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 The enchanting night has been replaced by an enchanting morning.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


 

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Typically Turgenev

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.

Influence

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.

Why Turgenev?

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.

In short:

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.

Further reading:

http://wp.me/p5zzbs-1R – Turgenev’s Eternal Love

http://wp.me/p5zzbs-6L – First Love, Acia and Torrents of Spring

http://wp.me/p5zzbs-6d – Mumu – A Quiet Protest

http://wp.me/p5zzbs-28 – A Sportsman’s Sketches by Turgenev

Photo of Turgenev from Wikipedia, other photo and text by me.

Mumu – A Quiet Protest

 

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.

Summary

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.

Round story

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.

True story

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.

Turgenev's Protest

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)

Mumu – Turgenev, translation by Anthony Briggs

You can read Mumu online: http://www.online-literature.com/turgenev/1972/

 

A Sportsman’s Sketches by Turgenev

As I said in my previous post, I would love to tell you a bit more about Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches. It’s a series of short, separate stories, not about sports (hunting, in this case) but about the narrator’s encounters while out hunting. I read these stories for the first time at university and was immediately sold. They’re such beautiful, humble stories. They have been of literary influence on writers like Tolstoy, Chekhov and Hemingway. Socially they have contributed to the abolition of serfdom* in Russia.

The serfs

The narrator is a landowner with a passion for hunting. During his roams around the countryside he meets all kinds of people, usually serfs belonging to other landowners. He likes to listen to their stories and encourages them to talk. This is how we hear, almost imperceptibly, about their often deplorable circumstances. The serfs don’t purposely tell the narrator this, it is said between the lines, without them realising it. They don’t want to speak badly of their masters. They have reconciled with their fates and simply remark that that is how things were or should be. The sympathy of the narrator is also merely subtly shown, you can feel it for instance when he calls one of the peasants ‘our poor friend’.

Childhood memories

Turgenev wrote the sketches after his childhood experiences at his mother’s estate Spasskoye. His mother was an evil woman. She owned 5000 souls and didn’t leave those 5000 souls any doubt about who was in charge. She abused them, had them deported to Siberia, controlled their private lives, in short, ruled with an iron fist.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

In 1852 the stories are published together. In the same year another book appears that has had an enormous social impact: Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Both books may not have been the direct cause of the abolition of serfdom / slavery, but they made the public sympathy for the respective causes much bigger. Both books give the slaves a personality, emotions and a face, perhaps for the first time in literary history.

Alexander II

At first the sketches were considered politically dangerous in Russia and Nicholas I banished Turgenev to (by now) his estate Spasskoye. His son Alexander II (tsar from 1855 until 1881) however, appeared to be less narrow minded and lifted the sentence. He liked the stories a lot. In his youth he had made a tour around Russia and saw with his own eyes the sad circumstances under which the serfs often lived. Ever since he was determined to address the issue once he was tsar himself. He understood that it would be better to force it from above than to risk a revolution. In 1861 Alexander II signs the Emancipation Manifest; in 1862 Lincoln signs his Emancipation Proclamation.

Tomb

Turgenev never wanted to be too outspoken politically, a fact that was often held against him by his contemporaries. But he did call the sketches a political manifest later. In any case he was pleased with the result. In 1862 he writes at Goncourt (the Viardot’s country house close to Paris): My only desire for my tomb is that they should engrave upon it what my books accomplished for the emancipation of the serfs. Yes, that’s all I ask.

Alexander II is supposed to have thanked him personally.

*Serfs are usually peasant families that come with a piece of land. Unlike slaves they cannot normally be traded. These Russian peasants belonged to the same families for generations.

If you do only one thing this week… read Raspberry Spring. You can read it online in English or Russian:

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

http://ilibrary.ru/text/1204/p.3/index.html

My booklist:

Empathy and Morality by Heidi L. Maibom

A Sportman’s Sketches by Turgenev

Toergenjev’s Liefde by Daphne Schmelzer

Tolstoy – A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett