Folio Society books are expensive, but they can help one recommit to the classics. After acquiring lovely editions of Turgenev’s On the Eve and a four-volume set of Chekhov’s short stories, I spent a happy summer indulging my enthusiasm for 19th-century Russian literature.
Turgenev is not spoken of with the same breathlessness as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, perhaps because short books are considered less demanding. But his lyrical style, sharp dialogue, and political and philosophical musings reflect the preoccupations of the time. Fathers and Sons is Turgenev’s best-known work, but his other books are also little gems. On the Eve (1860), his third novel, is an exquisite little book about politics and love that undeservedly has fallen out of print. The Folio Society has reissued Gilbert Gardiner’s elegant translation, first published by Penguin in 1950.
Set on the eve of the Crimean War and written the year before the emancipation of the serfs in Russia, this novel reflects Turgenev’s own restlessness on the brink of change. Hisham Matar quotes one of his letters in the introduction. Like one of his own despairing characters, Turgenev asks,
Is there any enthusiasm for anything left in the world? Do people still know how to sacrifice themselves? Can they enjoy life, behave foolishly, and have hopes for the future?
In On the Eve, Turgenev concentrates on four characters in their twenties, Bersyenev, a kind and studious philosopher, Shubin, an artist who often plays the clown, Insarov, a Bulgarian revolutionary, and Elena, the intense woman with whom all of them are in love. The wealthy Elena has too little to do: she reads widely and is charitable to the poor, but longs for something to take her out of herself. The daughter of a hypochondriac and a materialistic man with a mistress, “she struggled like a bird in a cage, though there was no cage.” After she almost died at 18, she longed for love or some meaningful experience.
Sometimes it seemed that she wanted something that no one else wanted, that no one dreamed of in all Russia. Then she would calm down, and spend day after day in carefree indifference, even laughing at herself; but suddenly some strong, some nameless thing which she could not control boiled up inside her and demanded to break out. The storm passed, the tired wings dropped without being flow; but these moods were not without their cost…
Turgenev’s descriptions of the country are lyrical, the philosophical arguments among the young heroes are hugely enjoyable, the eternal conflicts between the generations are realistic, and Turgenev’s women struggle to balance love with their ideals. In On the Eve, Bersyenev is by far the kindest character, but he does not get the girl. The revolutionary Insarov captures Elena’s love, and she becomes as political as he is. Virgin Smoke, his last novel, also about politics, is perhaps is a better book, but I loved On the Eve, and the ending is surprising. If you can find a copy, I urge you to read it.
I have struggled for years to comprehend the beauty of Chekhov’s stories in Constance Garnett’s translation: “The Kiss,” “The Lady With the Dog,” and “Ward Number Six.” Ronald Hingham’s translations, originally done for Oxford and reissued in this beautiful Folio Society set, have finally made me value the beauty of these stories. Today I am writing only about Volume 1.
In Volume 1, “The Steppe” is by far my favorite. It is really a 100-page novella, and the descriptive prose is reminiscent of Thomas Hardy’s. There isn’t much of a plot. Kuzmichov and Father Christopher Siriyski, both wool merchants, are on their way to the city to sell their wool; they are taking Kuzmichov’s nine-year-old nephew with them so they can drop him off to his new school. They stop at people’s houses to have dinner, camp out in fields and chat to rustics, and enjoy the ride. Little happens, but the dialogue is comical, and the descriptions of the country are sheer poetry.
In “Thieves,” the medical orderly, Yergunov, “a nonentity known in his district as a great braggart and drunkard,” stops at an inn in a blizzard. Also present are Kalashnikov, a horse thief, and Merik, a gypsy. The blowsy barmaid, Lyubka, flirts with all of them, but it is clear that she is not serious about Yergunov. These amateur criminals are way out of his league. And when they cheat Yergunov of his horse, he is not even surprised. More surprising is the fact that after Yergunov loses his job and been out of work for eighteen months he believes he has been missing out on fun andwonders if a good burglary might not be the ticket.
Is “Peasant Women.” Chekhov uses a frame narrative to tell the story. A traveller, Matthew, tells Dyudya, an entrepreneur who dabbles in everything from tar to honey and cattle, how he came to adopt a boy called Kuzka. Matthew used to live next door to a woman whose new husband goes to war. Soon Matthew is seeing Mashenka every day and advising her about her business. Soon after that, he moves in with her.
Then the husband returns, and things turn topsy turvy. Both men try to persuade Mashenka to go back to her husband. Instead, she kills him with arsenic because she is madly in love with Matthew. She is sentenced to a prison term. The son remains with Matthew. And the women of Dyudya’s house cry because they see that Kuzka is badly treated by Matthew. They think he needs to be with women, but they have no power.
Characterized by unexpected details, sharp dialogue, and masterly storytelling, Chekhov’s stories are mysterious and elegiac, precise and realistic. Hingley’s translation is excellent, and most of these stories appear in the Oxford World Classics edition of The Steppe and Other Stories.