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Liberals, radicals and the making of a literary masterpiece

Turgenev was thirty-three years old when “A Sportman’s Sketches” came out, and life was good. His despotic mother had died two years earlier, and he inherited a fortune, which he used generously: he liked to eat well, even acquiring a well-known chef for a thousand rubles, and he did not mind lending money. to his friends. Some people found him a little too eager to please, or unpleasantly vain; Tolstoy, who briefly lived with Turgenev in Saint Petersburg, could not bear the attention he paid to his own cleanliness. But from another perspective, Turgenev was principled and courageous. In 1852 he had his first serious run-in with the authorities, after publishing an overly glowing obituary of Gogol, whom many considered a satirist of Tsardom. This, plus the politics of his stories about serfs, was too much for Nicholas I. Turgenev was arrested and spent a month behind bars in St. Petersburg, after which he was confined to his estate. The arrest and publication of his book catapulted him to the forefront of Russian literature. Dostoyevsky, just a few years younger than Turgenev, was then serving a much longer and harsher sentence in Siberia; Tolstoy, a decade younger than Turgenev, was still busy losing money at cards.

Turgenev’s novels and short stories in the following years were a great success. “rudin”, his first novel, painted a portrait of the idealistic but ineffectual intellectuals of the 1940s, unable to engage in politics and in love. (The title character, Dmitry Rudin, was based in part on Bakunin.) “A Nest of Gentlefolk,” a story of disappointed love, showed the best of the old Russian nobility, trampled in their best feelings by less scrupulous people, but holding on to their morals and their dignity. Throughout this time, Turgenev also published occasional short stories and essays. He was in the glory of it. “His art of his responded to everyone’s demands,” the great Russian literary critic DS Mirsky later wrote. “It was the middle ground, the middle style that the 1940s had groped for in vain. He avoided the pitfalls of grotesque caricature and sentimental ‘philanthropy’ in equal measure. He was perfect.”

This love affair with the reading public could not last. The reception of Turgenev’s next novel, “on the eve”, of 1860, was much less kind. Yet another story about love and politics, this one begins with two young men, a sculptor named Shubin and a scholar named Bersenev, vying for the hand of a beautiful young woman named Elena. She clearly prefers the serious Bersenev to the frivolous Shubin, and everything seems fine except that Bersenev can’t stop talking about his awesome school friend Insarov. Insarov is a Bulgarian exile and a revolutionary who awaits his time in Russia until he can return to his home country and lead his people to throw off the yoke of the Turks. Bersenev insists that Elena must meet Insarov; when she finally does, she falls in love with him and they run away together to free Bulgaria. Insarov dies on the way, but Elena continues on without him. No one from her family ever sees her again.

Politically minded young readers were disappointed, especially by Insarov’s nationality. Why was he Bulgarian? “We understand why he can’t be Polish,” radical critic Nikolai Dobrolyubov wrote, alluding to the burgeoning movement for Poland’s independence from the Russian Empire. “But why he is not Russian, therein lies the whole problem.”

“Wouldn’t it be great if we could do this anonymously online?”

Caricature of Liam Francis Walsh

Dobrolyubov’s review of the novel was seventeen thousand words long and appeared in Russia’s leading literary magazine, the contemporary, to which Turgenev had contributed for years and whose editor was a close friend. The magazine had published “Sketches of a sportsman” and his first two novels; it had also been the home of Belinsky, Herzen and Tolstoy. But by the mid-1850s, keeping pace with advanced opinion, it had taken a sharp turn to the left. In this, he was led by two young literary critics, Dobrolyubov and Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Unlike Turgenev and Tolstoy and most other writers up to that time, Dobrolyubov and Chernyshevsky were not landed nobles; his parents were priests, and both had graduated from theology school. This separated them socially and politically from the previous literary generation.

The new radicals were impatient with their predecessors, and the death of Nicholas I and his replacement by Alexander II, a young, reform-minded tsar, only made them more impatient. As is often the case, a little reform led to calls for much larger reform. The younger generation was in no mood to wait for the Tsar’s good intentions. They were revolutionaries, and they said it over and over again, in lengthy book reviews, of which Turgenev was increasingly the target.

In later years, Turgenev claimed that “Fathers and Sons” was inspired by an encounter with a young Russian doctor on a train; the doctor astonished Turgenev by caring much more for his plans to cure cattle diseases than for literature. But another role model for Bazarov, which everyone recognized at the time, was Dobrolyubov, and by extension the other young radicals. Turgenev saw in them a crude but powerful materialism that pitted the needs of the peasantry against the vague consolations of art. Turgenev’s friend Belinsky had proclaimed that art should have a social purpose; the new radicals were sometimes willing to dispense with art altogether. As Bazarov says, “One decent chemist is worth twenty poets.”

The final piece of the novel’s background was more personal than literary. Turgenev had never been married. Like his previous character, Rudin, he had engaged in various dalliances that brought him to the brink of proposing, including with a sister of Bakunin and Tolstoy, but he had always held back. And, as usual, he had slept with servant girls on his mother’s property. His longest-lasting relationship, however, by far, was with a married woman named Pauline Viardot, a celebrated French opera singer whom he had met in St. Petersburg in the early 1840s and then followed throughout. Europe; he often lived in the Viardot household, as a close family friend and occasionally as Pauline’s lover.

But he, at twenty, had a child out of wedlock, a daughter, with a woman on his mother’s estate. Unofficially, he recognized the girl and took financial responsibility for her. When she was eight years old, he sent her to France to live with the Viardots. In the 1850s, when he himself began to make a home in France, he and his daughter, now named Paulinette, began to spend more time together. Turgenev found it a frustrating job. “She doesn’t like music, poetry, nature, or dogs, and that’s all I like,” he complained to a friend in Russia. This did not make her a bad person, Turgenev continued. She “she Replaces the missing qualities with more positive and useful ones. But for me, between us, she is Insarov again. I respect her, and that is not enough.” The invocation of Insarov, the Bulgarian revolutionary from “On the Eve”, together with the date of this letter (October 1860, when Turgenev was beginning work on “Fathers and Sons”), led at least one leading Turgenev scholar to argue that “Fathers and Sons” is also a book about Turgenev’s relationship with his daughter.

The book feels uneven at times. Bazarov insults and annoys the Kirsanov brothers, Arkady’s father Nikolai and uncle Pavel, and then gets bored and convinces Arkady to go to town with him. There they drink and eat and meet a beautiful aristocrat named Odintsova, with whom they both fall in love. “What a body!” Bazarov comments. “I wish I had it on my dissecting table.” She invites them to her farm. This part of the book, where Turgenev returns to the familiar terrain of people seeing each other, is the weakest. But then Bazarov and Arkady go to visit Bazarov’s family. It turns out that the fearsome Bazarov is adored by his parents. His mother bursts into tears at the sight of him. His father annoys Bazarov with his request. When old Dr. Bazarov works up the courage to ask Arkady what he thinks of his son, and when Arkady honestly tells him that he believes Bazarov will one day be a famous man, the father is overwhelmed with emotion. Naturally, Bazarov soon gets bored with his parents and goes to see Odintsova, and then even to visit the Kirsanovs again.

The parents of “Fathers and Children” are not the tyrannical or distant parents of the previous generation, they are not Turgenev’s father. Nor are they the vicious serf owners of “A Sportsman’s Sketches.” They are affectionate, old-fashioned and ineffective. In fact, they are liberal. And they still cannot communicate as they would like with their children. Maybe they are too soft. They spent their youth having long conversations about Hegel. Banned from genuine political action by an oppressive state, they turned on themselves. When Bazarov sees Arkady’s father reading Pushkin, he scoffs. For Turgenev, who as a student had twice glimpsed Pushkin in St. Petersburg before the poet’s death, this bordered on sacrilege. But Bazarov is right! Perhaps Nikolai Kirsanov should read something other than Pushkin while his estate falls into ruin.

And the sons? Arkady loves his father and seeks to find common ground with him; in the end, he marries, returns home and takes over the management of the estate. Looking at Bazarov and Turgenev’s attitude towards him, you can see why people were confused. Bazarov is bright and dynamic; He says something interesting almost every time he opens his mouth. He’s also basically a decent guy: when he shoots Pavel Kirsanov in the leg after the older man challenges him to a duel, he immediately treats the wound. At the end of the book, he contracts typhus from a patient and dies, too young. (Dobrolyubov, Turgenev’s literary tormentor, died of tuberculosis at the end of 1861.) There are many things in the book that arouse sympathy for Bazarov in the reader.

At the same time, Bazarov is inexplicably rude. Hey yawns in people’s faces. (According to Chernyshevsky, Dobrolyubov once interrupted a conversation with the much older Turgenev by saying, “Talking to you bores me.”) Bazarov is also, for a guy committed to science and revolution, very horny. Of nearly every woman mentioned in his presence, he asks, “Is she pretty?” He could say in his defense that the question cuts across a lot of romantic nonsense. “Take a look at the anatomy of the eye,” he tells Arkady. “Where are you going to find that enigmatic look you spoke of? It’s all romantic crap, moldy aesthetic red.” (And then: “Let’s go see my beetle.”) But there are also direct political criticisms of Bazarov in the book. Much of the time he talks about the needs of the peasantry. He will dedicate his life to the people. However, he is an elitist. Speaking to Arkady, a progressive-minded aristocrat chump of his generation, Bazarov says, “I need idiots like him. It is not for the gods to waste time baking pots, is it?” Arkady is surprised. “Only now,” Turgenev writes, “he glimpsed the bottomless depth of Bazarov’s vanity.” In the future, this vanity would reappear as the Lenin’s revolutionary avant-garde theory.

Turgenev advanced, novelistically, in a line of thought that runs through all his work. Beliefs are admirable, strong beliefs perhaps even more so. But there is a point where belief can turn into fanaticism. Turgenev had seen this with Belinsky, and in Bazarov he recreated and dramatized it. Bazarov loves nature but turns it into a science project, he loves Odintsova but feels bad about it, and he loves her parents but refuses to indulge this affection by spending time with them. All of this, from Turgenev’s perspective, is a mistake. It’s all very well, in other words, to talk about the existence of God and the future of the revolution, but you need to take a break for lunch.


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