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Saturday, 22 March 2014

"Fathers and sons"

I've finished reading "Fathers and sons".
It is a mistake (some people make, including a blogger I've seen just now) to say that Turgenev's characters represent the 2 generations and embody the 2 modes of thinking and living in Russia at the time. One can look at the 3 old men Nikolai Petrovich and Pavel Petrovich Kirsanov and Vasily Ivanovich Bazarov and see how different they are. Calling Evgeny Vasilich Bazarov a caricature is even more incomprehensible, who, in spite of his strict nihilism and extreme philosophical and social views, has various shades in his personality and so many self-contradictions, who does things against his own character, who evokes in me so different emotions from aversion to pity and even some attraction and sympathy. Turgenev's depiction of Bazarov is at his best in 2 things, the 1st time when Bazarov blushes, gets uncomfortable and finds himself charmed by and later in love with Anna Odintsova, the 2nd time when he, in some last chapters, talks to peasants, imagining himself to be close to them and to understand them, unlike the aristocrats, only to find himself being mistaken. The 1st point shows that, in spite of his cynicism, in spite of the belief in his own greatness and his extraordinary mind, he's still a human being, a man, like anyone else. The 2nd point, more interestingly, shows how delusional, barren, mistaken and theoretical he is (which, I must note, reminds of Tolstoy, who is always and forever an aristocrat under the peasant's clothes). In the end, he's still empty. And yet, I say this not with contempt, not with hatred. I'm both attracted to him and repulsed by him, and sorry for him.
Bazarov, in short, is the most well-developed character in this novel.
To be fair, all characters are natural and convincing, including Bazarov's mother Arina, even if her sentimental, melodramatic tendency makes her a caricature. But, in addition to Bazarov, I find Anna Odintsova particularly interesting. At 1st, the attraction between her and Bazarov seems to be opposite attraction, with her being aristocratic, well-mannered, sticking to order, loving literature... and him being a nihilist and a detractor of arts. The more they disagree, the more they are drawn to each other. Apparently, it also has to do with Anna's physical attraction, a kind of power that makes such a bold man as Bazarov shy. However, as it turns out later, they're more alike than one thinks. Both are tired and cynical. Unfortunately the very thing that links them is also what destroys them and makes it impossible for them to be with each other.
After reading this book, I've also read Turgenev's "Apropos of "Father and sons"" and some of his letters to writers and critics. I agree with him that a writer doesn't have to choose a stance or make it clear whether he praises or makes fun of his main character. As it happens, some people criticise him for glorification of nihilism, whilst some others, for condemnation of it. This is the reason I prefer fiction to nonfiction, in nonfiction the writer, whilst discussing both sides, has a stance and expresses their opinions and thoughts, whilst in fiction the writer is more suggesting, more inclusive/ambivalent, vague. 
This is 1 of my favourite bits from "Apropos...": 
"1 more bit of advice to young writers and 1 last request. My friends, never justify yourself no matter how you may be slandered; don't try to clear up misunderstandings, don't try either to say 'the final word' or to listen to it. Do your work- everything will sort itself later. In any case, 1st let a long period of time pass- and then look at all the rubbish of the past from the historical point of view, as I have tried to do now. Let the following example serve to guide you..." 
And this is taken from a letter from Turgenev to Countess Lambert: 
"It recently occurred to me that there's something tragic in the fate of almost every person- it's just that the tragic is often concealed from a person by the banal surface of life. One who remains on the surface (and there are many of them) often fails even to suspect that he's the hero of a tragedy. A woman will complain of indigestion and not even know that what she means is that her whole life has been shattered. For example: all around me here are peaceful, quiet existences, yet if you take a close look- you see something tragic in each of them- something either their own, or imposed on them by history, by the development of the nation."  
To conclude, I'd like to quote Edmund Wilson, from his "On translating Turgenev": 
"The work of Turgenev has, of course, no scope that is comparable to Tolstoy's or Dostoyevsky's, but the 10 volumes collected by him for his edition of 1883 (he omitted his early poems) represent a literary achievement of the concentratedly "artistic" kind that has few equals in 19th-century fiction. There are moments, to be sure, in Turgenev novels- "On the eve" and "Virgin soil"- when they become a little thin or unreal, but none can be called a failure, and one cannot find a single weak piece, unless one becomes impatient with "Enough", in the whole 4 volumes of stories. No fiction writer can be read through with a steadier admiration. Greater novelists are more uneven: they betray our belief with extravagances; they bore or they fall into bathos; they combine poetic vision with rubbish. But Turgenev hardly even skirts these failings, and he is never mediocre; his texture is as distinguished as his temperament." 

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