Virgin Soil is one of Turgenev’s lesser-known works. Not hard to see why. It is, as Tom of Wuthering Expectations has put it, formless.
But if you’re interested in 19th century Russian society and politics, like I am, especially now that I have just read Gary Saul Morson’s Wonder Confronts Certainty, it is an interesting novel. It is probably Turgenev’s most political novel, or the novel where his stance is most clear: the revolutionaries are not psychopaths but naïve idealists who want to “serve the people” but know nothing about “the people”; the ideal is someone like Solomin, who introduces gradual changes and makes actual positive impact on people’s lives. If only the likes of Solomin had triumphed instead of the Bolsheviks!
There are also some good bits in Virgin Soil. My favourite part is the chapter about the old couple, Fomushka and Fimushka—it does nothing to advance the plot, it even feels incongruous, but it’s striking and full of life.
The characterisation of Nezhdanov and the depiction of his doubt and struggle are good. He is the most, or perhaps the only, fully developed character in the novel. Like Tolstoy always writes about the Man Who Searches for Meaning, Chekhov always writes about the Man Who Wastes His Life, Dostoyevsky always writes about the Spiteful Man, Turgenev always writes about the Superfluous Man.
“The generation of Nihilists replaces the Superfluous Men, only to discover that they themselves were superfluous, and now the more violent, conspiratorial, anarchistic Populists elbow out the nihilists, finding, to their despair, that they are entirely superfluous.”
Nezhdanov is another Superfluous Man. But it doesn’t feel boring—the doubt, the struggle, the gulf he feels between himself and the peasants, the feeling that “it’s difficult for an aesthete to engage with real life”, the despair and self-loathing—all that is well depicted.
There are some good moments, some good scenes throughout the book. The confrontation between Valentina Sipyagina and Marianna, for example.
“Marianna left hastily, while Valentina Mikhailovna jumped up from her armchair, on the point of shouting and bursting into tears. But she did not know what to shout and the tears did not come.
[…] She recognized a certain portion of truth in what she had heard. But how could she be judged so harshly? “Can I be so evil?” she thought, looking at herself in the mirror which was placed between the two windows directly in front of her. This mirror reflected a delightful, somewhat distorted face, with prominent red patches, which was nevertheless charming, and remarkable, soft, velvet eyes. “Me. Am I evil,” she thought again, “with eyes like that?”…” (Ch.26)
(translated by Michael Pursglove)
I like that.
The scene where Sipyagin tricks Paklin into revealing the whereabouts of Nezhdanov and Marianna is also good, especially the moment Paklin realises what he has done and tries to justify himself, in vain.
Some other good bits in Virgin Soil are when the characters leave things unsaid.
“Marianna wanted to ask for an explanation of these words, but did not, and anyway, at that moment Solomin came into the room.” (Ch.36)
That scene between Nezhdanov and Marianna is very good. I don’t particularly like the romance in the novel, but that particular scene is excellent.
“Solomin went out and caught Marianna up on the stairs. He had intended to say something to her about Nezhdanov, but remained silent. And, for her part, Marianna realized that Solomin had intended to say something to her, about Nezhdanov in particular, and that he had remained silent. And she too remained silent.” (ibid.)
I like it when a writer depicts those moments when people leave things unsaid; when they don’t say, or can’t say, something. Chekhov and Henry James are the masters of those silences, Turgenev also does it.
Turgenev depicts another silence in the final chapter of the book:
“Mashurina merely nodded. She wanted him to continue speaking of Nezhdanov, but could not pluck up the courage to ask him.” (Ch.38)
The entire chapter is poignant. I like that Turgenev ends the novel not on Marianna and Solomin, but on Paklin and Mashurina: we’re in a way moved further away from Nezhdanov, but we can see the impact of his death on somebody.
There are indeed some very good bits in the book.