Perspectives

The Onegin Mystery or Pushkin and Terpsichore

From verse novel to theatrical ballet — By Tristan Bera

With his tragic novel, Eugene Onegin, Alexander Pushkin produced a masterpiece that endowed the Russian language with new literary qualities. More than a century later, the choreographer John Cranko, champion of the narrative ballet, takes up Pushkin’s themes, giving shape to his vision of a “theatrical ballet” capable of conveying the passionate density of the narrative through movement alone. Returning to the origins of the verse novel, Tristan Béra traces the link that inextricably unites literature with dance.


Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin is the founding masterpiece of modern Russian literature. Defined as an “Encyclopaedia of Russian life”, by the critic Vissarion Belinsky at its publication in single volume form in 1883, this novel of 5,541 verses, written in iambic tetrameters and a virtuoso exercise in style, set the seal on its author’s status as national poet. In the eyes of his commentators, Pushkin, before Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, is the first of the Moderns and embodies what posterity has deemed to be the “Russian soul”. Born in 1799 in Moscow, he was of aristocratic lineage on his father’s side and, on his mother’s, the great grandson of a black slave given as a tribute to the first emperor. This dual heritage is perhaps at the heart of the dynamics and tensions brought into play in his writing and in his life as a poet. From his youth, he was honed in the literary circles of Saint Petersburg, a city of pomp and ceremony that vied with the patriarchal capital, and began openly to resist autocratic power through “mutinous poems” and incendiary pamphlets. In 1823, his subversive behaviour earned him a period in exile, not in Siberia but in Bessarabia, where he began to write Eugene Onegin: “At the moment, I am writing, not a novel but a novel in verse – diabolical difference”.

Pushkin laboured on the work for seven years. The seemingly simple story is that of a “proud dandy”, one of the privileged “golden” youth who, having come into a fortune, decides to move to the country. Fascinated by Napoleon and Lord Byron, portraits of whom are among his possessions alongside their writings, Eugene is a cold-hearted creature no longer capable of exaltation. However, he makes the acquaintance of Lenski, his complete opposite, a romantic poet with a sincere soul who has just finished studying in Germany. Lenski takes him to visit two sisters, one of whom is his fiancée and the other Tatyana Larina. Tatyana is a dreamer immersed in Russian folk tales and sentimental French novels. She falls hopelessly in love with Eugene and writes him a letter. During a secret encounter, the dandy rejects her, giving as an excuse his flighty nature and, in return, flirts shamelessly with her sister. In the different ballet adaptions of the novel this gives rise to a memorable dance scene that naturally excites the ire of Lenski who challenges Onegin to a duel. The hero kills his comrade and then exiles himself. After a lapse of five years wandering the country, Eugene chances to encounter Tatyana, now dazzlingly beautiful, at a ball given by her husband at Saint Petersburg and, in his turn, asks to speak to her in private. In the final scene of the novel, Tatyana, repulsed by the vulgarity and immorality of adultery, resists Eugene’s belated declaration of love, without however concealing the depth of her feelings for him. Eugene “stands there, rooted to the spot”, and the author, in conclusion, addresses the reader who has thus become a character in the story, proclaiming “the horizon of the free novel”.

Alexandre Pouchkine. Manuscrit avec croquis de la main du poète. Maison Pouchkine, Académie des Sciences de Russie, Saint-Pétersbourg
Alexandre Pouchkine. Manuscrit avec croquis de la main du poète. Maison Pouchkine, Académie des Sciences de Russie, Saint-Pétersbourg © akg-images / Sputnik

In 1850, Ivan Turgenev published The Diary of a Superfluous Man which established the literary figure of the “useless” or “superfluous man” as one of the keys to understanding the Russian novel under the autocratic regime in the 19th century, of which the prototype is the eponymous hero of Eugene Onegin. Although Onegin has certain features comparable in French 19th century literature, with René or Adolphe, the heroes of Chateaubriand and Benjamin Constant, he is profoundly linked to the inegalitarian aspects of Czarist society and to the radical nihilism which developed from 1825 onwards in the wake of the Decembrist uprising. A variation of the romantic hero and derived from the Byronic hero, “the superfluous man” is a rich layabout, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, who cynically despises social norms and confounds an existential ennui with gambling, drinking, amorous intrigues and duels. Detached from the distress and the destinies of others, indifferent to the structural iniquity of aristocratic power, in spite of his social position, he is the fatalistic product of the period of the reign of Nicolas I, which corresponded to a profound crisis of values.

But if this novel is familiar to all Russians, who often know whole passages by heart, it was made famous in the West by Tchaikovsky’s adaptation at the end of the 19th century and that of Prokofiev in the first half of the 20th. The various translations from Russian have never really been able to convey the beauty of Pushkin’s poetic language. Translators, including Vladimir Nabokov, have burnt their fingers trying to transpose this verse narrative. Most translations seem irremediably flat and the French reader has difficulty imagining the eloquence and flow of a language that so inspired Pushkin’s contemporaries and his fellow Russians. For non-Russian speakers, particularly French speakers, a real mystery therefore enshrouds the novel Eugene Onegin, which the language barrier, the nuances and rhythms of the poetry - difficult to translate -, tend to maintain and even deepen. Ultimately, the transposition of the novel to the operatic stage has proved its best ambassador and provided the most faithful translation of the poetry of Pushkin who, by the way, lauded “the lively imagination and the prodigious charm of ballet”. It was in 1878 and, as legend would have it, after a sleepless night, that Tchaikovsky completed his adaptation of the novel as an opera-ballet, conserving only three acts of the original work and choosing three salient episodes from Onegin’s life. The opera, episodic and similar in structure to Puccini’s La Bohème which is also treated episode by episode, is considered apart in Tchaikovsky’s output as a ballet for adults (unlike Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker) and is one of the most beautiful examples of lyrical opera, free of pomp and finely nuanced. Thanks to the opera-ballet, the novel enjoys its most complete and most immediately accessible formal translation, at the intersection between music, visual arts, theatre, fashion and new corporeal representations. In 1965, the South African choreographer, John Cranko, undertook, in his turn, a three-act adaptation of Onegin in purely ballet form, adapting Tchaikovsky’s music with arrangements and orchestrations by Kurt-Heinz Stolze. His work, which entered the Paris Opera Ballet's repertoire in 2009, is a ballet of great purity whose plot, refocussed around the character of Tatyana, introduces, to paraphrase Théophile Gautier, the elegant and contained romanticism of Pushkin in the domain of Terpsichore. This reading makes one wonder if any other language than dance could replace the Russian language.

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