‘Zashchita Luzhina,’ ‘Vozvrashchenie Chorba,’” in Averina, V. V. Nabokov pro et contra, 215–17.

[39] Alfred Appel, The Annotated Lolita: Vladimir V. Nabokov (New York: MacGraw-Hill, 1970).

[40] Andrej Bitow, “Die Unsterblichkeit eines Mückenstichs: Ein Russe liest Nabokov,” Du: Die Zeitschrift der Kultur 6 (June 1996).

[41] Magdalena Medarič, “Vladimir Nabokov i roman XX stoletiia,” in Averina, V. V. Nabokov pro et contra, 54–56.

[42] Sergei Davydov, Nabokov and Pushkin, in Aleksandrov, The Garland Com­panion to Vladimir Nabokov, 484.

[43] Ibid., 496.

[44] Edmund Wilson, “The Strange Case of Pushkin and Nabokov,” in The New York Review of Books (15 July 1965), 4.

[45] Alexander Dolinin, “Eugene Onegin,” in Aleksandrov, The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov, 117–30.

[46] Ibid., 120.

[47] Ibid., 121–23.

[48] Vladimir Nabokov, “O knige, ozaglavlennoi ‘Lolita,’” in Averina, V. V. Nabokov pro et contra, 89.

[49] B. Stark, Pushkin v tvorchestve V. V. Nabokova, in Averina, V. V. Nabokov pro et contra, 772–82.

[50] Simon Karlinsky, “Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel Dar as a Work of Literary Criti­cism: A Structural Analysis,” The Slavic and East European Journal 7: 3 (1963): 286.

[51] I. P. Smirnov, ed., Hypertext Otčajanie: Sverchtekst Despair: Studien zu Vladi­mir Nabokovs Roman-Rätsel (Munich: Otto Sagner, 2000).