Monday, September 30, 2013

Following a train of thought: Pushkin's Eugene Onegin to Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin

Alexander Pushkin has roughly the same stature in Russian literature that Shakespeare does in English, and Eugene Onegin (1823-1833) is his greatest work. Called "a novel in verse," it is a long narrative poem that recounts the adventures of the title character. Onegin is a sort of Byronic anti-hero: dashing and handsome, with a ready and wicked wit, he is a man of fashionable society who lives for his own pleasure, but who has become jaded with the endless round of dinners, balls, and semi-clandestine affairs with his friends' wives.

At the opening of the poem Onegin has inherited his uncle's country estate. There he is even more bored than in the city, until he meets a neighbor, the young poet Vladimir Lensky. Lensky is engaged to his childhood sweetheart Olga, the daughter of Larin, a local landowner. Lensky ultimately prevails on the reluctant Onegin to attend a dinner party at Larin's estate, where he meets Olga and her older sister Tatyana. The meeting is fateful for everyone involved. Tatyana, shy and serious, falls head over heels in love with this dark, brooding stranger, who seems to embody all the qualities of the heroes of her novels. Daringly, she writes Onegin a letter in which she declares her feelings.

And this is where the tone of Eugene Onegin shifts. Up to this point (the middle of Chapter 3), the narrator has adopted a lightly ironic style in which all the foibles, contradictions, and vanities of his characters are held up for our amused examination; Byron's "epic satire" Don Juan (1818-1824) seems to have been the model. But with Tatyana's letter, the poem shifts into a different emotional register. The narrator writes that he rereads her letter with "secret pain," and is moved by the genuine feeling expressed in her tender, heartfelt, and impetuous words:
Tatyana's Letter to Onegin
I write to you—no more confession
is needed, nothing's left to tell.
I know it's now in your discretion
with scorn to make my world a hell... (translated by Charles Johnston [1])
Tatyana's letter is a key test of any translation of Eugene Onegin. Not only must a translator capture all the shades of Tatyana's emotions, he or she must do so within the constraints of the verse form that Pushkin employs. Called the "Onegin stanza" or the "Pushkin sonnet," it consists of fourteen lines of iambic tetrameter following the rhyme scheme aBaBccDDeFFeGG, where the lower-case letters indicate feminine rhymes (rhymes in which the last syllable is unstressed, such as pleasure/measure) and the upper-case letters masculine ones (where the last syllable is stressed, such as dream/scheme). Iambic tetrameter is a poetic line made up of four two-syllable groups (metrical feet), in which the first syllable is unstressed and the second is stressed; such a two-syllable group is called an iamb. Got all that?

An example of an English poem that uses iambic tetrameter is Byron's "She walks in beauty" from Hebrew Melodies, 1814:
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meets in her aspect and her eyes...
The short rhymed line in less expert hands, though, can sound forced or obvious. Johnston in his translation of the opening of Tatyana's letter uses enjambment ("no more confession / is needed...") to smooth out the rhythm of the first two lines. Here are three other attempts to render the opening of Tatyana's letter:
I'm writing you this declaration—
what more can I in candor say?
It may now be your inclination
to scorn me and to turn away... (translated by James E. Falen [2])

I write to you—what more is needed?
This said, have I not said enough?
And you are free now, I conceded
To slight me with a chill rebuff... (translated by Walter Arndt [3])

I write—what more is there to say?
How shall I add to my confession?
I know it’s in your power today
To punish me with your derision. (translated by A. S. Kline [4])
It's impossible to generalize about the overall quality of each translation from these short excerpts, especially since I don't read Russian. But for me the Falen version sounds a bit too matter-of-fact, and it also loses the sense that Tatyana knows she has revealed everything by the mere act of writing to Onegin. Arndt introduces an odd change of tense (why is it "I conceded" rather than "I concede," except to force the rhyme with "needed"?), and also doesn't convey the perilous position in which Tatyana has placed herself—she's risking utter social ruin, not merely a "chill rebuff." Kline reverses the pattern of masculine and feminine line endings and uses a near-rhyme ("confession"/"derision") that sounds jarring to me.

If you'd like to see further translation comparisons, Stephen Frug has posted eleven different versions of Eugene Onegin's opening stanza on his blog Eugene Onegin in English Translation, and discusses the issues involved in his post "Eugene Onegin in English: Comparing Translations." Douglas Hofstadter gives multiple versions of Chapter 2, Stanza 29 in his lecture "Analogy as the Core of Cognition" (search within the page for "Onegin"). Hofstadter also discusses the problem of translating Eugene Onegin in two chapters of Le Ton Beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language (Basic Books, 1997), and in the preface to his own translation of Pushkin's work (Basic Books, 1999).

Famously, Vladimir Nabokov denounced the very possibility of an English translation that attempts to match the rhyme and metrical schemes of the original. In his preface to his own unrhymed translation Nabokov asked, "Can a rhymed poem like Eugene Onegin be truly translated with the retention of its rhymes? The answer, of course, is no." He goes on to say that when a translator goes beyond the "mere sense of the text...he begins to traduce the author." [6] Perhaps Nabokov gave his final word on the subject in his poem  "On Translating 'Eugene Onegin'" (written in Onegin stanzas):
What is translation? On a platter
A poet's pale and glaring head,
A parrot's screech, a monkey's chatter,
And profanation of the dead.
Elsewhere in that poem Nabokov describes his prose rendition of Pushkin's poem as "All thorn, but cousin to your rose." Judge for yourself: here is Nabokov's thorny "literal" translation of the first lines of Tatyana's letter:
I write to you—what would one more?
What else is there that I could say?
'Tis now, I know, within your will
to punish me with scorn.
I think "what would one more?" could be rendered more colloquially (but less tetrametrically) as "what more is it necessary for me to do?" or, perhaps, "must I do more?" or, as Arndt has it, "what more is needed?" But as it stands, an English reader is forced to stop at the end of the first line to try to figure out what's being said. Nabokov disdained "readable" translations, but this awkwardness of locution (far from the only one in his translation, alas) is carrying things a bit far.

My own feeling is that Johnston's translation succeeds admirably in conveying both the structure of the original and its sense—at least, as far as I've been able to determine it by comparison with other translations and with Nabokov's version. For example, here is Nabokov's prose version of Chapter 2, Stanza 29:
Her father was a kindly fellow
who lagged in the precedent age
but saw no harm in reading books;
he, never reading,
deemed them an empty toy,
nor did he care
what secret tome his daughter had
dozing till morn under her pillow.
Any good translation needs to retain the beautiful and poignant image of Tatyana's book sleeping under her pillow; here are several other ways that it has been rendered in English:
Nor did he care what secret tome
His daughter read or kept at home
Asleep till morn beneath her pillow... (tr. Falen)

[He] never thought to bring to light
Which secret volume dreamt at night
Beneath his little daughter’s pillows. (tr. Arndt)

[He] never bothered for a moment
About the volume’s true content,
That slept beneath her pillow thus. (tr. Kline)

[He] cared not what his daughter kept
by way of secret tome that slept
until the dawn beneath her pillow. (tr. Johnston)
I'm not sure what Falen means by "read or kept at home"; it seems to imply, oddly, that Tatyana might place a book she's not reading under her pillow. Arndt introduces the nice image of a book dreaming under Tatyana's pillow, but (if we believe Nabokov) the image isn't Pushkin's: in the original the book is sleeping, not dreaming. Kline uses another awkward near-rhyme of "moment" and "content." For me, Johnston's version is both the most faithful and, yes, most readable.

And there's at least one other person who has said so in print (although it must be admitted that he wrote this praise before Falen's translation was published):
          ...[Let me] suggest
You spend some unfilled day of leisure
By that original spring of pleasure:
Sweet-watered, fluent, clear, light, blithe
(This homage merely pays a tithe
Of what in joy and inspiration
It gave me once and does not cease
To give me)—Pushkin's masterpiece
In Johnston's luminous translation:
Eugene Onegin—like champagne
Its effervescence stirs my brain.
These lines are from Vikram Seth's Golden Gate (Random House, 1986, p. 102), a novel in verse itself (as you may have already detected) written in the form of Onegin stanzas. And Seth's novel is where my train of thought next took me—with a slight sidetrack first to another work deriving from Eugene Onegin: Tchaikovsky's opera.

Next time: Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin

Last time: Speak, Memory to Eugene Onegin

Versions of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin quoted in this post:

1. Translated by Charles Johnston, revised Penguin Classics edition, 1979
2. Translated by James E. Falen, Southern Illinois University Press, 1990
3. Translated by Walter Arndt, Dutton, 1963
4. Translated by A. S. Kline, retrieved September 30, 2013 from
5. Translated with commentary by Vladimir Nabokov, second Princeton/Bollingen paperback edition, 1990, p. ix

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Following a train of thought: Speak, Memory to Eugene Onegin

What can a humble amateur reader—a reader for pleasure, that most suspect and derided of motives—add to the conversation about Vladimir Nabokov, a conversation that has been conducted for decades by obsessive scholars and scholarly obsessives? After all, a cursory web search turns up a website (Zembla), journals (the Nabokov Online Journal, Nabokov Studies, and The Nabokovian), a listserv (NABOKOV-L), and a learned society (the International Vladimir Nabokov Society) devoted to his life and work.

After reading Tim Kreider's Page-Turner article "The Decline and Fall of the Book Cover," I realized that I hadn't yet read Nabokov's autobiography, Speak, Memory (for details, see Following a train of thought: We Learn Nothing to Speak, Memory). In the end I wound up reading both Speak, Memory (1951/1966) and The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (Knopf, 1995), for the profound reason that they were next to one another on the shelves of one of my favorite used bookstores. 

Speak, Memory: Inconclusive evidence
Nabokov is famous for writing novels with unreliable narrators: Despair (1934), Lolita (1955), Pale Fire (1962). Autobiography, of course, foregrounds the problem of the unreliable narrator: not only the question of whether particular incidents really happened, or (if they happened) whether the writer's memory is true to the event, but also whether what the writer has recorded is even true to his or her own memory. How much editing, embellishment, and elaboration has taken place?

In Speak, Memory (originally published as Conclusive Evidence), sights, sounds, smells, and tastes are reported with a suspiciously detailed clarity. We read of the sun-dappled lanes of the idyllic estate near St. Petersburg on which Nabokov grew up, the variegated butterflies that excited his passion for collecting, his vividly remembered childhood nannies and tutors (one of whom is named Lenski), and his formative first love (age 10, on the beach at Biarritz).

And as I read Speak, Memory, it became clear that the clever cover design by Michael Bierut that had inspired me to pick up the book—a piece of semi-transparent paper pinned over the title like a butterfly specimen, and partially obscuring it—doesn't reflect the way memory (or, at least, Nabokov's memory) works. In the first chapter Nabokov writes "I see the awakening of consciousness as a series of spaced flashes, with the intervals between them gradually diminishing until bright blocks of perception are formed" (p. 21). Certain scenes and impressions are related with superhuman specificity, but the periods in between those scenes tend to be partially or fully elided. A better visual metaphor might be a piece of completely opaque paper in which multiple holes have been punched. What is revealed is seen with perfect clarity and often expressed with great beauty, but much remains hidden. In a famous passage Nabokov presents his own metaphor for memories, and his method of relating them: "I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip" (p. 139).

With a writer of fictions, particularly fictions as carefully composed as Nabokov's, the reader is tempted to search the autobiography for hints and clues to the origins of the work. And Nabokov is fully aware of this temptation; while he decries it (along with vulgar Freudianism), he also seeds the text with sly references to his novels. I picked up overt and covert allusions to Bend Sinister, The Defense, The Gift, Lolita, and Pale Fire, and there must be many more. Such allusions only add to the sense that we're being presented with a set of artfully constructed scenes that function as screen memories (an idea that Nabokov himself would have rejected vehemently). And, indeed, some of the chapters were published separately as stories, though Nabokov states that they are, "(except for a change of names) true in every detail to the author's remembered life" (Stories, p. 662).

But as Janet Malcom writes (in her essay "Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography," included in Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), "If an autobiography is to be even minimally readable, the autobiographer...must not be afraid to invent. Above all, he must invent himself" (p. 297).

One chapter of Speak, Memory raised the issue of invention versus memory with special acuteness, at least for me. In Chapter 9, Nabokov embarks on "a short biography of my father" (p. 173). Vladimir Dimitrievich Nabokov was a jurist, parliamentarian, and briefly a minister in the revolutionary Kerenski government (later overthrown by the Bolsheviks). The final section of this chapter relates the story of a duel: his father challenges the "disreputable editor" (p. 188) of a paper that has printed lies about him. In a semicomic turn, after mysterious comings and goings and much anxiety, the editor backs down and the duel doesn't take place.

It seems too perfect an incident to be real; after all, in Speak, Memory Nabokov writes that "No Russian writer of any repute had failed to describe une recontre, a hostile meeting, always of course of the classical duel à volonté type" (p. 191).  But apparently it did actually happen; in his definitive two-volume biography of Nabokov, Brian Boyd traces the newspaper articles that Nabokov's father and the disreputable editor wrote afterwards about the incident.

The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov: "Bottom of the Barrel"
Which leads me to The Stories, which brings together the four 13-story collections published in Nabokov's lifetime, plus (for symmetry's sake, I presume) another 13 stories chosen by his son and literary executor Dmitri. Vladimir Nabokov himself had listed a majority of the previously uncollected stories under the heading "Bottom of the Barrel" (p. xvii); Dmitri assures us that his father told him that the label referred "not to their quality, but to the fact that, among the materials available for consultation at the moment, they were the final ones worthy of publication" (p. xiii). Be that as it may (although Dmitri includes a lot of qualifiers in that sentence); but Nabokov was a good judge of his own work, and gathered the best of his stories, in my view, in his first collection, Nabokov's Dozen (1958).

One of the stories excluded from Nabokov's Dozen is "An Affair of Honor" (it was later published in A Russian Beauty and Other Stories (1973)), and as the title suggests, it centers on a duel. Anton Petrovich, a plump, dandyish banker, learns the unwelcome news that his wife is having an affair when, on returning unexpectedly to his apartment one night, he discovers her lover getting dressed. The lover, a business associate of Anton Petrovich, is named Berg; as his name (which means "mountain" in German) suggests, Berg is a "broad shouldered, well-built...athletic" man. Anton Petrovich challenges Berg to a duel, but quickly begins to lose his nerve.

Although the foolish Anton Petrovich is made to endure a series of darkly comic incidents that highlight his absurdity, the awkward incidents and the bleak ending also create in us a sneaking empathy for him. Did Nabokov feel even the slightest sense of identification with the disreputable editor who quailed when faced with fighting a duel with Nabokov's broad-shouldered, athletic father?

Anton Petrovich works himself up into a state of paralyzing fear by imagining his own death:
"How will it all be?....Now, there was a question: does one salute one's opponent? What does Onegin do in the opera? Perhaps a discreet tip of the hat from a distance would be just right...What does one feel with a bullet hits one between the ribs or in the forehead? Pain? Nausea? Or is there simply a bang followed by total darkness? The tenor Sobinov [playing the doomed Lensky] once crashed down so realistically that his pistol flew into the orchestra..." (pp. 212-213).
The references are to Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin (1879), based on Alexander Pushkin's novel in verse, to both of which my train of thought (and a serendipitous discovery) next led me.

Next time: Pushkin's Eugene Onegin to Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin

Last time: We Learn Nothing to Speak, Memory

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Following a train of thought: We Learn Nothing to Speak, Memory

I spend about an hour each day travelling to and from work on BART, the Bay Area's commuter rail system—not to mention the time inevitably spent waiting on platforms when a train is late, or sitting in unmoving trains while another one up ahead is taken out of service (odd that I do this so much even though BART claims to have "95% or better on time performance").

I could use this time productively, I suppose: getting a head start on work e-mail, or keeping up with the latest developments in my field(s). Or, over the roar and screech of the train, I could try to hold a sociable conversation with my seat-mate. Or, like almost everyone else around me, I could become absorbed in a device: play games, text my friends, listen to music or watch video (although BART is so loud I wear earplugs, not earbuds).

But instead I use this time for reading. I don't yet have an e-reader; I still carry books—preferably paperbacks, to save weight (I also have a 10-minute walk on each end of the train trip). So I'm always on the hunt for fresh reading material: no sooner do I start a book than I'm thinking about what can take its place once I've finished. It's a source of constant, low-level anxiety that grows more acute as I get closer to the final page. It's a relief when I discover a compelling series—Trollope's Chronicles of Barchester, Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart mysteries, Nick Hornby's collected "Stuff I've Been Reading"—or a writer intriguing enough that as soon as I finish one of their books, I want to read another—Trollope again, Edith Wharton, Orhan Pamuk, Michael Frayn, Alison Bechdel.

What makes my continual search for material so much worse is that I'm a reader who's too picky for his own good. Vast swathes of contemporary literary fiction, serial-killer thrillers, and almost all bestsellers do little or nothing for me. And yes, I'm aware that a constant, overwhelming need coupled with an inability to be satisfied is the textbook definition of a neurotic—or an addict.

So in order to find books (and movies, and music—it's especially nice when two or more of these are tied together) to feed my insatiable appetite, I'm dependent on either following a recommendation (from a compelling review or from a friend), or following a train of thought. Since right now I'm in the midst of doing the latter, I thought I would describe the process, and along the way write about some of the unexpected pleasures I've encountered.

Tim Kreider
Of course, I'm constantly trolling through various web and print forums devoted to books. One of my regular stops is Page-Turner, the online New Yorker column of "criticism, contention, and conversation about books that matter." And on July 16 Tim Kreider published a Page-Turner column entitled "The Decline and Fall of the Book Cover," in which he complains about an enervating sameness in contemporary book cover design as compared to the visionary, surrealistic covers of paperback science fiction novels in the 1960s and 70s, or the hand-designed title lettering of novels from the 1940s. The essay was funny, pointed, and articulated a bothersome problem in a way that I'd never quite managed to do myself.

Kreider's examination of covers came about because he was designing the cover for his own book, We Learn Nothing (Simon & Schuster, 2012)—which now has two covers (since he designed a different one for the recent paperback issue).*

The essays collected between those covers have all of the virtues of his New Yorker article, and more. He writes about a near-death experience; various romantic misadventures; the struggle to maintain his political outrage without being overwhelmed by it; the toll time takes on friendships; mortality and the knottiness of Tristram Shandy; and the way we experience happiness mainly in retrospect rather than in the moment. But no matter the ostensible subject, each of his insightful (and often darkly hilarious) essays is about how a rueful, observant and reflective single man in early middle age assesses the passage of time, with its gains (experience, an occasional glimmering of wisdom, and a tenuous emotional maturity) and losses (passion, heedlessness, and many loved ones).

To give you a sense of his style, in "The Referendum" he writes,
"The Referendum is a phenomenon typical of (but not limited to) midlife, whereby people, increasingly aware of the finiteness of their time in the world, the limitations placed on them by their choices so far, and the narrowing options remaining to them, start judging their peers' different choices with reactions ranging from envy to contempt...[W]e're all anxiously sizing up how everyone else's decisions have worked out to reassure ourselves that our own are vindicated—that we are, in some sense, winning...

"Parenthood opens up an even deeper divide. Most of my married friends now have children, the rewards of which appear to be exclusively intangible and, like the mysteries of some gnostic sect, incommunicable to outsiders. It's as if these people have joined a cult: they claim to be happier and more fulfilled than ever before, even though they live in conditions of appalling filth and degradation, deprived of the most basic freedoms and dignity, and owe unquestioning obedience to a pampered sociopathic monster whose every whim is law. (Note to friends with children: I am referring only to other people's children, not yours.)"
(pp. 123-124, 126)
If I haven't yet made it obvious, I highly recommend We Learn Nothing. But what started my train of thought was a comment Kreider made in his New Yorker essay on book covers. As he was decrying the plague of the "single-object-on-white-background cover" whose index case is Malcom Gladwell's The Tipping Point, Kreider mentioned his favorite example of the formula: the cover of a paperback edition of Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory, designed by Michael Bierut. Inside a specimen box, a square of semi-transparent paper is pinned over and partially obscures the title, referencing both Nabokov's obsession with butterfly collecting and memory's partial, distorting, and hazy nature:

Speak, Memory cover

On seeing this cover, I was reminded of an exhibit I went to decades ago at New York's New Museum which consisted of a room coated with beeswax, embedded in which were hundreds of index cards on which people had written particularly vivid or meaningful memories. As viewers of the exhibit walked into the room and touched the walls, the beeswax became occluded. Over time, it became harder and harder to make out the details of the memories. As I just discovered by Googling the New Museum's website and browsing their archive, the exhibit was "palimpsest," by Ann Hamilton and Kathryn Clark. You can see images of "palimpsest" on the New Museum's website; the aquarium visible at one end of the room contains two heads of cabbage being devoured by snails—a less subtle metaphor for the degradation of memory by time, I thought then and now:

Apart from evoking my own nostalgia, the image of Speak, Memory's cover reminded me that I'd never read Nabokov's autobiography. I'm not sure why I'd avoided it up to now, since I admire Pale Fire and think that Lolita is one of the great novels of the 20th century.** So I decided that after reading We Learn Nothing I would turn to Speak, Memory. (It's not as incongruous a juxtaposition as it sounds, since both feature a writer looking back at his younger self.) And as I was picking up my copy of Speak, Memory, I found next to it on the shelf a copy of The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, another title I hadn't yet read. I'll talk about both books in a subsequent post, and about where my train of thought next led me.

Next time: Speak, Memory to Eugene Onegin


* Ironically, I suppose, I'm not a big fan of either of Kreider's Don-Martin-meets-The-Roadrunner covers. But the cartoons that he includes in the book itself, which illustrate and comment on his essays, are better. My favorite, I think, is "My Worst Enemy—Past Tim" (p. 24).

** Lolita routinely (and deservedly, in my view) winds up on lists of the best novels, such as the Modern Library Board's 100 Best Novels (judging by the list, novels written in English during the 20th century). The less said about the accompanying (and obviously ballot-box-stuffed) Modern Library "Readers' List," in which novels by Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard take 7 of the top 10 spots, the better.