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 (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
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)
I enjoyed both Constance Garnett’s translation (Faber Finds, or free on the internet) and Richard Freeman’s translation (Penguin).
Rudin, 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.
ROBERT DESSAIX’S TWILIGHT OF LOVE: TRAVELS WITH TURGENEV.
This 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.