Why I love that российскую литературу.

I’ve been reading Pushkin of late. I picked up a copy of Eugene Onegin in Victoria last fall: the translation’s not phenomenal, but it fits into my winter coat pocket, so I’m happy. I seem to be making a habit of reading Russian lit at this time of year. The habit’s not intentional: I just seem to get Russian works a bit more at this time of year. I expect it’s a seasonal thing:

In backwoods, how d’you pass this season?

Walking? The country that you roam

Is a compulsive bore by reason

of its unvarnished monochrome …

Or, in your lonely homestead, moping,

you’ll read: here’s Pradt, here’s Walter Scott!

to pass the evening. No? then tot

up your accounts, and raging, toping,

let evening pass, tomorrow too —

in triumph you’ll see winter through! (4.43.1-14)

You see? I know that winter ennui.

That stanza also reminds me that I like Russian writers (like Pushkin and Chekhov) because they treat the comic genre seriously: a work doesn’t have to be (purely) funny to be a comedy (that’s the whole thinking behind my dissertation project, really). I also like Pushkin (and Chekhov) for their translateability across national and temporal boundaries (partly because they’re incisively keen observers of people):

Could I be happy circumscribing

my life in a domestic plot;

had fortune bles me by prescribing

husband and father as my lot;

could I accept for just a minute

the homely scene, take pleasure in it —

then I’d have looked for you alone

to be the bride I’d call my own. (4.13.1-8)

This is basically the 19th-century version of “it’s not you, it’s me”, isn’t it?

But I really love Russian literature because the Russians haven’t necessarily canonised English early modern literature in the same way that we have. So every once in a while you get to read things like:

There was a period when cold-blooded

debauchery was praised and studied

as love’s technique, when it would blare

its own perfection everywhere,

and heartless pleasure was up-graded;

yes, those were our forefathers’ ways,

those monkeys of the good old days:

now Lovelace’s renown has faded

as scarlett heels have lost their name

and stately periwigs, their fame. (4.7.5-14)

Ah, Russian literature, where even Cavalier poets get to be allusions: I love you so so much.

17 January 2011 ~ Bleakly Wintry Hamilton

Works Cited

Pushkin, Alexander. Eugene Onegin and Other Poems. Trans. Charles Johnston. New York; London; Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. Print.


2 thoughts on “Why I love that российскую литературу.

  1. Drat you, eighteenth century. Just when I thought we could be friendly.

    The pursuit of love and pleasure is certainly Cavalier-like — and Russian literature does reference the non-Shax. early moderns quite a bit, but now I suspect that the line really is a reference to Clarissa‘s Robert Lovelace. Wigs for men didn’t come into fashion until after the Interregnum. And Eugene Onegin makes too many references to 18th c. novels.


    Also, why doesn’t Johnston’s translation have footnotes?

    This will make E. happy at least.

    Still: poop.

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