Thursday, 20 March 2014

A few lines on Ivan Turgenev

Turgenev is a delight!
I'm more than halfway through "Fathers and sons". 
I reckon I'm not the only one who feels the absurd need to compare him to other Russian giants. Now, place him next to Tolstoy, of course Turgenev's overshadowed; one stands in awe of the formidable, marvellous, impressive Tolstoy, who intrigues us, captivates us, overwhelms us, blows us away and afterwards leaves a strong, deep impression. 
But then, how many writers can be compared to Tolstoy? We, obviously, can't dismiss a writer because he's not a Tolstoy. Turgenev's at his best in nature descriptions, he also depicts wonderfully the different characters, various types of people, the conflicts between 2 generations and 2 ways of thinking and 2 political, philosophical views, the father-and-son relationships, the contradictions within each character... At 1st, there seems to be nothing remarkable about this book, but gradually one enjoys the flow, notices the masterful characterisations and sees the author's insight and sensitivity in his simplicity. In temperament he seems more similar to Chekhov, for he describes and tells the story and presents his characters in a calm, objective, neutral way, without moralising, without taking side, without showing much of his opinions, without letting politics interfere with his art, without distracting the readers' attention from the story with lengthy lectures. Inferior to Tolstoy in some aspects, Turgenev gains points for not having Tolstoy's didacticism and, perhaps, pomposity. And it may be early to tell, but methinks he doesn't share Tolstoy's extreme views, naivete and idealism either. More moderate, he presents the characters as they are (I will write more about them later). 
Comparing him to Dostoyevsky is more difficult. I place Tolstoy, Chekhov and Turgenev in the same camp, Dostoyevsky in another (together with Kafka, for instance). On the 1 hand, I believe that to most people (including myself) Dostoyevsky wins, who's also impressive and formidable in his way, with the themes and big ideas in his books and his exploration of the human psyche. On the other hand, I can understand the people who see Turgenev as superior, such as Nabokov, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, etc. because Dostoyevsky lacks a polished style and has lots of flaws as a writer, he's great as a thinker, a mystic, whilst Turgenev is, how to put it, more sensitive to the various shades of life, individuals. His works also have more balance, constraint, coherence, artistry. Reading Turgenev, I don't feel like I'm struggling through some unbearable parts and tolerating them for the sake of the whole as when reading "Crime and punishment", and less often, when reading "Notes from underground". 
Which is to say, the serene and gentle Turgenev is overshadowed by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, but that is unfortunate- Turgenev is a giant, a great writer on his own of the Golden age of Russian literature, another Russian writer I now start to adore.

To conclude, let me paste here an excerpt from a letter by Joseph Conrad, written about Turgenev: 
"... Turgenev's creative activity covers about thirty years. Since it came to an end the social and political events in Russia have moved at an accelerated pace, but the deep origins of them, in the moral and intellectual unrest of the souls, are recorded in the whole body of his work with the unerring lucidity of a great national writer. The first stirrings, the first gleams of the great forces can be seen almost in every page of the novels, of the short stories and of A SPORTSMAN'S SKETCHES--those marvellous landscapes peopled by unforgettable figures.
Those will never grow old. Fashions in monsters do change, but the truth of humanity goes on for ever, unchangeable and inexhaustible in the variety of its disclosures. Whether Turgenev's art, which has captured it with such mastery and such gentleness, is for "all time" it is hard to say. Since, as you say yourself, he brings all his problems and characters to the test of love, we may hope that it will endure at least till the infinite emotions of love are replaced by the exact simplicity of perfected Eugenics. But even by then, I think, women would not have changed much; and the women of Turgenev who understood them so tenderly, so reverently and so passionately--they, at least, are certainly for all time.
Women are, one may say, the foundation of his art. They are Russian of course. Never was a writer so profoundly, so whole- souledly national. But for non-Russian readers, Turgenev's Russia is but a canvas on which the incomparable artist of humanity lays his colours and his forms in the great light and the free air of the world. Had he invented them all and also every stick and stone, brook and hill and field in which they move, his personages would have been just as true and as poignant in their perplexed lives. They are his own and also universal. Any one can accept them with no more question than one accepts the Italians of Shakespeare.
In the larger, non-Russian view, what should make Turgenev sympathetic and welcome to the English-speaking world, is his essential humanity. All his creations, fortunate and unfortunate, oppressed and oppressors, are human beings, not strange beasts in a menagerie or damned souls knocking themselves to pieces in the stuffy darkness of mystical contradictions. They are human beings, fit to live, fit to suffer, fit to struggle, fit to win, fit to lose, in the endless and inspiring game of pursuing from day to day the ever-receding future.
I began by calling him lucky, and he was, in a sense. But one ends by having some doubts. To be so great without the slightest parade and so fine without any tricks of "cleverness" must be fatal to any man's influence with his contemporaries. 

Frankly, I don't want to appear as qualified to judge of things Russian. It wouldn't be true. I know nothing of them. But I am aware of a few general truths, such as, for instance, that no man, whatever may be the loftiness of his character, the purity of his motives and the peace of his conscience--no man, I say, likes to be beaten with sticks during the greater part of his existence. From what one knows of his history it appears clearly that in Russia almost any stick was good enough to beat Turgenev with in his latter years. When he died the characteristically chicken-hearted Autocracy hastened to stuff his mortal envelope into the tomb it refused to honour, while the sensitive Revolutionists went on for a time flinging after his shade those jeers and curses from which that impartial lover of ALL his countrymen had suffered so much in his lifetime. For he, too, was sensitive. Every page of his writing bears its testimony to the fatal absence of callousness in the man.
And now he suffers a little from other things. In truth it is not the convulsed terror-haunted Dostoievski but the serene Turgenev who is under a curse. For only think! Every gift has been heaped on his cradle: absolute sanity and the deepest sensibility, the clearest vision and the quickest responsiveness, penetrating insight and unfailing generosity of judgment, an exquisite perception of the visible world and an unerring instinct for the significant, for the essential in the life of men and women, the clearest mind, the warmest heart, the largest sympathy--and all that in perfect measure. There's enough there to ruin the prospects of any writer. For you know very well, my dear Edward, that if you had Antinous himself in a booth of the world's fair, and killed yourself in protesting that his soul was as perfect as his body, you wouldn't get one per cent. of the crowd struggling next door for a sight of the Double-headed Nightingale or of some weak-kneed giant grinning through a horse collar." 

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