I am entranced by nineteenth-century Russian literature. It is not just for entertainment: it is the pleasure of tracing the development of Russian fiction from Pushkin to Chekhov. Pushkin, the “father of Russian literature,” developed literary Russian when French was the preferred language and aristocrats seldom wrote in Russian. He is best known for Eugene Onegin, a stunning novel in verse, but he made the transition from poetry to prose, and his influence ranges from Lermontov to Chekhov .
Tonight I’m writing a catch-up post about Turgenev’s Home of the Gentry and Dostoevsky’s The Gambler. Turgenev is sprightly and lyrical; Dostoevsky, never my favorite, is, thank God, less moody and masochistic here than usual,.
Turgenev is known for his portraits of the “superfluous man,” an intellectual character with a Hamlet-like garrulousness and inability to act. His first novel, Rudin, centers on a shallow Westernized intellectual who has become a parasite on Russian society. In later novels, he censured the “superfluous man” less and expanded his range of thoughts and feelings. In Home of the Gentry, Lavretsky, the hero, is self-doubting but multi-faceted, with the ability to change. He has left his promiscuous wife, Varvara, in Europe with her lover. and returned to his estate in Russia to find himself and “plough the land.”
Yes, in case you’re wondering, this short novel is a predecessor of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, focused on the slow rehabilitation of the cuckolded husband. Turgenev’s style is exquisite and every action and interaction has a reason. Lavretsky reminds me of Levin, the irritable landowner in Anna Karenina. But Varvara is truly Machiavellian, not at all like Anna.
Like so many of Turgenev’s novels, it develops through sketches of everyday life , sharp dialogue, and gorgeous descriptions of characters and landscape. The nature scenes are incomparably beautiful.
Home of the Gentry begins in spring, at the house of Marya Dmietrievna Kalitan, a widow and the mother of two daughters, who lives in the provincial town of O….
Here is the opening sentence.
A bright spring day was drawing toward evening; small pink clouds stood high in the clear sky and seemed not so much to float past as to recede into the very depths of the blue.
Guests arrive one by one, and the most important to the hostess is Panshin, a smooth-talking, charming government official who is courting her daughter, Liza. But the gossip soon turns to Lavretsky: the women believe he should have stayed with his wife.
Lavretsky drops in at the house unexpectedly, makes courteous conversation, drinks tea, and dislikes the shallow Panshin, who is his rival . (Panshin is he Westernized superfluous man, though he does not regard himself as such.) Lavretsky is intrigued by the lovely, intense, religious young woman Liza, one of Turgenev’s many graceful, heroines. In fact, all the men are in love with Liza, including her poor, elderly German music teacher, Lemm. The attraction between Lavretsky and Liza is palpable, but she asks him to pray with her for forgiveness of his wife and advises him to reconcile with Varvara. Their experience in church together is almost erotic: it is their propinquity. When Lavretsky reads a rumor in the newspaper that his wife is dead, he believes he has a shot at happiness with Liza. Well…that is not how it works in Turgenev.
I love the contrast between Varvara and Liza. We feel Liza’a intensity, and realize she is aredently in love beneath the piety. But Turgenev turns Liza turns into a stereotype. That is the flaw in this otherwise perfect book.
I read Richard Freeborn’s very readable translation, but have never yet found a bad translation of Turgenev.
Dostoevsky’s The Gambler (1866) . I’m not a fan of dark psychological novels, but this tale of gambling in Baden-Baden is short, fast ,and relatively cheerful. In fact it is not so very far from the charm and grace of Turgenev. (Turgenev’s novel Smoke is also set in Baden-Baden, though it is not a gambling story.)
The narrator Alexei Ivanovicha, a tutor, is staying in a hotel in Baden-Baden with his employer, the General, an inveterate gambler. Furious about his inferior status in the household, Alexei believes himself the equal of the general and his hangers-on, and is in love with the general’s stepdaughter Polina, a bitter young woman who also has low status in the household and no control over her fate. The genera is in thrall to a seductive Frenchwoman, who will marry him only if he inherits money from a rich aunt. There are countless telegrams sent to see if she is dead. When the aunt, called Grandmother, shows up, alive and kicking, and insists that Alexei show her the ropes of roulette, everyone watches in horror. When Alexei begins to gamble, too… well, it could be darker. Dostoveksy dictated this novel, so perhaps he didn’t have time to make it as truly horrific as we know he must have wanted to. He had missed a deadline!
George Steiner writes about The Gambler:
Gambling is a recurrent, almost obsessive motif in classic Russian literature. It is the core of Pushkin’s Queen of Spades; Gogol’s Dead Souls is a full-scale gambler’s myth; gambling appears constantly in Lermontov’s and Tolstoy’s tales of military, rural, and city life. The card table and debt of honor are a frequent source of temptation or suicidal ruin to the hero. The gambler at whist or billiards, now amateurish and reduced to petty stakes, is a stock figure in the repertoire of Chekhov.
Steiner is brilliant on Russian literature!
More next week….not necessarily about Russians.