Fry’s Falen’s Pushkin’s Onegin

Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin (1833, translated by James E Falen 1990, narrated by Stephen Fry 2013, Digital October Publishing House)

1eoThis audio book is sheer delight. James E Falen’s verse is fluid, witty, full of charm. Stephen Fry’s reading is superb – unfolding the pleasures of the language with the same infectious relish he brings to his role of BBC game-show host.

Vladimir Nabokov said it was impossible to translate Eugene Onegin into verse that kept the rhyme scheme or the  ‘bloom’ of the original. I know about 3 words of Russian, so I’m in no position to argue, but I’m going to assume that Falen’s attempt approaches the impossible, and  that the poem I’ve just had read to me is essentially Pushkin’s. I now agree with the quasi-mother-in-law who told me in my 20s that reading Pushkin was one of life’s great joys.

I mainly listened to it while driving around the city, which means that for the first couple of hours of it I was negotiating traffic with a slack-jawed grin. Incredibly, the cheerful, witty urbanity of the first parts – where the death of a rich uncle, the ennui of endless Moscow balls, a dilettante’s reading habits, and the passion of a young man who today would be called an emerging poet are all subjects of light, ironic banter – gradually yields to a more serious tone. By the end, the sprightly ‘Onegin stanza’ – shorter lines than Shakespeare, lots of feminine rhymes – has proved suitable for telling of calamity, betrayal and despair. It’s a much smaller story than Anna Karenina, but I’ve got no doubt that Tolstoy knew it well and expected his readers to have read it, and I bet scholarly papers have been written about the relationship between the two works.

I’ve done a tiny bit of research about the translation: Stephen Saperstein Frug’s blog, Eugene Onegin in English Translation, quotes 10 versions of the first stanza, including the one from Charles H. Johnston’s 1977 translation, which inspired Vikram Seth to write The Golden Gate. I’m very glad to have met Onegin in James E Falen’s version, but I recommend Frug’s site if you’re planning to read the poem and shopping around among Englishings. (Nabokov’s version of the first stanza, which ostentatiously avoids trying to sound like verse, manages not to read like English either.)

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