Wednesday 30 August 2023

On Turgenev’s Virgin Soil

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.

Tom wrote

“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. 

Tuesday 22 August 2023

Virgin Soil: Fomushka and Fimushka

Virgin Soil seems like the right book to read after Gary Saul Morson’s Wonder Confronts Certainty

Perhaps at some point I will write about Turgenev’s revolutionaries, but right now I’m interested in the old couple: the Subochevs, Foma Lavrentyevich (Fomushka) and Yevfimiya Pavlovna (Fimushka). 

This is how Paklin describes them: 

““No politics, no literature, nothing modern gets a look in there. […] The smell there is antique; the people are antique, the air is antique. Take anything you like and it’s antique. Catherine II, powder, hooped skirts, the eighteenth century! […] They’re awfully like one another, only she wears a mobcap and he a nightcap—with the same ruches as the mobcap, but minus the ribbon. If it wasn’t for this ribbon, you wouldn’t know who was who…”” 

(translated by Michael Pursglove) 

Personally I think not much of interest has happened before this point. Nezhdanov, an illegitimate son of an aristocrat, and a Red, is employed as a tutor by the privy councillor Sipyagin; there he meets a few progressive people who want to “do something”—Marianna (Sipyagin’s niece), Markelov (Sipyagin’s brother-in-law), Solomin (a factory owner), etc. Paklin, one of the revolutionaries Nezhdanov has known from before, visits him, gets introduced to the others, and then takes them to the Subochevs, who gave shelter to his sister. 

“The Subochevs’ coachman, too, was an extremely ancient man, redolent of train oil and pitch; his beard began near his eyes and his eyebrows fell to his beard in a little cascade. He was so slow in all his movements that he used up a whole five minutes to take a pinch of snuff, two minutes to stick his whip into his belt and over two hours to harness Moveless alone.” 

Doesn’t that sound more like something out of Gogol? 

“When together, they were never bored, so they were never apart and did not wish for any other company. Neither Fomushka nor Fimushka had ever been seriously ill, and if one of them had some slight indisposition, they both drank an infusion of lime blossom, had warm oil rubbed onto the smalls of their backs or hot fat dropped onto the soles of their feet, and it soon passed.” 

The episode with the Subochevs is unlike anything that came before. It is—I wouldn’t say out-of-place—incongruous. 

I like it though. The old couple. The house. The servants in the house. The whole scene. It is lively, and unexpected. 

Saturday 19 August 2023

15 films I hate

Curious, aren’t you? I generally avoid blogging about things I hate, but today let’s stir shit up.

Note that I will only name films which are highly acclaimed, or which are with a huge fanbase and considered iconic—the sacred cows, so to speak—it’s no fun mentioning something popular but slammed by critics and relatively recent (such as Twilight or superhero rubbish). 

Here’s the list: 

Lolita (dir. Stanley Kubrick) 

The Shining (dir. Stanley Kubrick) 

The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick) 

The Shape of Water (dir. Guillermo del Toro) 

Mank (dir. David Fincher) 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (dir. Martin McDonagh) 

Back to the Future (dir. Robert Zemeckis) 

Jojo Rabbit (dir. Taika Waititi) 

Roma (dir. Alfonso Cuaron) 

Anything I have seen by Jean-Luc Godard, except Vivre sa vie 

Oldboy (dir. Park Chan-wook) 

Rope (dir. Alfred Hitchcock) 

Emma (dir. Douglas McGrath) 

Emma (dir. Autumn de Wilde)

Jane Eyre (dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga) 

The list has just got updated on 20/8. 

Friday 18 August 2023

My 10 favourite films (2023 list)

One film per director. 

Persona (dir. Ingmar Bergman)  

Sunset Boulevard (dir. Billy Wilder) 

Ran (dir. Akira Kurosawa) 

Casablanca (dir. Michael Curtis) 

A Star Is Born (dir. George Cukor) 

The Conversation (dir. Francis Ford Coppola) 

The Phantom of Liberty (dir. Luis Bunuel) 

The Flavour of Green Tea over Rice (dir. Yasujiro Ozu) 

Raise the Red Lantern (dir. Zhang Yimou) 

F for Fake (dir. Orson Welles) 

Tuesday 15 August 2023

Chekhov’s “The Letter” and “A Nightmare”

Not enough is said about the great value of Constance Garnett’s 13 volumes of Chekhov. I like her prose, I also like the way she organises the stories—for example, Volume 7 has “The Bishop”, “The Letter”, “Easter Eve”, “A Nightmare”, “The Murder”, “Uprooted”, and “The Steppe”—she groups together several stories which have a religious theme or setting and which can be read together, and adds some different stories so it’s never boring. 

Volume 7 begins with “The Bishop”, one of his finest stories, and possibly Vasily Grossman’s favourite, as he mentions it in both Life and Fate and Everything Flows. The story is Chekhov’s answer to The Death of Ivan Ilyich: oppressed by illness and overwhelmed with work, the bishop has no time to think about death or God, and when he thinks about his life, he doesn’t ask himself if he has lived a good and worthwhile life, but thinks about his mother and his childhood. 

Bishops and priests in Chekhov’s world are perfectly human—there are no saints—that’s what I love about Chekhov. 

“The Bishop” is followed with “The Letter”. 

“Not everyone knows when to be silent and when to go. It not infrequently happens that even diplomatic persons of good worldly breeding fail to observe that their presence is arousing a feeling akin to hatred in their exhausted or busy host, and that this feeling is being concealed with an effort and disguised with a lie. But Father Anastasy perceived it clearly, and realized that his presence was burdensome and inappropriate, that his Reverence, who had taken an early morning service in the night and a long mass at midday, was exhausted and longing for repose; every minute he was meaning to get up and go, but he did not get up, he sat on as though he were waiting for something.”

In the story, Chekhov moves between different perspectives, depicting both the “feeling akin to hatred” in the exhausted host, and the mind of the unwelcome guest who knows he has to leave but somehow doesn’t go. 

“His Reverence believed in people’s reforming, but now when a feeling of pity had been kindled in him it seemed to him that this disgraced, worn-out old man, entangled in a network of sins and weaknesses, was hopelessly wrecked, that there was no power on earth that could straighten out his spine, give brightness to his eyes and restrain the unpleasant timid laugh which he laughed on purpose to smoothe over to some slight extent the repulsive impression he made on people.

The old man seemed now to Father Fyodor not guilty and not vicious, but humiliated, insulted, unfortunate; his Reverence thought of his wife, his nine children, the dirty beggarly shelter at Zyavkin’s; he thought for some reason of the people who are glad to see priests drunk and persons in authority detected in crimes; and thought that the very best thing Father Anastasy could do now would be to die as soon as possible and to depart from this world for ever.”

Who else but Chekhov would write a passage like that about a priest? It is so good. In “The Letter”, he writes about two priests and a deacon, and depicts them with such keen insight, such compassion and humanity. His characters are all human. 

In “A Nightmare”, there’s a priest named Father Yakov, and he’s seen through the eyes of Kunin, a member of the Rural Board. 

“With his short figure, his narrow chest, his red and perspiring face, he made from the first moment a most unpleasant impression on Kunin. The latter could never have imagined that there were such undignified and pitiful-looking priests in Russia; and in Father Yakov’s attitude, in the way he held his hands on his knees and sat on the very edge of his chair, he saw a lack of dignity and even a shade of servility.”

Writing from the perspective of Kunin, Chekhov doesn’t hold back: 

“Father Yakov was so absorbed in drinking tea that he did not answer this question at once. He lifted his grey-blue eyes to Kunin, thought a moment, and as though recalling his question, he shook his head in the negative. An expression of pleasure and of the most ordinary prosaic appetite overspread his face from ear to ear. He drank and smacked his lips over every gulp. When he had drunk it to the very last drop, he put his glass on the table, then took his glass back again, looked at the bottom of it, then put it back again. The expression of pleasure faded from his face. . . .”

As it is Chekhov, there would be a turn in the story, but I won’t go into detail—all I’ll say is that I love the way he writes about the indignity of poverty, and the pride of a poor person who desperately tries to hide his poverty—it is so moving. 


I have finished reading Gary Saul Morson’s Wonder Confronts Certainty. If you’re interested in Russian literature and history, ideology, and big questions, this is the book for you. 

I love that Morson ends the book with Chekhov. He too is my hero. 

Monday 14 August 2023

Musings on Jane Austen—a personal blog post

1/ It’s strange how these things work. There are writers with whom it was love at first sight (Tolstoy, Melville). There are writers I came to like over time (Jane Austen). There are writers I had to rediscover (Shakespeare, Chekhov). And sometimes a writer comes to mean a lot more to me at a particular stage of my life, like Chekhov at the moment, whilst I’m having a difficult time. As I move closer to Chekhov, it so happens that I move further away from Jane Austen. It’s not because I think less highly of her, but the themes of balance, misperception, and appearance vs reality now mean less to me; whereas the subjects that now occupy me didn’t seem to interest Austen: death, grief, loneliness, longing, sex, sexual desire, unhappiness, fleetingness of love, search for meaning, and so on. 

2/ I’ve never got out of my head Nabokov’s remark in his lecture about Mansfield Park

“Nobody in Mansfield Park dies in the arms of the author and reader, as people do in Dickens, Flaubert, Tolstoy. The deaths in Mansfield Park happen somewhere behind the scenes and excite little emotion. These dull deaths have, however, a curiously strong influence on the development of plot.”

This is true for all of Jane Austen’s novels: deaths happen off-stage, and they’re often, if not always, functional (in Nabokov’s words: “affect the development of the novel and are introduced for structural purposes, purposes of development”). 

3/ I reread Pride and Prejudice several months ago. I have always had a complicated relationship with it: I like it a lot, but it’s too light, bright, and sparkling, too much like a woman’s fantasy. Mr Darcy might exist, but you’re not going to meet him. 

(I myself prefer Mr Knightley). 

4/ It probably says something about me that my favourite Austen novel is Mansfield Park, her darkest, most sombre novel.

Like her other novels, it has a happy ending, but she gives us a vision, a glimpse of something else that might have happened: Fanny Price back in Portsmouth, poor, alienated, unhappy, forever unable to get out; or married to Henry Crawford, betrayed, humiliated, and miserable.

These visions are gloomier than what her other heroines might have experienced if they hadn’t got a happy ending.

Tuesday 8 August 2023

Musings on Flannery O’Connor and vision

There is often something violent in the works of Flannery O’Connor. In A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, the weakest stories are those in which nothing happens—like “A Stroke of Good Fortune” or “A Late Encounter with the Enemy”—stories of nothing happening, the domain of Chekhov, are not her thing. In her best stories, there’s usually something shocking, something violent or brutal or destructive. And she doesn’t hold back. 

Flannery O’Connor is a strange, fascinating writer. Strange, because she has a weird way of seeing and depicting things, and I often find her elusive. Fascinating, as she has an imposing personality and an uncompromising, pitiless quality. 

Above all, it is strange that I don’t know what draws me to her short stories. Not long ago, I tweeted that I didn’t find the great works of Russian literature depressing even though they depicted war, disease, death, cruelty, humiliation, suffering… whereas the works of Tanizaki (specifically Naomi), Joyce Carol Oates, or Elfriede Jelinek filled me with disgust and left a bad taste in my mouth. The difference, I’ve concluded, is in vision: Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky…, in spite of everything, still demonstrate a love of life and humanity, and a belief in freedom and human dignity; Vasily Grossman, even when he writes about the worst horrors of the 20th century, believes in dignity and kindness and offers a glimpse of hope; whereas the works of Tanizaki, Elfriede Jelinek, or Joyce Carol Oates are devoid of light, depicting human beings as just base and depraved. 

I don’t share such a vision of life. Even my current job, in which I regularly speak to refugees, victims of religious persecution, and victims of human trafficking, doesn’t make me cynical, for I still see people stand up for the truth and for justice, I still see people try to help others, I still see people try to make changes. 

Why then do I like Flannery O’Connor? She has a dark, dark view of humanity. In one story, a group of fugitives kills an entire family. In two stories, some men deceive and take advantage of disabled women. In another story, a group of adolescents causes havoc for no reason but their own meanness, and sets the woods on fire. And there’s a story in which a grandfather, the moment he’s needed the most, rejects his own grandson and debases himself out of fear and cowardice. It is a cold, brutal world she depicts and there is no glimpse of hope, no glimpse of human kindness. 

And yet, her stories don’t leave a bad taste in my mouth. Why? What does she have that Elfriede Jelinek, Joyce Carol Oates, and Tanizaki lack?