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Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883)


By Vladimir Nabokov

Ivan Sergeievich Turgenev was born in 1818 in Orel, Central Russia, in the family of a wealthy squire. His early youth was spent on a country estate where he was able to observe the life of the serfs and the relations between master and serf at their worst: his mother was possessed of a tyrannical nature and led her peasants and also her immediate family a miserable life. Though she adored her son, she persecuted him and had him flogged for the least childish disobedience or misdemeanor. In later life, when Turgenev tried to intercede for the serfs, she cut his allowance, obliging him to live in misery in spite of the rich inheritance that awaited him. Turgenev never forgot the painful impressions of his childhood. After his mother’s death he did much to improve the peasants’ circumstances, freed all his domestic servants, and went out of his way to cooperate with the government when the peasants were emancipated in 1861.

Turgenev’s early education was patchy. Among his numerous tutors, indiscriminately engaged by his mother, there were all sorts of odd people, including at least one professional saddler. One year at the Moscow University and three at the Petersburg University, whence he was graduated in 1837, did not give him a feeling of having obtained a well-balanced education, and from 1838 to 1841 he attended the university in Berlin, filling out its gaps. During his life in Berlin he became intimate with a group of young Russians similarly engaged, who later formed the nucleus of a Russian philosophic movement highly colored by Hegelianism, the German “idealist” philosophy.

In his early youth Turgenev produced some half-baked poems mostly imitative of Mikhail Lermontov. Only in 1847, when he turned to prose and published a short story, the first of his series of A Sportsman’s Sketches, did he come into his own as a writer. The story produced a tremendous impression and when later together with a number of others it was published as a volume, the impression only grew stronger. Turgenev’s plastic musical flowing prose was but one of the reasons that brought him immediate fame, for at least as much interest was contributed by the special subject of these stories. They were all written about serfs and not only present a detailed psychological study, but go even further to idealize these serfs as superior in their human quality to their heartless masters.

From these stories some purple patches: “Fedya, not without pleasure, lifted the forcedly smiling dog up into the air and placed it into the bottom of the cart.” (“Khor’ and Kalinych”)

“… a dog, all his body a-quiver, his eyes half-closed, was gnawing a bone on the lawn.” (“My Neighbor Radilov”)

“Vyacheslav Illarionovich is a tremendous admirer of the gentle sex, and as soon as he sees a pretty little person on the boulevard of his country-town, he there and then starts to follow her, but —and this is the peculiar point—he at once begins to limp.” (“Two Country Squires”)

At sunset on a country-road:

“Masha (the hero’s gypsy mistress who left him) stopped and turned her face to him. She stood with her back to the light — and thus appeared to be of a dusky black all over, as if carved in dark wood. The whites of her eyes alone stood out like silver almonds, whereas the iris had grown still darker.” (“Chertopkhanov’s End”)

“Evening had come, the sun had hid behind a small aspen grove … its shadow spread endlessly across the still fields. A peasant could be seen riding at a trot on white horse along a dark narrow path skirting that distant grove; he could be seen quite clearly, every detail of him, even the patch on his shoulder—although he was moving in the shade; the legs of his horse flickered with a kind of pleasing distinctness. The setting sun flushed the trunks of the aspen-trees with such a warm glow that they seemed the color of pine-trunks.” {Fathers and Sons)

These are Turgenev at his very best. It is these- mellow colored little paintings—rather watercolors than the Flemish glory of Gogol’s art gallery—inserted here and there into his prose, that we still admire to-day. These plums are especially numerous in A Sportsman’s Sketches.

Turgenev’s presentation in the Sketches of his gallery of idealistic and touchingly human serfs stressed the obvious odiousness of serfdom, an emphasis that irritated many influential people. The censor who had passed the manuscript was retired and the government seized the first opportunity to punish the author. After Gogol’s death Turgenev wrote a short article which was suppressed by the Petersburg censorship; but when he sent it to Moscow the censor passed it and it was published. Turgenev was put in prison for a month for insubordination and then was exiled to his estate where he remained for more than two years. Upon his return he published his first novel Rudin, followed by A Nest of Gentlefolk and On the Eve.

Rudin, written in 1855, depicts the generation of the 1840s, the idealistic idealistic Russian intelligentsia bred in German universities.

There is some very good writing in Rudin, such as “. . . many an old lime-tree-alley, gold-dark and sweet-smelling, with a glimpse of emerald light at its end,” where we have Turgenev’s favorite vista. Rudin’s sudden appearance in Lasunski’s house is fairly well done, based as it is on Turgenev’s pet method of having a convenient fight at a party or dinner between the cool, bland, clever hero and some quick-tempered vulgarian or pretentious fool. We may note the following typical sample of the whims and ways of Turgenev’s characters : “Meanwhile Rudin went up to Natalia. She rose, her face expressed confusion. Volyntsev, who was sitting next to her, rose too. ‘—Ah, I see a pianoforte,’—Rudin began softly and caressingly, as if he were a travelling prince.’ ” Then somebody else plays Schubert’s Erlkonig. ” ‘—This music and this night’ [a starry summer night which "seemed to nestle and to let one's soul nestle too"—a great exponent of the "music and night" theme was Turgenev], said Rudin,—’reminds me of my student years in Germany.’ ” He is asked how students dress. “—Well, at Heidelberg I used to wear riding boots with spurs and a Hungarian jacket with braidings; I had let my hair grow, so that it almost reached down to my shoulders.” Rudin is a rather pompous young man. Russia in those days was one huge dream: the masses slept—figuratively ; the intellectuals spent sleepless nights— literally—sitting up and talking about things, or just meditating until five in the morning and then going out for a walk. There was a lot of the flinging-oneself-down-on-one’s-bed-without-undressing-and-sinking-into-a-heavy-slumber stuff, or jumping into one’s clothes. Turgenev’s maidens are generally good get-uppers, jumping into their crinolines, sprinkling their faces with cold water, and running out, as fresh as roses, into the garden, where the inevitable meeting takes place in a bower.

Before going to Germany, Rudin had been a student at Moscow University. A friend of his thus tells us of their youth: “Halfa-dozen youths, a single tallow candle burning . . . the cheapest brand of tea, dry old biscuits . . . but our eyes glow, our cheeks are flushed, our hearts beat . . . and the subjects of our talk are God, Truth, the Future of Mankind, Poetry—we talk nonsense sometimes, but what is the harm?”

As a character, Rudin, the progressive idealist of the 1840s, can be summed up by Hamlet’s answer “words, words, words.” He is quite ineffectual in spite of his being wholly wrapped up in progressive ideas. His whole energy spends itself in passionate streams of idealistic babble. A cold heart and a hot head. An enthusiast lacking in staying power, a busybody incapable of action. When the girl who loves him, and whom, he thinks, he loves too, tells him there is no hope of her mother consenting to their marriage, he at once gives her up, although she was ready to follow him anywhere. He departs and roams all over Russia; all his enterprises fizzle out. But the bad luck that haunts him and which at the outset was the inability to express the energy of his brain otherwise than by a flow of eloquent words finally shapes him, hardens the outline of his personality, and leads him to a useless but heroic death on the barricades of 1848 in remote Paris.

In A Nest of Gentlefolk (1858) Turgenev glorified all that was noble in the orthodox ideals of the old gentry. Liza, the heroine of this novel, is the most consummate incarnation of the pure and proud “Turgenev maiden.”

On the Eve (1860) is the story of another Turgenev girl, Elena, who leaves her family and country in order to follow her lover Insarov, a Bulgarian hero whose sole object in life is the emancipation of his country (then under Turkish domination). Elena prefers Insarov, who is a man of action, to the ineffectual young men who surround her in her Russian youth. Insarov dies of consumption and Elena continues bravely in his path.

On the Eve, in spite of its good intentions, is artistically the least successful of Turgenev’s novels. Nevertheless, it was the most popular one. Elena, though a female character, was the type of heroic personality that society wanted: a person ready to sacrifice everything to love and duty, bravely surmounting every difficulty fate put in her path, faithful to the ideal of

freedom—emancipation of the oppressed, freedom of the woman to choose her way in life, freedom of love. After showing the moral defeat of the idealists of the 1840s, after making his only male active hero a Bulgarian, Turgenev was reproached for not having created a single positive active type of a Russian male. This he tried to do in Fathers and Sons (1862). In it Turgenev pictures the moral conflict between the good-meaning, ineffectual and weak people of the 1840s and the new strong revolutionary generation of the “nihilistic” youth. Bazarov, the representative of this younger generation, is aggressively materialistic; for him exists neither religion nor any esthetic or moral values. He believes in nothing but “frogs,” meaning nothing but the results of his own practical scientific experience. He knows neither pity nor shame. And he is, par excellence, the active man. Though Turgenev rather admired Bazarov, the radicals whom he thought he was flattering in the face of this strong active young man were indignant at the portrait and saw in Bazarov only a caricature drawn to please their opponents. Turgenev, it was declared, was a finished man who had expended all his talent. Turgenev was dumbfounded. From the darling of the progressive society he suddenly saw himself transformed into a sort of detestable bogey. Turgenev was a very vain man; not only fame, but the outward marks of fame, meant a lot to him. He was deeply offended and disappointed. He was abroad at the time and remained abroad for the rest of his life, making but rare short visits to Russia.

His next piece of writing was a fragment, “Enough,” in which he declared his decision to give up literature. In spite of this he wrote two more novels and continued writing to the end of his life. Of these last two novels, inSmoke he expressed his bitterness against all classes of Russian society, and in Virgin Soil (Nov’) he tried to show different types of Russians confronted with the social movement of their time (the 1870s). On one hand we have the revolutionaries trying hard to get in touch with the people: (1) The Hamlet-like hesitations of the hero of the novel, Nezhdanov, cultured, refined, with a secret yearning for poetry and romance, but devoid of all sense of humor, like most of Turgenev’s positive types — moreover, weak and hampered in everything by a morbid sense of inferiority and his own uselessness; (2) Marianna, the pure, true, austerely-naive girl, ready to die there and then for the “cause”; (3) Solomin, the strong silent man; (4) Markelov, the honest blockhead. On the other side we find the sham liberals and frank reactionaries, such as Sipyagin and Kallomeytsev. It is a very tame affair, this novel, with the author’s fine talent struggling, and just failing, to keep alive the characters and the plot he had selected not so much because his art urged him, but rather because he was eager to air his own views upon the political problems of his day.

Incidentally, Turgenev, as most writers of his time, is far too explicit, leaving nothing to the reader’s intuition; suggesting and then ponderously explaining what the suggestion was. The labored epilogues of his novels and long short stories are painfully artificial, the author doing his best to satisfy fully the reader’s curiosity regarding the respective destinies of the characters in a manner that can hardly be called artistic.

He is not a great writer, though a pleasant one. He never achieved anything comparable to Madame Bovary, and to say that he and Flaubert belonged to the same literary school is a complete misconception. Neither Turgenev’s readiness to tackle any social problem that happened to be a la mode, nor the banal handling of plots (always taking the easiest way) can be likened to Flaubert’s severe art.

Turgenev, Gorki, and Chekhov are particularly well known outside of Russia. But there is no natural way of linking them. However, it may be noticed perhaps that the worst of Turgenev was thoroughly expressed in Gorki’s works, and Turgenev’s best (in the way of Russian landscape) was beautifully developed by Chekhov.

Besides A Sportsman’s Sketches and the novels, Turgenev wrote numerous short stories and long short stories or nouvelles. The early ones are devoid of any special originality or literary quality; some of the later are quite remarkable. Among the latter “A Quiet Backwater” and “First Love” deserve particular mention.

Turgenev’s personal life was not very happy. The great, the only true love of his life, was for the famous singer Mme. Pauline Viardot-Garcia. She was happily married, Turgenev was on friendly terms with her family, he had no hope of personal happiness, but nevertheless he devoted all his life to her, lived whenever possible in their vicinity, gave a dower to her two daughters when they got married.

In general he was much happier living abroad than in Russia. There no radical critics gnawed the life out of him with their vigorous attacks. He was on friendly terms with Merimee and Flaubert. His books were translated into French and German. Since he was the only Russian writer of some stature known to the Western literary circles, he was inevitably considered not only the greatest but in fact the Russian writer, and Turgenev basked in the sun and felt happy. He impressed foreigners with his charm and graceful manners, but in his encounters with Russian writers and critics he at once felt selfconscious and arrogant. He had had quarrels with Tolstoy, Dostoevski, Nekrasov. Of Tolstoy he was jealous though at the same time he greatly admired his genius.

In 1871 the Viardots settled down in Paris and so did Turgenev. In spite of his faithful passion for Mme. Viardot he felt lonely and lacked the comforts of a family of his own. He complained in letters to friends of lonesomeness, his “cold old age,” his spiritual frustration. Sometimes Turgenev longed to be back in Russia but he lacked the will power to make such a drastic change in his life routine : a lack of will power had always been his weak point. He never had the stamina to stand up under the attacks of Russian critics who, after the publication of Fathers and Sons, never ceased being prejudiced against his new publications. However, in spite of the hostility of the critics, Turgenev was extremely popular with the Russian reading public. The readers liked his books—his novels were popular even as late as the beginning of this century; and the humane liberal feelings he professed attracted the public to him, especially the younger part of it. In 1883 he died at Bougival, near Paris, but his body was brought to Petersburg. Thousands of people followed his coffin to the cemetery. Delegations had been sent by numerous societies, towns, universities, etc. Countless wreaths had been received. The funeral procession was almost two miles long. Thus the Russian reading public gave a final demonstration of the love it bore Turgenev during his life.

Besides being good at painting nature, Turgenev was likewise excellent at painting little colored cartoons which remind one of those seen in British country clubs: consider, for instance, the cartoons Turgenev loved to make of the fops and lions of the Russian sixties and seventies: “. . .he was dressed in the very best English manner: the colored tip of a white silk handkerchief protruded in the form of a small triangle from the flat side-pocket of his variegated jacket; his monocle dangled on a rather broad black ribbon; the dead tint of his suede gloves matched the pale gray of his check trousers.” Then, too, Turgenev was the first Russian writer to notice the effect of broken sunlight or the special combination of shade and light upon the appearance of people. Remember that gypsy girl who, with the sun behind her, “appeared to be of a dusky black all over as if carved in dark wood” and those “whites of her eyes” standing out “like silver almonds.”

These quotations are good examples of his perfectly modulated well-oiled prose which is so nicely adapted to the picturing of slow movement. This or that phrase of his reminds one of a lizard sun-charmed on a wall—and the two or three final words of the sentence curve like the lizard’s tail. But generally speaking his style produces a queer effect of patchiness, just because certain passages, the artist’s favorites, have been pampered much more than the others and, in consequence, stand out, supple and strong, magnified, as it were, by the author’s predilection among the general flow of good, clear, but undistinguished prose. Honey and oil—this comparison may be well applied to those perfectly rounded graceful sentences of his, when he settles down to the task of writing beautifully. As a story-teller, he is artificial and even lame; indeed, when following his characters, he begins to limp as that hero of his did in “Two Country Squires.” His literary genius falls short on the score of literary imagination, that is, of naturally discovering ways of telling the story which would equal the originality of his descriptive art. Being perhaps aware of this fundamental flaw, or else being led by that instinct of artistic selfpreservation that keeps an author from lingering there where he is most likely to flop, he shuns action or, more exactly, does not expose action in terms of sustained narration. His novels and stories consist mainly of conversations in diverse settings charmingly described — good long talks interrupted by delightful short biographies and dainty pictures of the countryside. When, however, he goes out of his way to look for beauty outside the old gardens of Russia, he wallows in abject sweetness. His mysticism is of the plastic picturesque sort with perfumes, floating mists, old portraits that may come alive any moment, marble pillars, and the rest. His ghosts do not make the flesh creep, or rather they make it creep the wrong way. In describing beauty he goes the whole hog: his idea of luxury turns out to be “. . . gold, crystal, silk, diamonds, flowers, fountains”; and maidens bedecked with flowers but otherwise scantily dressed sing hymns in boats, while other maidens, with the tiger skins and golden cups of their profession, romp on the banks.

The volume of Poems in Prose (1883) is his work that dates most of all. Their melody is all wrong; their luster looks cheap and their philosophy is not deep enough to justify pearl-diving. Still they remain good examples of pure well-balanced Russian prose. But the author’s imagination never rises above perfectly commonplace symbols (such as fairies and skeletons); and if, at its best, his prose reminds one of rich milk, these prose poems may be compared to fudge.

It is perhaps A Sportsman’s Sketches that contains some of his best writing. In spite of a certain idealization of the peasants, the book presents Turgenev’s most unaffected, most genuine characters, and some extremely satisfying descriptions of scenes, people, and, of course, nature.

Of all Turgenev’s characters, the “Turgenev maiden” has probably achieved the greatest fame. Masha (“A Quiet Backwater”), Natalia (Rudin), Liza (A Nest of Gentlefolk) vary but little among themselves and are undoubtedly contained in Pushkin’s Tatiana. But with their different stories they are given more scope for the use of their common moral strength, gentleness, and not only their capacity but, I would say, their thirst to sacrifice all worldly considerations to what they consider their duty, be it complete resignation of personal happiness to higher moral considerations (Liza) or complete sacrifice of all worldly considerations to their pure passion (Natalia). Turgenev envelops his heroines in a kind of gentle poetical beauty which has a special appeal for the reader and has done much to create the general high concept of Russian womanhood.