Tag Archives: russian

Review ~ Yevgeny Onegin

This book was provided to me by Pushkin Press via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Cover via Goodreads

Yevgeny Onegin by Alexander Pushkin, translated by A. D. P. Briggs

Eugene Onegin is the master work of the poet whom Russians regard as the fountainhead of their literature. Set in 1820s imperial Russia, Pushkin’s novel in verse follows the emotions and destiny of three men – Onegin the bored fop, Lensky the minor elegiast, and a stylized Pushkin himself – and the fates and affections of three women – Tatyana the provincial beauty, her sister Olga, and Pushkin’s mercurial Muse. Engaging, full of suspense, and varied in tone, it also portrays a large cast of other characters and offers the reader many literary, philosophical, and autobiographical digressions, often in a highly satirical vein. Eugene Onegin was Pushkin’s own favourite work, and it shows him attempting to transform himself from a romantic poet into a realistic novelist. This new translation seeks to retain both the literal sense and the poetic music of the original, and capture the poem’s spontaneity and wit. The introduction examines several ways of reading the novel, and text is richly annotated. (via Goodreads)

One of the first things that Briggs does, something that isn’t retained in the above Goodreads blurb, is revert to the more Russian version of “Eugene”—Yevgeny. He does this because, well, it sounds better. It has better rhythm. Try it out loud: Yev-gen-y On-e-gin.  There’s a rise and fall to that. Better than Eu-gene On-e-gin. But I got the feeling from Briggs’ introduction that if the Anglicized Eugene worked better that’s what he’d have used. That’s the style of his translation and that, he argues, is the most Pushkin way of translating Yevgeny Onegin.

Pushkin is the most highly respected of Russian poets, and he is so probably because he wasn’t high and mighty about the language. Briggs points out that the original novel length poem is written in a combination of high and low Russian with a dash of French. It’s written in iambic pentameter, but Pushkin made the rhyme scheme his own, but wasn’t a slave to perfect rhyme.  It’s Pushkin’s use of what works that almost gives the poem an English sensibility. This is what Briggs tries to bring out in his translation.

I’ve read other translations of Yevgeny Onegin. I have the Nabokov version, but it’s in one of the dusty boxes in my closet. I didn’t feel like digging it out, but I remember it feeling quite serious. The story *is* a bit grim, but Briggs’ light translation also makes it enjoyable. Pushkin is poking fun at the blazé, ball-going, dueling culture of Onegin’s world and is inviting us as readers to commiserate. Briggs’ translation is accessible and very readable. I recommend it.

Publishing info, my copy: ePub format, Pushkin Press, July 12, 2016
Acquired: April 2016, NetGalley
Genre: Poetry, Literary

Deal Me In, Week 46 ~ “The Queen of Spades”


Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“The Queen of Spades” by Alexander Pushkin

Card picked: Ace of Hearts
From: Great Russian Stories, selected by Isai Kamen, Vintage Books, 1959

Thoughts: This tale begins, as many Russian short stories do, with a group of soldiers wrapping up a long night of card-playing. To cap off the evening, one of the men, Tomski, relates that his grandmother, the Countess X, knows of an unbeatable trio of cards to play. Why she doesn’t gamble more often, he doesn’t know. She’s only shared the secret with one other man, who won a fortune, but was sworn to only play the cards once. He died in poverty, but surely that happened because he was famously bad with money…

The Countess’s secret lodges in the mind of Herman, a Russified German who never gambles. While Herman has a nice fortune, he doesn’t feel he’s rich enough to “waste” money. He thinks that if he had the Countess’s secret, he could live more comfortably and loosen his purse strings. He hatches a plan to get into the Countess’s household by wooing her young ward, Lizaveta, and then forcing the secret from the old lady. He sends Liza a letter.

The letter contained a declaration of love; it was tender, respectful, and copied word for word from a German novel.

Luckily (for Herman), Liza knows nothing of German novels. After some indecision, she sets up a tryst with Herman. Instead of meeting Liza in her room after a ball, Herman visits the Countess. She will not reveal her secret. He threatens her with a pistol, but the old woman’s heart gives out. Herman comes clean to Liza and she helps him sneak out of the house, even though he’s only sorry for the lost secret and his lost potential fortune.

The day after the Countess’s funeral, her ghost appears to Herman. She gives him her secret card combination in exchange for two things: he only plays one card a day and he marries Lizaveta. Herman has no problems with the first part of the promise. As to the second stipulation…

I really enjoyed “The Queen of Spades.” I’ve had a rough patch with the Russians lately. Obviously, you give me a ghost and I’m halfway to happy right there. Herman is a heel. As soon as we’re told he has a fortune (that he will not spend), but he wants the Countess’s secret, we pretty much know he’s going to get his just reward in the end. What that reward is going to be is the good part.

Is This Your Card?

I am amazed that no magician, on YouTube at least, has adapted this story into a narrative card trick.

Deal Me In, Week 31 ~ “The Monster”


Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“The Monster” by Lidiya Zinovyeva-Annibal

Card picked: Queen of Hearts

From: The Tragic Menagerie by Lidiya Zinovyeva-Annibal, translated by Jane Costlow

Thoughts: Ten year-old Vera catches a monster in her net. The monster is only a quarter of her pinkie finger long, but it has claws and “armor.” Both intrigued and disgusted by it, Vera puts it in a jar with some bog water that includes frog eggs. Over the course of a few days, the frog eggs hatch in to stubby, comical tadpoles…which is a perfect buffet for the monster. Vera is upset by this, but her older brother tells her

“That’s nature. … A normal person gets used to nature. … Well, but people sometimes want to live in ways they can’t. That means making things complicated, understand, and not even obeying God, understand, God!?”

Vera’s teacher subtly disagrees. Tadpoles and a monster (maybe the larva of a water beetle?) in a jar is not natural. She suggests that Vera dump her pets back into the bog. Vera feels that this will only prolong the life of the tadpoles/young frogs which would be even crueler than their current arrangement. Eventually, it comes down to the monster versus one frog with Vera as the capricious God watching over them all.

About the Author: There’s not a lot of ready information about Lidiya Zinovyeva-Annibal. She was part of the Silver Age of Russian literature. She hosted a salon with her husband Viacheslav Ivanov. She had been married previously and had a daughter named Vera from that marriage (whom Ivanov married after Lidiya’s death at age 40). She also known for her short novel Thrity-Three Abominations which openly discusses lesbianism. What I had assumed might be political allegory in “The Monster” (a pretty good guess when dealing with 19th century Russians) is probably more about sexual mores.

Deal Me In, Week 25 ~ “The Steel Flea”


Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“The Steel Flea” by Nikolai Leskov

Card picked: Eight of Hearts

From: The Enchanted Pilgrim, and Other Stories, translated by David Magarshack

Thoughts: “The Steel Flea” or “The Tale of Cross-eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea” or “Lefty” or, as it is in my anthology, “The Left-Handed Artificer,” begins with Tsar Alexander I touring Western Europe. The tsar is amazed by the innovative craftsmen he sees during his travels, but his companion, Platov, is unimpressed. Being an incredibly patriotic sort, Platov insists that Russia has better. The only time that Platov might be utterly wrong is when the English craftsmen show the tsar a microscopic, dancing flea automaton. The tsar purchases it for a large amount of money*, but dies before its mysteries are investigated.

Under Tsar Nicholas, Platov again campaigns to prove that Russian craftsmen are better than the English. He is entrusted with the flea and he takes it to the gunsmiths of Tula. The gunsmiths are fine craftsmen, but are lacking on the science end of things. They fit the microscopic flea with horseshoes, each signed nanoscopically by each craftsman**. Unfortunately, these horseshoes are too heavy for the flea and it can no longer dance.

One of the craftsmen, the left-handed one***, is given a trip to England. The English are quite impressed with the “improvement” to the flea and do all they can to convince the left-handed artificer to stay. Lefty loves Russia and, when he makes an important discovery about how the English maintain their guns, he insists to be taken home as quickly as possible. Aboard the ship, he is challenged to a drinking competition, which he cannot refuse****. The left-handed artificer is severely drunk, as is the ship’s captain, when they dock. Lefty has lost his papers and is shuffled from jail to hospital to hospital. When the captain finds him, the left-handed artificer is on his last breath. He gives the captain a message to take to the tsar. What’s the message? Will the tsar listen? Well, keep in mind, this *is* a Russian tale.

* Did the English take advantage of the tsar? Maaaybeee…
** It’s not like anyone at this time has a microscope able to see this scale. The Tsar Nicholas  and Platov have to take the craftsmen at their word, which they do. Also, I may not be using nano- appropriately here.
*** His name is forgotten after his untimely death. Is this criticism about how Russia treats its craftsmen? Maaaybeee…
**** Here I will state that probably not all Russians drink, but this isn’t a stereotype that I’ve seen refuted in Russian literature…or in my own experience.

About the Author: Leskov walks a line with this story. On one hand, his main characters are unabashedly and sincerely patriotic. On the other,  he’s not shy about pointing out the problematic aspects of Russia in the late 1800s. Leskov is known to be a bit of an experimenter in style and form, but I fear much of that is lost in translation.

Is This Your Card?

I didn’t plan it, but this week’s darw brings us Piff and Mr. Piffles.


Deal Me In, Week 15 ~ “Electrification”


Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“Electrification” by Mikhail Zoshchenk

Card picked: King of Hearts

From: Online

Thoughts: One of the shortest pieces I’ve read for Deal Me In this year.

During the 1920s, there was a massive plan to “electrify” the newly formed Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic. Lenin believed that modernity could be brought to the whole of Russia through electricity for everyone. Zoshchenk’s little parable is about a couple whose building is recently hooked up. In the bright light, they see just how depressing their surroundings are:

In our room, for instance, we had a sofa. I’d always though it wasn’t a bad sofa – even quite a good sofa! In the evenings I used to sit on it. But now with this electricity – heavens above! Some sofa! Bits sticking up, bits hanging down, bits falling out. How can I sit on such a sofa? My soul protests.

The husband’s solution is to try and spruce the place up. He spends quite a bit of money on whitewash. His wife, she has a different solution.

This is a satire aimed at communism: “light” would bring dissatisfaction to the Russian people when they finally “see” their surroundings. Generally, I’m not a fan such, which often makes Russian literature a challenge for me, but Zoshchenk is quick and funny. This is might be the most charming satire of communism I’ve ever read.

Deal Me In, Week 14 ~ “The Fatalist”


Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“The Fatalist” by Mikhail Lermontov

Card picked: Three of Hearts

From: Selected Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976; also available online

Thoughts: “The Fatalist” is the closing section of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. I haven’t read the entire five parts yet, but this story is a curious endpoint.

After an evening of gambling, talk among a group of Russian Army officers turns to the question of predestination (as will happen among Russian Army officers after an evening of gambling, I guess). Our narrator, Pechorin, does not believe in predestination. Vulic, a fellow with a passion and no talent for gambling, wagers that Pechorin is wrong. Vulic takes a gun down from the wall and primes it. Anyone who’s heard of Russian roulette knows where this is going, although the gun in question is not a revolver and this is the first instance of such a feat in literature. A moment before Vulic pulls the trigger, Pechorin is absolutely certain Vulic will die that night. I won’t say if he does or not, but the events of that night and the next morning cause Pechorin to become a fatalist:

I prefer to doubt everything; such a disposition does not preclude a resolute character; on the contrary, as far as I’m concerned, I always advance more boldly when I do not know what is awaiting me.

Personally, I’m more like Pechorin’s friend Maxim Maximych (a more prominent character in early parts of A Hero of Our Time): “…in general he does not care for metaphysical discourses.” I’ll make an exception for Lermontov.

About the Author: I know Lermontov’s poetry more than his prose (something I’ll probably say about many of the Russian authors). He sort of stepped in to fill the void after Pushkin’s death and is known as Russia’s great Romantic.