A Turgenev Sighting in “Women in Love”

After reading much excellent but verbose nineteenth-century fiction this winter, I am finding D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love a breath of fresh air. 

 I am a huge Lawrence fan.  I have always loved this book, and I feel a deep affection for the two heroines, the Brangwen sisters, Ursula, a competent teacher who is both creative and sensual, and Gudrun, an artist who has returned from London and works as an art teacher.

I first read Women in Love after I saw the 1969 movie, directed by Ken Russell, starring Glenda Jackson, Jennie Linden, Alan Bates, and Oliver Reed. Its flamboyance was very much in keeping with the ’60s.  (My guess is that I didn’t see it till the ’70s, though, because it was R-rated, and how would we have gotten in?)  My best friend and I giggled and called each other Ursula and Gudrun.  We both loved and mocked Lawrence!

The publication in 1969 of Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics seemed to excise Lawrence from the canon for women of my generation, but I never minded his maunderings about sex, and read him for his poeticism and philosophical dialogue.  I don’t think he is sexist.  What would that mean in the context of his work?  But I admit, when I was in high school, we did mock the dialogue.  Here is how the women talk.

‘Ursula,’ said Gudrun, ‘don’t you really want to get married?’ Ursula laid her embroidery in her lap and looked up. Her face was calm and considerate. ‘

‘I don’t know,’ she replied. ‘It depends how you mean.’

So we used to repeat the dialogue and giggle, as was our wont.

Anyway I was delighted in this rereading by a Turgenev sighting. (I have also read a lot of Turgenev lately.)  At a country house party, an Italian woman is sitting on the lawn reading Fathers and Sons, and she finds a very odd phrases in the translation.

“There is a most beautiful thing in my book,” suddenly piped the little Italian woman. ‘It says the man came to the door and threw his eyes down the street.’

There was a general laugh in the company. Miss Bradley went and looked over the shoulder of the Contessa.

‘See!’ said the Contessa.

‘Bazarov came to the door and threw his eyes hurriedly down the street,’ she read.

Again there was a loud laugh, the most startling of which was the Baronet’s, which rattled out like a clatter of falling stones.

‘What is the book?’ asked Alexander, promptly.

Fathers and Sons, by Turgenev,’ said the little foreigner, pronouncing every syllable distinctly. She looked at the cover, to verify herself.

‘An old American edition,’ said Birkin.

‘Ha!—of course—translated from the French,’ said Alexander, with a fine declamatory voice.” ‘Bazarov ouvra la porte et jeta les yeux dans la rue.’

He looked brightly round the company.”

‘I wonder what the “hurriedly” was,’ said Ursula.

They all began to guess.

I wonder what American translation that was? I never thought of anybody translating a Russian novel from the French.

A scene from the movie, “Women in Love”

On Reading Turgenev: Turgenev’s Smoke and V. S. Pritchett’s The Gentle Barbarian

pritchett-turgenev-9780880011204-us-300Since New Year’s Day, I’ve been been absorbed in Turgenev’s books: Diary of a Superfluous Man, Rudin, Home of the Gentry, On the Eve, Smoke, and some of the longer stories. I recently finished Mumu, the very sad story of a deaf-mute peasant and his loyal dog, and then depressed everyone by retelling it.

Why this zest for Turgenev?

Well, it’s winter.  I read Russians in winter.

And the holidays were so depressing.

smoke-turgenevI don’t know about you, but on New Year’s Day I shopped for reams of paper and a new calendar diary.  Then I went to a coffeehouse and sat among bleary-eyed customers who stared askance at their Christmas bills.

Turgenev’s novels, usually set in spring or summer, are a wonderful escape from winter.  They are short and lyrical; his fluid style is deceptively simple. Characters are revealed in dialogue as they take country walks  or sit in comfortable drawing rooms, and Turgenev, a successful playwright, had an ear for dialogue.  He wrote about love and politics, and  analyzed the Russian character.  He describes the tension between Western-oriented intellectuals (known as Westerners) and the radical Slavophils who emerged after the Crimean War.  Turgenev was a Westerner.

I’ve blogged much about Turgenev lately, but want to say a few words about Smoke and V. S. Pritchett’s stunning literary biography, The Gentle Barbarian: The Work and Life of Turgenev.

smoke-turgenev-garnett-51npupcvybl-_sx322_bo1204203200_In Smoke, Turgenev’s penultimate novel, set in Baden-Baden, he satirizes both the Slavophil radicals and the Russian gentry. The young hero, Litvinov, a landowner who has studied farming methods for four years, is on his way back to Russia to manage his estate and facilitate the emancipation of the serfs.  He stops in Baden-Baden, a gambling resort, to wait for his fiancée, Tatyana, and her aunt, who are expected in a few days.  He reluctantly attends a very unpleasant party of  radical Slavophils who imagine they can live like the peasants;  he is equally infuriated by a group of effete aristocrats who oppose the emancipation.

Turgenev fits politics into this novel, but there is also a fascinating love affair. Litvinov meets Irina, his former fiancee, who jilted him.  This femme fatale, who is in Baden-Baden with her wealthy husband,  mocks the politics of the aristocrats, but clearly likes her clothes and life-style.  Yet she cannot resist seducing Litvinov after she learns he is engaged.

Turgenev identified with Irina’s friend, Potugin, who has followed her all around Russia and to Baden-Baden.  This earnest, intelligent middle-aged man approaches Litvinov on her behalf, almost as a pimp.  But he and Litvinov are both Westerners, and Potugin, in a passionate but awkward speech (usually Turgenev is elegant), voices Turgenev’s ideas:

…given a dozen Frenchmen, and the conversation will infallibly turn upon amorous adventures, however much you try to divert them from the subject; but let a dozen Russians meet together, and instantly there springs up the question—you had an opportunity of being convinced of the fact this evening—the question of the significance and the future of Russia, and in terms so general, beginning with creation, without facts or conclusions. They worry and worry away at that unlucky subject, as children chew away at a bit of india-rubber—neither for pleasure nor profit, as the saying is. Well, then, of course the rotten West comes in for its share. It’s a curious thing, it beats us at every point.”

I found V. S. Pritchett’s biography, The Gentle Barbarian:  The Work and Life of Turgenev, fascinating and also very helpful in explaining 19th-century Russian history and the rift between the different groups. Like Potugin in Smoke, Turgenev was in love with a married woman, Pauline Viardot.  He lived for years off and on with Pauline, a Spanish opera singer, and her husband.  It is not clear whether he had sex with her or not; Pritchett and other biographers seem  to think not.  Or perhaps they were briefly involved, and then lived together as friends.

Ivan Turgenev

Ivan Turgenev

A landowner and the son of an overbearing, abusive woman, Turgenev escaped his mother to study at universities in Moscow, Petersburg, and Germany.  His career as a writer in Russia was successful but he paid the price:  he was jailed for a month after he wrote a eulogy of Gogol, and then a letter to a friend was intercepted. Goncharov, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy were  jealous of his success.  Goncharov accused Turgenev of plagiarism (there were no grounds), Dostoevsky, a right-winger and a gambler whom Turgenev tried to help, caricatured him in The Brothers Karamazov, and Tolstoy, who never realized it was Turgenev who had pushed for the French translation of  War and Peace,   was very pugnacious with hims.   In Russia, writers were constantly censored, exiled, or jailed.  It was dangerous.  But in France, Turgenev found friends.   He was appreciated by Flaubert and George Sand.

Pritchett describes Turgenev as a gentle, shy, plumpish giant. As a young man, he fell in love with Pauline Viardot’s voice at the opera and went over and over:  he couldn’t afford it, so he went with friends.. Turgenev writes,

His gentleness and shyness vanished as his shrill voice screamed applause, his mad behaviour was the joke of the season. There is nothing like the sight of a giant who is out of his mind.

This short perfect biography, only 258 pages, is beautifully written and very accessible in terms of literary criticism.  Pritchett brilliant.  Would that all biographers had his style!

And I love Turgenev, “a giant who [was] out of his mind!”

Russian Lit Night: Turgenev’s Home of the Gentry & Dostoevsky’s The Gambler


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-nest-of-gentlefolk-11127107760Turgenev’s Home of the Gentry, his second novel, was published in 1859.  The title has been translated variously as Home of the Gentry,  Nest of Gentlefolk, A Nobleman’s Nest, and Liza

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.

An illustration from "Home of the Gentry" by Dmitry Kardovsky

An illustration from “Home of the Gentry” by Dmitry Kardovsky

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-gambler-dostoevsky-ad5495abf5The 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.

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 The Diary of a Superfluous Man


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.

My Russian Lit 101 Office!

Russian 101 Office (My Bed!)

                      The Russian Lit Office:  My Bed!

My Russian lit office is set up for the winter.  Actually, it’s my  bed.

We had our first snowfall today, so I retired to my warm bed to read a Russian novel. The wintry scenes in Russian novels brace me to endure the cold. I picture myself as Natasha in War and Peace, mischievously dressed up as a Hussar, riding in a sleigh at Christmas with the mummers;  Chichikov in Dead Souls, driving through the provinces in a “rather handsome, smallish spring britzka, of the sort driven around in by bachelors”; or Eugene Onegin (in the Mitchell translation) dealing with winter ennui under his lonely roof because:

What pastime can you find that’s pleasing?
Out in the backwoods? Walking? Try.
For all the countryside is freezing.

Here’s how Russian lit-crazy I go in winter:  this week I’ve reread  three Russian novels, Gogol’s Dead Souls and two by Turgenev, The Home of the Gentry and  First Love.

And I recently found an old college notebook (that tatty green thing in the snapshot above) with my notes for a class in Russian Literature in Translation.  My sketchy  notes are strangely touching–I do like myself as  a young woman discovering Russian literature–and  have also inspired me to go back to the nineteenth century.

fathers and sons turgenev 51FN7Uw7+BL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_We spent a lot of time reading Turgenev. I am very fond of Turgenev.  I recently reread Fathers and Sons.  Turgenev brilliantly personifies the split between humanism and nihilism as a generational conflict.  The hero, Bazarov,  is a nihilist, a recent science graduate who dissects frogs and despises art and literature.  On a  visit to the country home of his nihilist friend  Arkady, Bazarov clashes with Arkady’s uncle and patronizes Arkady’s  father, both humanists.  Bazarov’s father and mother cannot understand his views.  And he comes to a tragic end.  Some of my notes on Turgenev are quite interesting, but I am most impressed by  scribbled questions (perhaps to consider for an essay? Or  class discussion?  God only knows.):

  • Is the novel really about generational split?
  • the use of philosophy and political discussions
  • Integration of love affairs
  • which characters truly similar and dissimilar
  • In what respects is Bazarov a positive hero?
  • Is Bazarov a victim or suicide?

By Dec. 3, near the end of the semester, my notes were mere hieroglyphs.   They reflect a bullet-list undergraduate ennui:

  • Dostoevsky spokesman for conservatives:  THE Christian writer, but also convincingly presents views of radicals.  Polit left to polit right, possibly because of experiences in prison.
  • Question of existence or non-existence of God.
  • intellectual and moral honesty in novels.
  • religion helped him endure his hard life.
  • Belinsky thought D’s works should do for Russia what Dickens did for England.

Could I possibly have elaborated on those topics! What was I thinking?   I can only hope I read the introductions to my Dostovesky books!

To supplement my erratic  notes, I got out Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature.   He did not like Dostoevsky, who was never one of my favorites.

My position in regard to Dostoevski is a curious and difficult one.  In all my courses I approach literature from the only point of view that literature interests me–namely the point of view of enduring art and individual genius.  From this point of view Dostoevski is not a great writer, but a rather mediocre one–with flashes of excellent humor, but, alas, with wastelands of literary platitudes in between.

And here I thought it was just the translations.  Well, perhaps I’ll try the Pevear and Volokhonsky translations.  Or perhaps I’ll skip the rereading of Dostoevsky.

Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons

Constance Garnett Fathers and Sons 51VqYYrYBKL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_

“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.”

Illustration of Bazarov and Madame Odintsov, by Fritz Eichenberg (Heritage Press edition of Fathers and Sons)

Illustration of Bazarov and Madame Odintsov, by Fritz Eichenberg (Heritage Press edition of Fathers and Sons)

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.

A Russian Literature Binge: Turgenev’s On the Eve & Chekhov’s The Collected Stories, Vol. 1

turgenev on the EVE

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…

turgeneve illustration elena EVE_13105504090

Illustration by Lauren Nassef (Folio Society)

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.

Chekhov folio society img_31331In 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.

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!

Postettes: Turgenev’s Virgin Soil & T. H. White’s The Goshawk

Turgenev Manor House

Turgenev Manor House

I cannot write at length about every book I read, so here are quick “postettes” on two of the most brilliant books I’ve read this year, Turgenev’s Virgin Soil and T. H. White’s The Goshawk.

Turgenev’s Virgin Soil.  I have a passion for 19th-century Russian writers.  Pushkin, Gogol, Goncharov, Tolstoy…

But if I had an opportunity to meet one, I would choose Turgenev.  This charming writer of lyrical, philosophical novels sounds more down-to-earth than the others.  If I visited him in Baden-Baden, one of his favorite cities (he preferred Europe to Russia), I could wear preppy  L. L. Bean or slightly hippieish J. Jill rather than the sackcloth and ashes Tolstoy went in for.

Turgenev’s most famous novel is Fathers and Sons, a powerful story of two young nihilists, the gentle Arkady  and the scientific Bazarov,  and the divergence of politics between different generations.

IMG_3018Virgin Soil, Turgenev’s last novel, is also a masterpiece.  I recently read  Constance Garnett’s graceful translation in the NYRB edition.

In this little-known classic, Turgenev depicts the lives of idealistic Russian revolutionaries of the late 1860s and 1870s.  The radical movement, known as populism, brought together young educated Russians with the peasants as they sought to eradicate the class difference.

The moody hero, Nezhdanov, is the bastard son of an aristocrat, and is involved in a revolutionary group in St. Petersburg.  Depressed and disillusioned, he takes a job as a tutor in the country.  He soon grows to despise his upper-class employers,  despite the vivacity of the mistress of the house, Valentina Mihalovna.  And then he falls in love with their niece, Marianna,  a passionate young populist.  The two young people want to make contact with the peasants, but Nezhdavov simply cannot communicate with them.  Marianna remains enthusiastic, especially after they befriend a radical factory manager.  Other revolutionaries include a rash upper-class man who acts too precipitately and a lonely man who becomes a traitor by talking too much.  The novel combines action with philosophy and politics.

Sounds a bit like the politics of the 1960s, doesn’t it?

IMG_3017T. H. White’s The Goshawk.  I read this only because I have read so much about Helen Macdonald’s Costa Award-winning H Is for Hawk, her memoir of training a goshawk.  She was inspired  partly by White’s book.

The Goshawk is the story of White’s adventures in falconry, focusing on his training of a goshawk, the wildest of all hawks.

He ordered the bird from Germany..  It arrived terrified in a basket.  White named it Gos.

T. S. White: I'm not sure what the birds are.

T. S. White: I’m not sure what the birds are.

Although the writing is extraordinarily graceful, at first White’s account of the cruel training of Gos nauseated me. Only the splendid writing kept me going.  White learned about falconry from a book published in the Renaissance.  Keeping the bird awake for three to nine days until he took food from his trainer’s hand was considered more effectual than any other method.  The trainer also had to keep awake.

White explains,

In teaching a hawk it was useless to bludgeon the creature into submission.  The raptors had no tradition of masochism, and the more one menaced or tortured them, the more they menaced in return.  Wild and intransigent, it was yet necessary to “break” them somehow or other, before they could be tamed and taught.  Any cruelty, being immediately resented, was worse than useless, because the bird would never bend or break to it.  He possessed the last inviolable sanctuary of death.  The mishandled raptor chose to die.

After White got beyond the initial stages, I became fascinated.   He also discusses humane shortcuts he learned after going by the book.

He fascinatingly describes the  many pitfalls in the man-bird relationship. It was one step forward, two steps back.  White truly loved Gos, but Gos needed wildness.  It was who Gos was.

Animal stories are always sad, are they not?  This is no exception.

White is so elegant a writer, and the book is so perfectly-written that I did not  take notes in it at all. And that’s a tribute to this great classic.