Martin Kettle was born in 1949. Like Arthur Ransome and Alan Bennett, he comes from Headingley in Leeds. From a Communist Party family background, he is now a moderate and a liberal. Martin has worked at the Guardian for more than 20 years and been a leader writer and columnist there for much of the last 15. Between 1997 and 2001 he lived and worked in Washington DC. Before the Guardian he wrote for New Society on home affairs and for the Sunday Times as a political correspondent. He is co-author of Policing the Police and Uprising! Police, the People and the Riots in Britain's Cities. Below Martin writes about Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin.
Martin Kettle on Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
I came to Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin through Tchaikovsky's opera, which I first saw when I was a student more than 30 years ago and which I would still choose as one of my half-dozen favourite operas (don't ask me - or, rather, do, but on another occasion - what the other five are). Like most impressionable young men, I fell madly in love with the heroine Tatiana, though this was largely because of her name. I had a very special girlfriend at university called Tania. Long after we split up - all my fault, just like Onegin - we met again at a performance of the Tchaikovsky and were both overcome with confusion and emotion, again just like in the story.
Do I need to rehearse Pushkin's story? It is a novel written in poetry, about love and misunderstanding. Tatiana is a Russian archetype, obviously first cousin to Natasha from War and Peace but perhaps - who knows? - destined in time to become an Anna Karenina. When she is young, she falls in love with a visiting landowner, Onegin, who haughtily ignores her. Onegin gets himself into a stupid argument with his friend Lensky, whom he kills in a duel. Onegin leaves Russia in distress. Many years later, he returns to St Petersburg where he again meets Tatiana, now married to an elderly count. He declares his love. She rejects him. End of story.
Even now, there is a part of me which would like to think that human relationships can be like Tristan und Isolde. But the truth is that they are much more likely to be like Eugene Onegin. Pushkin's great wisdom, which Tchaikovsky also captures, is to grasp that people get themselves wrong. In Eugene Onegin, none of the main characters really knows what he or she really wants. Everybody messes up without meaning to. Tatiana falls in love with an imaginary Onegin, is humiliated by him, marries an old and safe man and cannot then respond to Onegin's unexpected declaration. Onegin behaves abruptly to Tatiana, kills his best friend, and then finds himself in love with Tatiana, who dismisses him in her turn. The minor characters get it wrong too. Lensky thinks he is a fine poet when he is not, is killed and is forgotten. Olga, Tatiana's sister, thinks she is in love with Lensky but is mistaken too. Even Prince Gremin, Tatiana's husband, seems not to grasp what is going on (or not) between his wife and Onegin.
There is a wonderful sense of possibilities in Eugene Onegin. Things happen, but not in some ordained and clear-cut way. The characters are only partly in touch with their own feelings and their own interests. Things can go in all sorts of directions. As is often remarked, the ending of the book is especially inconclusive. Tatiana rejects Onegin - or does she? Onegin is inconsolable - or is he? Maybe they meet again and maybe this time it works. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Everything is possible. But Pushkin is always warning us that to err is human. Which is why he cares about characters whom we could easily otherwise dismiss as grumpy old men or as flibbetygibbets. And it is why we care so much about them too.
Eugene Onegin moves me to tears. But not because it is a tragedy. It isn't. It moves me because it is a comedy, both in the wise and Mozartian sense and in the sense that it is very funny. If you read it in a good translation, like the one by Charles Johnson for Penguin Classics (Johnson was the head of the Russian section in the British foreign office during much of the Cold War), there will be moments when you laugh out loud. Pushkin's model, pretty obviously, is the Byron of Don Juan and there is that same affectionate tone that there is in the best of Byron, not just between writer and reader but between writer and character. Pushkin is your friend. He is benevolent and generous towards the silly Onegin and the equally silly Tatiana. It is as though Pushkin is one of those wise interfering Greek gods looking down from Olympus and wondering how to teach those deluded humans a lesson. Or as though Pushkin is Puck, delivering the wisest line in all of Shakespeare: 'Lord, what fools these mortals be!'