Turgenev’s Smoke

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In its own time a political novel, in our time a love story.

Smoke was first published in 1867 in the Russian Messenger, the famous literary magazine in which Crime and Punishment and War and Peace were also published. The political message of the novella made it very controversial at the time. Its pro western sentiment was perceived as being anti Russian, and the satirical depiction of the Russian aristocracy in Baden Baden was not appreciated by that same aristocracy either; after publication Turgenev received considerably less dinner invitations.

Social responsibilities

It was the ‘job’ of the nineteenth century Russian realist writer to address social and political issues, and Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev succeeded extremely well in conveying both their message and writing a great story around it. It is thanks to that, that we can nowadays still enjoy their works, whether or not we have a background knowledge of Russian history.

A Love Story

When we leave the political message out of Smoke, we are left with a love story. A typical Turgenev love story with autobiographical elements. The novella takes place in Baden Baden in Germany. Baden Baden was a popular destination for the Russian aristocracy at the time. Dostoevsky too visited it several times, once with his young bride Anna. At the time he was still addicted to gambling and he gambled away everything they owned in the casinos of Baden Baden, down to the wedding rings.

Turgenev was no gambler; he tried his best his whole life to take as few risks as he possibly could. Marriage comes with risks. If it’s a happy marriage, there’ll be no more inspiration for writing. If it’s a bad marriage, there’ll be inspiration, but whether it’ll be worth it remains to be seen. And actually, he writes to his friend Leontiev, he doesn’t understand how a young girl can evoke passion in a man. A married woman is much more interesting, because of her experience.

Pauline

Turgenev was in love with the same married woman his whole life: Pauline Viardot. Pauline was a celebrated singer, and when he saw her perform in 1843 in St Petersburg, he was sold for life. When her career took her to Baden Baden, Turgenev followed and even moved into the house next-door to the Viardots. To love and follow a married woman may sound extreme, but for Turgenev it was a safe choice. She would never leave her husband and it doesn’t seem as if Turgenev would have wanted her to. He was happy with every scrap that she threw at him.

Olga

In 1854 he was temporarily back in Russia and during the summer he met his remote cousin Olga. She was eighteen and he was thirty-six. A romance blossomed and for a while it looked like he was going to get married. But when it came down to it, he didn’t choose domestic happiness, but instead, as he described it in a letter to countess Lambert, a gypsy existence abroad, following Pauline wherever she goes, and that shall be his fate. Fate, he said, was invented by weak characters, so that they would not have to take responsibility for the way their lives turned out. 

Ménage à Trois

In Smoke the protagonist Litvinov is in Baden Baden to meet up with his fiancé Olga and travel back to Russia with her. While he is waiting for her to arrive, he unexpectedly meets his first love, Irina. Ten years ago the two of them were going to get married, but Irina broke with him when she had the opportunity to get into the highest social circles in St Petersburg through a wealthy relative. Now she is married to some important person. After a few meetings their old love blossoms up again and they have an affair.

Irina tells him she is willing to give up her luxury life for him, and when the sweet, good and wise Olga finally arrives in Baden Baden, Litvinov breaks off the engagement. Then he receives a letter from Irina: she is not going to leave her husband after all and offers Litvinov the opportunity to become her lover. Litvinov does something that Turgenev never did: he thanks for the honour and returns to Russia alone. In the epilogue Turgenev writes that Litvinov did meet Olga again some years later and that she forgave him, suggesting that they may have gotten married.

What if…

Turgenev was not unhappy in his strange relationship with Pauline, but here he appears to have been thinking “what if…” Politics may be controversial, love is universal.

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Text en photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 

Smoke – Turgenjev 

Turgenev, His Life and Times – Schapiro

Toergenjev’s Liefde – Schmeltzer 

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A visit to the enchanting ballet ‘Onegin’

Amsterdam, March 29th 2017

Onegin

Dutch National Ballet


”I am writing to you… need I say more?

Is there more I can say?

I realize you’re free now

to punish me with your contempt.”

In 1833 Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin was published for the first time. It turned out to be an inexhaustible source of inspiration. In 1879 Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin premiered and in 1965 the ballet Onegin by John Cranko followed.

On March 29th 2017 the opening night of the ballet performed by the Dutch National Ballet took place in Amsterdam, and I had to see it, of course!

The famous choreographer John Cranko first got the idea for the ballet in 1952 when he did the choreography for the dances in the opera Eugene Onegin, but it wasn't until 1965 that he was able to realise his dream, when he was working with the Stuttgart Ballet. And what a delightful ballet it has turned out to be! The tricky relationship between Onegin and Tatyana is wonderfully translated into dance, especially when they dance together in Tatyana’s dream in the second act. The folk dances in the first act are super contagious and a joy for the eye. A real masterwork.

Although the music is from Tchaikovsky, it isn't the same music as in the opera Eugene Onegin. The German composer Kurt Heinz Stolze arranged the musical score from different compositions by Tchaikovsky, glueing them together with leitmotifs. If you didn't know any better you would never suspect that, it was done so skilfully. Tchaikovksy’s music is, as always, magical, dramatic and vivacious.

The story is split into three acts:

In the first act the arrogant and bored St Petersburg dandy Onegin finds himself in the countryside. His friend Lenski introduces him to the sisters Olga and Tatyana. Olga is Lenski’s fiancee. The sweet and dreamy Tatyana falls head over heels for Onegin. She writes him a love letter.

In the second act Onegin tears up the letter. He is not interested in the simple and romantic Tatyana. To annoy Lenski, and a little bit out of boredom too, he tries to seduce Olga instead. Lenski challenges him to a duel and gets killed.

In the third act Onegin meets Tatyana again for the first time in years. Now she is married and the shining star of the St Petersburg society. He falls in love, he regrets the past, writes her a letter.. but now it’s Tatyana’s turn to tear up the letter and so Onegin is punished for his arrogance.

In order for the ballet to work, Pushkin’s story has been shortened and simplified. However, Tchaikovsky’s music and the artistic interpretation of the dancers, who have clearly studied their characters well, add an extra dimension.

The principals of the ballet were Anna Tsygankova as Tatyana, Jozef Varga as Onegin, Qian Liu as Olga en Remi Wörtmeyer as Lenski. I thought Qian Liu was absolutely adorable as Olga, I loved her expression and the apparent effortlessness with which she danced, no flew, across the stage.

The Dutch National Ballet is fantastic, so is the Ballet Orchestra and Onegin is an enchanting night out.

The photos are from bolshoirussia.com.

The fragment is from Tatyana's letter and was translated by Roger Clarke.

http://www.operaballet.nl/en/ballet/2016-2017/show/onegin

Would you like to read more about Pushkin? Click on the 'pushkin' tag below.

 

First Love, Acia and Torrents of Spring

Love in Turgenev’s work

 

Turgenev (1818-1883) remained a bachelor throughout his life. His mother was a cold and fickle woman and his father had married her for her money. As a child Turgenev witnessed the constant arguments between his parents and swore to himself that he would never marry. And he didn’t. Most of his adult life he was in love with Pauline Viardot, a married woman. He adored her, but apparently happily accepted that he could never have her completely (see http://wp.me/p5zzbs-1R ).

His mother and Pauline keep popping up in his work. Let’s have a look at three of his well known love stories: First Love (1856), Acia (1858) and Torrents of Spring (1872). All three are more or less autobiographical and in all three stories the narrator looks back on an episode in his youth. This construction is know as a ”frame story”, a technique that Turgenev uses a lot, and it gives the reader the feeling that he is reading in Turgenev’s memoirs.

 

Fear the love of woman; fear that bliss, that poison…

First Love is probably the most famous of the three stories. The 16 years old Volodya is head over heels in love with Zinaïda, a beautiful, cheerful, proud and somewhat cruel girl of 21. She has numerous admirers. In the course of the story she changes and becomes pale and depressed. It turns out that she is having an affair with a married man, not with one of her admirers, but with Volodya’s father! Of course the affair leads to arguments between Volodya’s parents and soon they move to another house. Volodya sees Zinaïda once more: when he is out horse riding with his father, his father suddenly disappears. Volodya follows him and sees him talking to Zinaïda. At some point his father lashes her arm with his whip and the shocked Volodya sees her kiss the red streak that the blow has made. ”That’s love (…)” Volodya concludes, ”that’s passion!”. Shortly afterwards his father dies and a few years later Zinaïda dies as well.

The way in which Zinaïda treats her admirers reminds us of Pauline, who let Turgenev sit down on a paw of a giant polar bear rug lying at her feet; the only paw that wasn’t already occupied.. First Love was Turgenev’s personal favourite and he said that it was loosely based on true events. It's remarkable that Volodya isn't jealous when he finds out that is father has an affair with Zinaîda; he understands that she chose his handsome father.

Happiness has no tomorrow, no yesterday…

Acia is set idyllically in Germany. During his travels there the narrator N.N. meets a Russian brother and sister; Gagin and Acia. They get along well and soon they are spending every day together. N.N. likes Acia, but can’t figure her out; one day she is a simple Russian girl, the next she is reckless and passionate. Gagin tells him that that is the result of her childhood. She is the daughter of his father and a serf woman. Acia falls in love with N.N. and he with her. He decides to propse to her, but when he goes to their house it turns out that they have gone away without saying good-bye to him. He unsuccessfully tries to find them. Looking back the narrator admits that he wasn't sad for very long and that a marriage with such a fickle girl would probably not have been very happy.

Acia’s story has similarities with that of Turgenev’s own daughter with a serf woman; Paulinette. Acia’s dark appearance and tiny figure must have been inspired by Pauline.

I am going where you will be, and will be with you till you drive me away…

Torrents of Spring is also set in Germany. Sanin falls in love with the beautiful, Italian Gemma, who is engaged to a solid German. During a day trip in the mountains Gemma gets insulted by an officer and when her fiancee fails to react, Sanin challenges the officer to a duel. The duel ends with both men missing their shot. When Gemma finds out about the duel, she breaks off her engagement. Not long after Sanin proposes to her himself. In order to raise money for the wedding, he will have to sell his estate in Russia. By chance he meets an old school friend who also happens to be in Germany. This friend suggests that his wife Maria might be interested in buying the estate. Maria, however, makes a bet with her (gay) husband that she will be able to seduce Sanin within a couple of days. She wins the bet in a masterly described scene and instead of returning to Gemma with the money, Sanin follows Maria to Paris. He sends Gemma a lame letter, breaking off the engagement.

Only the beginning of this story really happened, in Frankfurt Turgenev met a pretty Jewish girl and her family, but he saw them only once and the rest of the story he made up. The end, of course, echoes his relationship with Pauline, following her around Europe. Although he was perhaps never Pauline’s lover.

 

 

The eternal admirer

Three completely different girls, but three very similar love stories. It all starts in high spirits; the weather is ’magnificent’ and ’unusually good for the time of the year’ and the surroundings are idyllic. The sudden appearance of an exceptionally pretty girl surprises the narrator. He falls in love, but he never gets the girl, and remains a bachelor. Again and again Turgenev describes being in love, but he never dares to let it blossom into a relationship, nor in his stories, nor in real life.

*****

Books read:

Eerste Liefde, Asja and Lentebeken, lovingly published by van Oorschot, parts 2 en 3, translated by Carl en Rebecca Ebeling and Wils Huisman

The Gentle Barbarian – V.S. Pritchett

 

All three stories are available for reading online:

http://www.eldritchpress.org/ist/torrents.htm

http://www.eldritchpress.org/ist/lear.htm#acia

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/turgenev/ivan/first/complete.html