Eugene Onegin: from Don Juan to Victim of Love

Article by Robert Thicknesse

Meet Eugene Onegin – not Tchaikovsky’s louring introvert but the more spirited version created by Alexander Pushkin in the 1820s.  We find Eugene – grumbling, ironic, thoroughly modern in his light-hearted cynicism (learned, almost literally, from the hero of Byron’s Don Juan) – hurrying to the deathbed of his uncle whose country estate he will inherit.  What a drag, he thinks, to hang around waiting for the old boy to die, thinking “when on earth will the devil take you?” Happily, uncle has bitten the dust by the time Eugene arrives, sparing him the gruesome vigil.

If you were Russian those first lines would have transported you to a world learned in childhood, and you would recite large chunks of Pushkin’s 5,000-line verse novel with the uncritical love that habit and immersion bring.  Of all Russian writers Pushkin is closest to the hearts of Russians, the object of questionable myth and idolatry: repository of the national spirit, inventor of the literary language, admirable libertine, pioneering socialist, boy genius cut down in his prime by Tsarist oppression and a filthy foreign plot.  (And Tchaikovsky is his counterpart in music; it is a source of amazement to anyone who knows Russia that this is so, since the borderline psychotics Dostoyevsky and Mussorgsky are obviously much more representative.  But national myths are peculiar things.)  It is odd, and a testament to the breadth of Russian sympathies, that both Pushkin’s poem and Tchaikovsky’s opera, written nearly 60 years later, are equally loved, equally central to Russian conceptions of themselves and of “Russian art”.  The two works could hardly be further apart in spirit: Pushkin’s rollicking novel turns autumnal, melancholic, in Tchaikovsky’s hands, as if it had been rewritten by Chekhov.

It is hard to think of an English equivalent: it ought to be something like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, except that Britten’s operatic version is so faithful to the original.  We would have to turn to Othello for a work whose operatic avatar is completely different to its model without appearing a betrayal of it.  But because the novel is so ingrained in the Russian mind – including Tchaikovsky’s – you cannot really understand the opera without knowing something about it.  The opera is a palimpsest written over manuscript already known by heart, a coded message from one art form to another, a love-letter written across two generations and a huge gap in sensibilities.  The first thing you notice about the opera, of course, is that it should be called not Eugene Onegin but Tatyana Larina.  Tchaikovsky fell in love with the girl who is the blameless catalyst for Eugene’s downfall but who is by no means the novel’s main character, a serious, bookish, not beautiful girl, given to gloom and reverie, much less fun than her pretty, shallow, jolly, game, girlish sister Olga about whom Eugene is so appallingly rude to her fiancé Lensky (“a face like that stupid moon hanging in that stupid sky”).

Not only is Tatyana the main character of the opera: it is in effect the world seen through her eyes, and the very first notes trace a theme inseparable from her.  Pushkin’s novel, contrarily, is narrated by a nameless character, a pseudo-Pushkin, who is both omniscient observer and a purported friend of Onegin’s.  This is the fellow who gives the work its character.  He has something of an attention problem, he can never keep to the subject for long, he indulges in lengthy digressions on whimsical subjects (“I doubt that in all Russia you’ll find three shapely pairs of feminine feet”, he comments at a ball before wallowing in mock-nostalgic pedal reminiscence for four stanzas), he whizzes off ahead of Onegin as he prepares for yet another Petersburg ball, so he can get there in time to set up the scene for our hero’s arrival.

Like Onegin himself, the narrator looks askance at the world – and not least at his friend.  Neither the narrator, nor Onegin himself, are exactly Pushkin, though both share many of his characteristics.  And Onegin is the first in a long line of Russian literary heroes who came to be known as “superfluous men”, the intelligent, aimless creatures who could find no role for their talents in stifled, authoritarian Russia and drifted through the world in various states of inchoate rebellion.  (It is interesting to reflect that Onegin’s name is taken from the chilly northern river Onega.  A few years later Mikhail Lermontov wrote A Hero of our Time and called his anti-hero Pechorin, after the even more northern Pechora.  And decades later Vladimir Ulyanov chose his nom de guerre from the even more Arctic, Siberian river Lena: do the maths).

We meet Onegin properly not in the country but in Petersburg.  He is 24, an habitué of salons and balls, a practiced libertine, a “drawing-room automaton” as Vladimir Nabokov rudely calls him.  His routine since the age of 16 has been simple and repetitive: he gets up some time after lunch, has a boozy dinner in a fashionable restaurant, shoots off to the theatre or, more likely, ballet.  Bored with that, he goes home to change (a major operation: three hours) before gracing the next party.  He is witty, charming, educated enough to get away with it, a big hit with coquettes, society belles, courtesans and other men’s wives.

Not surprisingly, it all catches up with him: he gets liverish, a Russian version of Byronic spleen, and retires from the social whirl.  He and the narrator think of going abroad together: what is there for the likes of them in Russia to match up to the delicious melancholy of missing it?  Then Eugene’s father dies, setting in motion the wheels which will shortly send him to his uncle’s country estate.

We don’t learn much of this from Tchaikovsky, whose purposes are different.  Instead the opera begins with Tatyana’s theme and she and her sister Olga, unseen, singing an elegiac song – literally elegiac, for the Pushkin poem it sets (The Singer) was inspired by Thomas Gray’s Elegy written in a country churchyard (“The Curfew tolls the knell of passing day”) and its tone is as far from that of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin as Gray is from Childe Harold.  But it is a brilliant choice by Tchaikovsky: its yearning, its lovesickness, its nostalgia set the scene perfectly for what follows.  It also suggests that by moving from Petersburg to the country, Eugene has stepped back in time to the tune of about fifty years; and it is this collision between epochs that propels the tragedy of what follows.  Because Eugene Onegin is a drama of incomprehension, missed signals, non-communication, a failure of language.

Pushkin’s very poem alludes to this: written in Russian, it treats of people whose first language, despite the fact that they are Russians, is French.  Tatyana may bear a Russian peasant’s name (“We must admit, we have very little taste even in our names”, the narrator bitches) but she can barely express herself in the language: her letter to Eugene is written, quite naturally, in French.  There is more that separates them.  Eighteen-year-old Tatyana has learned about men and love from her father’s books, already hopelessly old-fashioned: Richardson, Rousseau, Goethe’s Werther.  Alas, “our hero is no Grandison”, laments the narrator: Eugene is a product of the new school of Byron and co., where “vice is attractive even in a novel”.  Crucially, on Eugene’s first visit to the Larins – undertaken without much hope that it will relieve the crushing boredom of life in the Russian countryside – he and Tatyana do not speak.  She sits in the window reading a book.  Onegin is genuinely surprised, on the way home, when Lensky tells him he’s in love with the other one, the complaisant, vapid Olga: surely the gloomy one is more suitable for a poet?  Imagine Eugene’s surprise, then, when he, no poet, receives Tatyana’s fervid letter a while later.  She has been stewing, working herself into a fever of obsession and illusion.  Eugene, on the basis of his appearance alone, has become the embodiment of the upright heroes of her novels, she the heroine.  Her love for him is pure fantasy, a chimæra, as insubstantial as air – but she is possessed by it.  Even the way she expresses it is quaintly out of date, but because of her immersion in epistolary novels like Richardson’s Clarissa she presumes that writing a letter is the correct way of doing these things.

What strikes you about Eugene’s reaction is that for perhaps the first time in his life, he does the right thing.  Admittedly, he does it pompously, patronisingly – but he is all out of practice.  How easy and tempting it would be to take advantage of her!  Her letter “touches him deeply,” Pushkin tells us, a tremor of feelings he thought he’d lost for ever stirs him.  But he tells Tatyana what in all honesty he believes to be true of himself: he isn’t what she thinks, he would get bored of her as he has of everything else – and she deserves better.  It is, actually, a noble brush-off.  But Eugene’s trouble is that he doesn’t really know himself.  Later on – after the duel where Eugene kills Lensky, after Eugene’s flight abroad – the irredeemably literary Tatyana visits his deserted mansion and leafs through his library, hunting for clues to his character.  She comes across his heavily annotated Byron.  Eugene is nothing but “a Muscovite in Harold’s garb”.  He is an imitation – something he perhaps realises about himself later on – but it doesn’t matter: she still loves him.  Tchaikovsky, wrapped up in his Tatyana and not much caring for Eugene, ignores this episode.  Onegin is seen from the outside, a destructive whirlwind who wrecks the lives of Tatyana and Lensky.  How he got that way is of limited interest.  Opera is a blunt instrument and doesn’t care for ambiguity.  But Eugene is a more interesting character than Tchaikovsky gives him credit for, as well as being the founder of a line of Russian literary heroes.  When he sees Tatyana again – after three years of travel – he is genuinely thunderstruck.  Has he grown up?  Does he know himself better?  From the letter he writes her it might be so.  “I saw a spark of tenderness in you but dared not believe it, nor give way to sweet habit: couldn’t bear to forsake my loathsome freedom.  I thought liberty and peace a substitute for happiness.  Good God! How wrong I was, and how I am punished!”

Poor Eugene! Like so many others he only knows what he wants when he can’t have it: “Forbidden fruit is what you’ll have, else heaven’s no heaven for you,” as Pushkin says.  From the moment Eve took the apple, being human has been about wanting the forbidden thing.  It is the basis of self-awareness, the symbol of our thirst to know the world and its secrets – and the metaphor of choice for opera.  Orpheus, the first operatic hero, turns to look at Eurydice and loses her.  Semele wants to see Zeus in his divine form and is incinerated.  Elsa demands to know Lohengrin’s name, and he sails unhappily off into the sunset with his swan.

And Eugene loses Tatyana: instead, in the opera, he gets a self-satisfied lecture from her husband Gremin on the virtues of connubial love, the opera’s tritest piece of sentiment – and worst poetry, written by Tchaikovsky’s brother rather than Pushkin – but in some way it’s most heartfelt.  Because in the end Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is about what the composer himself could never have.  Thoroughly homosexual and chronically disappointed in love, he made the most astonishing mistake of an unhappy love-life while composing Onegin.  A girl student wrote him a Tatyana-esque letter declaring her love, and Tchaikovsky married her – with inevitably disastrous consequences.  In Tchaikovsky’s Onegin everyone, in a thoroughly Romantic way quite alien to Pushkin or Byron, is sacrificed to love: Tatyana, Onegin, Lensky (doubly betrayed by Olga and Onegin: by transposing the poet’s “Farewell” to just before the duel, Tchaikovsky raises the interesting question of which of the two it is actually addressed to) – and composer, whose self-portrait in many facets this opera is.