Turgenev’s The Diary of a Superfluous Man

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Turgenev is one of my favorite Russian writers.

But I wonder:  Who reads Turgenev now?  My guess is he is one of Russia’s best-kept secrets. Sure, he is dubbed one of the “giants” of nineteenth-century Russian literature, along with Chekhov, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, but his name doesn’t resonate with the average reader.  Type the phrase “Turgenev reviews” on Google and you’ll find a paltry 206,000  results,  while “Chekhov reviews” garners 511,000, Tolstoy 453,000, and Dostoevsky 435,000.  Does this unscientific survey mean the other three are more than twice as popular!

Well, I read Turgenev’s short, luminous books over and over. No one writes better about love and politics. His characters include fiery nihilists, intellectual women, star-crossed lovers, and aristocrats who are nostalgic for a simpler time.  Their fervent discussions of love and politics not only reflect the concerns of 19th century Russia but of our own time.  They are as confused about politics as we were during the recent election.

Whatever the year, Turgenev is relevant. I have blogged about Fathers and Sons twice once here, and once at my old blog.  In 2012, the year of the Occupy Wall Street movement, I mused on the role of the nihilist anti-hero Bazarov in Fathers and Sons in a post (at my old blog, Frisbee:  A Book Journal) titled  “Would Turgenev’s Bazarov Occupy? And I wrote here again about Fathers and Sons in 2015.

borzoi-turgenev-12478287572If you are a fan of elegant prose and originality, you’ve got to read Turgenev.  I have read his  gorgeous novels innumerable times and am jsut discovering the stories.   I recently  read  and enjoyed his 1850  novella, The Diary of a Superfluous Man.  (I read Harry Stevens’ translation in The Borzoi Turgenev, a collection of four novels and three long stories.)

Chulkatirin, the cynical hero of The Diary of a Superfluous Man, considers himself an unimportant man who accomplished nothing in his life.  He calls himself “a superfluous man.”  Literary critics adopted Turgenev’s phrase to describe a popular character type in 19th-century Russian literature.  Two of Chulkatirin’s “superfluous man” predecessors are Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, and Lermontov’s Pechorin in  A Hero of Our Time.  All three are courteous, attractive, and well-educated, but are too cynical, bored, and contemptuous of society to define a goal or prove their high opinion of themselves. And they cannot resist fighting pointless duels.  (By the way, both Pushkin and Lermontov died in duels.)

As The Diary of a Superfluous Man opens, the dying hero Chulkaturin decides to start a diary .  He wants to analyze his life.   He claims he accomplished nothing and was unloved and superfluous.  He coins the phrase “superfluous man.”

Superfluous, superfluous…  I have thought of an excellent word.  The farther I penetrate into myself, the more closely I examine all my past life, the more convinced I am of the stern truth of that expression.  Superfluous–precisely.  To other people that word is not applicable.  People are bad, good, intelligent, stupid, pleasant, and unpleasant; but superfluous…no.  Yet understand me:  even without these people the universe could manage quite well–of course; but uselessness is not their main quality, not their distinctive characteristic, and when you speak of them the word ‘superfluous’ is not the first to come to the tongue.  But I–about me it is not possible to say anything else:  I am superfluous, and that is all there is to it.

diary-of-a-superfluous-man-turgenev-9780486287751Chulkatirin sketches his early life, but then zeroes in on the events of the few short vivid months he spent in the district town O—-.  During his stay, he  fell  in love with Liza,  the pretty daughter of  Kirila Matveevich Ozhogin, a wealthy county official.  Though he had difficulty expressing himself and was not socially astute, Chulkatirin believed that her politeness indicated she returned his feelings.   Then Prince N. arrived, and Liza is radiant when he is in the room.  Chulkatirin assumes  her vivacity is aimed at him, not the prince.  Finally, at a ball, Chulkatirin cannot ignore her radiance as she dances the mazurka with Prince N. and realizes the two are in love.  He insults Prince N. and they fight a duel which proves to be ridiculous:  the superfluous man’s life is a comedy.  What does Chulkatirin gain by his passion?  Nothing.

Russian novels are chock-full of superfluous men, including the famous Bazarov in Fathers and Sons.  Finally I know the source of the phrase.

37 thoughts on “Turgenev’s The Diary of a Superfluous Man

  1. Thanks for post! Is C. Garnett any good??? I’ve always read that she left out any passages she didn’t understand… thanks for feedback. Ouiser.

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  2. Turgenev has always been one of my favorite writers. As I seem to read nothing but disparaging references to Constance Garnett lately, it’s refreshing to hear that you appreciate her. Years ago her translations of the Russians seemed to be the only ones available to me and I enjoyed them very much.

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    • A few years ago I read a piece in The Guardian saying Garnett was a writer’s hero! I reevaluated her then and realized I didn’t know WHERE i’d heard she made so many mistakes. I read some of her translations on an e-reader (free from Project Gutenberg!) when I was taking long weekend bike rides and I loved them! I can’t read her War and Peace because I need notes (and there doesn’t seem to be an edition with notes!), but I have certainly enjoyed Garnett. And you’re right: they’re available! The NYRB edition of Virgin Soil is Garnett’s, so she must be respected!

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      • I recently bought the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace (soon, I hope, to be read; it’s been much too long since I last read it). I loved their Anna Karenina. I just checked my Turgenev: The Torrents of Spring and Fathers and Sons are both Garnett; On the Eve was translated by Gilbert Gardiner and Sketches from a Hunter’s Album was done by Richard Freeborn.

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        • I love Pevear and Volokhonsky! They’ve done so much for Russian literature. Hey, those Turgenev editions sound familiar. I’ve never read a bad translation of T!

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  3. Constance Garnett is the gold standard when it comes to Russian literature in translation. Recently the husband & wife team of Pevear and Volokhonsky have been issuing new translations of the classics but they have their critics.

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    • I think she’s wonderful, too. I appreciate her more now that I am older. Her translations of Turgenev are much more elegant than the one I just read (which was very good too).

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  4. My guess is English readers know Turgenev best from his novella, Fathers and Sons, and one of his plays — which can be found done in American repertoire companies in the summer. I’ve seen his A Month in the Country at least twice. I found the two stories I tried weak. It could have been the translation. I am wondering if he looks at women in a way that might lead him to feel for the superfluous woman. Or were they hidden by social conformity in 19th century Russia?

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    • His women characters are very good, too. Some are radicals, others intellectuals, but I don’t remember any “superfluous” women offhand. They’re too emotionally involve.

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      • Kat I have to quibble with you a bit. Bazarov was not and could not have been a “superfluous man” as he was of the younger generation and a nihilist. That prize goes to Pavel Petrovich.

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        • Interesting interpretation and you could argue the point! But Bazarov is in the direct lineage of Eugene Onegin and Pechorin (A Hero of His Time): intelligent, cynical, bored by society, indifferent, rejects traditions, but has nothing to replace them with. Like his predecessors, he flirts inappropriately, in his case with his host’s mistress (Onegin with his best friend’s fiancee, Pechorin with more than one) and all three fight duels. And thus the critics label him a superfluous man!

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  5. I just love Turgenev and agree that he is totally underestimated, he is such a pleasure to read! But I too have a small scale, not ver scientific, survey: I write about Russian literature on my blog in both English and Dutch, and the statistics tell me that with the Dutch readers Turgenev is the most popular 😊 Happy reading!

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