Tolstoy and Turgenev. Two giants in the history of Russian literature. Thanks to his outspoken opinion and controversial nature Tolstoy is the best known of the two. But in a purely literary sense Turgenev may well be the better writer. I love Tolstoy, but he did write a lot of grumbling too, and Turgenev never did.
They had a love/hate relationship, that started with more or less the same touching letter from Turgenev. In 1855 he wrote to Tolstoy, who was at the time fighting at the front in the Crimean War (nothing new under the sun) and who had already published Childhood and Boyhood, the following lines:
Enough! There’s a limit to everything! You have proved that you are no coward, but your instrument is the pen and not the sabre!
Tolstoy took those words to his heart. He admired Turgenev immensely and not much later stood on his doorstep in Saint Petersburg. The writers embraced each other in Russian style and Tolstoy stayed for a month. When the poet Fet came to visit Turgenev late one morning he asked who’s gleaming sabre it was that he saw in the hall and was told it belonged to Count Tolstoy. Count Tolstoy had been up all night with the gipsies (gipsy singers were quite popular at the time in Russia) and was still asleep in the next room. Fet and Turgenev spent the first hour whispering to each other.
Soon, however, it became clear that they didn’t have much in common. Turgenev thought Tolstoy was wildly jealous and extremely stubborn. Tolstoy called Turgenev a bore and could not understand that he, who was much wealthier, was an advocate of the emancipation of the serfs*.
Nonetheless both writers expressed their love for each other:
Tolstoy: Turgenev has left. I am sad. I feel that I have grown to love him dearly. Even though we argued all the time, I am terribly bored without him.
Turgenev: Friends in the sense of Rousseau we will never be. But we can still love each other and be happy for each other’s successes (…).
In May 1861 Tolstoy stayed with Turgenev at Spasskoye. There a fight about Turgenev’s daughter Paulette (see Turgenev’s Eternal Love) got so out of hand that Tolstoy challenged Turgenev to a duel. In the heat of the moment letters with apologies were sent to the wrong address, but it was eventually called off (luckily, just imagine them killing each other!). They did make peace, but there was no contact for seventeen years.
In 1883 Turgenev writes Tolstoy, who is at that moment fanatically religious, from his deathbed in France:
(…) My friend, return to literary activity! (…) Oh, how happy I would be if I could think that my request makes an impact on you!! (…) I can’t walk, I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, but so what! (…) My friend, great writer of the Russian land – heed my request!
* In 1852 Turgenev published his Sketches from a Hunter’s Album, a series of short stories in which the narrator meets all kinds of characters, most of them serfs. This was the first time in Russian literary history that serfs were described as people with individual feelings and talents. These stories contributed to the actual emancipation of the serfs and would almost certainly have helped Tolstoy change his mind about the issue later in life. I’d love to write a separate blog on this subject in the near future.
Peace on the Rue de Rivoli; Turgenev lives on 208 and Tolstoy on 206 (Tolstoy lived there for only six weeks, but he got a plague and Turgenev didn’t! If you wish to see Turgenev’s plague in Paris you’ll find it at 50 Rue de Douai).
Photos are mine.
My inspirational sources:
– Tolstoy, a Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett
– Tolstoy by A.N. Wilson
– Toergenjev’s Liefde by Daphne Schmelzer