I read a lot. Probably too much, though I don’t really think there can be such a thing. History and biography, and classic fiction from the 18th and 19th centuries. Oh, and anything French.
But this week, I had a revelation while revisiting Pushkin’s novel-in-verse “Eugene Onegin.” It’s really about the dangers of too much immersion in romance novels! The heroine, Tatanya, is a naïve dreamer, her head stuck in books. When she declares her love-at-first-sight to Onegin in a letter, he rejects her condescendingly, saying that he can only regard her as a brother would. The consequences form a chain of tragic events in the rest of the book.
What does Tatanya say immediately upon meeting Onegin? “I loved you in dreams, even before we met.” What could possibly be the correct response to that? Unfortunately for her, she chose the jaded world-weary Onegin. He reminds me of one of Mallarmé’s oft-quoted lines: “La chair est triste, hélas, et j’ai lu tous les livres.” (Flesh is sad, alas, and I’ve read all the books.)
She has fervent feelings alright, but she is disconnected from social wisdom, unlike her earthier sister Olga, whose simple passionate love for life hooks her up with Lensky, a poet whose life will be ended in a duel with Onegin. Prose (Onegin) kills poetry (Lensky).
The girls’ mother, a widow, Mme Larina, has the perspective of age: “Habit is a gift from heaven to take the place of happiness.” Oh joy.
Pushkin (1799-1837) is often called the father of Russian literature. Russian was regarded as a “peasant” language only, not suitable for high art. Though Pushkin had a few precursors, his were the first lasting “classics” in the language.
Since my Russian is nonexistent, I had to rely on the graces of a translator. “Onegin” was translated scores of times shortly after its appearance in the early 1830s, into French, English, Latin (!), German, Italian, and Spanish. I like to find a translation from the time, because I enjoy the old verbal habits, and I feel it puts me closer to the “world” of the work.
Most people know the story through Tchaikovsky’s opera, composed in 1877, the year of his “sham” marriage to a woman who turned out to be something of a “stalker” of Russian celebrities. Tchaikovsky called “Onegin” an “abyss of poetry.” His opera, he actually called “scènes lyriques.” He identified most strongly with Tatanya “bumping into reality” and Lensky “running to his doom.”
1877 is also the first year of Tchaikivsky’s fourteen-year correspondence with and patronage by Mme von Meck, the wealthy widow of an engineer, who was so smitten with Tchaikovsky’s music that she supported him financially, asking only that they never meet face-to-face. Legend has it that their carriages passed in opposite directions in Florence, Italy, one day and that they “might” have glimpsed each other. Oh, the horror.
She had twelve children with her husband, and made the wonderful comment: “What a shame it is that one can’t grow children by artificial means, like fish for example; one would no longer need marriage, and that would be such a comfort.” I wonder what she would think of in vitro, surrogates, and artificial insemination.
French composer Claude Debussy was the “house pianist” in Mme von Meck’s household retinue for a couple of years (1879/80). Tchaikovsky’s opera provides quite a contrast with Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” doesn’t it? What Tchaikovsky needed to compose successful music was “characters I can feel compassion for.” What works in a play or book may be damaging in a libretto, however, and about half of Pushkin’s book is omitted, including the more satirical and commentary passages. This focuses on the “action” elements: avowal, rejection, flirtation, duel, transformation, and again, rejection.
The tables get turned on Onegin, when after a passage of several years, he returns to find a transformed Tatanya, who has made a favorable marriage to a military man and is now world-wise. Onegin falls deeply in love with her, and she reminds him of his haughty dismissal, swearing that though she loves him, she will remain faithful to her husband.
Pushkin himself was killed in a duel, as is the character Lensky in the novel, over allegations about a woman. Though these were not his last words, they shall be mine today: “Among life’s pleasures, music is second only to love. But love itself is a melody.”
© 2010 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs