A Turgenev Roundup: Rudin, On the Eve, & Robert Dessaix’s Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev

rudin-penguin-turgenev-big-514q04r4xl-_sx319_bo1204203200_I spent the first week of January rereading Turgenev.  It has been freezing cold here, down to zero at night.   Except for a  jaunt to the stunning musical, La La Land, choreographed by Mandy Moore of Dancing with the Stars, I have toughed out the cold under blankets with tea and books.

I finished Rudin, Turgenev’s first novel, On the Eve, his second novel, and Robert Dessaix’s bibliomemoir, Twilight of Love:  Travels with Turgenev.  Since I have already written about these books and want to share my enthusiasm, I am posting slightly revised versions of  previous posts.

on-the-eve-penguin-turgenev-9780140440096ON THE EVE (1860)

I have read both Constance Garnett’s translation ( free on the internet) and Gilbert Gardiner’s translation (Penguin, Folio Society). This was Henry James’ favorite Turgenev novel.

Set on the eve of the Crimean War and written in 1859, the year before the emancipation of the Russian serfs, this stunning novel reflects Turgenev’s own agitation on the brink of political unrest.  In the introduction to the Folio Society edition, Hisham Matar quotes one of  Turgenev’s  letters. 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?

At the center of the novel is one of Turgenev’s most  intense heroines, Elena, an aristocratic young woman who lives in the country and longs to  fall in love or undergo some life-changing experience.   The daughter of a hypochondriac mother and a materialistic father who openly visits his mistress,  Elena has high ideals and wants a change.  She “struggled like a bird in a cage, though there was no cage.”

The Folio Society edition

The Folio Society edition

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…

Men  fall in love with Elena.  Two close friends, Bersyenev, a philosopher, and Shubin,  an artist who loves to tease, are enjoying their summer in the country.  Both young men are in love with Elena, whose cousin Shubin, is staying with her family.  She cannot take Shubin seriously, and anyway he has made out with  Zoya, a German girl who is  her companion.  She is more interested in Bersyenev,  but she falls in love with Insarov, a Bulgarian revolutionary in exile.  She needs the political cause as much as love, but her journey does not end where you think it will.


An illustration of Elena looking out the window (Folio Society edition)

An illustration of Elena looking out the window (Folio Society edition)

RUDIN (1856)

I enjoyed both Constance Garnett’s translation (Faber Finds, or free on the internet) and Richard Freeman’s translation (Penguin).

turgenev rudin constance garnett 17179.books.origjpgRudin, Turgenev’s first novel, is elegant, lyrical, and spellbinding.  Not much happens, but you don’t need action with this exquisite level of lyricism.  The characters are delicately drawn, like figures in a water-color painting.   They converse endlessly and take long walks, and we learn about them mostly through dialogue

Turgenev  begins the novelwith the first of many walks.

She moved without haste and as though she were enjoying the walk. The high nodding rye all round her moved in long softly rustling waves, taking here a shade of silvery green and there a ripple of red; the larks were trilling overhead. The young woman had come from her own estate, which was not more than a mile from the village to which she was turning her steps.

The walker is Alexandra Palovna Lipin, a widow who lives with her brother. She is on her way to visit a sick old womanand meets Lezhvyon, an intelligent, eccentric  landowner who is in love with her.  Both love the quiet rural life in Russia.

These two are contrasted with their urbane neighbor, Darya Mihailovna, a pseudo-intellectual who holds a  salon at her summer country house. Her guests include Pigasov, a misanthropic old man,  Pandavlevsky,  a parasite, and Bassistoff, a tutor. But it is her teenage daughter, Natalya, who is most susceptible to the charms of strangers.

As in so many of Turgenev’s novels, the action, such as it is, is touched off by the appearance of an outsider.  Rudin, a stranger, arrives unexpectedly at Darya Mihailovna’s estate, bearing a note from her friend the baron.  She invites Rudin to stay.  He dominates the conversation, and he turns ideas  and relationships upside-down as he discourses on philosophy and human nature. Only Lezhvyon, who knew Rudin years ago, is unimpressed.  As each character gradually finds that Rudin is not quite who he seems to be, Rudin himself undergoes a transformation.


dessaix-travels-with-turgenev-439938This short, lyrical,  meditative book is part biography of Turgenev, part memoir/travel book, and part literary criticism.  If I were Oprah, and thank God I’m not, because then I’d have to share my thoughts by underlining passages for the special e-book version, Dessaix’s Turgenev-inspired travel book would be my Book Club “pick.”

Dessaix, an award-winning Australian writer, novelist, scholar, and former Russian professor, fuses personal and literary history. This genre-bending volume of belles-lettres is divided into three parts: Baden-Baden, France, and Russia. As Dessaix retraces Turgenev’s footsteps and sight-sees with his friends, he meditates on his own relationship with Russian literature, and connects his own Australian identity to the “barbaric” Russian identity of Turgenev in the 19th century (both places were said to have “no culture,” and travel to Europe was necessary for intellectual development). Dessaix recreates not only the atmosphere and mood of Turgenev’s 19th-century world and novels, but also describes the changes in Europe and Russia since the ’60s and ’70s when he first traveled there.

Turgenev’s Rudin

turgenev rudin constance garnett 17179.books.origjpgTurgenev is one of my favorite writers.

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.

Turgenev Penguin Rudin

The Richard Freeborn translation.

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.

David McDuff's translation.

David McDuff’s translation.

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.

Dora O'Brien's translation.

Dora O’Brien’s translation.

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!