Thanks to the late Harry Weber, a professor of Russian at the University of Iowa, for introducing me to Turgenev in his Russian literature in translation class. Nowadays, with language departments and liberal arts under attack by proponents of the bottom line, I realize how lucky I was to have such a wealth of academic choices. I felt both awe and affection for my best professors.. I remember nudging my boyfriend one day when Dr. Weber walked past us in the snow at City Park wearing a tall fur hat. (Didn’t you love it when your professors were the celebrities, and wouldn’t it be a better world if they still were?) Without his class, I am not sure that I would have gone beyond Fathers and Sons, the only one of his masterpieces commonly stocked in bookstores.
Rudin, Turgenev’s first novel, is one of my favorites. I have read it again and again. It is elegant, lyrical, and also disturbing in its revelations about the malleability of human nature. Each character is portrayed as delicately as a figure in a water-color painting, vivified by physical description, humor, and dialogue. Rudin, the intellectual stranger who arrives unexpectedly at the wealthy Darya Mihailovna’s estate, immediately dominates the household and turns relationships topsy-turvy as he discourses on philosophy and human nature. As each character gradually finds that Rudin is not quite who he seems to be, Rudin himself undergoes a transformation.
Rudin is simple, and yet not simple. Turgenev’s brevity expresses more than many long-winded writers can in books twice as long. I recently reread Rudin in Constance Garnett’s beautiful translation, which is available in a Faber Finds paperback or as a free e-book for the Kindle or the Nook.
Rudin begins with some of the most gorgeous prose I have ever read, a description of a summer day in rural Russia.
It was a quiet summer morning. The sun stood already pretty high in the clear sky but the fields were still sparkling with dew; a fresh breeze blew fragrantly from the scarce awakened valleys and in the forest, still damp and hushed, the birds were merrily carolling their morning sun. On the ridge of a swelling upland, which was covered from base to summit with blossoming rye, a little village was to be seen. Along a narrow by road to this little village a young woman was walking in a white muslin gown, and a round straw hat, with a parasol in her hand.
Many of the main characters are introduced during the course of a walk. (Walks are so important in literature, aren’t they?) Alexandra Pavolvna Lipin, a young widow, is on her way to visit a sick old woman in the village On her way home Alexandra Pavolovna runs into Mihailo Mihailitch Lezhnyov, an intelligent, practical farmer who teases her and asks if she is thinking about giving up projects like hospitals and schools now that she is spending so much time with Darya Mihailovna, who dismisses all but personal philanthropy as fads. Alexandra laughs and says she doesn’t always agree with Darya Mihailovna.. Then she meets Pandelevsky, one of Darya Mihailovna’s charming, flirtatious parasites, who brings her a letter inviting her there for dinner. She also runs into her brother Volintsev, who is in love with Darya’s daughter, Natalya.
That evening, gathered at Darya Mihailovna’s , all are surprised when Rudin arrives, sent by his friend the Baron. Most of the guests are charmed and fascinated by his eloquence. He speaks of pride, egoism, and Hegel in a vague but impressive manner. But Pigasov, a cynical, misogynistic neighbor, is furious at being upstaged and leaves. Natalya, Darya’s passionate daughter, falls in love with Rudin; Rudin secretly courts Natalya, and that is what brings him down. And Mikhail, who knows Rudin’s story, is not surprised by what happens, but oddly Rudin’s fall changes his mind about him.
In the very dated 1894 introduction to my e-book, S. Stepniak writes,
The plot of Dmitri Rudin is so exceedingly simple that an English novel-reader would say that there is hardly any plot at all…. What the novelists of the romantic school obtain by the charm of unexpected adventures and thrilling situations, Turgenev succeeds in obtaining by the brisk, admirably concentrated action, and, above all, by the simplest and most precious of a novelist’s gifts: his unique command over the sympathies and emotions of the readers.
I couldn’t agree more!