There are several memorable dogs in Russian literature, and it’s about time that they get the attention they deserve on this blog! Let’s take a look at four famous examples.
Tolstoy’s extraordinary psychological insights apply to dogs as well as humans; take for instance Laska from Anna Karenina. She is an enthusiastic, experienced and dedicated hunting dog. As soon as she notices that her owner Levin is planning to go hunting, she gets all excited with impatience. During the hunt she senses exactly how things are going. If her owner is unlucky, she doesn’t want to show her lack of faith in him and even though she does not believe that he really has shot a snipe, she still pretends to search it (part 6, c10). And although her sense of smell is infinitely better than Levin’s, and she is on the trail of some game, she does follow his orders to go and look somewhere else, just to please him, and thinking to herself “Well, if that’s what he wishes, I’ll do it, but I can’t answer for myself now” (part 6, c12). Who could wish for a better dog?
Chestnut Girl in the story of the same name, that is told completely from the dog’s perspective, is a nervous, dumb and endearing little dog. She lives with a furniture maker who is always drunk and does not look after her very well. One night she loses her owner and is taken home by a clown who has a circus act with animals. Her new owner treats her very well and calls her Auntie. At first she is very confused, especially by her new housemates; a cat and a goose. But she soon forgets all about her old home. One evening the clown takes her along to perform in his act, and it just so happens that the furniture maker is in the audience. He recognises her, calls her and in an act of panic and confusion she jumps off the stage and runs back to her old life. “And you, Chestnut Girl, you’m like a joiner ‘longside a cabinet-maker…” says the furniture maker on the way home.
Bulgakov gave us Sharik (A Dog’s Heart). A common street dog with a common name. He too is found outside in the cold one day and taken home. In this case by a very prestigious doctor, who thanks to his prestigious clients still lives in relative luxury after the Russian revolution. Sharik has no trouble at all adjusting to his new life, although he does have something against the doctor’s stuffed owl. But… the doctor uses him in a medical experiment. He implants the pituitary gland and testicles of a criminal in the dog. Slowly but surely Sharik changes into a man, or rather a scoundrel, and soon the doctor’s orderly household is turned completely upside-down, not to mention flooded with water. Sharik becomes Poligraf Poligrafovich Sharikov, has all kinds of pretensions and turns against the doctor.
In the story The Dog the narrator’s life is also disturbed by a sinister dog. One night the narrator clearly hears a dog rummaging around in his bedroom. But when he lights the candle no dog can be found. This goes on for six weeks; as soon as he blows out the candle, the dog sounds can be heard. He is advised to consult a ‘seer,’ who tells him to buy a puppy at the market and keep it with him at all times. The sounds should stop and the dog will be useful to him in another way too. The narrator does as instructed, and the nightly sounds stop. The puppy grows into a big dog and one day when visiting a neighbour, the narrator is attacked by a large, monstrous and rabid dog. The narrator is saved by his dog Tresor and the monster dog disappears. Later the monster dog reappears and attacks the narrator again, and again Tresor saves him, but this time Tresor does not survive.
A dog’s life
Four completely different dogs, each memorable in its own right. For Turgenev and Tolstoy the dog was something between a human and an animal. Laska is not only a good hunting dog, she also understands Levin better than he understands himself and she is always there for him when he needs her, whether out hunting or when he comes home a bit depressed. The Dog is one of Turgenev’s ghost stories, following the pattern of a traditional fairy tale. Turgenev was not superstitious and did not believe in ghosts, but he did have a fascination for such things. Dogs feature in many of Turgenev’s works, the most memorable being Mumu. Chestnut Girl may not be very smart, but she makes up for that with her faithful and endearing nature. She follows the ‘better the devil you know’ principle and happily goes back to her old owner. Sharik is a parody of the New Soviet Man and the illusion that the revolution could change the people.
Gogol fun facts
Sharik’s new name Poligraf Poligrafovich brings to mind the name of the protagonist in The Overcoat, Akaky Akakievich. This repetition of names, although not uncommon (as in Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin), has a comical effect when the names used are unusual, as in this case. And speaking of The Overcoat; in the Russian original the narrator in The Dog buys the puppy from an ‘overcoat’, a ‘шинель’, using the word ‘overcoat’ to indicate a person in an overcoat.
For non-Russian literary dogs I recommend Dave Astor’s blog post on this subject, which is also where I got the idea for this post.
Feel free to add your own favourites in the comments 🐶
We’ll stay with Turgenev a bit longer, if you don’t mind. One of Turgenev’s best know ghost stories is ‘Phantoms’ (Призраки). It’s an interesting story, and not in the least so because it appears to have been influenced by Gogol.
Struggles with Dostoevsky
It was published first in 1866 in the first episode of the new literary magazine Epoch that was launched by Dostoevsky and his brother Mikhail. As we know Turgenev and Dostoevsky were not the best of friends. Turgenev had sent the story to Dostoevsky when he was in Baden Baden. Dostoevsky, however, was too busy playing roulette and returned the story without having read it. Mikhail told him in a letter that that had been a big mistake, because their magazine was sure to be a succes if they could have a new Turgenev in the first episode. Dostoevsky proceeded to write an apologetic letter to Turgenev and managed to secure Phantoms for the magazine.*
How it came about
From an 1849 letter to Pauline Viardot we know that the inspiration came from a dream that Turgenev had had. In this dream there was a whitish creature claiming to be his brother Anatoli (Turgenev had two brothers: Nikholai and Sergei). They both turned into birds and flew over the ocean. In another letter Turgenev writes that he was looking for a way to connect several landscape sketches that he had written. He combined the flying with the landscapes and came up with a vampire woman to explain the flying.
The protagonist is under the spell of a female vampire who calls herself Alice. Alice takes him along on a few of her nightly flights and during the flights she sucks his blood. They fly over Russia, the Isle of Wight, Paris and ancient Rome, some flights go back in history.
Inspired by Gogol?!
The first flight particularly reminded me strongly of the scene in Gogol’s The Viy, where the student is forced to fly by a witch. The setting of the two scenes and the words used to describe them are very similar. Both protagonists are taken on a nightly flight over forests, fields and rivers. The night air is moist and it is quiet. The moons shines and the shadows of the trees are visible from above. Both writers use words like ‘mist’, ‘moonshine’ and ‘shadow’ to emphasise the dreamy atmosphere. Both protagonists hear a strange dream-like sound.
It’s even almost as if Turgenev’s protagonists is thinking of Gogol’s student; Turgenev’s hero apparently is not someone who thinks about the devil. In Gogol’s world the devil is part of daily life. Gogol’s hero is not surprised when the witch tries to possess him; he merely says “Ah! it is a witch!”. He knows what do do and says his prayers and speaks out formulas of exorcism against evil spirits. Turgenev hero, perhaps following Gogol’s hero’s example, also starts to say some prayers. Alice’s grip becomes less tight, but he doesn’t persist and he doesn’t win from Alice.
This story too can be seen in the context of Turgenev’s strange relationship with Pauline Viardot: the female apparition has a foreign face and takes the protagonist all around Europe. The protagonist appears unable and unwilling to get out of her spell. Even if it costs him his life.
Not political enough?
Turgenev himself was not entirely convinced about his story. He worried that it should have a more political message, that is was too fantastic. Of course because it isn’t political, we can still enjoy it today. So let’s do that! It’s a short read, the link can be found here and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
A Month in the Country is a play about feelings. Feelings that no-one wants to talk or be honest about, feelings that you can get tangled up in and feelings that become real once they have been spoken out loud.
Turgenev wrote A Month in the Country between 1848 and 1850 in the Viardots’ country house Courtavenel. Courtavenel, some 50 kilometres from Paris, was one of his favourite places. Turgenev lived in Paris because the love of his life, the famous singer Pauline Viardot, lived there. Interestingly he was also close friends with her husband Louis.
Towards the end of the 1840’s the relationship between Turgenev and Pauline was rather strained. Pauline was touring a lot, she was having an affair with another man, the composer Charles Gounod, and she rarely replied to the daily letters that Turgenev sent her. Although the Viardots themselves were mostly gone, Turgenev liked being at Courtavenel anyway, and he wrote some of his best works there.
Turgenev has often used his complicated relationship with Pauline as a source of inspiration for his work. The relations in A Month in the Country between Natalya, her husband Islayev, her admirer Rakitin and the innocent student Belyayev were no doubt inspired by the relations between Pauline, Louis, Gounod and himself.
Natalya is a typical Turgenev woman: smart, attractive, capricious and passionate. The relationship with her husband, who really adores her, does not make her happy. To alleviate the boredom she flirts with Rakitin, a friend of the family. Rakitin is Turgenev himself, as he describes it in one of his letters: the unsuccessful lover. This situation changes with the arrival of a young student, hired as a tutor, to the family’s country estate; Natalya really falls in love with this fresh and pure young man.
The first one to notice this is Rakitin. Natalya only realises how serious her feelings are when she detects feelings of jealousy towards her 17 year-old ward Vera. Belyayev appears to be a bit scared of Natalya, but he seems entirely comfortable with Vera. A little too comfortable for Natalya’s liking. In an attempt to discourage Vera from befriending Belyayev any further, she confronts her. She manages to get Vera to confess that she is in love with Belyayev, and precisely by doing so, Vera’s feelings become real and grown up: what would most likely have blown over as soon as the summer was over and Belyayev was gone again, had now been turned into an entirely inappropriate relationship between a poor ward and student. Natalya even stoops so low as to try to marry her ‘rival’ off to an older bachelor neighbour.
In a further attempt to manipulate the situation she confronts Belyayev. Belyayev is dumbfounded. He had no idea about Vera’s feelings and he does not feel the same way about her. Vera, in turn, has understood after her conversation with Natalya that Natalya is in love with Belyayev herself, and she tells Belyayev so. He can’t believe it, until he hears it from Natalya herself. Completely confused about what he has apparently caused, he thinks that he has feelings for Natalya too. He wants to leave as soon as possible before things really get out of control. Rakitin has just enough pride left to leave as well and Vera marries the neighbour so that she doesn’t have to live with Natalya anymore.
Natalya’s feelings scare her when she realises what they make her do. Rakitin’s feelings are bitter. Love of every kind, he sighs, happy as much as unhappy, is a real calamity if you give yourself up to it completely. The innocent Belyayev feels as if he has brought some contagious disease to the house and Vera feels no longer welcome. Of course, by marrying the neighbour, she will end up being unhappy just like Natalya.
And Turgenev himself? His feelings were so strong that never left his beloved, except for a few times when he had to go back to Russia. He swallowed his pride and contented himself with being a friend of the family.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Gogol’s Taras Bulba (1842) is a milestone in Russian literature. If Pushkin provided a language and inspiration for future Russian writers, than Gogol gave them their own distinct identity. When you’re reading Taras Bulba, you recognise so much of what has been written later.
The Romantic Era
Romanticism was the main literary movement in Russia from the end of the eighteenth century until halfway into the nineteenth century. Lermontov and Pushkin are the most famous writers of this period. The industrial revolution sparked an interest in all things pure, natural, past and authentic.
Gogol was an Ukrainian with Cossack blood running through his veins living in Saint Petersburg. When everything to do with Little Russia, as Ukraine was called back then, became hugely popular there, he cleverly wrote Taras Bulba. The story is full of Ukrainian words, folklore and Cossack customs.
It’s a rather violent story. The hero of the story, Taras Bulba, is a Cossack headman, who in order to complete his sons’ education, takes them to fight against the catholic Poles. The youngest walks over to the other side for the sake of a Polish girl and for that his father kills him, while the oldest gets tortured to death by the Polish in front of his father. Not for the faint-hearted.
“Oh, steppes, how beautiful you are!”
The story has often been criticised. Historically it’s incorrect and the centuries are mixed up. The Cossacks are so violent that they would make the average Isis soldier look away. A Polish servant girl escapes through a secret tunnel from the city that has been besieged by the Cossacks. She wakes up the youngest son to tell him that his sweetheart is among the starving in the city. Together the go through the tunnel into the city, where indeed the people are dying in the streets. Why didn’t they just all escape through that tunnel?! The love story is not at all plausible. Gogol talks about the unspoiled Steppe, ‘upon which were sprinkled millions of different flowers’, and ‘the air was filled with the notes of a thousand different birds’, and more of this.
Dostoevsky apparently said once that every Russian writer came from underneath Gogol’s Overcoat. He was a huge fan of his work and found him very inspiring. In The Brothers Karamazov (1880) there is a rather painful scene that appears in Taras Bulba too: an emaciated woman with a infant clutched to her dried out breasts. Just like Gogol, Dostoevsky was fascinated by the excesses of human existence.
Turgenev most definitely took inspiration from Taras Bulba. Especially the striking nature scenes resound even more beautifully in Turgenev’s work. His Acia (1858) contains many Romantic elements and there too the protagonist falls in love with a lively dark-eyed girl.
And in Tolstoy’s Cossacks (1863) too: it starts more or less the same. The protagonist is traveling to the Caucasus and thinks about his past and future. The scene is reminiscent of Taras Bulba departing with his sons, each with their own thoughts. Tolstoy’s protagonist is very much attracted by the Cossack way of life and he too falls in love with a spirited dark-eyed girl. Tolstoy’s Cossacks are not as violent, though.
Hadji Murat (1904) is most similar. Both stories are named after their hero, and both heroes are exotic leaders, feared and admired by all. It breathes the same atmosphere, we encounter the same freshly plastered walls and the same girls with coins on their necklaces. Tolstoy’s last fictional story would appear to be an homage to Gogol.
Gogol used a lot of humour in his work. Although it is not always clear if he meant something as humorous or if he was genuinely exaggerating, I’m more inclined to consider the former. If Taras Bulba slays six enemies with one sway with his sword, surely that is meant to be funny. All in all it’s a pretty good story, just like Pulp Fiction is a pretty good film. Is it one of the ten best books ever written, like Hemingway once claimed? No, that really is exaggerated. But it is definitely a milestone well worth reading.
Turgenev certainly liked to shoot birds, but they are also regular visitors in his work. I thought it would be fun to look up all the birds that feature in his most famous novel Fathers and Sons, and see if there is a bird-leitmotif in there. I found plenty of birds and, no need to worry, he’s not shooting any of them. The final page of Fathers and Sons provides the ultimate confirmation of the important role that he assigned to the birds:
“There is a small village graveyard in one of the remote corners of Russia. Like almost all our graveyards, it presents a wretched appearance; the ditches surrounding it have long been overgrown; the grey wooden crosses lie fallen and rotting under their once painted gables; the stone slabs are all displaced, as though some one were pushing them up from behind; two or three bare trees give a scanty shade; the sheep wander unchecked among the tombs…. But among them is one untouched by man, untrampled by beast, only the birds perch upon it and sing at daybreak. An iron railing runs round it; two young fir-trees have been planted, one at each end. Yevgeny Bazarov is buried in this tomb.”
Only birds are allowed to sit on the grave of one of the greatest heroes of Russian literature…
A Short Summary of Fathers and Sons
The protagonist Bazarov is a nihilist, he believes in nothing but science. His friend Arkady is a bit younger and looks up to him. Together they visit first Arkady’s father and later Bazarov’s parents. The parents adore their sons and are extremely happy to have them visit, but the sons are easily bored and don’t stay long. In the course of the summer the friends drift apart; Arkady gives up his nihilist ideals and gets engaged. Bazarov returns to his parents and helps his father, who is a doctor, with his practise. One day in town he assists in dissecting a peasant who has died of typhus and accidentally cuts himself, gets infected and dies soon after.
Now let’s attempt to analyse the wide variety of birds can be found in this short novel. The symbolic meanings of birds varies widely on both time and region, so I tried to use only the most common meanings and characteristics, that I could find.
“A plump young chicken in motley plumage strutted self-importantly along them, tapping away firmly with its large yellow claws.”
– This is the scene as father Nikolai waits impatiently for son Arkady. A chicken symbolises a need for shelter and protection. Father is anxious for his son to get home, so that he can keep an eye on him again, even though his son is already big. Bazarov calls Arkady a chicken a couple of times later on.
“A large grey dove flew down on to the road and hurriedly set about drinking from a puddle beside the well. Nikolai Petrovich started watching it and then his ear caught the sound of approaching wheels.”
– Same scene, Nikolai is still waiting. The dove is of course a symbol of peace, and more significantly, in biblical terms: a messenger of peace and deliverance. Indeed, Nikolai’s mind can rest at ease, no sooner has he seen the bird, or his son arrives. Ancient Slav beliefs say that the soul of the dead goes into the dove, so the dove could also be Arkady’s mother, who has died a long time ago, especially since Nikolai was just thinking of her.
3/4 Skylarks and Rooks
“Everywhere skylarks poured out their song in unending, resonant streams. Lapwings cried as they circled above the low-lying meadows or ran about silently among the tufts of grass. Rooks wandered about, darkening beautifully among the soft green of the low spring wheat and disappearing in the rye, which was already beginning to whiten, their heads showing here and there among its smoky waves.”
– This is the scene that greets Arkady and Bazarov as they drive to Nikolai’s house. The skylark, lapwing and rook are all three strongly associated with spring in Russia, optimistic, cheerful spring. The skylark also symbolises the divine, flying up to heaven singing. There are several sayings in rural Russia concerning the rook, and most of them are about farming. Nikolai has recently turned his estate into a ‘farm’, a company with paid employees. It is not doing very well yet.
“‘You’ve got a bit of marshland there, by a grove of aspens. That’s where I started up half-a-dozen snipe. You can go and kill them, Arkady.’ ‘You’re not a hunter yourself?’ ‘No.’”
– Bazarov has gone for an early morning walk and tells his friend Arkady at breakfast about the snipes he saw. He uses the word ‘killing’, clearly he does not agree with his friend’s hobby. Snipes are notoriously difficult birds to hunt, due to their erratic flight pattern.
6 Long-tailed Siskin
“From the ceiling, on a long cord, there hung a cage containing a short-tailed siskin; it ceaselessly chirruped and jumped about and the cage ceaselessly rocked and shook and hemp seeds pattered down on to the floor.”
– This cage hangs in Fenitchka’s room. She is Nikolai’s unofficial wife; Nikolai is a widower, but he now has a child with the young Fenitchka, the daughter of his former housekeeper. Later he marries her, but at this point he is still embarrassed about the relationship. The siskin is a typical Russian bird, and Fenitchka is a typical Russian girl, with all the qualities generally associated with that.
“Dunyasha would gladly giggle at him and give him sidelong, significant looks as she ran past him all aflutter like a little quail.”
– Dunyasha is a servant girl in Nikolai’s house and she has taken a liking to grumpy Bazarov. She tries to attract his attention. In Russia the quail symbolises a young woman.
“Swallows flew high above; the wind had quite died;”
– Actually you can already tell by that short sentence that it is a warm summer evening. Nikolai is outside thinking about his love for nature and poetry and the generation gap between him and his son, who thinks poetry is nonsense. The swallow stands for freedom. Nikolai worries too much about what others think, and thinks himself old, but he is only in his forties, and independent, free to marry Fenitchka. Several swallows flying above you is a good omen, Nikolai shall be happy.
“And now I hope, Arina Vlasevna, having sated your mother’s heart to the full, you’ll think about sating our dear guests because, as you know, even nightingales can’t live on songs alone.’”
– Long lost son Bazarov has returned home to his delighted and adoring parents, together with his friend Arkady. Father tells mother to stop crying over his return and arrange dinner instead, because literally it says “it won’t do to feed nightingales fables”, thus Bazarov and Arkady are nightingales. Nightingales are generally considered poetic birds, valued for their beautiful and varied song. I should think here that father means quite literally that his wife should stop crying and feed those clever nightingales. Nightingales are always considered a good omen.
10 Telling a bird from its flight
“‘Have it your way, please,’ responded Vasily Ivanovich with a friendly grimace. ‘I may be put on the shelf now, but I’ve also been about the world a bit and I can tell what a bird is from its flight.”
– Bazarovs father thinks that Arkady is a spoiled youth, accustomed to luxury, Arkady denies that, but clearly the father doesn’t believe him. What he probably thinks is that Arkady could never be a real nihilist like his son Bazarov, because he comes from an aristocratic family. This is the second time that Vasili uses an expression with a bird.
11 Fledgling Hawk
“Somewhere high above in the tips of the trees the unceasing screech of a fledgling hawk rang out plaintively.”
– Bazarov and Arkady are lying in a haystack, talking and in the background you can hear a hawk and also cocks crying at each other. Their talk ends in a quarrel. An aggressive person can be referred to as a hawk, and cocks are also known for their aggression. This is one of the first signs of the friends drifting apart.
“‘There’s nothing for it, Vasya! Our son’s cut off from us. He’s a falcon, like a falcon he wanted to come and he flew here, then he wanted away and he flew away. But you and I, we’re just a couple of old mushrooms, we are, stuck in the hollow of a tree, sitting side by side and never moving. Except that I’ll always remain the same for you for ever and ever, just as you will for me.’ Vasily Ivanovich took his hands away from his face and suddenly embraced his wife, his true friend, more tightly even than he’d been used to embrace her in his youth, for she had comforted him in his misery.”
– A typical and brilliant Turgenev piece of writing; in a way it summarises the whole book, capturing the difference between the generations. In Russian fairytales the falcon stands for a young man: fearless, courageous and fast. It also symbolises the boundless energy of the youth, often bordering on madness. So it is up to the young to conquer the world, and Arina and Vasily are doing the right thing by leaving their little falcon (I have noticed that Turgenev sometimes uses ‘falcon’ as a term of endearment) free. Here it’s Bazarov’s mother who uses and expression with a bird in it.
“He held in his hand a half-opened book while she picked out of a basket some last crumbs of white bread and threw them to a small family of sparrows which, with their characteristic cowardly impudence, jumped about twittering at her feet.”
– Arkady is sitting in the garden with Katya, about to declare his love for her. She is feeding sparrows, widely associated with marriage in Russian folk tradition. This scene clearly suggests she is ready to get married.
“‘I suppose,’ he began again in a more excited voice, just as a chaffinch in the birch foliage above him launched casually into song, ‘I suppose it’s the duty of any honest man to be entirely candid with those … with those who … with people close to him, I mean … and so I, er, intend …’”
– The next day Arkady wants to propose to Katya, and chaffinch ‘casually’ starts to sing. The male bird (casually!) sings to attract a mate, but Arkady is feeling anything but casual. Chaffinches are monogamous birds and thus Katya and Arkady can expect a happy and harmonious relationship.
“‘Goodbye, old mate!’ he said to Arkady when he’d already climbed into the cart and, pointing to a pair of jackdaws sitting side by side on the stable roof, added ‘There’s a lesson for you! Learn from them!’ ‘What’s that mean?’ asked Arkady. ‘What? You can’t be all that poor at natural history! Or have you forgotten that the jackdaw is the most respectable family bird? Let them be your example! Farewell, signor!’”
– Here Bazarov even explains the superstitious meaning to us; jackdaws are indeed mates for life and in some cultures a pair sitting on a roof predicts a new arrival. Jackdaws looking at a traveller (Bazarov is already in the carriage!) is, however, a very bad omen indeed…
16 A wee grouse hen
“Arina Vlasevna was so flustered and ran about the house so much that Vasily Ivanovich compared her to ‘a wee grouse-hen’ and the docked tail of her short blouse actually did give her rather a bird-like look.”
– Bazarov has returned home again and his mother is in all states. Turgenev uses the visual image of a grouse hen to bring the scene to life. We can certainly imagine her running about like a wee grouse hen.
17 A Crowing Cock
“Everyone had long faces and a strange quiet descended. A noisily crowing cock was removed from the yard and carted off to the village, quite unable to understand why it was being treated in this way.”
– When Bazarov gets ill they remove a noisy cock from the yard. Bazarov’s fighting spirit has left him too, he is going to die.
Legend has it that the original last page of Fathers and Sons was full of tear stains. Well, I certainly cant read it without crying, so it’s probably true. Read and weep, dear readers..
“Often from the little village not far off, two quite feeble old people come to visit it—a husband and wife. Supporting one another, they move to it with heavy steps; they go up to the railing, fall down, and remain on their knees, and long and bitterly they weep, and yearn and intently gaze at the dumb stone, under which their son is lying; they exchange some brief word, wipe away the dust from the stone, set straight a branch of a fir-tree, and pray again, and cannot tear themselves from this place, where they seem to be nearer to their son, to their memories of him…. Can it be that their prayers, their tears are fruitless? Can it be that love, sacred, devoted love, is not all-powerful? Oh, no! However passionate, sinning, and rebellious the heart hidden in the tomb, the flowers growing over it peep serenely at us with their innocent eyes; they tell us not of eternal peace alone, of that great peace of ‘indifferent’ nature; tell us too of eternal reconciliation and of life without end.”
-Fathers and Sons by Turgenev. I read the Dutch translation by Karel van het Reve and the Constance Garnett English translation. The 17 bird quotes are from the Oxford edition.
The photo of the skylark is from Wikipedia and the painting is from V.G.Perov, “The old parents at the grave of their son”.
Russian literature from the second half of the nineteenth century aims to describe and analyse life in all its aspects. This literary movement is called realism. Turgenev was one of the three big names in this movement. How does he distinguish himself from Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky?
His elegant style
Turgenev was well read and well educated. He was a linguistic virtuoso. His writing style is simple, gracious and elegant. His unhappy childhood with his tyrannical mother were the proverbial goldmine for most of his work. In spite of that his work is not exactly depressing; it is sometimes sad, but more often full of hope and joy. He clearly took great pleasure in describing characters and situations.
Turgenev’s nature descriptions are unparalleled and for me the most attractive aspect of his work. The way in which he describes the moment just before daybreak in spring, or a summer morning in July, or the forest in late autumn is so contagious, that you want to leave the house as soon as possible to go and explore these natural wonders for yourself! It is so full of joie de vivre. And written straight from the heart. You can smell the forest, feel the sunshine and hear the larks singing.
Turgenev uses the frame construction in most of his stories and novels. The narrator looks back on an episode from his past. This gives his work a personal and sentimental quality, and makes it appear genuine.
We owe the literary term ‘superfluous man’ to Turgenev, although the most famous superfluous men, Pechorin and Onegin, already existed before Turgenev’s Diary of a Superfluous Man (1850). His most famous character is without a doubt the nihilist Bazarov from Fathers and Sons, who became the subject of heated political discussions. His Sportman’s Sketches have made a substantial contribution to the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, something that he was justifiably proud of.
The same pattern
Yes, many of Turgenev’s stories and novels are similar: the hero falls in love with the heroine and the heroine with the hero. And there is never a happily ever after. The hero gets cold feet, the heroine becomes a nun, or someone dies. Its probably much wiser to love nature instead and go hunting with your loyal dog. And that brings us to the second leading theme in his work: the narrator loves nature and hunting and during his rambles he meets a variety landowners and peasants. In these stories he questions the existing system of serfdom.
Turgenev has always been overshadowed by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. But I cannot emphasise it enough: that is completely unjustified. Turgenev is never a sentimental tearjerker like Dostoyevsky or an annoying know-it-all like Tolstoy. He wraps his message subtly and simply, but he gets it across, without getting carried away for pages and pages. Au contraire! Turgenev wrote mostly stories and his novels are only about 150 pages thick.
Not a lot happens in Turgenev’s works. The situation at the beginning is more or less the same as the one in the end. All that remains is memories and what-ifs. The reader has to content himself with plenty of beautiful atmospheric scenes and contemplations. Even in translation you stumble over one beautiful sentence after another. You read Turgenev with your heart. His works allow you to dream away to another place and time and that makes Turgenev the ultimate bedtime novelist.
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.
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:
Mumu is one of Turgenev’s best known stories, beautifully and subtly constructed. At first sight a touching story of the love between a serf and his dog, cruelly disrupted by the jealousy of his mistress. Written in 1852, when it was not exactly customary to write about a simple serf and his feelings. Turgenev was never politically outspoken, but his prose speaks for itself.
The deaf-mute Gerasim is an appreciated and hard working peasant in one of the villages of his wealthy old mistress until one day she decides to make him yard-keeper at her Moscow mansion. Poor Gerasim finds it hard to adjust and finishes his city work for the day in half an hour. After a year he falls in love with laundry girl Tatyana, but she is scared of him and the mistress wants Tatyana to marry the drunken shoemaker Kapiton. A year later the couple is sent off to a remote village. After Gerasim has seen them off, he rescues a small dog from drowning. The dog recovers and Gerasim calls her Mumu, the only sound he can make. They simply adore each other. A year later the mistress sees Mumu and wants to have her, but Mumu clearly doesn’t like her. The vexed mistress orders to have Mumu drowned, claiming the dog keeps her awake with her barking. Gerasim is heartbroken, but drowns Mumu himself (yes, keep your hankies ready!). After that heartbreaking scene he returns to his room, takes his belongings and walks back to his birth village in two days.
The old widow and the deaf-mute yard-keeper
The widow is alone, her children are married and “the evening of her life was blacker than night”. She owns thousands of serfs, but no one spends time with her voluntarily. She is bitter and cannot stand to see other people happy, so she rips families apart and uproots her serfs constantly. Gerasim is alone too, especially in the city. People are scared of him and he is isolated because of his handicap, ”for him the noisiest day was more silent and soundless than the softest night” But he accepts his fate, works hard and is capable is kindhearted, as he shows with Mumu. When he strides back to the countryside ”an infinite number of stars” light his way.
It is a very neat and round story. Gerasim is taken from and returns to his village. Mumu is saved from drowning and drowned by Gerasim. Everything takes place in the course of three years at summertime, the first year Gerasim gets used to the city, the second he falls in love with Tatyana and the third he looks after Mumu.
Turgenev's mother Warwara (1787-1850) was the cruel mistress, and Gerasim's real name was Andrey. The only difference is in how the story ends, Turgenev lets Gerasim make a statement by returning to his village. That was an unheard of act of defiance, but he gets away with it, and therefore the story ends with a small victory of serf over mistress. Gerasim keeps his dignity. In real life Andrey loyally stayed with his mistress.
The Russian People
Gerasim stood for the Russian people, their sensible character, work lust, and faithful nature. Faithful to even the most cruel master or mistress. The serfs might as well be mute, like Gerasim, because they were an ignored class. With this story Turgenev gave a voice to the serfs.
When Turgenev wrote Mumu in 1852 he was in exile because of the obituary of Gogol that he wrote. He suspected that it had more to do with his Sportsman's Sketches, which had somehow slipped through the strict censure. In this light Mumu can be seen as a protest against the censure. Mumu is finally published in1884.
All photos by me except the portrait of Turgenev's mother Warwara (Wikipedia)