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TURGENEV AT 200 – Scottish Review of Books
Ivan Turgenev: He threw an inkwell at his lover Pauline Viardot.
by Brian Morton


June 2, 2018 | by Brian Morton

In a two-part essay originally written for Partisan Review, Arthur Koestler meditated on the origins of ‘The Intelligentsia’. It was typical Koestler, a mixture of windy science and visionary percipience.

In the first part, he speculates on the nature of brain cells: were they ordinary body cells that over evolutionary time had become sensitized and specialized? Or was brain matter fundamental and our outer bodies simply a toughened sheath made of degraded neurological cells? This was, of course, a metaphorical way of looking at the origins and role of an intelligentsia in modern society. Either we were all intelligentsia once, in some golden age, before most of us were sidelined into leaden social roles; or societies found a way of sensitizing some of their citizens and privileging them with the role of thinker and improver.

As Ralph E. Matlaw has noted, the term ‘intelligentsia’ carries ‘greater ethical implications’ than the term ‘intellectual’. In keeping with the didacticism that always lies at the heart of Russian culture, but which we continue to blame on the ‘command’ culture of the Soviet era, thinking and art are always directed towards change in some degree, whether in society at large or in the individual. Matlaw also points out that in the Russian context, and before ‘intelligentsia’ was appropriated internationally as a term, admiring or sneering, for the chattering class, there was another, more socially specific, word in use. Raznochintsy simply means ‘people of different classes’ and refers to those who have managed to detach themselves from humble origins in order to pursue aspirational careers. Many of these people joined the intelligentsia.

What has this to do with Ivan Turgenev, whose bicentenary is celebrated this year? The life didn’t start humbly. His father was a nobleman, who had faced down Napoleon’s Grande Armée in the Patriotic War of 1812. Turgenev himself never married but contented himself among his female serfs before falling in life with the opera singer Pauline Viardot. By then, Turgenev was an international figure, living in Baden-Baden and Paris, accepting an honorary degree at Oxford. He was the model of what Western readers and fellow-writers expected of a Russian novelist. Ernest Hemingway knew enough of him – he’d probably read the Constance Garnett translation – to pinch The Torrents of Spring as a title. Nabokov loved the prose, but hated the clunky endings. Henry James and Joseph Conrad admired him. His closest literary friend was Gustave Flaubert, himself the paradigm of what we now expect the novelist to be. And yet, much as in music, hierarchies of taste shift. Where once Beethoven was considered without much dissent to stand at the pinnacle of classical composition, now it’s Mozart’s more playful and improvisational style that heads the roster. In the same way, Turgenev’s reputation has ceded in recent times to that of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Turgenev quarrelled with the latter, but made up with him on his deathbed and pled with him to return to literature. Dostoevsky caricatured Turgenev in The Devils as Karmazinov, a vain poseur living off his reputation.

A straw poll of friends and students suggests that Turgenev is not so much read now, which seems a pity. The novella First Love, published in 1860, is one of the greatest love stories of all time, but also a brilliant illustration of the principle most clearly aired by Philip Roth that everything that is processed by memory is fiction; or, that fiction is simply what is processed by memory. This is overwhelmingly true in Turgenev’s case. The memory that drove First Love, the carefully framed story of how 16-year-old Vladimir Petrovich fell in love with 21-year-old Zinaida Alexandrovna Zasyekina after meeting her at a party, was a memory from his own past, sharpened by the knowledge that the girl the young Ivan had fallen for turned out to be his father’s mistress. Not much that Turgenev wrote was without some autobiographical element.

The secret to his greatness is that, as Belinsky noted, he had no imagination. Turgenev saw, and he wrote. The sharp decline in his later work, and notably in the ambitious but hollow Virgin Soil (which saw him well on his way to becoming Karmazinov), was due to his distance from his subject matter. Living abroad meant that Turgenev had no feel for the Populists he tried to portray, while in the ‘Nihilist’ Bazarov, the central character of Fathers and Sons, he knew his man from the inside out and was able to apply the ‘secret psychology’ he believed was essential to the novelist: the ability to understand the inner workings of an individual without writing about them. Turgenev was a superficial writer. He wrote about behaviour and he carefully transcribed dialogue. He doesn’t give us much of a character’s inner world, and yet we know his finest characters with a special intimacy.

What has this in turn to do with Koestler’s para-science? Turgenev seems to have thought in similar terms. Some of his characters appear to have acquired a sensitivity to the world and its ills through experience. Some, and perhaps notoriously Bazarov, seem to hide their feelings and the roots of their beliefs behind an ‘armour’ of studied physicality. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Koestler was writing when the sexological theories of Wilhelm Reich were also becoming fashionable. Reich’s concept of ‘body armour’ and the socialized ego often seems relevant to Turgenev’s characters. But so too is the sense that intellect and feeling must also have some deeper ethical dimension.

There is a certain consensus now that, while First Love is his most beautiful story and best reflects his mastery of the novella, Fathers and Sons is by far the finest of his novels. The early Rudin and A Nest of Gentlefolk have their virtues, which are broadly the same virtues to be found in the short pieces that make up A Sportsman’s Sketches, but they do not have the remarkable structural integrity of the 1862 novel. They also present problems of translation that have never quite been overcome. Ralph Matlaw’s revision of the Constance Garnett Fathers and Sons delivers that book in almost ideal form, even if the title really ought to be Fathers and Children.

It is a book dominated by a single character. Yevgeny Vasilevich Bazarov is a hugely controversial character. Friends who saw the manuscript begged Turgenev not to publish, convinced that Bazarov (who was based on a doctor Turgenev met on a train) would be misconstrued as an assault on the young, or worse still, that Turgenev would be accused of throwing in his lot with ‘nihilism’. He didn’t invent the term, but he gave it currency. Far from having a sensitive core, Bazarov presents himself as the ultimate empiricist, disbelieving in all abstraction, sentiment, love, art and beauty – it’s hard to believe that Hemingway didn’t get as far as Fathers and Sons, too – and trusting only in science and dissection. It is in the end dissection that kills him, a rampant sepsis contracted while helping his old father with a rural autopsy. Surprisingly few commentators dwell on the appropriateness and/or irony of that fate, preferring to consider the deathbed scene and curiously fudged ending that follows it.

A straw poll of friends and students suggests that Turgenev is not so much read now, which seems a pity.

Turgenev laboured hard and long to thwart any conclusion about his loyalty or otherwise to Bazarov, or his feelings about the fathers’ generation. He admitted to correspondents that he was instinctively of Bazarov’s party, in believing that the timid reforms that were slowly changing the nature of serfdom were insufficient. Bazarov is the first Bolshevik. We admire and distrust him equally because of that hindsight, but we are fascinated by him because he is a man whose denials of an inner life make us all the more convinced that emotion roils within him. By contrast, his friend and would-be disciple Arkady seems almost wilfully one-dimensional, a hostage to the last book he read or the last charismatic person encountered.

For all its understandable reputation as a tract about the conflict between a new and an older Russia, Fathers and Sons is a delicate web of love stories, a comedy of manners played out with the utmost delicacy and control. Arkady’s father, a liberal landowner on a small scale, has taken his late housekeeper’s daughter as a mistress and has had a child by her. Fenechka is also (secretly) loved by Arkady’s uncle, a marvellous creation who believes himself to be of aristocratic rank and who ends his life in exile, as a sad boulevardier. Bazarov’s surgeon father knows himself to be out of touch with the modern world and compensates for that by committing himself to the twin cults of Orthodoxy and his own son. A book that is supposedly about the tension between generations is very much about the effects of love between the generations. This extends in surprising directions. The illegitimate child Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov has with Fenechka is an object of profound love as well as a living symbol of the distance between the classes. Nikolai’s brother Pavel Petrovich buries his affections deeply until gallantry dictates that he fight a duel with Bazarov after he witnesses the young nihilist forcing a kiss on Fenechka. All this is done with operatic indifference to probability but with decidedly un-operatic economy. The two young men are both attracted to the wealthy widow Anna Sergevna Odintsova, who like several of the modern women in the book are often referred to in the male form of their names, as if that boundary has also been breached. Bazarov declares his love, but Odintsov either judges that a man who denies poetry probably has no heart, or senses that there is something dead in herself. Arkady, meanwhile, very wisely switches his intentions to Odintsov’s young sister and promptly marries her.

Bazarov’s fate is less happy. The representative of the future has to make do with a fleeting visit from his putative beloved and then a tatty grave. All that Turgenev has left for us is the poignancy of the parents’ grief – their future has been abruptly torn away – and a rather pious conclusion about the eternal nature of …nature. But with Turgenev, we are more inclined to trust the tale rather than the teller. The pro forma ending doesn’t in any way dull the profundity of his analysis of human relations. His conclusion, which is an attractively modern (even modernist) one is that the only emancipation that counts is not the emancipation of a class but emancipation of the heart.

The hostile reception Fathers and Sons received prompted Turgenev to leave Russia. Being his country’s foremost cultural representative in the West was a role that suited him, but it cut him off from his subject matter and unquestionably harmed him as a writer. Smoke, which he completed in 1867, was a novel of exile. Set in Baden-Baden, where he had gone to be near Pauline Viardot, but also a favourite resort of disgruntled Russian gentry alarmed at the turns their country was taking, it is another complicated love story interwoven with a series of ‘condition of Russia’ set-pieces. It sparked a row with Dostoevsky, who disliked it and found Turgenev himself absurd.

He lived on, absurd or not, until 1883. His birth and death dates match to the year those of Karl Marx, another great prose stylist and controversialist, who is fated to be more written about than read. When he lay dying, in fierce agonies from the cancerous abscess that was attacking his upper vertebrae, Turgenev threw an inkwell at his lover Pauline Viardot. It may well just have been a sick man lashing out, but Turgenev never forget anything that he had seen or read, and the gesture immediately recalls the moment when Marx’s second most important intellectual forebear Martin Luther flung his inkwell at the Devil. For Turgenev, not woman, but the love she commanded was the very devil. Throwing ink at the problem never quite made it go away, but it resulted in some of the finest writing of the age.

From this Issue


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