December 01, 2019

Being Turgenev


Being Turgenev

In his "Letter to Lord Byron," W.H. Auden tells the poet that he died "Before the four great Russians lived, who brought/The art of novel writing to a head." He is referring to Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. In the West, this is the "big four" of Russian literature. 

But if you ask any Russian to name the four greatest Russian writers, Pushkin will inevitably top the list. Although one could argue that he did not bring "the art of novel writing to a head," in Russia, Pushkin always comes first. 

Second place would probably be held by Lermontov, not because Hero of our Timeis a truly great novel, but simply because these two writers go hand-in-hand in the minds of most Russians. Next would come Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Some might replace Lermontov with Gogol among the top four. But Turgenev would be unlikely to make it onto the list.

This is not to say that the writer's name has been forgotten. Everyone in Russia knows him. Russians make Turgenev's acquaintance in three stages. The first, and most traumatic, comes when loving parents or well-intentioned teachers give very small children the story Mumuto read. This tale of a drowned puppy is the most horrifying thing I have read in my entire life, and I am absolutely sure that I will never subject myself to the experience again. Mumuhas inspired many a cynical joke and avant-garde film, a phenomenon that clearly represent their creators' attempts to undo the psychological damage inflicted on them in childhood by this story.

The next stage, classroom study of Notes of a Hunter, is completely different. Twelve-year-old school children are encouraged to read these magnificent descriptions of nature and portraits of Russian life just as they were read one and a half centuries ago –as part of the struggle against serfdom. Here we have one of the most tragic contradictions in the life of this great writer. Turgenev despised serfdom with all his heart. As a child, he had more than enough firsthand experience observing his own mother's petty tyranny. The fact that she forced her mute servant to drown a puppy (the truth behind the fiction of Mumu) was just one, perhaps not the worst, manifestation of her despotic character. But serfdom was abolished so very long ago, and the yawning sixth or seventh graders sit gloomily hunched over their Notes of a Hunterwith little appreciation for its historical significance or the beauty of its prose. 

A few years later, Turgenev is again forced on children. His next appearance in the curriculum is in the form of Fathers and Sons. This is a novel that reflects an era not only in Russian literature, but in society. It is a book that portrays the sharp division between the generation of the 1840s and 50s and the generation of the 1860s, between "pre-reform" Russia and "reformed" Russia. 

Here we have another contradiction. Turgenev has written a multitude of books about love – he wrote about the love of a young man whose rival turns out to be his own father, about the love of an aging landowner who sees the reflection of a love from his distant past in a serf girl, about the love between an uncompromising revolutionary and a refined lady of the aristocracy, about the love between a Bulgarian man and a Russian woman, about love that is unrequited, tragic, and unforgettable… Furthermore, he attempted to set his love stories within the context of the times. As a result, he was transformed for most readers into someone who "reflected the problems of the revolutionary movement, exposed social problems, and raised critical questions." Here, too, it is probably not so much today's teachers who are at fault, as Turgenev's own generation, which saw his novels first and foremost as "topical," and discussed the behavior of their protagonists as if they were real people, representatives of a particular ideology, and not as fictional creations. The stentorian articles Russian critics wrote about Turgenev's novels are now a part of history, but the overall impression remains –Turgenev's novels are more about revolutionaries than they are about human emotions.

After these three not terribly successful encounters with Turgenev's fiction, children leave the classroom and manage to forget all out Ivan Sergeyevich and his novels. I know plenty of people who regularly reread Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy, or Dostoevsky, but somehow it is difficult to imagine an ordinary Russian reader – someone who is neither a teacher nor an academic – picking up a volume of Turgenev and reading his prose for the sheer pleasure of it. 

The energetic face with its modest beard and prominent forehead, concealing an incredibly large brain, is familiar to all Russians. Busloads of tourists regularly visit Spasskoye Lutovinovo, the family estate turned museum where his childhood and youth passed under the strict supervision of his cantankerous mother. Countless editions of editions of Mumucontinue to be produced. Yet somehow Turgenev does not have an avid readership.

Finally, there is perhaps the most tragic contradiction. This writer, who so loved Russia, who so delighted in its nature and was so obsessed with its problems, increasingly, as he grew older, went for years at a time without seeing his native land – a member of the Western European intellectual elite rather than the Russian one. Dostoevsky, who despised Turgenev, created a cruel caricature of him in his novel The Devils. Here the writer appears as Karmazinov, a character who lacks the slightest understanding of the severe problems plaguing the novel's protagonists and is piteous and self-deprecating in his attempts to play up to the younger generation. Karmazinov-Turgenev reads a work he coyly identifies as his last to an audience right before leaving for Western Europe. The essay is entitled, fittingly, Merci, and this episode appears to be a venomous satire in light of the backdrop against which it takes place.

Turgenev is well-known outside of Russia. The elegant language and psychological intricacies of his novels often lead to comparisons with another great reformer – Henry James, and with good reason. Auden also probably had good reason to recall Turgenev, even if not by name, in his tribute to the most important problems facing 20th century culture.

Meanwhile, in Russia, he is still best known as a writer who "reflected" and "exposed," and "raised" – and as the author of a heart-rending story about a drowned puppy. 


This article originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2008 issue of Russian Life. It was translated by Nora Seligman Favorov.

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