Walking with Turgenev

It's as if you're walking through a forest. All around you it's quiet and calm. Until you start to listen and look carefully. You can hear a wood warbler sing, and the buzzing of bees and mosquitoes. And if you look closely you can see ants and beetles busying about on the forest ground. A world opens up in front of you in the silence. You loose your sense of time and forget you daily problems. Your heart is singing and you're drinking in the fresh air. What's that? Did you just see a deer?! Yes, yes, you can just see it's white behind disappear into the forest. Now that's Turgenev. Nothing much happens in Turgenev’s work. But actually a lot happens.

Nature plays an important role; the best known example is of course A Sportsman’s Sketches, but in his other works too nature is very much present. Turgenev was a passionate hunter, and although we tend to frown upon hunting nowadays, it was his passion for nature that attracted him to it in the first place: “Who but the sportsman knows how soothing it is to wander at daybreak among the underwoods?” (Epilogue of A Sportsman’s Sketches)

Sometimes it's purely about the beauty of nature, but often natural phenomena symbolise feelings and moods. And then there is the enchantment of nature, it can get you under its spell. Nature evokes feelings of passion, happiness, bliss, boundless possibilities. And in Russia, where they have plenty of nature, it is also suffused with superstition: there are water nymphs, Rusalki, who lure you into the water and drown you. All this is in sharp contrast with the city, where people aren't free and out of touch with their hearts.

Bezhin Lea

In Bezhin Lea (one of the Sketches) the hunter gets lost in the dark and ends up in a meadow called Bezhin Lea. A group of peasant boys is spending the night there to let the horses graze. The hunter decides to spend the night there and lays down under a bush. Pretending to sleep he listens to the boys. Around their fire they're telling stories about Rusalki and forest spirits. Every unexpected sound of the night startles them, while the hunter is quietly enjoying their talk. And the next morning: “All things began to stir, to awaken, to sing, to flutter, to speak. On all sides thick drops of dew sparkled in glittering diamonds.” The enchanting night has been replaced by an enchanting morning.

Torrents of Spring

In Torrents of Spring there's a scene in which Sanin is seduced by the wife of his (homosexual) friend. This whole scene consists for at least eighty percent of nature descriptions. Sanin and Maria ride on horseback into a forest, deeper into the shade, past a rather narrow gorge, the smell is drowsy, and “through the clefts of the big brown rocks came strong currents of fresh air” and “He really was bewitched. His whole being was filled full of one thing . . . one idea, one desire. Maria Nikolaevna turned a keen look upon him”. They go further and further into the forest until they reach a “tumbledown little hut”. They return home four hours later. In 1871 explicit sex scenes were not done, but Turgenev can easily do without.

No, Turgenev is anything but boring. Just like a walk in the forest isn't boring. As long as you open up your senses. It's time for Turgenev.

У природы нет плохой пагоди

Photos by me, for the quotations I used the Constance Garnett translations.

© Elisabeth van der Meer


35 thoughts on “Walking with Turgenev

  1. Nature offers itself up to endless description for writers, and only the finest can truly capture it so well that the reader feels like he or she is there. Sounds like Turgenev is one of them.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. You are so right about being in nature and needing to give it a chance to show you what is about. When we go out birdwatching, we often start with ‘there doesn’t seem to be any birds today’, but of course, with a little patience and time, the wildlife all around us begins to reveal itself. I love the idea of likening this process to Turgenev’s work. I have only so far read Fathers and Sons (not a bad start!), but will definitely now aim to add more to my ‘finished’ pile. 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Doesn’t it always seem to be so? I suppose that’s what we call ‘mindfulness’ now.
    Fathers and Sons is a great start, lots of birds in there too 😉 Thanks, Liz, take care!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Another excellent post, Elisabeth – I feel like I’m in a university course on Russian literature. And I’m loving every moment. Whenever I think of writers and nature, names like John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson and Henry David Thoreau come to mind. Now I will be adding Turgenev. Thank you!!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Thank you so much, Rebecca. I’m super glad to hear that, and now you’ve inspired me as well, because I must confess I haven’t read any Muir, Leopold, Carson, or Thoreau. I’ll add them to my list. Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I have known about Thoreau, but never actually read much. Recently, I read some of his nature writings and hope to
    read more. His nature writing is very original and seems fresh. His observations of and about nature take one to new realms, and he clothes his observations in his own Thoreauvian language which is rich and not imitative.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. You’re right, through this blog I have made many friends, have been inspired, and have learned a lot. I thoroughly enjoy this interactive community! Hugs to you too, Rebecca!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. So true, nature doesn’t know any bad weather. 👍🏼
    I don’t know Turgenev at all, but all your wrote make sense to me concerning what I notice about the russians and their relation to nature. There is a strong desire to enjoy the nature… …and nature is literally in a way more tangible. People like to feel the surface of a bork, sweep with their hands over the grass and when they want to sit down, they sit down. No blanket needed if no is available. If there is water, you wash your hand. If there’s a spring, you drink from it…. …and in fall, as a kind of national sports, you go an harvest the tasty mushrooms of the woods.
    I can imagine that no russian would ever ask the question if Turgenevs work is boring. Why should they? The nature is the most excellent stage for a novel.

    Wish you a nice day in nature!

    enjoy, Markus

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Thank you Markus, for this insightful and inspiring contribution. In that respect we can learn a lot from the Russians!

    I hope you too get a chance to enjoy some nature today 😊😊😊

    Happy smiles from Elisabeth


  10. …..ooohhhh yesssss! I will enjoy the nature today. We are in Cambodia right now. When I read your prologue of your article today, I felt so familiar with your words. When we walked to the woods (okay, it’s more a jungle 😊) there was this warm air, strange birds were singing and we saw a bunch of wild monkeys 🐒

    jungle smiles from Cambodia 👋😁🌴🐒🐛🦋🐍🌿🐉

    Liked by 1 person

  11. What an inspiration your blog is! I was happy to come across it in my blog-browsing travels.
    I enjoyed this Turgenev post immensely. Right now I happen to find myself on a different Russian beat. I’m reading Life and Fate by Vasilii Grossman, which is set primarily during World War II–in regions where Grossman was a war correspondent all through the war. It’s a real chunky book at about 800+ pages. Itt was translated into English by the Brit Robert Chandler in the late 1970s or so. I wasn’t too happy when I read his Translator’s Note. Deleting passages that were too philosophical and wandering?? Oh, dear.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Hey Judith, thanks very much! Oh dear indeed; that is like leaving out the farming passages in Anna Karenina. Ok, not everyone finds it interesting and Tolstoy goes on and on, but still it should be the reader’s choice to read, speed read or skip. But Life and Fate sounds very interesting.
    Thanks for stopping by!


  13. Beste Elisabeth,

    Ik zou ook wel graag je Nederlandse versie willen ontvangen. Alvast bedankt, Eva van Santen


  14. Beste Eva, wat leuk dat je geïnteresseerd bent. Ik stuur je de link naar de Nederlandse versie. Nog niet alle blogposts staan er op, maar de meeste wel. Volgens mij kun je je met je e-mailadres abonneren.
    Veel leesplezier, Elisabeth


  15. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to writers and poets who remind us that we are connected to earth, to nature – we cannot forget our place in the universe, for when we break this connection, we lose our way. As I read your marvelous post, I was reminded of this passage, which highlights how literature has no constraints between time, space and cultural variations. There are axioms that cannot be ignored.

    “There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
    There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
    There is society, where none intrudes,
    By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
    I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
    From these our interviews, in which I steal
    From all I may be, or have been before,
    To mingle with the Universe, and feel
    What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.”
    George Gordon Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Thank you! Rebecca, I absolutely agree with you. Nature heals and makes us feel free and full of possibilities. And on days that we can’t escape city life, there’s Turgenev, or indeed Byron! I was in Athens last year, and what really impressed me was that in that loud and modern city, you could really escape to Ancient Greece and sit on an old marble bench, where who knows, perhaps Byron once enjoyed the same view.

    Liked by 2 people

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