Russians in the Snow: Ivan Turgenev

Ivan Turgenev: Fathers and Children, transl. Michael Pursglove, Alma Classics, 2015.

There seems to be a bit of revisionism going on with the titles of Turgenev’s work, and I wonder if this is because he was translated so early on, even during his own lifetime, since he lived abroad for much of his life, became good friends with Flaubert, and met all sorts of luminaries of the English literary establishment on his visits to Britain. For example, this novel was originally translated as ‘Fathers and Sons’ (which is largely accurate in terms of the characters portrayed), but the Russian original would be closer to Fathers and Offspring/Children – or so I am told. Another of his novels has been translated as ‘Home of the Gentry’, ‘A Nest of the Gentry’, ‘A Nest of Gentlefolk’.

Because Turgenev was quite concerned with the plight of the Russian peasant and was often satirical about the inertia of the noble classes in Tsarist Russia, even after land reforms, he was perceived as one of the acceptable Russian classics even during Communist times. Needless to say, that kind of praise was enough to put me off him, although I enjoyed his play A Month in the Country (which I seem to remember seeing performed in Bucharest at some point) and many of his short stories or novellas. I was very moved at the ti,e by ‘Mumu’ – the story about a young serf who sacrifices his dog, the only creature he has ever cared for and the only one who ever shows him some affection – although the interpretation of it from the dialectical materialist point of view left much to be desired.

Nowadays, I quite like a bit of social critique with my reading, but I wasn’t expecting Turgenev’s description of the conflicting points of view of the different generations to hit me personally. As a parent who is now older than the ‘forty-something’ Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov, one of the fathers in the story, I found myself more often than not siding with the older generation, understanding their eagerness to not displease their sons when they (infrequently) come home to visit, eager to keep up with their thoughts and vocabulary, even if privately thinking them a bit pretentious or exaggerated.

Nikolai is waiting for his son Arkady to come home after graduating from university. He is the owner of a modest estate in the provinces, which is not doing too well since the liberation of the serfs, probably because Nikolai is too kindly and weak as a landowner. Arkady brings his friend Bazarov, who is a self-proclaimed nihilist (the first time such a figure appears in literature, it is believed), and whose radical views have clearly influenced young Arkady very much. Arkady’s uncle Pavel, although normally a strong proponent of Western values and culture, poo-poohs Bazarov’s philosophy, but Nikolai is unsettled by it.

‘At the present time the most useful thing is rejection – and we reject.’

‘Everything?’

‘Everything.’

‘What? Not only art, poetry… but also… I’m afraid to say it.’

‘Everything,’ Bazarov repeated with ineffable calmness.

‘However, allow me,’ Nikolai Petrovich began. ‘You reject everything or, to put it more precisely, you destroy eveything… But one must build as well, mustn’t one?’

‘That’s none of our business… First of all we must clear the ground.’

Hmmm, I can see why the Communists liked this aspect of Turgenev! Although the author was clearly sympathetic to nihilists, seeing them as being of a scientific turn of mind, who will not accept anything without seriously questioning it, the term ‘nihilism’ soon acquired negative connotations following the publication of this book. You can see why, because Bazarov is not an easy character to like at first. He is smug and arrogant, delights in putting other people down and is often manipulative. While he might be justified in mocking the ‘all talk no action’ conservatism of Pavel, he is unnecessarily cruel and distant to others around him, including his own parents.

‘My dear [this is Bazarov’s father talking to his wife], on Yevgeni’s first visit we were a little bit of a nuisance to him: now we need to be a little wiser.’

Arina Vlasyevna agreed with her husband, but did not gain much from this because she only saw her son at the table and finally became frightened of talking to him at all.

‘Yevgeny, darling,’ she kept saying, and he would scarcely have time to glance in her direction, when, starting to finger the laces of her reticule, she would babble: ‘Never mind, never mind, I’m all right’ but would turn to Vasily Ivanovich and say to him…:’How can we find out, my dear, what darling Yevgeny wants for dinner today, cabbage soup or borsch?’ ‘Why haven’t you asked him yourself?’ ‘But I’ll bore him!’

In the constant battle between the old and the new, Turgenev does a great job of showing that both sides have their flaws. He allows Pavel, for instance, to land a few satirical punches as well, even if he is a typical representative of what Turgenev elsewhere called the ‘superfluous man’ – a well-educated dandy who does not use his position of power in society for any reform, but instead engages in all sorts of vices to allay his existential boredom. Blind to his own shortcomings, Pavel describes the nihilists in similar terms:

Young people used to have to study; they did not want to have the reputation of ignoramuses, so they worked hard willy-nilly. But now all they have to do is say “Everything in the world is rubbish” and the thing is in the bag. Young people are delighted. Before, they were simply dolts; now they’ve all suddenly become nihilists.

Yet it is Pavel who stands up for his brother’s honour by protecting his lower-class mistress, although his motives are not entirely pure. Incidentally, the father’s relationship with the daughter of the housekeeper, Fenechka, mirrors Turgenev’s own life: both he and his brother had affairs (in his brother’s case, even a marriage) across class boundaries.

Pride comes before a fall, and Bazarov finds out the limits of his philosophy and how deluded he was when he falls in love with the wealthy young widow Anna Sergeyevna. She invites him and Arkady to her home, enjoys their verbal sparring, but rejects him when he somewhat shame-facedly breaks down and admits his love for her. Anna is perhaps the personification of the philosophical stance he has tried to adopt: ‘having no prejudices of any kind, and no strong convictions even, she was not put off by obstacles and she had no goal in life’. She either does not recognise the depth of her feeling for Bazarov or else does not confuse temporary fascination with love. ‘Was there the truth, the absolute truth, in their words? They did not know themselves, and the author even less. But they had a conversation as if they completely believed one another.’

An attempted seduction, an almost farcical duel, a marriage proposal, an eavesdropped conversation and a death later, some of the sympathetic characters in the novel reconcile and have a happy end, while others are left to nurse their disappointment, or sorrow — or else embark upon new adventures. Arkady no longer is the eager disciple, but Bazarov himself (whom we have grown fond of once we realise his bark is worse than his bite)… well, let’s just say we can either describe him as a man whose dreams have been shattered, or else a young man who has suddenly become mature. Sadly, the author does not give him many years to redeem himself, but instead lambasts the Russian students abroad once more:

… the young Russian physics and chemistry students, who flock to Heidelberg, and who at first astonish their naive German professors with their sober outlook on things, and later on astonish the same professors by their complete inactivity and total laziness.

Throughout his life, Turgenev was both praised and criticised for his often scathing depiction of Russian society. To some, he showed no respect for traditions and had an irreverent attitude towards religion, while for others he was not intransigent enough. In this novel, in which he is critical but also sympathetic towards both sides, we can see that his chosen path was moderation, and that he tried to reconcile these extremes within his own life and his work. But it would always be difficult to write about the homeland when you are accused of living too long abroad!

I also found him much easier to read than I expected and was amused to discover that Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Flaubert and Nabokov all rated him higher than Dostoevsky (and even Tolstoy for some). I did get a little weary of the author giving us the full back story of every single character we are introduced to, certainly a writing technique that is not recommended nowadays. The translation does read a little old-fashioned in parts, but no more so than reading a Victorian novel, which is probably exactly the kind of effect that the translator was aiming for. After provoking a lot of excitement about Turgenev on Twitter, I decided to ignore all recommendations (which tended to favour ‘Nest of the Gentry’) and got myself the novel Smoke instead. I will certainly be reading more of him in the future but I don’t think he will topple Dostoevsky and Chekhov in my heart any time soon.

13 thoughts on “Russians in the Snow: Ivan Turgenev”

  1. I don’t know Turgenev well at all, I’ve only read a novella and seen an English-language adaptation of A Month in the Country, but I enjoyed both and I’d like to read more. I didn’t know about his background and being allowed under communism, thank you for your informative review! This does sound a great read and I’ll be interested to hear how you get on with Smoke.

    1. It’s a relatively short novel too, although there is a lot of toing and froing and change of scenery, so yes, possibly a good place to start. Of course, I haven’t read any others, so can’t tell. I think his novellas are very well regarded and perhaps a quicker, easier place to start: Asya, First Love, The Diary of a Superfluous Man and so on.

  2. That generational difference is very real, Marina Sofia, isn’t it? And it seems he portrays it well here. In my opinion, it can be hard to do it well, and easy to fall into tropes, but I think it’s more complex and multilayered than that. It seems he captures that well.

    1. It was much more subtle in the way he conveyed the relationship between people, he really showed how complex people are, how much they leave unsaid – not what I expected at all.

  3. I’ve been thinking of this book for the last many months; I have read it when once back in college I was on a sort of Russian Lit ‘binge’; but all I remember now is that one character was Bazarov’s nihilism; I need to dig out my copy.

    1. The Russians have so many great novelists that it’s hard to read them all – but what a lovely binge to be on! Yes, it was the first example of nihilism in literature and clearly influenced a lot of later writers too…

  4. You convince me I should try harder with Turgenev. I loved “Smoke” but haven’t gelled so well with his other books – I struggled to find things to hook me in. But I think I need to give him more of a chance and may well check out some different translations to see if that helps!

    1. Someone told me these new editions from Alma (well, newish) are a pretty good way to fall in love with him. As a teenager I liked his stories but thought he was a bit too sentimental compared to Chekhov, for instance, so between that and avoiding his ‘social critique’ – which I feared might be a bit socialist, which I was allergic to at the time – I never read his novels. I think his play is good (and does remind me of Chekhov).

  5. I’ve only read a couple of Turgenev books from memory, but they must have been in pre-blogging days as I can’t find any reviews! Definitely a writer I’d like to return to at some point, though 🙂

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