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When Defining The Verse Novel

When defining the verse novel, the simplest definition is achieved through a rephrasing of the term: the verse novel is a novel written in verse. As such it takes key elements from the tradition of novel and verse writing and fuses the two into a hybrid form. While this hybrid verse novel form shares elements with other narrative poetic forms, it is closer to the prosaic form of the novel, than the poetic form of the epic. What distinguishes the verse novel from the epic is its proximity to reality. The verse novel is closer to and tends to centre on ‘contemporary reality’, while, as Mikhail Bakhtin states, ‘an absolute epic distance separates the epic world from contemporary reality’. While not all novels are situated in the realms of reality, historically, ‘a greater degree of realism is expected of’ novels, which results in their tendency to ‘describe a recognizable secular social world’.

Verse novels approach reality not only in the environment and society they choose to depict but also in the portrayal of their characters and their speech. Patrick D. Murphy points out that verse novel writers vary the prosody of their work ‘to imitate more closely the nuances, rhythms, and idioms of daily speech’. This shaping of language to represent quotidian speech is found both in Pushkin and Seth’s work, who both create a colloquial speech tone for their characters. In Pushkin’s case this is most evident in the use of French, which was the second language of the Russian nobility of the time, and in the case of Tatyana the dominant language. Seth’s characters mimic real speech through their use of slang and colloquialisms such as ‘whiz kid’ , belonging to a register that isn’t prevalent in poetry. Colloquial speech, as a quality does not belong exclusively to the novel, however, it is more grounded in novelistic tradition, as opposed to the poetic. By shaping the language and syntax, Pushkin and Seth shape the different characters. These characters are varied and representative of the societies of their contemporary audiences. In Pushkin’s case, this is the Russian nobility, while in Seth’s it is the heterogeneous Californian society. The importance and care given to the portrayal of the characters demonstrates what Murphy describes as the verse novel’s awareness of ‘the cultural and ideological variety of its potential audiences’. This awareness allows Pushkin and Seth to represent ‘contemporary reality’ in their verse novels, thereby bringing their work and the verse novel genre closer to the realm of the novel.

The key elements that Pushkin and Seth’s verse novels have that are common to the novel are plot, narration, characterization and length, elements that are most often ‘expected of a novel’. The plot of Eugene Onegin follows its titular character on a journey of his meeting and rejection of naïve Tatyana’s advances, his regretful killing of his friend Lensky in a duel, his reacquaintance with Tatyana years later and her refusal of his advances. While many elements of the plot are omitted, the stated story arc indicates the existence of a plot. Meanwhile, The Golden Gate follows a group of young Californians though their experiences of forming and ending relationships, both romantic and platonic, and their journey through grief, when they suddenly lose members of their group. While perhaps, not as direct a plot as Onegin, Seth’s Golden Gate does contain a plotted narrative. These plotted narratives that are realistic and reflect their contemporary worlds, are one of the most distinct elements taken from the novelistic tradition.

Pushkin and Seth’s narrators are in fact what Craig Cravens calls ‘author-narrators’. The narrators are third-person omniscient narrators that display ‘elements of the real-life biography of the author’. Pushkin’s narrator is situated both within the fictional realm and the real world. The narrator knows Onegin personally, as seen by his referral to Onegin as ‘my good friend and brother’ , something he continues throughout the novel. These instances give the narrator credibility in his reports of events, as he shows knowledge of the characters and in extension the events that occur in their lives. The authorial facet of the narrator is evident in the self-referential moments such as ‘I too there used to saunter forth, / But found it noxious in the north’ , a reference to Pushkin’s time spent in Siberia. This allusion, among other such references to Pushkin’s life, would have been easily recognized by the audience of the time.

While Seth’s narrator is an ‘author-narrator’, he is not placed as a character within the fictional world of the novel. Despite this, the narrator shows his omniscience through his knowledge of the characters’ personalities and what will befall them. Seth’s narrator is invested in the characters lives, even though he is not placed in their world. He goes as far as to warn the characters in his narration, such as when he addresses John saying ‘Perhaps you think Liz loves you best. / […] A cuckoo’s bomb lies in the nest. / Be warned. Be warned’. This warning is both a warning of Liz’s cat taking John’s place, but also a foreshadowing of Phil’s eventual replacement of him. This intimate knowledge of the character’s destinies leaves the narrator hovering in the lives of the characters, yet at the same time reminds the reader of the author’s role in the narration. Unlike Pushkin’s immersed author-narrator, Seth’s author-narrator places his authorial self outside of the fictional world. This positioning is at its starkest at the beginning of chapter five, where the narrator opens with ‘A week ago, when I had finished / Writing the chapter you’ve just read’. He continues by discussing his decision to write a verse novel in the Onegin stanza and the reactions to this decision. Not only do these lines in this segment of the novel, draw the reader out of the narrative, they do not belong to the author-narrator, but to Seth, the writer. Following this section, Seth returns the ‘narrator’ to his narrative role and omniscience of the fictional world. The problem with separating these roles is that it creates a disjunction in the narration. Seth fractures the linearity of the narrative and thereby the novel. These examples show the differing degrees of success seen in implementing novelistic technique in verse.

Pushkin brings the reader further into the fictional realm, by addressing him throughout the novel, with ‘my reader’ or ‘dear reader’, and by placing him in the novel: ‘beside the Neva’s span, / Where maybe, reader, you began’. These elements are immersive for the reader’s experience. Seth does address the reader with ‘O Gentle Reader’, however, the reader is never invited as intimately into the fictional realm, as in Onegin.

In creating their characters, Seth and Pushkin both utilize techniques common to prose to illustrate their characters’ psychology. Both Pushkin and Seth borrow from the epistolary form, to offer direct insight into their character’s thoughts. Seth uses letters in a more humorous tone with John’s, Janet’s and Liz’s correspondence in response to the singles ad placed in the newspaper. However, the letters also create a link between the characters – the first letters bring Liz into John (and Janet’s) life, and at the end of the novel, in the aftermath of Janet’s tragic death, Liz’s reaches out to John in a letter. In Eugene Onegin, Pushkin uses the epistolary form as a way for Tatyana to divulge her thoughts. In this letter, Tatyana dramatically professes her feelings to Eugene saying ‘In all creation / There’s no one else whom I’d adore’. The letter shows Tatyana’s inner turmoil and utter surrender to her emotions, giving the reader a glimpse into the character’s psyche.

Another mode used by Pushkin and Seth is dialogue, which allows the characters to express their inner selves through their direct speech. Dialogue does not belong exclusively to the novel form, however, in these cases, it is taken from the novel form, as opposed to from poetry. The dialogue towards the end of Eugene Onegin not only allows Tatyana to teach Eugene the same lesson she learned from him, but it also allows her to show her change and growth as a character, a cornerstone of character development. Tatyana’s frankness and sense of duty in the lines ‘I love you (why should I dissemble?); / But I am now another’s wife, / And I’ll be faithful all my life’ , stand in stark contrast to her unfiltered passionate countenance seen at the start of the novel. The direct speech gives Tatyana’s character a confidence and authority that was not present in her letter, in its written form. The reversal of what mode is assigned to which character, i.e. Eugene hiding behind his words in his letter, and Tatyana speaking out, leaves a strong impression of the change these characters have undergone through the course of the novel.

Seth’s use of dialogue is a vital building block of his narrative, as the conversations and arguments held between the various characters propel the plot. However, Marjorie Perloff criticizes Seth’s dialogue, claiming that the strict form of the Onegin stanza forces Seth to use words that do not fit the characters’ manner of speech. Perloff’s criticism of The Golden Gate is vast, extending from Seth’s use of convenient rhymes, such as ‘Cob and Kearny’ and ‘attorney’ , to referring to his plot as ‘predictable’ , and his created world as a ‘cartoon world’. While Perloff’s criticism seems to a degree excessive, it does raise questions as to the successful implementation and fusion of elements from different genres.

Pushkin and Seth also take free-indirect discourse from the prose narrative tradition. Pushkin and Seth use free-indirect discourse to access their character’s voice and psychology, as the technique allows, ‘a third-person narrative to exploit a first-person point of view’. It allows the author to use the narrator to express the character’s emotion, such as in case of Tatyana’s infatuation with Eugene, when the narrator says ‘You learn life’s sweetness…feel its kiss, / And drink the draught of love’s temptations’. Likewise, Seth uses free-indirect speech to offer glimpses into his characters thoughts, such as in Phil’s case ‘the space and missile race – / The job Phil left in Datatronics / […] Preoccupy him as he smokes’. Bakhtin defines these character territories that the narrator enters as ‘voice zones’, within whose realm the characters’ syntax and manner of speech prevail. However, it is actually a quality of the lyric that allows these narrators the freedom to move between and depict different characters’ voice zones as well as the narrator’s zone. The ‘non-specificity of the lyric voice’ , i.e. its universality, allows the authors to ascribe the lyric voice and lyrical passages to their different characters without causing dissonance. The lyric’s ability to, ‘bond to anything and start to speak’ gives the Pushkin and Seth the tool to express the differing and varied personas of their characters within the same medium.

The versatility of lyric also allows the Pushkin and Seth to switch from narrative to lyrical passages with ease. The lyric passages are ‘apprehended as if they were lyric poetry’ , in some ways existing outside of the narrative linearity without negatively disrupting its flow. One of the most prominent lyrical passages of Eugene Onegin is the lamentation of spring at the beginning of chapter seven. In the same way Seth intersperses his narrative with lyrical passages that are able to stand on their own, such as the passage coincidentally also at the opening of chapter seven in The Golden Gate. The lyricism of these stanzas creates a standstill in the flow of the plot, i.e. the pacing of the novel is created by the medium of verse. Pushkin and Seth place these ‘non-fictional subjective lyric’ passages within the fictional scope of the novel. The hybridity of the verse novel nurtures this sort of interweaving of poetry within a plotted narrative.

Eugene Onegin and The Golden Gate take their form both from poetry and prose, in their use of the Onegin stanza on the smaller and the novel on the larger scale.

Pushkin created the Onegin stanza – a sonnet form, written in iambic tetrameter, and comprising a complex AbAbCCddEffEgg rhyme – for Eugene Onegin. Stylistically ‘the first quatrain presents the main idea, the next two develop it, and the witty couplet rounds it out’. Pushkin created this hybrid verse novel, made up of Onegin stanzas, as a reaction to the strictness of the Russian literature of the time that prescribed what linguistic and literary style was to accompany what genre. Seth chose the restrictions of the Onegin stanza’s meter and rhyme to capture the stories of his Californian characters, inspired by Pushkin’s work, going as far as to recommend it to the reader, ‘In Johnston’s luminous translation’. In both verse novels, the Onegin stanzas build to form chapters, which build the novel.

When elements of two different genres are fused to create a cross-genre piece, one genre does not replace or impose itself upon another; rather the genres stimulate innovation within each other. For example, in the case of the crossing of poetry and prose, poetry, as a genre, ‘gains revitalization through prose influences which promote the writing of new, developing poetic genres, one of these being the verse novel’. Revitalization of genres is a natural result of innovation, including the innovative fusions of different genres, demonstrated by Pushkin and Seth’s cross-genre works.

When discussing the verse novel form, it is necessary to look at the two genres it grows out of, however, this approach can be reductionist and counter-productive to understanding the evolution of this cross-genre form. Too often, prose and poetry are placed in a binary opposition, which reduces poetry to lyric, and prose to narrative, leading to diverse qualities of the two genres, such as narrative poetry, being omitted. The isolation of genres and their qualities is a fuelled by the exclusivist nature of literary discourse. This dichotomous nature of literary discourse is a construct, rather than natural. Bakhtin suggests that poetry and prose have more in common than set discourse allows us to demonstrate. He states ‘novelistic discourse is poetic discourse, but one that does not fit within the frame provided by the concept of poetic discourse as it now exists’. One of the problems of such an approach to analysing verse novels is it can result in too strong a focus on how the verse novels situate themselves within the precedent set historically by the individual genres, instead of focusing on what precedent the works themselves set for future cross-genre pieces in their innovation and blurring of genre lines. The hybrid work of Pushkin and Seth’s demonstrates two genres merged in a way that highlights their so-called ‘opposing’ qualities in the other. Their work demonstrates the poetic potential of the novelistic prose form and the prosaic qualities of the lyric voice. In fusing the different elements of verse and novelistic form and content, Pushkin and Seth create successful works of art where ‘“form” and “content” […] are inextricably and symbiotically linked’.

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