“My God! What a magnificent thing Fathers and Sons is! It simply makes you desperate.”–Chekhov in a letter to A. S. Suvorin in 1893.
I have just read Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons for the fifth time.
It is a masterpiece in any translation. I especially admire the graceful translation of Constance Garnett, who introduced the Russian novelists to English readers of the early twentieth century, such as Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield. (Garnett is very good at Turgenev; less good at Tolstoy.) Turgenev’s elegant prose, his witty dialogue, the succinct development of philosophical and political arguments, and his depictions of doting parents and rebellious youth are pitch-perfect. Although I may prefer Turgenev’s gentle, comic unmasking of the phony intellectual in his first novel, Rudin, I return again and again to the classic, Fathers and Sons.
Fathers and Sons sparked an explosion of debate among readers, though this is not what Turgenev intended. He was primarily an aesthete, known for beautifully-written novels of talk, not of action. But his depiction of the hero, Bazarov, a nihilist outsider who causes turmoil when he visits his friend Arkady at his country home, enraged both radicals and conservatives. Some thought the character was too sympathetic, others that he disparaged youth.
No novel has ever caused more controversy in Russia, wrote Sir Isaiah Berlin in “Fathers and Children: Turgenev and the Liberal Predicament.” And Ralph Matlaw wrote in the preface to Fathers and Sons (Norton, 1989), “The controversy is not yet over. It has flared up in a new form in the Soviet Union, and in various ways it engages the attention of all who write on Turgenev, so that it becomes a central problem for those who study Russian intellectual life in the second half of the nineteenth century.”
Fathers and Sons is about the conflict between generations, and the mid-19th-century conflict between nihilism and humanism. As in many of Turgenev’s novels, an outsider arrives and causes trouble. But the novel begins charmingly with with the eagerness of a father waiting for his son, Arkady. Nikolai Petrovitch Kirsavov has been waiting at the posting station for for five hours. Arkady has just graduated from the university. The natural, easy dialogue below shows their closeness, though Turgenev tells us that Nikolai Petrovitch is timid in the presence of his son.
“Let me shake myself first, daddy,” said Arkady, in a voice tired from travelling, but boyish and clear as a bell, as he gaily responded to his father’s caresses; “I am covering you with dust.”
“Never mind, never mind,” repeated Nikolai Petrovitch, smiling tenderly, and twice he struck the collar of his son’s cloak and his own great-coat with his hand. “Let me have a look at you; let me have a look at you,” he added, moving back from him, but immediately he went with hurried steps towards the yard of the station, calling, “This way, this way; horses at once.”
Fathers desperately look forward to their sons’ return after their graduation from the university, but the sons do not really want to come home. Arkady has brought Bazarov with him, and Bazarov, a natural science graduate and aspiring doctor, despises the arts and poetry beloved by Arkady’s father and his uncle, Pavel Petrovitch, and temporarily persuades Arkady that nihilism is the way to the revolution. Arkady takes away his father’s edition of Pushkin, because humanism is dead. Pavel Petrovitch is especially indignant.
There is also a love story: Arkady and Bazarov leave his father’s house to go to a town. They go to a ball and meet a beautiful intellectual woman, Madame Odintsov. Both are infatuated, but Arkady prefers the down-to-earth Katya, Madame Odintso’v sister. Neither Bazarov nor Madame Odintsov are very good at emotional engagements, though they are attracted.
Then Bazarov takes Arkady to his home, and his doctor father and housewife mother are very emotional. Bazarov cannot bear the emotion: after a few days, they return to Arkady’s father’s estate.
There is a kiss, and a duel. I will not tell you more. But the unfeeling Bazarov becomes more sympathetic. We may hate his views–please, I love art and poetry!–but we do not wish him ill. In the end, humanism prevails.
But the Russian radicals thought Turgenev was vilifying them through Bazarov, and the conservatives believed Bazarov was too sympathetic. The power of a good book.
Turgenev was stunned by the fury. He was interested in portraying his time and different social types.
It is a great book–powerful and realistic.