Pushkin’s reading at Mikhailovskoe was eclectic, ranging across frontiers and centuries. Thus, having already read the earlier volumes of Karamzin’s History of the Russian State (there were twelve in all), he now read the remainder – required reading for a writer on the ‘Time of the Troubles’; and Boris Godunov was dedicated to Karamzin. He read Tacitus’s Histories and Annals in French: an interesting choice of historian by Pushkin, not only because of the economy of Tacitus’s unique prose style – an economy that Pushkin’s prose would emulate – but also because of Tacitus’s attitude to history, which was essentially that of a man looking back on the age that had preceded the one in which he himself lived. Of Shakespeare Pushkin wrote in 1825 : ‘What a man this Shakespeare is! I cannot get over him. Compared with him, how poor a tragedian Byron is! This Byron who only ever conceived one single character … he divided among his characters such and such an aspect of his own personality.. .’
Shakespeare’s influence on Pushkin should not be assessed only in metrical terms: Shakespeare’s blank verse and sonnet metres.12 It would be hard to improve on Pushkin’s much later comparison of Shakespeare and Moliere:
Characters created by Shakespeare, unlike Moliere’s, are not models of a particular kind of passion or of a particular kind of vice; on the contrary, they are living beings complete with many passions, many vices. Circumstances unfold to the spectator their varied and many-sided personalities. Moliere’s miser is miserly – and that is all; Shakespeare’s Shylock is not only miserly, but resourceful, vindictive, child-loving and witty. Moliire’s hypocrite courts his benefactor’s wife in a hypocritical fashion, takes on the custody of an estate as a hypocrite, and asks for a glass of water hypocritically, Shakespeare’s hypocrite pronounces judgement with arrogant sever-ity, but justly; he justifies his cruelty by the profound arguments of a statesman; and he seduces innocence, not with a ridiculous mixture of piety and philandering, but with powerful, fascinating sophistry.
Pushkin wrote Boris Godunov with Shakespeare very much in mind. When he had finished it, he read it out aloud to himself from beginning to end; he clapped his hands and congratulated himself -‘Bravo! You son of a bitch!’14 As it turned out, this work proved to be, in a sense, his Waterloo.15 Planned as the first part of a dramatic trilogy, it was one of Pushkin’s first works to fall foul of the censorship after his political rehabilitation. For that reason it was not printed until 1831; it was first staged as a play nearly forty years later; and even today it is generally thought of in the form of Musorgsky’s fine opera.16
By contrast, Evgenii Onegin survived the censorship, thanks to some judicious omissions and to Pushkin’s physical destruction of his politically incriminating Chapter 10. So effectively did he burn the manuscript of this chapter in 1830 that today all that remains is a collection of fragments, later reconstructed mainly from memory, which prove that it dealt with the Decembrists, but not much more than that.17 Of all Pushkin’s works, Evgenii Onegin is the best known in the west; and it has become better understood since a path was cut through its forest of allusions, literary and topical, by Nabokov’s three volumes of commentary. Yet even in Russia it has been subject to virtually every conceivable interpretation, some of them diametrically opposed to each other.18 In this welter of conflicting opinion it is easy to overlook the fact that Pushkin himself described Evgenii Onegin on the title page as a ‘novel in verse’. And as a novel it would affect the great evolution of the Russian prose novel for the rest of the nineteenth century.
The bare essentials of the story of Evgenii Onegin are deceptively simple. Tatyana, the elder daughter of one of Onegin’s neighbours in the country, falls in love with him at first sight; she declares her love, which he does not return. He later leaves the district, having killed a friend in a duel. After a long time spent travelling, Onegin returns to St. Petersburg, where he again meets Tatyana, now married. He falls in love with her; she rejects him, although she still loves him. The plot of Evgenii Onegin appears romantic in Tchaikovsky’s operatic version (written half a century later), but as Pushkin originally wrote it, its form is severely classical: a double chiasmus. Its framework depends on two balls – one rural and the other grandiose, in the capital – and two letters, the first, early on, from Tatyana to Onegin, and the second, at the very end, from Onegin to Tatyana. (Onegin’s letter – not drafted by Pushkin until 1831 – disappears in the sentimentality of the last act of the opera.) Moreover, it took Pushkin eight years to complete this poem. Its characters developed as the novel went forward. Tatyana’s marriage seems to have taken Pushkin himself by surprise ; and Pushkin’s own character developed over the same period. Evgenii Onegin provides many autobiographical nuggets : Chapter 1 relating to his first years in St. Petersburg, Chapter 2 to his exile at Mikhailovskoe and Chapter 8 to his time in Odessa, while Chapter 10 was presumably an attempt to do homage to the Decembrists.