Tag Archives: Russian literature

Mikhail Lermontov – A Hero of Our Time

19 Nov

“I was prepared to love the whole world, but no one understood me, and I learned to hate.”

Christina Robertson, Grand-Duchesses Olga and Alexandra, Daughters of Nicholas I, 1840

I first read Mikhail Lermontov’s fascinating novel “A Hero of Our Time” a few years ago and absolutely loved it and had so much fun reading it, especially the part called “Princess Mary”. The main character, a young man called Pechorin is very witty and his comments and remarks about the world, love, people around him are very amusing, and I can agree with him to some extent. I was literally laughing whilst reading it, some dialogues are just hysterical.

Lermontov wrote the novel in 1839 and it was published in 1840. A year later, Lermontov was dead. At the age of twenty-seven. How romantical!? To die in a duel at that age. The novel is divided into five parts, not in chronological order, and the part I love the most, called “Princess Mary”, is from Pechorin’s diary and it starts with his arrival to Pyatigorsk one beautiful day early in May. It starts with a lyrical description of nature in Caucasus and its effect on Pechorin’s state of mind and soul: “YESTERDAY I arrived at Pyatigorsk. I have engaged lodgings at the extreme end of the town, the highest part, at the foot of Mount Mashuk: during a storm the clouds will descend on to the roof of my dwelling. This morning at five o’clock, when I opened my window, the room was filled with the fragrance of the flowers growing in the modest little front-garden. Branches of bloom-laden bird-cherry trees peep in at my window, and now and again the breeze bestrews my writing-table with their white petals. The view which meets my gaze on three sides is wonderful (….) A feeling akin to rapture is diffused through all my veins. The air is pure and fresh, like the kiss of a child; the sun is bright, the sky is blue—what more could one possibly wish for? What need, in such a place as this, of passions, desires, regrets?

Grigory Gagarin, Ball, 1832

But very quickly Pechorin goes into society and the reader is introduced to other characters of whom Pechorin writes candidly; a fake sentimental cavalier Grushnitski, young, handsome and shallow emotions. This is how Pechorin describes him: “he has no knowledge of men and of their foibles, because all his life he has been interested in nobody but himself. His aim is to make himself the hero of a novel. He has so often endeavoured to convince others that he is a being created not for this world and doomed to certain mysterious sufferings, that he has almost convinced himself that such he is in reality. Hence the pride with which he wears his thick soldier’s cloak. I have seen through him, and he dislikes me for that reason, although to outward appearance we are on the friendliest of terms.” Grushnitski is therefore the opposite of Pechorin; the feelings of the former are shallow, while the latter hides the depth of his emotions and keeps them to himself. There is a clear similarity between Pushkin’s characters of Eugene Onegin who is a superflous man and Pechorin who is one also, and their counterparts: Pushkin’s character Vladimir Lensky is a naive romantic and is similar to Grushnitski.

Karl Bryullov, Horsewoman, 1832

A superflous man is a Russian version of a Byronic hero; Lermontov even mentions Lord Byron in his poetry and throughout the novel. Just like Byronic Hero, a superflous man is full of contradictions; he feels superior to his surroundings, yet he does nothing to put his talents and intelligence to good use, he is profound and has deep emotions but the society’s shallowness and superficiality has forced him to hide these deeper feelings because the world wouldn’t understand them. Prone to self-destruction, plagued by boredom, and possessing a sense that life in its core has no real meaning; all these things drive superflous men such as Eugene Onegin and Pechorin to travel aimlessly or indulge in flirtations that mean nothing to them. As long as the afternoon is pleasantly spent, true intentions of the heart don’t matter.

Duels, flirtations, gossips; this novel has these things in abundance and Pechorin simultaneously sees the emptiness of such a life, but nonetheless indulges in it because his cynical worldviews prevent him from believing in sincerity and love.

Ah, love, yes! What would a Romantic novel be without it. Pechorin gives women little reason to love him, and yet they do, but he gives a clear cynical justification for that: “Women love only the men they don’t know.” That is certainly true for these kind of novels; it’s the mystery of a man which is alluring to sweet, naive maidens because they then attribute all sorts of noble qualities to noblemen they’ve only seen from afar, and spoken maybe a few sentences with. Pechorin is led by the same selfish desire as Eugene Onegin was when he gave poor Tatyana false hopes and that is because to Pechorin nothing has meaning, he cherishes nothing, so how could he apprehend that things do matter to other people:

I often ask myself why I am so obstinately endeavouring to win the love of a young girl whom I do not wish to deceive, and whom I will never marry. Why this woman-like coquetry? Vera loves me more than Princess Mary ever will. (…) There is, in sooth, a boundless enjoyment in the possession of a young, scarce-budded soul! It is like a floweret which exhales its best perfume at the kiss of the first ray of the sun. You should pluck the flower at that moment, and, breathing its fragrance to the full, cast it upon the road: perchance someone will pick it up! I feel within me that insatiate hunger which devours everything it meets upon the way….

Princess Mary Ligovski doesn’t have a soul as deep and pure as Pushkin’s Tatyana, for after all, she is a haughty and well-educated young lady from Moscow who read Lord Byron’s work in English and knows algebra. Such a girl is not to messed with. It’s interesting to note that Pechorin started flirting with her only after Grushnitski admitted to him his secret affections for her. A superfluous man isn’t satisfied until he ruins and taints someone else’s prospects for happiness. And is he truly satisfied then? No, sadly, he is never satisfied, for to him life is but a pointless string of events, each more dull and less meaningful than the previous one, until sweet death comes. In one discussion in French with Grushnitski, Pechorin says “My friend, I despise women to avoid loving them because otherwise, life would become too ridiculous a melodrama.

Karl Bryullov, The Shishmareva Sisters, 1839

In contrast to Princess Mary’s blind, youthful infatuation with Pechorin, it is another woman, Vera, a faithful beauty from Pechorin’s past who absolutely adores him. Mary fell for Pechorin because he is “tall, dark and handsome”, mysterious, alluring – and he doesn’t seem to be captivated by her which serves only as a motivation for her to win him over. He is the romantic hero that she has only read of, in dreary winter afternoons in Moscow. But Vera loves him deeply, even though their paths in life went differently, and even though she is married…. for the second time and not to him. Though she might be someone else’s wife on paper, her heart belongs to Pechorin only. She tells him, blushing, as they sit together in nature: “You know that I am your slave: I have never been able to resist you… and I shall be punished for it, you will cease to love me! At least, I want to preserve my reputation… not for myself—that you know very well!… Oh! I beseech you: do not torture me, as before, with idle doubts and feigned coldness! It may be that I shall die soon; I feel that I am growing weaker from day to day… And, yet, I cannot think of the future life, I think only of you… You men do not understand the delights of a glance, of a pressure of the hand… but as for me, I swear to you that, when I listen to your voice, I feel such a deep, strange bliss that the most passionate kisses could not take its place.

And Pechorin later praises Vera’s depth of character: “Vera did not make me swear fidelity, or ask whether I had loved others since we had parted… She trusted in me anew with all her former unconcern, and I will not deceive her: she is the only woman in the world whom it would never be within my power to deceive. I know that we shall soon have to part again, and perchance for ever. We will both go by different ways to the grave, but her memory will remain inviolable within my soul. I have always repeated this to her, and she believes me, although she says she does not.

Naive, silly goose, that is what Mary Ligovska is, to think that this dark and mysterious man will give up his cynicism and freedom to marry her. Pechorin makes his views on marriage quite clear: “…over me the word “marry” has a kind of magical power. However passionately I love a woman, if she only gives me to feel that I have to marry her—then farewell, love! My heart is turned to stone, and nothing will warm it anew. I am prepared for any other sacrifice but that; my life twenty times over, nay, my honour I would stake on the fortune of a card… but my freedom I will never sell. Why do I prize it so highly? What is there in it to me? For what am I preparing myself? What do I hope for from the future?… In truth, absolutely nothing.

Natalia Pushkina, Portrait by Alexander Brullov, 1831

Here is a conversation between Pechorin and Vera which amused me so:

She gazed into my face with her deep, calm eyes. Mistrust and something in the nature of reproach were expressed in her glance.

“We have not seen each other for a long time,” I said.

“A long time, and we have both changed in many ways.”

“Consequently you love me no longer?”…

“I am married!”… she said.

“Again? A few years ago, however, that reason also existed, but, nevertheless”…

She plucked her hand away from mine and her cheeks flamed.

“Perhaps you love your second husband?”…

She made no answer and turned her head away.

“Or is he very jealous?”

She remained silent.

Mikhail Lermontov, Self-portrait, 1837

And to end, here is my favourite passage from the novel which I find totally relatable:

Everyone saw in my face evil traits that I didn’t possess. But they assumed I did, and so they developed. I was modest, and was accused of being deceitful: I became secretive. I had a strong sense of good and evil; instead of kindness I received nothing but insults, so I grew resentful. I was gloomy, other children were merry and talkative. I felt myself superior to them, but was considered inferior: I became envious. I was ready to love the whole world, but no one understood me, so I learned to hate. My colorless youth was spent in a struggle with myself and with the world. Fearing mockery, I buried my best feelings at the bottom of my heart: there they died.”

Dostoevsky: Crime and Punishment – Renewed by Love

14 Feb

Dostoevsky’s novel “Crime and Punishment”, first published in 1866, is one of my all time favourite novels and I had such a blast reading it in grammar school. It’s a very long and complex novel that deals with many topics, and love isn’t even the main one but it serves to transform the characters and turn them into better individuals. The love story between the main character Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, the intelligent and poor but failed student and a later a murderer, and Sonia Marmeladova, a shy, innocent and self-scarifying eighteen year old girl driven to prostitution by poverty, is one one of my favourites in literature. I had a crush on Raskolnikov because he was as cool as a rock star; dark eyed and handsome, nihilistic and emotionally unavailable, and I had a tremendous admiration for Sonia, the most selfless creature, gentle and fragile in appearance but strong within, guided by a higher law that helps her transcend the misery of her surroundings; her poverty, horrible clients, drunkard of a father, the demanding unfeeling step-mother, the prejudice she faces due to her job. Even Raskolnikov judges her at first, and places himself as a morally superior individual, as if he forgot he was a murderer. He visits her a few times in her shabby little room and a seed of love is planted in both of their hearts; both are flawed, both are outcasts, and both are denying this newly awaken sentiment; The candle-end had long been burning out in the bent candlestick, casting a dim light in this destitute room upon the murderer and the harlot strangely come together over the reading of the eternal book.

Sonia’s blind faith, childlike figure and naivety clash with her grim day to day reality. She is a pale-faced, yellow-haired whore with the purest heart; an angel. Loyal and kind hearted she is the one who advises Raskolnikov to admit his crime and pay the price for it, because that is the only path to salvation. He listens to her and is sentenced to seven years of exile in the cold Siberia. Sonia follows him there, even though she knows she isn’t wanted. Half the time he is rude and cold towards her, and other times he just ignores her, but the persistence of Sonia’s love and her patience eventually melt the icy exterior of nihilism and apathy and reveal a kind and noble spirit capable of love and compassion, someone who has faith in brighter future. Dostoevsky’s portrayal of power of love in this novel is very beautiful and very inspiring and here is the passage from the last chapter where they finally, after hundreds of pages of the reader’s waiting, fall in love. I especially love the last lines of this passage: “He thought of her. He remembered how continually he had tormented her and wounded her heart. He remembered her pale and thin little face. But these recollections scarcely troubled him now; he knew with what infinite love he would now repay all her sufferings. Perhaps Dostoevsky was a Romantic and not a Realist after all?

Laura Makabresku, Melancholy (2017)

Raskolnikov sat gazing, his thoughts passed into day-dreams, into contemplation; he thought of nothing, but a vague restlessness excited and troubled him. Suddenly he found Sonia beside him; she had come up noiselessly and sat down at his side. It was still quite early; the morning chill was still keen. She wore her poor old burnous and the green shawl; her face still showed signs of illness, it was thinner and paler. She gave him a joyful smile of welcome, but held out her hand with her usual timidity. She was always timid of holding out her hand to him and sometimes did not offer it at all, as though afraid he would repel it. He always took her hand as though with repugnance, always seemed vexed to meet her and was sometimes obstinately silent throughout her visit. Sometimes she trembled before him and went away deeply grieved. But now their hands did not part. He stole a rapid glance at her and dropped his eyes on the ground without speaking. They were alone, no one had seen them. The guard had turned away for the time.

Photo by Laura Makabresku

How it happened he did not know. But all at once something seemed to seize him and fling him at her feet. He wept and threw his arms round her knees. For the first instant she was terribly frightened and she turned pale. She jumped up and looked at him trembling. But at the same moment she understood, and a light of infinite happiness came into her eyes. She knew and had no doubt that he loved her beyond everything and that at last the moment had come. . . .

They wanted to speak, but could not; tears stood in their eyes. They were both pale and thin; but those sick pale faces were bright with the dawn of a new future, of a full resurrection into a new life. They were renewed by love; the heart of each held infinite sources of life for the heart of the other.

They resolved to wait and be patient. They had another seven years to wait, and what terrible suffering and what infinite happiness before them! But he had risen again and he knew it and felt it in all his being, while she–she only lived in his life.

Also by Laura Makabresku

(…)

He thought of her. He remembered how continually he had tormented her and wounded her heart. He remembered her pale and thin little face. But these recollections scarcely troubled him now; he knew with what infinite love he would now repay all her sufferings.

Turgenev’s Maidens: Natalya and Asya

2 Apr

In this post we’ll take a look at “Turgenev’s Maid”; a type of female character typical for Turgenev and often found in his novellas and novels.

Nicolae Grigorescu, A Flower Among Flowers, 1880

Although equally important for Russian Realism, Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev is often overlooked when it comes to Russian writers, somewhat overshadowed by the more famous Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Out of those three writers, Turgenev was the one influenced by the progressive ideas and philosophy of Western Europe and even spent majority of his life in France where he died too. His mother was a tyrannical woman and his parents’ marriage an unhappy one, so Turgenev decided to stay a bachelor. There’s elegance in his writings and an emphasis on nature and its lyric beauty. There’s nothing dramatic about his writing, but somehow it lingers in the memory and you find yourself pondering over some things that meant very little the moment you were reading it. Also, his words leave some kind of quiet sadness and a sense of futility against life, love and nature. Can you stop the flower from withering, sun from setting, springs from lingering one after another and passing?

Turgenev’s first novel was “Rudin”, first published in 1856 in a literary magazine “Sovremennik” (“The Contemporary”). In this novel, he laid a foundation for his future characters and themes by introducing a female type of heroine which came to be called “Turgenev’s Maid” and a hero who is a young superfluous man. Turgenev is continuing and developing the types of characters that Pushkin had started in his novel “Eugene Onegin”. Characters follow the similar pattern in his novella “Asya”, published in 1858. Turgenev’s odes to failure in love.

Photo by Frieda Rike.

A typical Turgenev’s maiden is a girl whose introverted, reserved, modest and shy exterior hides a passionate and poetic soul that only few people see, but is hidden to the rest. She is romantic and dreamy, but not in a delusional Emma Bovary kind of way, but rather this romantic nature arises from idealism and life spent in the idyllic countryside isolation which can sometimes make her inexperienced in society. She is educated, both in history and geography as in daydreaming, and often speaks several languages. She possesses a gentle, girlish, unassuming beauty and is modest in behaviour and the way she dresses. Turgenev’s maiden often falls in love with man unworthy of her; weak and passive idealists who are excellent in conversation but incapable of doing something with their life. As I already said, Turgenev’s heroines draw heavily on Pushkin’s wonderful Tatyana Larina from “Eugene Onegin” and here is what D.S. Mirsky says about it in his discussion about Turgenev: “The strong, pure, passionate, and virtuous woman, opposed to the weak, potentially generous, but ineffective and ultimately shallow man, was introduced in literature by Pushkin, and recurs again and again in the work of the realists, but nowhere more insistently than in Turgenev’s.”

William Powell Firth

Natalya Alexyevna Lasunskaya

Natalys is a shy seventeen year old girl who lives in the countryside with her mother. On the outside she seems reserved, very secretive and cold, but that is just her way of hiding her feelings from the world and her dominant mother. She is introduced in the story in the fifth chapter with these words: “Darya Mihailovna’s daughter, Natalya Alexyevna, at a first glance might fail to please. She had not yet had time to develop; she was thin, and dark, and stooped slightly. But her features were fine and regular, though too large for a girl of seventeen. Specially beautiful was her pure, smooth forehead above fine eyebrows, which seemed broken in the middle. She spoke little, but listened to others, and fixed her eyes on them as though she were forming her own conclusions. She would often stand with listless hands, motionless and deep in thought; her face at such moments showed that her mind was at work within.

But further quotes reveal to us that Natalya’s feelings are strong and that her mother doesn’t understand her personality at all: “But Natalya was not absent-minded; on the contrary, she studied diligently; she read and worked eagerly. Her feelings were strong and deep, but reserved; even as a child she seldom cried, and now she seldom even sighed and only grew slightly pale when anything distressed her.

Heinrich Vogeler, Spring (Portrait of Martha Vogeler), 1897

Life in the beautiful countryside amongst family friends has made her inexperienced with the ways of the world and she is a perfect pray for Rudin, a poor intellectual unsure of what he wants from life or love, indulging himself in shallow melancholy and praising highly the courageous heroes of literature and history while he himself is beneath them, both in spirit and intellect. He takes a pleasure in seducing Natalya because his feelings aren’t as deep or as pure as hers are, and since he had many failed loves in the past, he doesn’t take the relationships seriously. For him, it’s just a past time, but in Natalya he has awoken a whole new set of feelings, ones that she only read about in literature. After Natalya admits her love for Rudin to her mother, and is met with mother’s disapproval, she meets Rudin secretly at the brake of dawn somewhere in the meadow to tell him the sad truth, expecting him to fight for their love.

Marie Antoinette (2006)

This is their poignant, sad and bitter dialogue from chapter IX:

“‘What do you think we must do now?’

‘What we must do?’ replied Rudin; ‘of course submit.’

‘Submit,’ repeated Natalya slowly, and her lips turned white.

‘Submit to destiny,’ continued Rudin. ‘What is to be done? I know very well how bitter it is, how painful, how unendurable. But consider yourself, Natalya Alexyevna; I am poor. It is true I could work; but even if I were a rich man, could you bear a violent separation from your family, your mother’s anger? . . . No, Natalya Alexyevna; it is useless even to think of it. It is clear it was not fated for us to live together, and the happiness of which I dreamed is not for me!’

All at once Natalya hid her face in her hands and began to weep. Rudin went up to her.”

What you have just read is a typical Turgenev-style ending; the heroine is too passionate and her feelings too strong for the passive hero. It’s not that Rudin doesn’t love Natalya, it’s more that he is incapable of being himself, living his own life, to commit to someone. Once rejected, Natalya doesn’t go on daydreaming of Rudin or returning to him. Instead, just like Pushkin’s Tatyana, she walks away with dignity and self-respect.

William Dyce, Portrait of Princess Victoria, the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria and Albert, 1848

Asya

In “Asya”, the narrator, a lonely forty year-old bachelor named N.N. tells us the sad love story of his youth. His memory sets the novella in a small and picturesque town on the Rhine, whose shore is littered with romantic Medieval castles and emerald green hills; a perfect setting for a fleeting, ephemeral romance. The narrator comes there on a holiday and meets two fellow Russians, a brother and a sister; Gaguine and Asya. Since they are the only Russians in town, they soon befriend. The narrator develops an intellectual bond with Gaguine but is soon enamoured by his strange and pretty younger sister Asya who is very shy around him at first.

This is what Turgenev tells us of their first encounter: “My presence appeared to embarrass her; but Gaguine said to her, “don’t be shy; he will not bite you.” These words made her smile, and a few moments after she spoke to me without the least embarrassment. She did not remain quiet a moment. Hardly was she seated than she arose, ran towards the house, and reappeared again, singing in a low voice; often she laughed, and her laugh had something strange about it—one would say that it was not provoked by anything that was said, but by some thoughts that were passing through her mind. Her large eyes looked one in the face openly, with boldness, but at times she half closed her eyelids, and her looks became suddenly deep and caressing.

And this is how Turgenev imagined her to look like. Again, she has a very girly appeal, just like Natalya and other Turgenev’s maidens: “The young girl whom he called his sister at first sight appeared to me charming. There was an expression quite peculiar, piquant and pretty at times, upon her round and slightly brown face; her nose was small and slender, her cheeks chubby as a child’s, her eyes black and clear. Though well proportioned, her figure had not yet entirely developed.

Photo by by SophieKoryn. “You consider my behaviour improper,” her face seemed to say; “all the same, I know you’re admiring me.” (Asya)

Asya can be rapturous and wild at one moment, without any regard for social conventions, only to become shy the next moment, wistful and lost in her thoughts. Here is an example to illustrate the point: on one occasion, Asya breaks a branch from a tree and plays with it as if it was a gun. When they encounter a group of shocked English tourists, she starts singing in a loud voice just to spite them. But later in the evening, she is the epitome of elegance and demureness: “When we arrived, she immediately went to her room, and did not reappear until dinner, decked out in her finest dress, her hair dressed with care, wearing a tight-fitting bodice, and gloves on her hands. At table she sat with dignity, scarcely tasted anything, and drank only water. It was evident she wished to play a new rôle in my presence: that of a young person, modest and well-bred. Gaguine did not restrain her; you could see that it was his custom to contradict her in nothing. From time to time he contented himself with looking at me, faintly shrugging his shoulders, and his kindly eye seemed to say: “She is but a child; be indulgent.

Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria in “Victoria” (2016)

Here is a little conversation from the ninth chapter which also reveals Asya’s lack of feeling for proper behavior:

And what is it that you like about women?” she asked, turning her head with a childlike curiosity.

“What a singular question!” I cried.

“I shouldn’t have asked you such a question, should I? Forgive me; I am accustomed to say whatever comes into my head. That is why I am afraid to speak.”

“Speak, I beg you! Fear nothing, I am so delighted at seeing you less wild.

Juliette Lamet by Melanie Rodriguez for Melle Ninon.

The narrator seems more interested in the mysterious aura around her, than actually in love with her, he says himself: “Oh! that little girl—she is, indeed, an enigma.”

Here are a few more quotes to get you interested:

I understood what attracted me towards this strange young girl: it was not only the half-savage charm bestowed upon her lovely and graceful young figure, it was also her soul that captivated me.

I do not know what womanly charm suddenly appeared upon her girlish face. Long afterwards the charm of her slender figure still lingered about my hand; for a long time I felt her quick breathing near me, and I dreamed of her dark eyes, motionless and half closed, with her face animated, though pale, about which waved the curls of her sweet hair.” (Chapter IX)

William Powell Frith, The Proposal, 1856

The end of their love, again the hero suddenly turns cold and steps back from the affections that he himself started in the first place:

“So all is at an end,” I replied once more; “at an end—; and we must part.”

“There was in my heart,” I continued, “a feeling just springing up, which, if you had left it to time, would have developed! You have yourself broken the bond that united us; you have failed to put confidence in me.” (chapter XVI)

To end the post I would like to quote a fellow blogger at “A Russian Affair” who focuses on Russian literature. Here are her brilliant observations on Turgenev’s themes and style from the post “Typically Turgenev“:”Not a lot happens in Turgenev’s works. The situation at the beginning is more or less the same as the one in the end. All that remains is memories and what-ifs. The reader has to content himself with plenty of beautiful atmospheric scenes and contemplations. (…) You read Turgenev with your heart.

And a beautifully put thought regarding love from her post “Love in Turgenev’s work“: “It all starts in high spirits; the weather is ’magnificent’ and ’unusually good for the time of the year’ and the surroundings are idyllic. The sudden appearance of an exceptionally pretty girl surprises the narrator. He falls in love, but he never gets the girl, and remains a bachelor. Again and again Turgenev describes being in love, but he never dares to let it blossom into a relationship, nor in his stories, nor in real life.

I hope you decide to read some of Turgenev’s work, if you still haven’t and that you enjoy it as much as I did.

Ode to Pushkin’s Tatyana, from ‘Eugene Onegin’

17 Apr

If you were given a chance to travel through time, and if you decided upon visiting the countryside Russia of the late 1820s, you might be lucky and, whilst walking through a peaceful forest enjoying the delight which a birdsong can bestow upon one’s ears, you might stumble upon a peculiar young lady who finds tranquillity in the woods and serenity by the lake; a solitary maiden whose friends are books, flowers and birds, and who feels more at home surrounded by tall soulful trees than in the candlelit salons full of people; a lady who is introverted and timid on the outside, but is full of warmth, passions and feelings on the inside; this creature delicate as a fawn is Tatyana Larina – Pushkin’s wonderful literary creation and the love interest of Eugene Onegin, the Byronic Hero of Russian literature.

Lidia Timoshenko (1903-1976), Tatyana and Onegin Years Later

“Eugene Onegin” is Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse, first published in 1833, although the current version is that of 1837. It is representative of Russian literature of Romanticism and Pushkin spent ten years writing this lyrical masterpiece which has been called by V.G. Belinsky as ‘the encyclopedia of Russian life’, and indeed it covers a broad scale of topics; pointlessness of life, love and passion, death, provincial life, superficiality of the upper classes, rigidity of etiquette, conventions and ennui. The main character is the ‘mad and bad’ or rather cynical and bored Eugene Onegin, a cold and world-weary nobleman who had, at the beginning of the novel, inherited an estate after his uncle’s death and arrives at the countryside. He is bored with his social life in St Petersburg, filled with superficial chatter, games, flirtations, balls and dinner parties; he finds this cycle tedious and repetitive and therefore hopes to find something fresh and interesting in the countryside. Onegin is exactly the kind of person who will shit all over things you love just because he feels no passion for living at all, and mock things you adore because he finds value in nothing.

He is a ‘superfluous man’, which is Pushkin’s literary creation based on the demonic Byronic hero. A Superfluous man is full of contradictions, he feels superior to his surroundings and yet he does nothing to use his potentials and talents but chooses to walk aimlessly through life, prone to self-destruction, haunted by a strong sense of the boredom of life. Lermontov’s character Pechorin in ‘A Hero of Our Time’ is another example of a superflous man and was directly inspired by Pushkin’s Onegin. May I add that in the film Onegin (1999), Onegin is played by the wonderful Ralph Fiennes and I think he played him perfectly, you can feel the cynicism and ennui in his voice. So, if you’re not inclined on reading the novel, you can spare two hours of your life and watch the film which happens to be on Youtube. In the film, Tatyana is played by the gorgeous Liv Tyler.

Caspar David Friedrich, Elbschiff in Early Morning Fog, 1821

Second character to be introduced in the novel is Vladimir Lensky; a hopeless romantic and an idealist, a proud and polite young man, carried away by the romantic spirit of the times, but his character, I feel, is adorned with more sentimentality than deep feelings, his poetry and his love for Olga are as shallow as a puddle after rain which dries with the first rays of sun, and he is so naive, but forgive him, he is only 18 years old! This is how the narrator (or Pushkin) describes him:

Vladimir Lensky, is the man

Handsome, young, a Kantian.

Whose soul was formed in Gottingen,

A friend of truth: a poet then.

From misty Germany he brought

The fruits of learning’s golden tree

His fervant dreams of liberty

Ardent and eccentric thought,

Eloquence to inspire the bolder,

And dark hair hanging to his shoulder.

And here’s a description of his poetry, I can’t help but being amused by Lensky. You should see him in the film, singing Schubert in the forest, giving his heart and soul to it, although the effect is pathetic and Onegin mocks him later on, saying that ‘Poor Schubert, his body barely in the grave and and his work is being butchered by amateurs’ and stating that Lensky is ‘desecrating Schubert’:

He sang of love, to love subjected,

Clear and serene his tune…

He sang of parting and of sorrows,

Misty climes, and vague tomorrows,

Of roses in some high romance;

Sang of all the far-off lands

Where on quiet desert strands,

His living tears obscured his glance;

At eighteen years he had the power,

To sing of life’s dry withered flower.

Mikhail Nesterov, Girls on the Banks of the River

Lensky is madly in love with Olga Larina, a charming and pretty younger sister of Tatyana. She is frivolous and coquettish, blonde and fair, with an ability to charm with her looks and singing, but inside she is empty, her feelings are superficial and calculated; her mad love seems fleeting for after Lensky died in a duel, it did not take her long to forget him and marry another man. She is like a porcelain doll; if you break her, you’ll find nothing inside.

Always humble, always truthful,

Always smiling as the dawn,

Like the poet’s life as simple,

Sweet as the kiss of love, that’s born

Of sky-blue eyes, a heavenly blue,

Flaxen hair, all gleaming, too,

Voice, manner, slender waist,

Such was Olga…you can paste

Her description here from any

Novel that you choose to read,

A charming portrait, yes, indeed,

One I adored, but now it bores me.

Reader, I’ll enhance the vista,

Let me describe her elder sister.

Fired by longing, circumstance,

In solitude her heart was burning,

Crushed by adolescent gloom,

Her soul was waiting…but for whom?

And now let’s finally talk about the elder sister, my dearest and sweetest Tatyana Larina, a character for whom I felt affection immediately, and re-read parts about her many times, and found I can relate. Wistful, melancholic and dreamy, forever lost in her thoughts, you will find her wandering the forest, picking flowers, or sitting by the window daydreaming while others are chatting and laughing, and a book is always in her hands. This is how Pushkin describes his heroine:

So, she is called Tatyana.

Not a beauty like her sister,

Lacking rosy cheeks, the manner,

To attract a passing lover.

Melancholy, wild, retiring,

Like a doe seen in a clearing,

Fleeing at the sign of danger,

To her family a stranger.

She never took to caressing

Her father, mother, not her way

To delight in childish play,

With the others, sweetly dancing.

But often to the window glued

She’d sit all day in solitude.

Alexander Brullov, Portrait of Pushkin’s wife Natalia, 1831

Tatyana was withdrawn and shy even as a child. When her sister Olga and other children played tag or sang, she would wander the meadows on her own, preferring the company of her thought to the loudness of the crowd. Unlike other girls, she had interest in dolls. Taking care of dolls was meant to prepare girls for their future roles of mothers, but Tatyana was a stranger to all childhood’s silliness and playfulness, and daydreams seem to fill her days from very early on:

Her dearest friend was reverie,

From the cradle, the slow stream

Of placid dull rusticity

Enriched by meditative dream.

Her tender fingers never held

A needle, never once excelled,

Her head above the silk inclined,

In working something she’d designed.

Now with greater concentration,

She reads the sweet romances,

Finds a deeper fascination,

In those soft seductive glances!…”

Instead, books and nature were her friends. I’ve known it from experience that a book can be a source of delight and inspiration more than a human being can, and a sight of flowers or a tree can fill one’s soul with more kindness than a common person can. And daydreams, I assure you, can fill you with as much feelings as real events can, but they never leave the bitter taste in your mind like cruel reality does. Tatyana knows that too! And literature, novels about romances in particular (just like those read by Emma Bovary) proved an amusement and a diversion for her already vivid imagination:

From the first she craved romances,
Her great delight, she loved them so,
Whatever chapter most entrances,
In Richardson or in Rousseau.

Naturally, soaked in those novels for days, Tatyana begins to see herself as a heroine and lives through the books for a person who reads lives not one but many lives. And when she closes the book, a reality check; a quiet birdsong, a soft breeze through the birch trees, smell of grass, distant murmur of a river, yes, she is still in the countryside, not in a Medieval castle in Switzerland or a beautiful mansion in England:

And sees herself the heroine

Of all the authors she admires,

Clarissa, Julie, or Delphine;

Wanders among forest choirs

With some dangerous volume roams,

Through its pages swiftly combs,

To find her passion, and her dream,

Her overflowing heart, love’s gleam.

She sighs and in herself possesses

Another’s joy, another’s sorrow…

Source: here. Could this be the way Onegin’s mansion looked from afar, in a frozen Russian fairytale landscape?

Pushkin even writes about the types of heroes Tatyana daydreams about. Never ever, underestimate the power a book can have a on a person who is lonely or has a wild imagination:

All the British Muse’s lumber

Now disturbs a young girl’s slumber,

Her idol, someone to admire,

Is the blood-sucking Vampire,

Melmoth, Maturin’s traveller,

The Corsair or the Wandering Jew,

Nodier’s Jean Sbogar too.

Lord Byron with a shrewd despair,

Displays a hopeless egotism

As saturnine romanticism.

Isaac Levitan, Autumn Landscape, 1880

Pushkin tells us that Tatyana finds refuge in long walks, seeking comfort in nature which soothes the torment of love:

Haunted by love’s pain, Tatyana,
Takes to the garden, walking
Eyes downcast, till her languor,
Prevents her from even moving.
Her breast heaves, her cheeks aflame,
Burning suddenly with shame,
The breath on her lips is glazed,
A roaring in her ears, eyes dazed…
Night falls, and the moon patrols
The vault of heaven. Near her room,
A nightingale, from woodland gloom
Its rich sonorous cadence rolls.
Tatyana, in the darkness lying,
To her nurse is softly sighing.

I am in love’ Tatyana sighs,
In a soft whisper, gives a moan.
‘Dear, you can’t be well,’ replies,
The nurse. ‘It’s love. Leave me alone.
Meanwhile, the sad moon dreams,
On the girl’s pale beauty gleams,
Shines above, its tranquil light….
And all the world lies still, below,
Bathed in the moon’s enchanted glow.

Speaking to no one, confiding in no one, only the moon and the nurse know her secrets. But Tatyana decides to act upon her dreams and confess her love in a letter. This is how it starts, the famous “Tatyana’s letter”:

I write to you – is more required?

How can I possibly explain?

It’s in your power, if desired,

To crush me with a cold disdain.

But if this longing you’ve inspired

Awakes the slightest sympathy,

I know you won’t abandon me…

Although she had barely talked to him, and he showed no particular interest or affection towards her, Tatyana found herself over night besotted by this strange, brooding aristocrat with a flair of St Petersburg around him. In his figure and the few words they’re exchanged, she saw all the heroes that she’d spent her short life fantasising about; “Werther – born to be a martyr”, Grandinson, Cottin’s Malek-Adhel, de Krudener’s de Linar, and the lover too of Rousseau’s Julie Womar:

“A single image as it were:

The foolish dreamer sees them whole

In Onegin’s form, and soul.

Gustave Leonarde de Jonghe, Girl With a Rose, 1878

It’s easy to understand why she felt about Onegin the way she did, if you think of her lonely and boring existence in the countryside, with a mother and a sister who neither understand her nor try to do so because they are of entirely different natures. Vain, selfish and coquettish Olga can never dream of experiencing the depth of Tatyana’s feelings, and likewise Tatyana can never even dream of indulging in light amusements and flirtations which seem to fill Olga’s days. Pushkin warns us that, while Olga’s love is more a fleeting coquetry, Tatyana loves with all seriousness:

Tatyana is no cool coquette,
She loves in all seriousness,
Yields to it like a child, as yet
Full of innocence and sweetness.

Up to meeting Onegin, Tatyana has spent her life wandering around, reading about romances and exciting adventures, yet never experiencing anything of the sort, and now, all of a sudden, a stranger comes to their lonely countryside and stirs her soul. She thinks of him day and night, and finds no rest until, in the letter, she writes everything that lies on her soul. All that her shyness has prevented her mouth from saying, the hand dared to write, scrawling with black ink on paper, under moonlight, offering her life to a man she barely knows, and seals it with wax before sending it.

But her passionate outburst of feelings was welcomed with coldness from the other side. When they meet at the party, she anxiously awaits him in the garden, and he – oh, that dreadful Onegin! – he disdainfully returns the letter to her, advising her to restrain her feelings in the future, to shun her affections and act with reserve and coldness because another man, one not as ‘kind-hearted’ as he was, would surely take advantage of her naivety and innocence. Onegin mercilessly ‘with a cold disdain’ crushed the feelings of this delicate wild flower. When I was reading this, I thought: What a brave thing to do, what a straightforward gesture, especially for a woman of her time, and what a hard thing it must be to write someone a love letter, but after reading about Onegin’s cruel respond, I’ve learnt that it is unwise, and maybe reason should, in this case, prevail over sensibility. Jane Austen seemed to think that too because her heroine Marianne Dashwood was in a way punished for her sensibility.

Why Tatyana fell in love with Onegin is a mystery to me, I find him fascinating as a literary character but he is nowhere near the romantic heroes she’s read about. I suppose she must have felt that underneath that cold, cynical exterior there must lie a heart full of feelings and that she might awaken them, but she was wrong because Onegin is selfish to the core and is not even capable of love. Her daydreams and inexperience seem to have made her a poor judge of character. This is how Onegin felt upon receiving the letter:

Yet now, receiving Tanya’s note,
Onegin’s heart was deeply moved;
The tender style in which she wrote,
The simple girlish way she loved.
Her face possessed his memory,
Her pallor, and her melancholy,
He plunged, head first, into the stream,
A harmless, and delightful dream.
Perhaps the ancient flame of passion,
Thrilled him in its former way,
Though he’d no wish to betray
A soul so trusting, in that fashion...

Oton Iveković, Landscape, 1901

This is part of what Onegin tells Tatyana as reasons why they could never be happy together:

‘I was not born for happiness,
All such is alien to my mind;
Of your perfection too, no less
Am I unworthy, you would find.
Believe me (conscience is my guide)
Wed, the fire would soon have died;
However I wished to prove true,
Habit would cool my love for you.
Then you would weep, yet your tears,
Your grief, would never move my heart,
But madden me, spur me to depart.
What thorns, not roses, through the years
Would Hymen strew along our way,
Many a night, and many a day?

Onegin was actually very kind towards her, because I don’t think she could truly be happy with a man like that.

Pushkin takes a moment to ponder on who is to be blamed for this unfortunate misunderstanding:

Why then consider Tanya guilty?
Because her simplicity, it seems,
Is ignorant of deceit, and still she
Believes completely in her dreams?
Or because her love lacks art,
Follows the promptings of her heart?
Because she’s trusting, and honest
And by Heaven has been blessed,
With profound imagination,
A fiery will, a lively mind,
A soul for passion’s fires designed,
A spirit tuned to all creation?
Surely, then, you can forgive,
A fierce desire to love and live?

Clock is ticking; cold, bitter and lonely Russian winters are passing, and Tatyana is on her way to become an old maid. She still has feelings for Onegin, maybe secretly hopes that he might change his mind and come back to her, but Onegin isn’t coming back and the pressure of her mother is becoming too much:

Tatyana’s bloom is all but gone,
She, more pallid, and more silent!
Nothing can provide distraction,
Or stir her soul, no incitement.
Whispering solemnly together,
Neighbours shook their heads, forever
Sighing: ‘It’s high time she was wed!’…
Enough. It’s high time that instead,
I painted over this sad scene,
And portrayed love’s happiness,
Though, dear Reader, I confess
I’m overcome, by pity I mean;
Forgive me: I’ve loved from the start
My Tatyana, with all my heart.

And so Tatyana was married to another man, a general. She doesn’t love him but tolerates him. Years pass, Pushkin brings the reader on a journey from the countryside to the glamour of St Petersburg. We are at a ball; musicians are playing a charming tune, candles are flickering, couples are dancing… Onegin is there too; equally bored and cynical as he was years ago, but something or someone captures his attention; a beautiful woman, in the film shown wearing a gorgeous red gown. The woman carries an air of dignity and seriousness around her – it is Tatyana, now grown into a wise, mature, confident woman, who stands gracefully by her husband’s side. Onegin is mad with passion, he writes her letters full of declarations of his love and adorations, but she doesn’t respond: she is a married woman after all, and a faithful one too. He takes a certain perverse delight in reawakening the strong feelings that she had, not with ease, managed to tame and lull to sleep. When he happens to steal a moment of privacy with her, he proposes that they elope together and fulfil their love, but now she is the winner in this chess game of love, she tells him it is too late for their love, that he had his chance and now she will remain faithful to her husband. It is a poignant scene in the film, as she tells him through tears that she waited for him but he is too late. Onegin just doesn’t get it because nothing matters to him; he wants her because he can’t have her.

In the end, Tatyana is left as a lonely, unhappy woman in a sad, but tolerable marriage, and Onegin, having killed Lensky in a duel early on, and crushing Tatyana’s affections years ago, is left completely alone, and that is his ultimate punishment. The acts of killing Lensky, that innocent, dreamy idealist, and rejecting Tatyana’s love, Onegin symbolically ‘kills’ the innocence that crossed his life path. And Tatyana is suppose to represent the wideness of the Russian soul and was seen as a symbol of an ideal woman. She also embodies Gogol’s concept of a ‘Slavic soul’: a melancholic soul of a dreamer and thinker, a mysterious and sad soul. A sense of darkness, sadness and tragedy hovers over most of Slavic literature like a rainy cloud. It is immensely interesting to me that in both novels; Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Lermontov’s The Hero of Our Time a duel takes place and the superfluous man wins while the romantic idealist dies, but in reality both Pushkin and Lermontov died in duels. Wicked destiny!

I first read Eugene Onegin exactly three Aprils ago, but I remember it vividly as if it was yesterday; those three or four magical nights when I flipped through the pages, relishing in the lyricism and musicality of the verses, loving the character of Tatyana and being highly amused by Onegin’s cynicism and his conduct with Lensky. In my little room, under the warm, yellow light of the lamp, in the flowery and exuberant nights of spring, a whole new world and sensibility came to life. Although I’ve enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second half, because the story gets really sad and full of hopelessness after Onegin rejects her, I must say that it still remains one of my favourite books.

Lermontov: It’s Boring and Sad…

9 Nov

This poem arose from the same source that inspired Lermontov to write his novel ‘A Hero of Our Time’, a fabulous literary work, especially if you like Romanticism or Russian literature. The main character, Pechorin, is a superfluous man, just like Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which is a Russian version of the Byronic hero; he’s a pessimistic and cynic man prone to self-destruction who feels superior to his surroundings and yet does nothing to use his potentials, a strong sense of boredom and absurdity of life drives him to lonely wanderings, restlessly seeking oblivion. The lyrical subject of this poem shares his thoughts of sadness and boredom with life, following the path of the superfluous man, viewing life as a cruel joke. This poem is very dear to me because I have the same thoughts on life; I am a melancholic soul, and if it wasn’t for the beauty of art, poetry and rock music, I wouldn’t see any purpose of life at all. Life without art isn’t a life at all.

1830-35-sunset-brothers-or-evening-landscape-with-two-men-caspar-david-friedrichCaspar David Friedrich, Sunset (Brothers) or Evening Landscape With two Men, 1830-35

It’s boring and sad, and there’s no one around

In times of my spirit’s travail…

Desires!…What use is our vain and eternal desire?..

While years pass on by – all the best years!

 

To love…but love whom?.. a short love is vexing,

And permanent love’s just a myth.

Perhaps look within? – The past’s left no trace:

All trivial, joys and distress…

 

What good are the passions? For sooner or later

Their sweet sickness ends when reason speaks up;

And life, if surveyed with cold-blooded regard,-

Is stupid and empty – a joke…

Visual Companion to Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin

26 Feb

I think some of you already know how much I loved Pushkin’s novel in verse ‘Eugene Onegin’. Well, this is my visual companion to this book, these are just some pictures (mostly portraits) that come to my mind when I think about Tatiana, Olga, Lensky and the main character – Eugene Onegin. By the way, the film Eugene Onegin (1999), with Ralph Fiennes, Toby Stephens and Liv Tyler, is brilliant. I think all three are superb actors. If you can’t be bothered to read the book, you must see the film.

1834. Lady in front of a Mirror. Ferdinand von Lütgendorff-Leinburg

1899. Ilya Repin - Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky's duel 1830. Alexandra Feodorovna by Alexander Brullov 1830s lady wearing a Kokoshnik! 1830s russian lady 1 1830s russian lady 3 1830s russian lady 5 1830s russian lady in blue dress 1830s russian lady 1830s S.A. Lvova by A. Brullov 1830s Zhanetta Ivanovna Lopukhina - Karl Briullov 1835. Lady, said to be a member of the Olenin family 1836. Svetlana Guessing on her Future by Karl Bryullov 1838. Elena Zavadovsky by Alfred Chalon 1838. grand duchesses olga nicolaievna et maria nicolaievna 1 1820s Evdokia Bakunina by Alexander Pavlovich Brullov 1840s Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna by Ivan Makarov Lidia Timoshenko, Illustration to the verse novel ‘Eugene Onegin’ by Alexander Pushkin - Tatiana and Onegin

A Vision of a Russian Artist by Nikolai V. Gogol

21 Feb

A few days ago I read a story by Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) called Nevsky Prospekt (or Nevsky Avenue), first published in 1835. It was very interesting all together, not merely because I love Russian literature and Gogol’s other stories, but because the main character is an artist! The story begins and ends with a description of Nevsky Prospekt; firstly, readers get acquainted with the sorts of people who can be seen there, and lastly, lies and superficiality of all those ‘creatures’ are revealed. Gogol himself wrote: ‘But strangest of all are the incidents that take place of Nevsky Avenue. Oh, do not trust that Nevsky Avenue! (…) For all is a deceit, all is a dream, all is not what it seems. (…) It lies at all times, does Nevsky Avenue, but most of all when night hovers over it in a thick mass, picking out the white from the dun-coloured houses, and all the town thunders and blazes with lights  and thousands of carriages come driving from the bridges, the outriders shouting and jogging up and down on their horses, and when the devil himself lights all the street lamps to show everything in anything but its true colours.

The story evokes the mood of the 18th century Sentimental novels, so it’s filled with irony, and mocks the pathetic and romantic main character and his final disillusionment. I highly recommend you to read it, and if you don’t, it’s your loss. And now the part of the story which describes Russian artists at the time:

1830-33. The Last Day of Pompeii is a large canvas painting by Russian artist Karl Bryullov in 1830-33.The Last Day of Pompeii by Russian artist Karl Bryullov in 1830-33.

This young man belonged to a class of people so rare in our country as to be looked upon as phenomenon. These people are no more citizens of St.Petersburg than the people we see in a dream are part of the world of reality. This quite exceptional class of people is particularly uncommon in a city where the inhabitants are either Civil servants, shopkeepers, or German artisans. He was an artist. A strange phenomenon, is it not? A St.Petersburg artist! An artist in the land of snows! An artist in the land of the Finns, where everything is wet, flat, pale, monotonous, grey, misty!… These artists are not at all like the Italian artists, proud and fiery, like Italy and her skies; on the contrary, they are mostly inoffensive, meek men, shy and easygoing, devoted to their art in an unassuming way, drinking their tea with a couple of friends in a small room, modestly discussing their favourite subject, and satisfied with the minimum of food and comfort. They employ some old beggar woman for their model, keeping her posing for six full hours just to transfer her impassive, numb and miserable expression on the canvas. They like to paint interiors of their rooms with every kind of litter lying around: plaster-of-Paris hands and feet, coffee coloured with dust and age, a broken easel, a discarded palette, a friend playing the guitar, walls covered with paint, and an open window through which you can catch a glimpse of the pale Neva and fishermen in red shirts. Everything they paint has a greyish, muddy tint – the indelible imprint of the north. But for all that they labour over their pictures with enjoyment. They are very often men of talent, and if they were breathing the air of Italy their talent would probably have opened up as freely, as widely, and as splendidly as a plant that has been taken out into the open air after being kept indoors for a long time. They are generally rather timid folk…

1876. Viktor Vanetsov - Moving HouseViktor Vanetsov, Moving House, 1876

I couldn’t really decide which painting should accompany the text, so I put both. The first painting, The Last Day of Pompeii, was painted by Karl Bryullov, at the same time the story was published, and it was much appreciated by both Gogol and Pushkin. And the other evokes the sentence ‘Everything they paint has a greyish, muddy tint – the indelible imprint of the north‘, which makes it relevant as well.