Postettes: Turgenev’s Virgin Soil & T. H. White’s The Goshawk

Turgenev Manor House

Turgenev Manor House

I cannot write at length about every book I read, so here are quick “postettes” on two of the most brilliant books I’ve read this year, Turgenev’s Virgin Soil and T. H. White’s The Goshawk.

Turgenev’s Virgin Soil.  I have a passion for 19th-century Russian writers.  Pushkin, Gogol, Goncharov, Tolstoy…

But if I had an opportunity to meet one, I would choose Turgenev.  This charming writer of lyrical, philosophical novels sounds more down-to-earth than the others.  If I visited him in Baden-Baden, one of his favorite cities (he preferred Europe to Russia), I could wear preppy  L. L. Bean or slightly hippieish J. Jill rather than the sackcloth and ashes Tolstoy went in for.

Turgenev’s most famous novel is Fathers and Sons, a powerful story of two young nihilists, the gentle Arkady  and the scientific Bazarov,  and the divergence of politics between different generations.

IMG_3018Virgin Soil, Turgenev’s last novel, is also a masterpiece.  I recently read  Constance Garnett’s graceful translation in the NYRB edition.

In this little-known classic, Turgenev depicts the lives of idealistic Russian revolutionaries of the late 1860s and 1870s.  The radical movement, known as populism, brought together young educated Russians with the peasants as they sought to eradicate the class difference.

The moody hero, Nezhdanov, is the bastard son of an aristocrat, and is involved in a revolutionary group in St. Petersburg.  Depressed and disillusioned, he takes a job as a tutor in the country.  He soon grows to despise his upper-class employers,  despite the vivacity of the mistress of the house, Valentina Mihalovna.  And then he falls in love with their niece, Marianna,  a passionate young populist.  The two young people want to make contact with the peasants, but Nezhdavov simply cannot communicate with them.  Marianna remains enthusiastic, especially after they befriend a radical factory manager.  Other revolutionaries include a rash upper-class man who acts too precipitately and a lonely man who becomes a traitor by talking too much.  The novel combines action with philosophy and politics.

Sounds a bit like the politics of the 1960s, doesn’t it?

IMG_3017T. H. White’s The Goshawk.  I read this only because I have read so much about Helen Macdonald’s Costa Award-winning H Is for Hawk, her memoir of training a goshawk.  She was inspired  partly by White’s book.

The Goshawk is the story of White’s adventures in falconry, focusing on his training of a goshawk, the wildest of all hawks.

He ordered the bird from Germany..  It arrived terrified in a basket.  White named it Gos.

T. S. White: I'm not sure what the birds are.

T. S. White: I’m not sure what the birds are.

Although the writing is extraordinarily graceful, at first White’s account of the cruel training of Gos nauseated me. Only the splendid writing kept me going.  White learned about falconry from a book published in the Renaissance.  Keeping the bird awake for three to nine days until he took food from his trainer’s hand was considered more effectual than any other method.  The trainer also had to keep awake.

White explains,

In teaching a hawk it was useless to bludgeon the creature into submission.  The raptors had no tradition of masochism, and the more one menaced or tortured them, the more they menaced in return.  Wild and intransigent, it was yet necessary to “break” them somehow or other, before they could be tamed and taught.  Any cruelty, being immediately resented, was worse than useless, because the bird would never bend or break to it.  He possessed the last inviolable sanctuary of death.  The mishandled raptor chose to die.

After White got beyond the initial stages, I became fascinated.   He also discusses humane shortcuts he learned after going by the book.

He fascinatingly describes the  many pitfalls in the man-bird relationship. It was one step forward, two steps back.  White truly loved Gos, but Gos needed wildness.  It was who Gos was.

Animal stories are always sad, are they not?  This is no exception.

White is so elegant a writer, and the book is so perfectly-written that I did not  take notes in it at all. And that’s a tribute to this great classic.

8 thoughts on “Postettes: Turgenev’s Virgin Soil & T. H. White’s The Goshawk

  1. I really must read more Turgenev I read Fathers and Sons twice and one other I can’t now remember. Virgin Soil sounds very appealing. I had thought I might like to read The Goshawk too after reading H is for Hawk, but I’m not sure now.

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  2. I have that very issue of Fathers and Sons and must get round to reading it soon. I don’t think I could manage The Goshawk though – it would upset my vegetarian sensibilities too much! 🙂

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    • Karen, I adore Turgenev! And I know what you mean about vegetarian sensibilities. Every word in White’s book is pitch-perfect and gorgeous, but I kept asking myself, Why is he doing this? In the final pages he does write about how it should be done instead. Those Renaissance falconers had some very weird methods.

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  3. I’ve seen a couple of plays by Turgenev. I can’t remember the details but I thought them the greatest I’d ever seen.

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    • He is a remarkable writer, and I think he is neglected. I love Constance Garnett, but can you believe she is the most recent writer to translate Virgin Soil?

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