Princeton on Pushkin
Caryl Emerson, Chair of the Slavic Department at Princeton University, is an accomplished author, speaker and teacher on the subject of Russian literature. Ms. Emerson recently spoke with American Ballet Theatre about Alexander Pushkin and his verse-poem Eugene Onegin. Following is a transcript from this Q. & A.
ABT: How is Pushkin's personal life reflected in the story?
Emerson: Pushkin was a great and indefatigable womanizer — and Tatiana was his personal ideal woman, or Muse. Pushkin’s biography is not so much reflected in the story as it is a companion to the story; both narratives evolved together, since Pushkin was composing Eugene Onegin (and publishing it serially) during the 8 central years of his adult life, from 1823 to 1831. By 1830 he was in love with a young, beautiful girl, Natalia Goncharova, whom he married the following year but feared he could neither satisfy nor rein in. His wife — who bore him four children in six years and by all accounts was a faithful spouse — cared little for his poetry and a great deal for dancing at imperial balls; Pushkin was intensely proud of her and her beauty, and intensely jealous. Surely he wanted to believe that his wife’s many admirers (a group that included Tsar Nicholas I) were all rejected out of hand by her, the way Tatiana rejected Onegin, regardless of the feelings on either side. In 1835, one admirer began to stalk Mme Pushkina in earnest. Pushkin challenged this man (a French adventurer in the Russian service) to a duel in January 1836 in defense of his wife’s honor, and was killed at age 37. Retroactively, the impulsive duel between Lensky and Onegin in the novel has been read tragically as a forerunner of the poet’s own premature end.
ABT: Why do you think Pushkin's tale has inspired so many different interpretations and different art forms (i.e. opera, film, ballet)?
Emerson: The biggest reason for the huge number of transpositions and settings is that Pushkin’s works are a universal common denominator in Russian culture, akin to our Shakespeare. Exquisitely poetic and efficient as a poet, Pushkin is a magnet to other artists (continued)
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