by Marjorie Sandor
The poet Theodore Roethke once wrote, “I teach myself by going where I have to go.” A variation might be that each new poem, story, or essay has its own secret dynamic, just waiting for the writer to recognize it. Or at least it feels that way when a jumbled fragment of language at last releases a clue to its potential form. It can be a long wait, and in the meantime the project can seem quixotic and wrongheaded. Yet something won’t let you give it up. This was my experience in writing “A Letter of Complaint to Pushkin,” which appeared in AGNI 85. It’s a short story whose particular “quixotics” included a first-person narration by a bored Russian dandy in early 19th century St. Petersburg—a character named Eugene Onegin, a fictional creation long-since made famous by the Great Poet of Russia, Alexander Pushkin.
A misbegotten project, God knows, and one I never thought would make sense to another person, let alone see print. But somehow it happened—and I’m still surprised by what I learned along the way.
I want to say something about the “spark” of the story—as it is, itself, a little ass-backwards. In June of 2013 I had an assignment from Opera News and a very tight deadline: produce 1,700 words on the relationship of Pushkin’s 1830 verse novel, Eugene Onegin, to Tchaikovsky’s opera, composed three decades later. It was a daunting task for someone only dimly acquainted with either artist, and the sheer number of university library shelves devoted to each of them made me want to hide under a rock.
In the end, I found a way forward and made the deadline. But more crucially, I fell in love with the witty, wise-cracking narrator of Pushkin’s novel, a man who both adores his foppish pal Eugene, and mocks him mercilessly. The novel ends with the narrator leaving Eugene “for long, forever,” kneeling in an agony of unrequited love in the empty boudoir of his beloved. A set of ellipses follows…and that’s it for poor Onegin.
This narrator, with his wit and complex personality, was my favorite thing about the novel, yet he figures not at all in the opera, nor does the marvelous wit and satirical thread in the novel. I confess I was deeply disappointed.
But life goes on…a month or so after I finished writing the article, I still felt this peculiar, aching dissatisfaction, as if I had more to say. Stranger still, the “voice” in my head didn’t sound like my own. It sounded more formal, and more edgy, too: irked, bitter, prone to the rant. Why it came so easily to me I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over time, it’s that for me, that’s the sign of a story beginning to come to life. A voice with a distinct rhythm, and a certain drive—even if it goes around in circles and doesn’t have a character yet, let alone a situation. I typed a few pages in that voice, and set it aside. Not long after, I happened to be reading Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like a Writer. In the chapter on “Narration,” she explains how, as she embarked on her first novel, she tricked herself into finding the narrative voice and point of view. Rather than focusing on the question of “who is telling the story,” she says, we should really be asking “Who is listening? One what occasion is the story being told, and why?”
I gave that some thought, and considered that the “voice of Onegin himself,” pissed off at a whole future of readers who might not know him, is even more pissed off at the creator who stranded him in that damned boudoir for the rest of time.
Why not have him directly address Pushkin? Would that give the voice something to focus on?
Yet this decision created yet another problem: expositional contrivance of the worst kind. You’ve winced at this, I’m sure. Characters in dramas who go on long extended restatings of things their listener must already know?
Plus, Onegin was ranting away inside that lady’s sitting room. He didn’t have anything to DO or anywhere to go. What a bore. I broke up with him and walked away just like Pushkin, leaving him in his prison of chintz.
And there he remained, a sleeping-beauty in the form of a bored fop, until one day, I had another deadline—this time, a public reading. I gave myself a challenge: contain this thing in the number of pages specified for the public reading, and finish it, no matter what.
The pressure made me suddenly practical. “What’s missing here?” I asked myself. Every rant is spoken from a certain place and time, right? What if my ranter also had a destination? Where would poor Eugene want to go, if only he could be sprung, Houdini-like, from his prison? I decided he would go to the deathbed of his creator. Why? I didn’t know yet. I just knew where. And how the hell was I going to get him out of there?
I went back to the original novel and looked harder. Then I did more research, this time digging deeper into Pushkin’s biography, and was struck anew by the irony of his death—brought on by a fatal stomach wound sustained in a duel—a finale that eerily mimicked a key event in the novel itself.
Then I wrote an editor’s note, a frame I hoped would give my non-Pushkin-familiar readers the basics they’d need to read my own story.
But I still had the problem of the “physical universe” of Onegin’s situation: there were no windows or doors described in the final scene of the novel. Then I asked myself, “Well, what do you have?” I stared at the page.
At that set of ellipses.
And saw them differently now—not so much a form of punctuation as a form of transportation for my Eugene. Why couldn’t Onegin put his feet into them, and one-two-three, be out of there? Now the story was alive, and Onegin full of hope, and he could go on his mission, a desired fueled journey to see his dying—or already dead—master. This was the first of several surprises that seemed to come not from me, but from the story’s own physical constraints, and my character’s desire to get to his creator’s deathbed in time to say goodbye.
One last question: isn’t it risky to write in the voice of such a famous, already existing literary character? Probably, yes. But he didn’t feel that remote to me. I’ll confess that I let him say a couple of really wildly anachronistic things for the sake of a laugh, and these darlings I had to kill—they read like little vandalisms, break-ins to the story’s universe.
But the most surprising thing of all happened after the story was finished, and I was behind a podium, reading it aloud. Very suddenly, in the midst of reading, I recognized the voice of a dear, cranky, avuncular bachelor pal of my father’s, now long dead. When I was a child, Maurice Rudens was forever standing in my mother’s kitchen with a glass of Scotch, holding forth on music, literature, art, and my father’s imperfections. We all suspected he was in love with our mother. But the bottom line is this: Maury’s passion for literature and his ranty voice were in my bloodstream from early childhood. It was his voice, his bitterness, his yearning for the lover he couldn’t have, that made me feel I “knew” Pushkin’s Onegin so intimately.
There’s one more thing, something I never let myself see or say till right now. Onegin’s voice didn’t just belong to Maurice Rudens. It was my voice too, or one strand of it: my own secret yearning found its way in, under the voice of the cranky voice of complaint that is the story’s dominant mode. Writing into and through the ellipses, freeing Onegin from his bonds but keeping him close, became, at once, an elegy for my own lost Onegin. “A Letter of Complaint to Pushkin,” it turns out, isn’t a letter of complaint at all, but a love letter to literature, and to you, its passionate readers.
Marjorie Sandor is the author of four books of short fiction and creative nonfiction, including the linked story collection Portrait of my Mother, Who Posed Nude in Wartime, winner of the 2004 National Jewish Book Award. Her stories and essays have appeared in such journals as AGNI, The Georgia Review, The Harvard Review, and Opera News, and have been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize. She edited the international short-story anthology, The Uncanny Reader, in 2015. She lives in Corvallis, Oregon, and teaches in the MFA Program at Oregon State University. See what she’s published in AGNI here.