Friday, June 22, 2012

Jevgeņijs Oņegins by Alexander Pushkin (1837, trans 1974)

I read the Latvian translation of Eugen Onegin (itself an English translation of the title of a long poem in Russian by Pushkin, translated into Latvian by Mirdza Bendrupe with ellipses for certain stanzas or lines - possibly censored) The original date is tricky too, as it was published serially over a number of years, but the Wikipedia claims that the version most often read now is the 1837 edition.

I recently attended a play called “Onegin - Commentary” at the Riga New Theatre. The friend who gave me the ticket suggested that I read Eugene Onegin in the Latvian translation before attending the play, and I am thankful I did, as the poetry itself was recited in Russian, but the story line and the comments outside the story line were in Latvian, which I could understand clearly. It was easier to follow having read the book.

I took all the Russian literature classes in translation that were offered at Cornell. My senior year I decided that to really “get” Russian literature, I should learn the language, and I took one semester of it. Enough to learn the letters, but not much else has stuck over the years. I do not remember what we read of Pushkin, but I am quite sure it was not Onegin. I am not used to reading much verse, never mind a whole story in verse, but this actually fit quite well with the story. I also read very little Latvian, so it took longer than it otherwise might, but was well worth the effort.

Onegin is a dandy (as the play explained) who was an aristocrat, bored of parties in the city (St. Petersburg, I believe) and was happy to inherit an estate in the country from an uncle. He gets bored there too, but makes friends with Lensky, a neighbor and poet. Lensky is in love with Olga, and Olga’s sister Tanya falls for Onegin – writing him a letter declaring her love, which I understand my friends here in Latvia learned by heart in their school days. Onegin rejects Tanya. Lensky tricks Onegin into attending an event at the sisters’ house, and Onegin is mad about it, so he flirts and dances with Olga, making Lensky so jealous, that he calls Onegin out on a duel. Onegin kills Lensky at the duel, and has to go abroad, as dueling is illegal in Russia at the time, but still often practiced. The play spent quite a bit of time explaining dueling at the time, pointing out all the mistakes the second made, who could have prevented the duel and unnecessary death of Lensky. Onegin returns years later to find Tanya married to an officer, and when Onegin declares his love for her, she rejects him.

In my mind the play and book are so intertwined that I have a hard time teasing them apart. I just am happy that I have had this duel experience. I doubt that I would otherwise pick up a book of Russian literature in verse – though that in itself was interesting, as Pushkin wrote in his own “sonnet” form with a distinct rhyming pattern that was emulated in the translation. It was full of literary and historical references, and in a romantic style that is foreign to me now, but worth visiting occasionally. Thank you Inta for both experiences!

Pārbaudījums by Vilnis Baumanis (2011)

Could this really be the first Latvian novel I have read that reflects my times growing up as a Latvian? Vilnis Baumanis is older than I am, his mother was my Latvian school teacher and taught me not only about Latvian grammar, but a love for the language and literature. I knew his three sisters (I still run into him and two of his sisters now and then), and the house that he describes in this book. His novel is a thinly disguised reflection on his own youth, how he fell in love with his wife, and the community of Latvians that lived behind the liquor store in the 1950’s to 60’s, before they could afford their own spaces. I know my father lived in a cramped house in Brooklyn with at least a dozen other people when he first came to America. I do not remember all the people that lived in the Baumanis house, but I do remember his mom and sisters, and another teacher and her family. I occasionally went to their house to practice a play for Latvian school with my two teachers. 

I have no idea how much of this story is true, as Baumanis makes the story more thrilling with some Russian mob characters threatening the house, but my cousin, who was the same age as Vilnis said that much of it was true and that he participated in some of the activities described. So we get a good reflection on how Latvian youth lived their first years in America. These were high school and college aged, they met frequently, had their local youth group, danced folk dances, sang, participated in plays. His love interest lived in a basement apartment a few blocks from his house. I remember this basement very well, as I spent years going there every week to practice folk dancing and a group exercise for performance (don't ask, I can't explain it). I remember couches in one corner – that must have been the youth hang out space. The only other character I recognized in the book was the woman who directed them in the performance of Brigadere play Princess Gundega and King Brusubarda. Pauline Dumina was my aunt's  friend and I know she was a big theater person, but I never had a chance to work with her. I am planning to meet a woman who is depicted as a little girl in this book within the next few weeks. Maybe she can shed some light on some of the other characters.
My cousin commented on Baumanis’ rich language, and I have to agree, it is definitely beyond our daily use Latvian, and seems different from the Latvian used here in Latvia in some way.