Essays on Russian Novelists/Turgenev
Turgenev was born on the 28 October 1818, at Orel, in south central Russia, about half-way between Moscow and Kiev. Thus, although the temperament of Turgenev was entirely different from that of Gogol, he was born not far from the latter's beloved Ukraine. He came honestly by the patrician quality that unconsciously animated all his books, for his family was both ancient and noble. His mother was wealthy, and in 1817 was married to a handsome, unprincipled military officer six years younger than herself. Their life together was an excellent example of the exact opposite of domestic bliss, and in treating the boy like a culprit, they transformed him—as always happens in similar cases—into a severe judge of their own conduct. The father's unbridled sensuality and the mother's unbridled tongue gave a succession of moving pictures of family discord to the inquisitive eyes of the future novelist. His childhood was anything but cheerful, and late in life he said he could distinctly remember the salt taste of the frequent tears that trickled into the corners of his mouth. Fortunately for all concerned, oncerned, the father died while Turgenev was a boy, leaving him with only one—even if the more formidable—of his parents to contend with. His mother despised writers, especially those who wrote in Russian; she insisted that Ivan should make an advantageous marriage, and "have a career"; but the boy was determined never to marry, and he had not the slightest ambition for government favours. The two utterly failed to understand each other, and, weary of his mother's capricious violence of temper, he became completely estranged. Years later, in her last illness, Turgenev made repeated attempts to see her, all of which she angrily repulsed. He endeavoured to see her at the very last, but she died before his arrival. He was then informed that on the evening of her death she had given orders to have an orchestra play dance-music in an adjoining chamber, to distract her mind during the final agony. And her last thought was an attempt to ruin Ivan and his brother by leaving orders to have everything sold at a wretched price, and to set fire to other parts of the property. His comment on his dead mother was "Enfin, il faut oublier."
It is significant that Turgenev has nowhere in all his novels portrayed a mother who combined intelligence with goodness.
French, German, and English Turgenev learned as a child, first from governesses, and then from then from regular foreign tutors. The language of his own country, of which he was to become the greatest master that has ever lived, he was forced to learn from the house-servants. His father and mother conversed only in French; his mother even prayed in French. Later, he studied at the Universities of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Berlin. At Berlin he breathed for the first time the free air of intellectual Europe, and he was never able long to live out of that element again. One of his closest comrades at the University was Bakunin, a hot-headed young Radical, who subsequently became a Nihilist agitator. There is no doubt that his fiery harangues gave Turgenev much material for his later novels. It is characteristic, too, that while his student friends went wild at the theatre over Schiller, Turgenev immensely preferred Goethe, and could practically repeat the whole first part of "Faust" by heart. Turgenev, like Goethe, was a natural aristocrat in his manner and in his literary taste—and had the same dislike for extremists of all kinds. With the exception of Turgenev's quiet but profound pessimism, his temperament was very similar to that of the great German—such a man will surely incur the hatred of the true Reformer type.
Turgenev was one of the best educated among modern men-of-letters; his knowledge was not superficial and fragmentary, it was solid and accurate. Of all modern novelists, he is the best exponent of genuine culture.
Turgenev often ridiculed in his novels the Russian Anglo-maniac; but in one respect he was more English than the English themselves. This is seen in his passion for shooting. Nearly all of his trips to Britain were made solely for this purpose, and most of the distinguished Englishmen that he met, like Tennyson, he met while visiting England for grouse. Shooting, to be sure, is common enough in Russia; it appears in Artsybashev's Sanin, and there was a time when Tolstoi was devoted to this sport, though it later appeared on his long blacklist. But Turgenev had the passion for it characteristic only of the English race; and it is interesting to observe that this humane and peace-loving man entered literature with a gun in his hand. It was on his various shooting excursions in Russia that he obtained so intimate a knowledge of the peasants and of peasant life; and his first important book, A Sportsman's Sketches, revealed to the world two things: the dawn of a new literary genius, and the wretched condition of the serfs. This book has often been called the Uncle Tom's Cabin of Russia; no title could be more absurd. In the whole range of literary history, it would be difficult to find two personalities more unlike than that of Turgenev and Mrs. Stowe. The great Russian utterly lacked the temperament of the advocate; but his innate truthfulness, his wonderful art, and his very calmness made the picture of woe all the more clear. There is no doubt that the book became, without its author's intention, a social document; there is no doubt that Turgenev, a sympathetic and highly civilised man, hated slavery, and that his picture of it helped in an indirect way to bring about the emancipation of the serfs. But its chief value is artistic rather than sociological. It is interesting that Uncle Tom's Cabin and A Sportsman's Sketches should have appeared at about the same time, and that emancipation in each country should have followed at about the same interval; but the parallel is chronological rather than logical.
The year of the publication of Turgenev's book (1852) saw the death of Gogol: and the new author quite naturally wrote a public letter of eulogy. In no other country would such a thing have excited anything but favourable comment; in Russia it raised a storm; the government—always jealous of anything that makes for Russia's real greatness—became suspicious, and Turgenev was banished to his estates. Like one of his own dogs, he was told to "go home." Home he went, and continued to write books. Freedom was granted as granted him a few years later, and he left Russia never to return except as a visitor. He lived first in Germany, and finally in Paris, one of the literary lions of the literary capital of the world. There, on the 3 September 1883, he died. His body was taken to Russia, and with that cruel perversity that makes us speak evil of men while they are alive and sensitive, and good only when they are beyond the reach of our petty praise and blame, friends and foes united in one shout of praise whose echoes filled the whole world.
Turgenev, like Daniel Webster, looked the part. He was a great grey giant, with the Russian winter in his hair and beard. His face in repose had an expression of infinite refinement, infinite gentleness, and infinite sorrow. When the little son of Alphonse Daudet saw Turgenev and Flaubert come into the room, arm in arm, the boy cried out, "Why, papa, they are giants!" George Moore said that at a ball in Montmartre, he saw Turgenev come walking across the hall; he looked like a giant striding among pigmies. Turgenev had that peculiar gentle sweetness that so well accompanies great bodily size and strength. His modesty was the genuine humility of a truly great man. He was always surprised at the admiration his books received, and amazed when he heard of their success in America. Innumerable anecdotes are told illustrating the beauty of his character; the most recent to appear in print is from the late Mr. Conway, who said that Turgenev was "a grand man in every way, physically and mentally, intelligence and refinement in every feature. . . I found him modest almost to shyness, and in his conversation--he spoke English--never loud or doctrinaire. At the Walter Scott centennial he was present,--the greatest man at the celebration,--but did not make himself known. There was an excursion to Abbotsford, and carriages were provided for guests. One in which I was seated passed Turgenev on foot. I alighted and walked with him, at every step impressed by his greatness and his simplicity."
We shall not know until the year 1920 how far Turgenev was influenced by Madame Viardot, nor exactly what were his relations with this extraordinary woman. Pauline Garcia was a great singer who made her first appearance in Petersburg in 1843. Turgenev was charmed with her, and they remained intimate friends until his death forty years later. After this event, she published some of his letters. She died in Paris in 1910, at the age of eighty-nine. It is reported that among her papers is a complete manuscript novel by Turgenev, which he gave to her some fifty years ago, on the distinct understanding that it should not be published until ten years after her death. We must accordingly wait for this book with what patience we can command. If this novel really exists, it is surely a strange sensation to know that there is a manuscript which, when published, is certain to be an addition to the world's literature. It is infinitely more valuable on that account than for any light it may throw on the relations between the two individuals.
When Madame Viardot gave up the opera in 1864, and went to live at Baden, Turgenev followed the family thither, lived in a little house close to them, and saw them every day. He was on the most intimate terms with her, with her husband, and with her daughters, whom he loved devotedly. He was essentially a lonely man, and in this household found the only real home he ever knew. It is reported that he once said that he would gladly surrender all his literary fame if he had a hearth of his own, where there was a woman who cared whether he came home late or not. What direction the influence of Madame Viardot on Turgenev took no one knows. Perhaps she simply supplied him with music, which was one of the greatest passions and inspirations of his life. This alone would be sufficient to account for their intimacy. Perhaps she merely stimulated his literary activity, and kept him at his desk; for, like all authors except Anthony Trollope, he hated regu lar work. His definition of happiness is not only a self-revelation, it will appeal to many humble individuals who are not writers at all. Being asked for a definition of happiness, he gave it in two words--"Remorseless Laziness."
It is one of the curious contradictions in human nature that Tolstoi, so aggressive an apostle of Christianity, was himself so lacking in the cardinal Christian virtues of meekness, humility, gentleness, and admiration for others; and that Turgenev, who was without religious belief of any kind, should have been so beautiful an example of the real kindly tolerance and unselfish modesty that should accompany a Christian faith. There is no better illustration in modern history of the grand old name of gentleman.
His pessimism was the true Slavonic pessimism, quiet, profound, and undemonstrative. I heard the late Professor Boyesen say that he had never personally known any man who suffered like Turgenev from mere Despair. His pessimism was temperamental, and he very early lost everything that resembled a definite religious belief. Seated in a garden, he was the solitary witness of a strife between a snake and a toad; this made him first doubt God's Providence.
He was far more helpful to Russia, living in Paris, than he could have been at home. Just as Ibsen found that he could best describe social conditions in Norway from the distance of Munich or Rome, just as the best time to describe a snowstorm is on a hot summer's day,--for poets, as Mrs. Browning said, are always most present with the distant,--so Turgenev's pictures of Russian character and life are nearer to the truth than if he had penned them in the hurly-burly of political excitement. Besides, it was through Turgenev that the French, and later the whole Western world, became acquainted with Russian literature; for a long time he was the only Russian novelist well known outside of his country. It was also owing largely to his personal efforts that Tolstoi's work first became known in France. He distributed copies to the leading writers and men of influence, and asked them to arouse the public. Turgenev had a veritable genius for admiration; he had recognised the greatness of his younger rival immediately, and without a twinge of jealousy. When he read "Sevastopol," he shouted "Hurrah!" and drank the author's health. Their subsequent friendship was broken by a bitter and melancholy quarrel which lasted sixteen years. Then after Tolstoi had embraced Christianity, he considered it his duty to write to Turgenev, and suggest a renewal of their acquaintance. This was in 1878. Turgenev replied immediately, saying that all hostile feelings on his part had long since disappeared; that he remembered only his old friend, and the great writer whom he had had the good fortune to salute before others had discovered him. In the summer of that year they had a friendly meeting in Russia, but Turgenev could not appreciate the importance of Tolstoi's new religious views; and that very autumn Tolstoi wrote to Fet, "He is a very disagreeable man." At the same time Turgenev also wrote to Fet, expressing his great pleasure in the renewal of the old friendship, and saying that Tolstoi's "name is beginning to have a European reputation, and we others, we Russians, have known for a long time that he has no rival among us." In 1880, Turgenev returned to Russia to participate in the Pushkin celebration, and was disappointed at Tolstoi's refusal to take part. The truth is, that Tolstoi always hated Turgenev during the latter's lifetime, while Turgenev always admired Tolstoi. On his death-bed, he wrote to him one of the most unselfish and beautiful letters that one great man ever sent to another.
"For a long time I have not written to you, because I was and I am on my death-bed. I cannot get well, it is not even to be thought of. I write to tell you how happy I am to have been your contemporary, and to send you one last petition. My friend! resume your literary work! It is your gift, which comes from whence comes everything else. Ah! how happy I should be if I could only think that my words would have some influence on you! . . . I can neither eat nor sleep. But it is tiresome to talk about such things. My friend, great writer of our Russian land, listen to my request. Let me know if you get this bit of paper, and permit me once more to heartily embrace you and yours. I can write no more. I am exhausted."
Tolstoi cannot be blamed for paying no heed to this earnest appeal, because every man must follow his conscience, no matter whither it may lead. He felt that he could not even reply to it, as he had grown so far away from "literature" as he had previously understood it. But the letter is a final illustration of the modesty and greatness of Turgenev's spirit; also of his true Russian patriotism, his desire to see his country advanced in the eyes of the world. When we reflect that at the moment of his writing this letter, he himself was still regarded in Europe as Russia's foremost author, there is true nobility in his remark, "How happy I am to have been your contemporary!" Edwin Booth said that a Christian was one who rejoiced in the superiority of a rival. If this be true, how few are they that shall enter into the kingdom of God.
After the death of Turgenev, Tolstoi realised his greatness as he had never done before. He even consented to deliver a public address in honour of the dead man. In order to prepare himself for this, he began to re-read Turgenev's books, and wrote enthusiastically: "I am constantly thinking of Turgenev and I love him passionately. I pity him and I keep on reading him. I live all the time with him. . . . I have just read "Enough." What an exquisite thing !"* The date was set for the public address. Intense public excitement was aroused. Then the government stepped in and prohibited it!
- In 1865, he wrote to Fet, "'Enough' does not please me. Personality
and subjectivity are all right, so long as there is plenty of life and passion. But his subjectivity is full of pain, without life."
Turgenev, like most novelists, began his literary career with the publication of verse. He never regarded his poems highly, however, nor his plays, of which he wrote a considerable number. His reputation began, as has been said, with the appearance of "A Sportsman's Sketches," which are not primarily political or social in their intention, but were written, like all his works, from the serene standpoint of the artist. They are full of delicate character-analysis, both of men and of dogs; they clearly revealed, even in their melancholy humour, the actual condition of the serfs. But perhaps they are chiefly remarkable for their exquisite descriptions of nature. Russian fiction as a whole is not notable for nature-pictures; the writers have either not been particularly sensitive to beauty of sky and landscape, or like Browning, their interest in the human soul has been so predominant that everything else must take a subordinate place. Turgenev is the great exception, and in this field he stands in Russian literature without a rival, even among the professional poets.
Although "Sportsman's Sketches" and the many other short tales that Turgenev wrote at intervals during his whole career are thoroughly worth reading, his great reputation is based on his seven complete novels, which should be read in the order of composition, even though they do not form an ascending climax. All of them are short; compared with the huge novels so much in vogue at this moment, they look like tiny models of massive machinery. Turgenev's method was first to write a story at great length, and then submit it to rigid and remorseless compression, so that what he finally gave to the public was the quintessence of his art. It is one of his most extraordinary powers that he was able to depict so many characters and so many life histories in so very few words. The reader has a sense of absolute completeness.
It was in his first novel, "Rudin," that Turgenev made the first full-length portrait of the typical educated Russian of the nineteen th century. In doing this, he added an immortal character to the world's literature. "Such and such a man is a Rudin," has been a common expression for over fifty years, as we speak of the Tartuffes and the Pecksniffs. The character was sharply individualised, but he stands as the representative of an exceedingly familiar Slavonic type, and no other novelist has succeeded so well, because no other novelist has understood Rudin so clearly as his creator. It is an entire mistake to speak of him, as so many do nowadays, as an obsolete or rather a "transitional" type. The word "transitional" has been altogether overworked in dealing with Turgenev. Rudins are as common in Russia to-day as they were in 1850; for although Turgenev diagnosed the disease in a masterly fashion, he was unable to suggest a remedy. So late as 1894 Stepniak remarked, "it may be truly said that every educated Russian of our time has a bit of Dmitri Rudin in him." If Rudin is a transitional type, why does the same kind of character appear in Tolstoi, in Dostoevski, in Gorki, in Artsybashev? Why has Sienkiewicz described the racial temperament in two words, improductivite slave? It is generally agreed that no man has succeeded better than Chekhov in portraying the typical Russian of the last twenty years of the nineteenth century. In 1894 some one sent to him in writing this question, "What should a Russian desire at this present time?" He replied, "Desire! he needs most of all desire--force of character. We have enough of that whining shapelessness." Kropotkin says of him: "He knew, and more than knew--he felt with every nerve of his poetical mind--that, apart from a handful of stronger men and women, the true curse of the Russian 'intellectual' is the weakness of his will, the insufficient strength of his desires. Perhaps he felt it in himself. . . . This absence of strong desire and weakness of will he continually, over and over again, represented in his heroes. But this predilection was not a mere accident of temperament and character. It was a direct product of the times he lived in." If it was, as Kropotkin says, a direct product of the times he lived in, then Rudin is not a transitional type, for the direct product of the forties and fifties, when compared with the direct product of the eighties and nineties, is precisely the same. Turgenev's Rudin is far from obsolete. He is the educated Slav of all time; he to a large extent explains mapless Poland, and the political inefficiency of the great empire of Russia. There is not a single person in any English or American novel who can be said to represent his national type in the manner of Rudin. When we remember the extreme brevity of the book, it was an achievement of the highest genius.
Rudin, like the Duke in "The Statue and the Bust," is a splendid sheath without a sword, "empty and fine like a swordless sheath." His mind is covered with the decorations of art, music, philosophy, and all the ornaments engraved on it by wide travel, sound culture, and prolonged thought; but he can do no execution with it, because there is no single, steady, informing purpose inside. The moment the girl's resolution strikes against him, he gives forth a hollow sound. He is like a stale athlete, who has great muscles and no vitality. To call him a hypocrite would be to misjudge him entirely. He is more subtle and complex than that. One of his acquaintances, hearing him spoken of as Tartuffe, replies, "No, the point is, he is not a Tartuffe. Tartuffe at least knew what he was aiming at." A man of small intelligence who knows exactly what he wants is more likely to get it than a man of brilliant intelligence who doesn't know what he wants, is to get anything, or anywhere.
Perhaps Turgenev, who was the greatest diagnostician among all novelists, felt that by constantly depicting this manner of man Russia would realise her cardinal weakness, and some remedy might be found for it--just as the emancipation of the serfs had been partly brought about by his dispassionate analysis of their condition. Perhaps he repeated this character so often because he saw Rudin in his own heart. At all events, he never wearied of showing Russians what they were, and he took this means of showing it. In nearly all his novels, and in many of his short tales, he has given us a whole gallery of Rudins under various names. In Acia, for example, we have a charming picture of the young painter, Gagin.
"Gagin showed me all his canvases. In his sketches there was a good deal of life and truth, a certain breadth and freedom; but not one of them was finished, and the drawing struck me as careless and incorrect. I gave candid expression to my opinion.
"'Yes, yes,' he assented, with a sigh, 'you're right; it's all very poor and crude; what's to be done? I haven't had the training I ought to have had; besides, one's cursed Slavonic slackness gets the better of one. While one dreams of work, one soars away in eagle flight; one fancies one's going to shake the earth out of its place--but when it comes to doing anything, one's weak and weary directly."
The heroine of Rudin, the young girl Natalya, is a faint sketch of the future Lisa. Turgenev's girls never seem to have any fun; how different they are from the twentieth century American novelist's heroine, for whom the world is a garden of delight, with exceedingly attractive young men as gardeners! These Russian young women are grave, serious, modest, religious, who ask and expect little for themselves, and who radiate feminine charm. They have indomitable power of will, characters of rocklike steadfastness, enveloped in a disposition of ineffable sweetness. Of course they at first fall an easy prey to the men who have the gift of eloquence; for nothing hypnotises a woman more speedily than noble sentiments in the mouth of a man. Her whole being vibrates in mute adoration, like flowers to the sunlight. The essential goodness of a woman's heart is fertile soil for an orator, whether he speaks from the platform or in a conservatory. Natalya is limed almost instantly by the honey of Rudin's language, and her virgin soul expands at his declaration of love. Despite the opposition of her mother, despite the iron bonds of convention, she is ready to forsake all and follow him. To her unspeakable amazement and dismay, she finds that the great orator is vox, et praeterea nihil.
"'And what advice can I give you, Natalya Alexyevna?'
"'What advice? You are a man; I am used to trusting to you, I shall trust you to the end. Tell me, what are your plans?'
"'My plans — Your mother certainly will turn me out of the house.'
"'Perhaps. She told me yesterday that she must break off all acquaintance with you. But you do not answer my question.'
"'What do you think we must do now?'
"'What we must do?' replied Rudin, 'of course submit.'
"'Submit?' repeated Natalya slowly, and her lips turned white.
"'Submit to destiny,' continued Rudin 'What is to be done?'"
But, although the average Anglo-Saxon reader is very angry with Rudin, he is not altogether contemptible. If every man were of the Roosevelt type, the world would become not a fair field, but a free fight. We need Roosevelts and we need Rudins. The Rudins allure to brighter worlds, even if they do not lead the way. If the ideals they set before us by their eloquence are true, their own failures do not negate them. Whose fault is it if we do not reach them? Lezhnyov gives the inefficient Rudin a splendid eulogy.
"Genius, very likely he has! but as for being natural. . . . That's just his misfortune, that there's nothing natural in him. . . . I want to speak of what is good; of what is rare in him. He has enthusiasm; and believe me, who am a phlegmatic person enough, that is the most precious quality in our times. We have all become insufferably reasonable, indifferent, and slothful; we are asleep and cold, and thanks to any one who will wake us up and warm us! . . . He is not an actor, as I called him, nor a cheat, nor a scoundrel; he lives at other people's expense, not like a swindler, but like a child. . . . He never does anything himself precisely, he has no vital force, no blood; but who has the right to say that he has not been of use? that his words have not scattered good seeds in young hearts, to whom nature has not denied, as she has to him, powers for action, and the faculty of carrying out their own ideas? . . . I drink to the health of Rudin! I drink to the comrade of my best years, I drink to youth, to its hopes, its endeavours, its faith, and its purity, to all that our hearts beat for at twenty; we have known, and shall know, nothing better than that in life. . . . I drink to that golden time, — to the health of Rudin!"
It is plain that the speaker is something of a Rudin himself.
The next novel, A House of Gentlefolk, is, with the possible exception of Fathers and Children, Turgenev's masterpiece. I know of no novel which gives a richer return for repeated re-readings. As the title implies, this book deals, not with an exciting narrative, but with a group of characters; who can forget them? Like all of its author's works, it is a love-story; this passion is the mainspring of the chief personages, and their minds and hearts are revealed by its power. It is commonly said that Turgenev lacked passion; one might say with equal truth that Wordsworth lacked love of nature. Many of his novels and tales are tremulous with passion, but they are never noisy with it. Like the true patrician that he was, he studied restraint and reserve. The garden scene between Lisa and Lavretsky is the very ecstasy of passion, although, like the two characters, it is marked by a pure and chaste beauty of word and action, that seems to prove that Love is something divine. Only the truly virtuous really understand passion — just as the sorrows of men are deeper than the sorrows of children, even though the latter be accompanied by more tears. Those who believe that the master passion of love expresses itself by floods of words or by abominable imagery, will understand Turgenev as little as they understand life. In reading the few pages in which the lovers meet by night in the garden, one feels almost like an intruder — as one feels at the scene of reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia. It is the very essence of intimacy — the air is filled with something high and holy.
Lisa is the greatest of all Turgenev's great heroines. No one can help being better for knowing such a girl. She is not very beautiful, she is not very accomplished, not even very quick-witted; but she has eine schöne Seele. There is nothing regal about her; she never tries to queen it in the drawing-room. She is not proud, high-spirited, and haughty; she does not constantly "draw herself up to her full height," a species of gymnastics in great favour with most fiction-heroines. But she draws all men unto herself. She is beloved by the two opposite extremes of manhood — Panshin and Lavretsky. Lacking beauty, wit, and learning, she has an irrepressible and an irresistible virginal charm — the exceedingly rare charm of youth when it seeks not its own. When she appears on the scene, the pages of the book seem illuminated, and her smile is a benediction. She is exactly the kind of woman to be loved by Lavretsky, and to be desired by a rake like Panshin. For a man like Lavretsky will love what is lovely, and a satiated rake will always eagerly long to defile what is beyond his reach.
It is contemptuously said by many critics — why is it that so many critics lose sensitiveness to beauty, and are afraid of their own feelings? — it is said that Lisa, like Rudin, is an obsolete type, the type of Russian girl of 1850, and that she is now interesting only as a fashion that has passed away, and because of the enthusiasm she once awakened. We are informed, with a shade of cynicism, that all the Russian girls then tried to look like Lisa, and to imitate her manner. Is her character really out of style and out of date? If this were true, it would be unfortunate; for the kind of girl that Lisa represents will become obsolete only when purity, modesty, and gentleness in women become unattractive. We have not yet progressed quite so far as that. Instead of saying that Lisa is a type of the Russian girl of 1850, I should say that she is a type of the Ewig-weibliche.
At the conclusion of the great garden-scene, Turgenev, by what seems the pure inspiration of genius, has expressed the ecstasy of love in old Lemm's wonderful music. It is as though the passion of the lovers had mounted to that pitch where language would be utterly inadequate; indeed, one feels in reading that scene that the next page must be an anti-climax. It would have been if the author had not carried us still higher, by means of an emotional expression far nobler than words. The dead silence of the sleeping little town is broken by "strains of divine, triumphant music … The music resounded in still greater magnificence; a mighty flood of melody — and all his bliss seemed speaking and singing in its strains … The sweet, passionate melody went to his heart from the first note; it was glowing and languishing with inspiration, happiness, and beauty; it swelled and melted away; it touched on all that is precious, mysterious, and holy on earth. It breathed of deathless sorrow and mounted dying away to the heavens."
Elena, the heroine of On the Eve, resembles Lisa in the absolute integrity of her mind, and in her immovable sincerity; but in all other respects she is a quite different person. The difference is simply the difference between the passive and the active voice. Lisa is static, Elena dynamic. The former's ideal is to be good, the latter's is to do good. Elena was strenuous even as a child, was made hotly angry by scenes of cruelty or injustice, and tried to help everything, from stray animals to suffering men and women. As Turgenev expresses it, "she thirsted for action." She is naturally incomprehensible to her conservative and ease-loving parents, who have a well-founded fear that she will eventually do something shocking. Her father says of her, rather shrewdly: "Elena Nikolaevna I don't pretend to understand. I am not elevated enough for her. Her heart is so large that it embraces all nature down to the last beetle or frog, everything in fact except her own father." In a word, Elena is unconventional, the first of the innumerable brood of the vigorous, untrammelled, defiant young women of modern fiction, who puzzle their parents by insisting on "living their own life." She is only a faint shadow, however, of the type so familiar to-day in the pages of Ibsen, Bjornson, and other writers. Their heroines would regard Elena as timid and conventional, for with all her self-assertion, she still believes in God and marriage, two ideas that to our contemporary emancipated females are the symbols of slavery.
Elena, with all her virtues, completely lacks the subtle charm of Lisa; for an aggressive, independent, determined woman will perhaps lose something of the charm that goes with mystery. There is no mystery about Elena, at all events; and she sees through her various adorers with eyes unblinded by sentiment. To an artist who makes love to her she says "I believe in your repentance and I believe in your tears. But it seems to me that even your repentance amuses you — yes, and your tears too." Naturally there is no Russian fit to be the mate of this incarnation of Will. The hero of the novel, and the man who captures the proud heart of Elena, is a foreigner — a Bulgarian, who has only one idea, the liberation of his country. He is purposely drawn in sharp contrast to the cultivated charming Russian gentlemen with whom he talks. Indeed, he rather dislikes talk, an unusual trait in a professional reformer. Elena is immediately conquered by the laconic answer he makes to her question, "You love your country very dearly?" "That remains to be shown. When one of us dies for her, then one can say he loved his country." Perhaps it is hypercritical to observe that in such a case others would have to say it for him.
He proves that he is a man of action in a humorous incident. At a picnic, the ladies are insulted by a colossal German, even as Gemma is insulted by a German in Torrents of Spring. Insarov is not a conventional person, but he immediately performs an act that is exceedingly conventional in fiction, though rare enough in real life. Although he is neither big, nor strong, nor in good health, he inflicts corporal chastisement on the brute before his lady's eyes — something that pleases women so keenly, and soothes man's vanity so enormously, that it is a great pity it usually happens only in books. He lifts the giant from the ground and pitches him into a pond. This is one of the very few scenes in Turgenev that ring false, that belong to fiction-mongers rather than to fiction-masters. Nothing is more delightful than to knock down a husky ruffian who has insulted the woman you love; but it is a desperate undertaking, and rarely crowned with success. For in real life ruffians are surprisingly unwilling to play this complaisant rôle.
Finding himself falling in love with Elena, Insarov determines to go away like Lancelot, without saying farewell. Elena, however, meets him in a thunderstorm — not so sinister a storm as the Aeneas adventure in Torrents of Spring — and says "I am braver than you. I was going to you." She is actually forced into a declaration of love. This is an exceedingly difficult scene for a novelist, but not too difficult for Turgenev, who has made it beautiful and sweet. Love, which will ruin Bazarov, ennobles and stimulates Insarov; for the strong man has found his mate. She will leave father and mother for his sake, and cleave unto him. And, notwithstanding the anger and disgust of her parents she leaves Russia forever with her husband.
All Turgenev's stories are tales of frustration. Rudin is destroyed by his own temperament. The heroes of A House of Gentlefolk and Torrents of Spring are ruined by the malign machinations of satanic women. Bazarov is snuffed out by a capriciously evil destiny. Insarov's splendid mind and noble aspirations accomplish nothing, because his lungs are weak. He falls back on the sofa, and Elena, thinking he has fainted, calls for help. A grotesque little Italian doctor, with wig and spectacles, quietly remarks, "Signora, the foreign gentleman is dead — of aneurism in combination with disease of the lungs."
This novel caused great excitement in Russia, and the title, On the Eve, was a subject for vehement discussion everywhere. What did Turgenev mean? On the eve of what? Turgenev made no answer; but over the troubled waters of his story moves the brooding spirit of creation. Russians must and will learn manhood from foreigners, from men who die only from bodily disease, who are not sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought. At the very close of the book, one man asks another, "Will there ever be men among us?" And the other "flourished his fingers and fixed his enigmatical stare into the far distance." Perhaps Turgenev meant that salvation would eventually come through a woman — through women like Elena. For since her appearance, many are the Russian women who have given their lives for their country.
The best-known novel of Turgenev, and with the possible exception of A House of Gentlefolk, his masterpiece, is Fathers and Children, which perhaps he intended to indicate the real dawn suggested by On the Eve. The terrific uproar caused in Russia by this book has not yet entirely ceased. Russian critics are, as a rule, very bad judges of Russian literature. Shut off from participation in free, public, parliamentary political debate, the Russians of 1860 and of to-day are almost certain to judge the literary value of a work by what they regard as its political and social tendency. Political bias is absolutely blinding in an attempt to estimate the significance of any book by Turgenev; for although be took the deepest interest in the struggles of his unfortunate country, he was, from the beginning to the end of his career, simply a supreme artist. He saw life clearly in its various manifestations, and described it as he saw it, from the calm and lonely vantage-ground of genius. Naturally he was both claimed and despised by both parties. Here are some examples from contemporary Russian criticism (1862): —
"This novel differs from others of the same sort in that it is chiefly philosophical. Turgenev hardly touches on any of the social questions of his day. His principal aim is to place side by side the philosophy of the fathers and the philosophy of the children and to show that the philosophy of the children is opposed to human nature and therefore cannot be accepted in life. The problem of the novel is, as you see, a serious one; to solve this problem the author ought to have conscientiously and impartially studied both systems of speculation and then only reach certain conclusions. But on its very first pages you see that the author is deficient in every mental preparation to accomplish the aim of his novel. He not only has not the slightest understanding of the new positive philosophy, but even of the old ideal systems his knowledge is merely superficial and puerile. You could laugh at the heroes of the novel alone as you read their silly and 'hashy' discussions on the young generation had not the novel as a whole been founded on these identical discussions."
The radical critic Antonovich condemned the book in the following terms: —
"From an artistic standpoint the novel is entirely unsatisfactory, not to say anything more out of respect for the talent of Turgenev, for his former merits, and for his numerous admirers. There is no common thread, no common action which would have tied together all the parts of the novel; all of it is in some way just separate rhapsodies … This novel is didactic, a real learned treatise written in dialectic form, and each character as he appears serves as an expression and representative of a certain opinion and direction … All the attention of the author is turned on the principal hero and the other acting characters, however, not on their personality, not on the emotions of their souls, their feelings and passions, but rather almost exclusively on their talks and reasonings. This is the reason why the novel, with the exception of one nice old woman, does not contain a single living character, a single living soul, but only some sort of abstract ideas, and various movements which are personified and called by proper names. Turgenev's novel is not a creation purely objective; in it the personality of the author steps out too clearly, his sympathies, his inspiration, even his personal bitterness and irritation. From this we get the opportunity to find in the novel the personal opinions of the author himself, and in this we have one point to start from — that we should accept as the opinions of the author the views expressed in the novel, at least those views which have been expressed with a noticeable feeling for them on the part of the author and put into the mouths of those characters whom he apparently favours. Had the author had at least a spark of sympathy for the 'children,' for the young generation, had he had at least a spark of true and clear understanding of their views and inclinations, it would have necessarily flashed out somewhere in the run of the novel.
"The 'fathers' as opposed to the 'children' are permeated with love and poetry; they are men, modestly and quietly doing good deeds; they would not for the world change their age. Even such an empty nothing as Pavel Petrovich, even he is raised on stilts and made a nice man. Turgenev could not solve his problem; instead of sketching the relations between the 'fathers' and the 'children' he wrote a panegyric to the 'fathers' and a decrial against the 'children'; but he did not even understand the children; instead of a decrial it was nothing but a libel. The spreaders of healthy ideas among the young generation he wanted to show up as corrupters of youth, the sowers of discord and evil, haters of good, and in a word, very devils. In various places of the novel we see that his principal hero is no fool; on the contrary, a very able and gifted man, who is eager to learn and works diligently and knows much, but notwithstanding all this, he gets quite lost in disputes, utters absurdities, and preaches ridiculous things, which should not be pardoned even in a most narrow and limited mind … In general the novel is nothing else but a merciless and destructive criticism on the young generation. In all the contemporaneous questions, intellectual movements, debates and ideals with which the young generation is occupied, Turgenev finds not the least common sense and gives us to understand that they lead only to demoralisation, emptiness, prosaic shallowness, and cynicism. Turgenev finds his ideal in quite a different place, namely in the 'fathers,' in the more or less old generation. Consequently, he draws a parallel and contrast between the 'fathers' and the 'children,' and we cannot formulate the sense of the novel in this way; among a number of good children there are also bad ones who are the ones that are ridiculed in the novel; this is not its aim, its purpose is quite different and may be formulated thus: the children are bad and thus are they represented in the novel in all their ugliness; but the 'fathers' are good, which is also proven in the novel."
One of the very few criticisms from a truly artistic standpoint appeared in the "Russian Herald" during the year 1862, from which a brief quotation must suffice: —
"Everything in this work bears witness to the ripened power of Turgenev's wonderful talent; the clearness of ideas, the masterly skill in sketching types, the simplicity of plot and of movement of the action, and moderation and evenness of the work as a whole; the dramatic element which comes up naturally from the most ordinary situations; there is nothing superfluous, nothing retarding, nothing extraneous. But in addition to these general merits, we are also interested in Turgenev's novel because in it is caught and held a current, fleeting moment of a passing phenomenon, and in which a momentary phase of our life is typically drawn and arrested not only for the time being but forever."
These prophetically true words constitute a great exception to the prevailing contemporary criticism, which, as has been seen, was passionately unjust. Twenty years later, a Russian writer, Boorenin, was able to view the novel as we see it to-day: —
"We can say with assurance that since the time of Dead Souls not a single Russian novel made such an impression as Fathers and Children has made. A deep mind, a no less deep observation, an incomparable ability for a bold and true analysis of the phenomena of life, and for their broadest relations to each other, — all these have shown themselves in the fundamental thought of this positively historical creation. Turgenev has explained with lifelike images of 'fathers' and 'children' the essence of that life struggle between the dying period of the nobility which found its strength in the possession of peasants and the new period of reforms whose essence made up the principal element of our 'resurrection' and for which, however, none had found a real, true ('bright') definition. Turgenev not only gave such a definition, not only illumined the inner sense of the new movement in the life of that time, but he also has pointed out its principal characteristic sign — negation in the name of realism, as the opposition to the old ideally liberal conservatism. It is known that he found not only an unusually appropriate nickname for this negation, but a nickname which later became attached to a certain group of phenomena and types and as such was accepted not only by Russia alone but by the whole of Europe. The artist created in the image of Bazarov an exceedingly characteristic representative of the new formation of life, of the new movement, and christened it with a wonderfully fitting word, which made so much noise, which called forth so much condemnation and praise, sympathy and hatred, timid alarm and bold raving. We can point out but few instances in the history of literature of such a deep and lively stir called forth in our literary midst by an artistic creation and by a type of almost political significance. This novel even after twenty years appears the same deep, bright, and truthful reflection of life, as it was at the moment of its first appearance. Now its depth and truthfulness seem even more clear and arouse even more wonder and respect for the creative thought of the artist who wrote it. In our days, when the period of development pointed at by Turgenev in his celebrated novel is almost entirely lived through, we can only wonder at that deep insight with which the author had guessed the fundamental characteristic in that life movement which had celebrated that period. The struggle of two social streams, the anti-reform and post-reform stream, the struggle of two generations; the old brought up on aesthetical idealism for which the leisure of the nobility, made possible by their rights over the peasants, afforded such a fertile soil; and the young generation which was carried away by realism and negation, — this is what made up the essence of the movement of the epoch in the sixties. Turgenev with the instinct of genius saw through this fundamental movement in life and imaged it in living bright pictures with all its positive and negative, pathetic and humorous sides.
"In his novel Turgenev did not at all side with the 'fathers' as the unsympathetic progressive critics of that time insisted, he did not wish to in the least extol them above the 'children' in order to degrade the latter. Just so he had no intention of showing up in the character of the representative of the 'children' some kind of model of a 'thinking realist' to whom the young generation should have bowed and imitated, as the progressive critics who received the work sympathetically imagined. Such a one-sided view was foreign to the author; he sketched both the 'fathers' and the 'children' as far as possible impartially and analytically. He spared neither the 'fathers' nor the 'children' and pronounced a cold and severe judgment both on the ones and the others. He positively sings a requiem to the 'fathers' in the person of the Kirsanovs, and especially Paul Kirsanov, having shown up their aristocratic idealism, their sentimental aestheticism, almost in a comical light, ay almost in caricature, as he himself has justly pointed out. In the prominent representative of the 'children,' Bazarov, he recognized a certain moral force, the energy of character, which favourably contrasts this strong type of realist with the puny, characterless, weak-willed type of the former generation; but having recognised the positive side of the young type, he could not but show up their shortcomings to life and before the people, and thus take their laurels from them. And he did so. And now when time has sufficiently exposed the shortcomings of the type of the generation of that time, we see how right the author was, how deep and far he saw into life, how clearly he perceived the beginning and the end of its development. Turgenev in Fathers and Children gave us a sample of a real universal novel, notwithstanding the fact that its plot centres on the usual intimate relations of the principal characters. And with what wonderful skill the author solves this puzzling problem — to place in narrow, limited frames the broadest and newest themes (content). Hardly one of the novelists of our age, beginning with Dickens and ending with George Sand and Spielhagen, has succeeded in doing it so compactly and tersely, with such an absence of the didactic element which is almost always present in the works of the above-mentioned authors, the now kings of western literatures, with such a full insight into the very heart of the life movement which is reflected in the novel. I repeat again, Fathers and Children is thought of highly by European critics, but years will pass and it will be thought of even more highly. It will be placed in a line with those weighty literary creations in which is reflected the basic movement of the time which created it."
It would have been well for Turgenev if he could have preserved an absolute silence under the terrific storm of abuse that his most powerful novel brought down on his head; it would have been well to let the book speak for itself, and trust to time to make the strong wine sweet. But this was asking almost too much of human nature. Stung by the outrageous attacks of the Radicals, and suffering as only a great artist can suffer under what he regards as a complete misrepresentation of his purpose, Turgenev wrote letters of explanation, confession, irony, letters that gained him no affection, that only increased the perplexity of the public, and which are much harder to understand than the work itself. The prime difficulty was that in this book Turgenev had told a number of profound truths about life; and nobody wanted the truth. The eternal quarrel between the old and the young generation, the eternal quarrel between conservative and liberal, was at that time in Russia in an acute stage; and everybody read Fathers and Children with a view to increasing their ammunition, not with the object of ascertaining the justice of their cause. The "fathers" were of course angry at Turgenev's diagnosis of their weakness; the "sons" went into a veritable froth of rage at what they regarded as a ridiculous burlesque of their ideas. But that is the penalty that a wise man suffers at a time of strife; for if every one saw the truth clearly, we should never fight each other at all.
Turgenev's subsequent statement, that so far from Bazarov being a burlesque, he was his "favourite child," is hard to understand even to-day. The novelist said that with the exception of Bazarov's views on art, he himself was in agreement with practically all of the ideas expressed by the great iconoclast. Turgenev probably thought he was, but really he was not. Authors are poor judges of their own works, and their statements about their characters are seldom to be trusted. Many writers have confessed that when they start to write a book, with a clear notion in their heads as to how the characters shall develop, the characters often insist on developing quite otherwise, and guide the pen of the author in a manner that constantly awakens his surprise at his own work. Turgenev surely intended originally that we should love Bazarov; as a matter of fact, nobody really loves him, and no other character in the book loves him for long except his parents. We have a wholesome respect for him, as we respect any ruthless, terrible force; but the word "love" does not express our feeling toward him. It is possible that Turgenev, who keenly realised the need in Russia of men of strong will, and who always despised himself because he could not have steadily strong convictions, tried to incarnate in Bazarov all the uncompromising strength of character that he lacked himself; just as men who themselves lack self-assertion and cannot even look another man in the eye, secretly idolise the men of masterful qualities. It is like the sick man Stevenson writing stories of rugged out-door activity. I heard a student say once that he was sure Marlowe was a little, frail, weak man physically, and that he poured out all his longing for virility and power in heroes like Tamburlaine.
Bazarov, as every one knows, was drawn from life. Turgenev had once met a Russian provincial doctor, whose straightforward talk made a profound impression upon him. This man died soon after and had a glorious resurrection in Bazarov, speaking to thousands and thousands of people from his obscure and forgotten grave. It is rather interesting that Turgenev, who drew so many irresolute Russian characters, should have attained his widest fame by the depiction of a man who is simply Incarnate Will. If every other person in all Turgenev's stories should be forgotten, it is safe to say that Bazarov will always dwell in the minds of those who have once made his acquaintance.
And yet, Turgenev, with all his secret admiration for the Frankenstein he had created, did not hesitate at the last to crush him both in soul and body. The one real conviction of Turgenev's life was pessimism,--the belief that the man of the noblest aspiration and the man of the most brutish character are treated by Nature with equal indifference. Bazarov is the strongest individual that the novelist could conceive; and it is safe to say that most of us live all our lives through without meeting his equal. But his powerful mind, in its colossal egotism and with its gigantic ambitions, is an easy prey to the one thing he despised most of all — sentiment; and his rugged body goes to the grave through a chance scratch on the finger. Thus the irony of this book — and I know of no novel in the world that displays such irony — is not the irony of intentional partisan burlesque. There is no attempt in the destruction of this proud character to prove that the "children" were wrong or mistaken; it is the far deeper irony of life itself, showing the absolute insignificance of the ego in the presence of eternal and unconscious nature. Thus Bazarov, who seems intended for a great hero of tragedy, is not permitted to fight for his cause, nor even to die for it. He is simply obliterated by chance, as an insect perishes under the foot of a passing traveller, who is entirely unaware that he has taken an individual life.
Nature herself could hardly be colder or more passive than the woman with whom it was Bazarov's bad luck to fall in love. The gradual change wrought in his temperament by Madame Odintsov is shown in the most subtle manner. To Bazarov, women were all alike, and valuable for only one thing; he had told this very woman that people were like trees in a forest; no botanist would think of studying an individual birch tree. Why, then, should this entirely unimportant individual woman change his whole nature, paralyse all his ambitions, ruin all the cheerful energy of his active mind? He fights against this obsession like a nervous patient struggling with a dreadful depression that comes over him like a flood. He fights like a man fighting with an enemy in the dark, whom he cannot see, but whose terrible blows rain on his face. When he first meets her, he remarks to the shocked Arkady, "What a magnificent body! Shouldn't I like to see it on the dissecting table!" But he is unable long to admire her with such scientific aloofness. "His blood was on fire directly if he merely thought of her; he could easily have mastered his blood, but something else was taking root in him, something he had never admitted, at which he had always jeered, at which all his pride revolted." It is this bewilderment at meeting the two things that are stronger than life — love and death — that both stupefy and torture this superman. It is the harsh amazement of one who, believing himself to be free, discovers that he is really a slave. Just before he dies, he murmurs: "You see what a hideous spectacle; the worm half-crushed, but writhing still. And, you see I thought too: I'd break down so many things, I wouldn't die, why should I! there were problems to solve, and I was a giant! And now all the problem for the giant is how to die decently, though that makes no difference to any one either … I was needed by Russia … No, it's clear, I wasn't needed."
Madame Odintsov's profound and subtle remark about happiness is the key to her character, and shows why she never could have been happy with Bazarov, or have given him any happiness.
"We were talking of happiness, I believe … Tell me why it is that even when we are enjoying music, for instance, or a fine evening, or a conversation with sympathetic people, it all seems an intimation of some measureless happiness existing apart somewhere rather than actual happiness such, I mean, as we ourselves are in possession of? Why is it? Or perhaps you have no feeling like that?"
Many of us certainly have feelings like that; but while these two intellectuals are endeavouring to analyse happiness, and losing it in the process of analysis, the two young lovers, Arkady and Katya, whose brows are never furrowed by cerebration, are finding happiness in the familiar human way. In answer to his declaration of love, she smiled at him through her tears. "No one who has not seen those tears in the eyes of the beloved, knows yet to what a point, faint with shame and gratitude, a man may be happy on earth."
Although the character of Bazarov dominates the whole novel, Turgenev has, I think, displayed genius of a still higher order in the creation of that simple-minded pair of peasants, the father and mother of the young nihilist. These two are old-fashioned, absolutely pious, dwelling in a mental world millions of miles removed from that of their son; they have not even a remote idea of what is passing in his mind, but they look on him with adoration, and believe him to be the greatest man in all Russia. At the end of a wonderful sketch of the mother, Turgenev says: "Such women are not common nowadays. God knows whether we ought to rejoice!"
This humble pair, whom another novelist might have treated with scorn, are glorified here by their infinite love for their son. Such love as that seems indeed too great for earth, too great for time, and to belong only to eternity. The unutterable pathos of this love consists in the fact that it is made up so largely of fear. They fear their son as only ignorant parents can fear their educated offspring; it is something that I have seen often, that every one must have observed, that arouses the most poignant sympathy in those that understand it. It is the fear that the boy will be bored at home; that he is longing for more congenial companionship elsewhere; that the very solicitude of his parents for his health, for his physical comfort, will irritate and annoy rather than please him. There is no heart-hunger on earth so cruel and so terrible as the hunger of father and mother for the complete sympathy and affection of their growing children. This is why the pride of so many parents in the development of their children is mingled with such mute but piercing terror. It is the fear that the son will grow away from them; that their caresses will deaden rather than quicken his love for them. They watch him as one watches some infinitely precious thing that may at any moment disappear forever. The fear of a mother toward the son she loves is among the deepest tragedies of earth. She knows he is necessary to her happiness, and that she is not to his.
Even the cold-hearted Bazarov is shaken by the joy of his mother's greeting when he returns home, and by her agony at his early departure. He hates himself for not being able to respond to her demonstrations of affection. Unlike most sons, he is clever enough to understand the slavish adoration of his parents; but he realises that he cannot, especially in the presence of his college friend, relieve their starving hearts. At the very end, he says "My father will tell you what a man Russia is losing … That's nonsense, but don't contradict the old man. Whatever toy will comfort the child … you know. And be kind to mother. People like them aren't to be found in your great world if you look by daylight with a candle."
The bewildered, helpless anguish of the parents, who cannot understand why the God they worship takes their son away from them, reaches the greatest climax of tragedy that I know of anywhere in the whole history of fiction. Not even the figure of Lear holding the dead body of Cordelia surpasses in tragic intensity this old pair whose whole life has for so long revolved about their son. And the novel closes with the scene in the little village churchyard, where the aged couple, supporting each other, visit the tomb, and wipe away the dust from the stone. Even the abiding pessimism of the novelist lifts for a moment its heavy gloom at this spectacle. "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; they tell us too of eternal reconciliation and of life without end."This is where the novel Fathers and Children rises above a picture of Russian politics in the sixties, and remains forever an immortal work of art. For the greatness of this book lies not in the use of the word Nihilist, nor in the reproduction of ephemeral political movements; its greatness consists in the fact that it faithfully portrays not merely the Russian character, nor the nineteenth century, but the very depths of the human heart as it has manifested itself in all ages and among all nations.
The next novel, Smoke, despite its extraordinary brilliancy, is in many ways unworthy of Turgenev's genius. It was written at Baden, while he was living with the Viardots, and I suspect that the influence of Madame Viardot is stronger in this work than in anything else Turgenev produced. Of course he had discussed again and again with her the abuse that young Russia had poured on his head for Fathers and Children; and I suspect she incited him to strike and spare not. The smoke in this novel is meant to represent the idle vapour of Russian political jargon; all the heated discussions on both sides are smoke, purposeless, obscure, and transitory as a cloud. But the smoke really rose from the flames of anger in his own heart, fanned by a woman's breath, who delighted to see her mild giant for once smite his enemies with all his force. If Fathers and Children had been received in Russia with more intelligence or more sympathy, it is certain that Smoke would never have appeared. This is the most bitter and purely satirical of all the works of Turgenev; the Slavophils, with their ignorance of the real culture of western Europe, and their unwillingness to learn from good teachers, are hit hard; but still harder hit are the Petersburg aristocrats, the "idle rich" (legitimate conventional target for all novelists), who are here represented as little better in intelligence than grinning apes, and much worse in morals. No one ever seems to love his compatriots when he observes them in foreign lands; if Americans complain that Henry James has satirised them in his international novels, they ought to read Smoke, and see how Turgenev has treated his travelling countrymen. They talk bad German, hum airs out of tune, insist on speaking French instead of their own tongue, attract everybody's attention at restaurants and railway-stations, — in short, behave exactly as each American insists other Americans behave in Europe.
The book is filled with little portraits, made "peradventure with a pen corroded." First comes the typical Russian gasbag, who talks and then talks some more.
"He was no longer young, he had a flabby nose and soft cheeks, that looked as if they had been boiled, dishevelled greasy locks, and a fat squat person. Everlastingly short of cash, and everlastingly in raptures over something, Rostislav Bambaev wandered, aimless but exclamatory, over the face of our long-suffering mother-earth."
Dostoevski was so angry when he read this book that he said it ought to be burnt by the common hangman. But he must have approved of the picture of the Petersburg group, who under a thin veneer of polished manners are utterly inane and cynically vicious. One of them had "an expression of constant irritability on his face, as though he could not forgive himself for his own appearance."
The portrait of the Pecksniffian Pishtchalkin: "In exterior, too, he had begun to resemble a sage of antiquity; his hair had fallen off the crown of his head, and his full face had completely set in a sort of solemn jelly of positively blatant virtue."
None but a great master could have drawn such pictures; but it is not certain that the master was employing his skill to good advantage. And while representing his hatred of all the Russian bores who had made his life weary, he selected an old, ruined man, Potugin, to express his own sentiments — disgust with the present condition of Russia, and admiration for the culture of Europe and the practical inventive power of America. Potugin says that he had just visited the exposition at the Crystal Palace in London, and that he reflected that "our dear mother, Holy Russia, could go and hide herself in the lower regions, without disarranging a single nail in the place." Not a single thing in the whole vast exhibition had been invented by a Russian. Even the Sandwich Islanders had contributed something to the show. At another place in the story he declares that his father bought a Russian threshing machine, which remained five years useless in the barn, until replaced by an American one.
Such remarks enraged the Slavophils beyond measure, for they were determined to keep out of Russia foreign inventions and foreign ideas. But that Turgenev was right is shown in the twentieth century by an acute German observer, Baron Von der Bruggen. In his interesting book, Russia of To-day, he says: "All civilisation is derived from the West … People are now beginning to understand this in Russia after having lost considerable time with futile phantasies upon original Slavonic civilisation. If Russia wishes to progress, her Western doors must be opened wide in order to facilitate the influx of European culture." The author of these words was not thinking of Turgenev: but his language is a faithful echo of Potugin. They sound like a part of his discourse. Still, the literary value of Smoke does not lie in the fact that Turgenev was a true prophet, or that he successfully attacked those who had attacked him. If this were all that the book contained, it would certainly rank low as a work of art.
But this is not all. Turgenev has taken for his hero Litvinov, a young Russian, thoroughly commonplace, but thoroughly practical and sincere, the type of man whom Russia needed the most, and has placed him between two women, who represent the eternal contrast between sacred and profane love. This situation has all the elements of true drama, as every one knows who has read or heard Carmen; it is needless to say that Turgenev has developed it with consummate skill. Turgenev regarded brilliantly wicked women with hatred and loathing, but also with a kind of terror; and he has never failed to make them sinister and terrible. Irina as a young girl nearly ruined the life of Litvinov; and now we find him at Baden, his former passion apparently conquered, and he himself engaged to Turgenev's ideal woman, Tanya, not clever, but modest, sensible, and true-hearted, another Lisa. The contrast between these two women, who instinctively understand each other immediately and the struggle of each for the soul of the hero, shows Turgenev at his best. It is remarkable, too, how clearly the reader sees the heart of the man, so obscure to himself; and how evident it is that in the very midst of his passion for Irina, his love for Tanya remains. Irina is a firework, Tanya a star; and even the biggest skyrockets, that illuminate all the firmament, do not for long conceal the stars.
Turgenev thoroughly relieved his mind in Smoke; and in the novel that followed it, Torrents of Spring, he omitted politics and "movements" altogether, and confined himself to human nature in its eternal aspect. For this very reason the book attracted little attention in Russia, and is usually dismissed in one sentence by the critics. But it is a work of great power; it sings the requiem of lost youth, a minor melody often played by Turgenev; it gives us a curious picture of an Italian family living in Germany, and it contains the portrait of an absolutely devilish but unforgettable woman. We have a sincere and highly interesting analysis of the Russian, the German, and the Italian temperament; not shown in their respective political prejudices, but in the very heart of their emotional life. Once more the Russian hero is placed between God and Satan; and this time Satan conquers. Love, however, survives the burnt-out fires of passion; but it survives only as a vain regret — it survives as youth survives, only as an unspeakably precious memory. . . . The three most sinister women that Turgenev has ever drawn are Varvara Pavlovna, in A House of Gentlefolk; Irina, in Smoke; and Maria Nikolaevna, in Torrents of Spring. All three are wealthy and love luxury; all three are professional wreckers of the lives of men. The evil that they do rises from absolute selfishness, rather than from deliberate sensuality. Not one of them could have been saved by any environment, or by any husband. Varvara is frivolous, Irina is cold-hearted, and Maria is a super-woman; she makes a bet with her husband that she can seduce any man he brings to the house. To each of her lovers she gives an iron ring, symbol of their slavery; and like Circe, she transforms men into swine. After she has hypnotised Sanin, and taken away his allegiance to the pure girl whom he loves, "her eyes, wide and clear, almost white, expressed nothing but the ruthlessness and glutted joy of conquest. The hawk, as it clutches a captured bird, has eyes like that." Turgenev, whose ideal woman is all gentleness, modesty, and calmness, must have seen many thoroughly corrupt ones, to have been so deeply impressed with a woman's capacity for evil. In Virgin Soil, when he introduces Mashurina to the reader, he says: "She was a single woman … and a very chaste single woman. Nothing wonderful in that, some sceptic will say, remembering what has been said of her exterior. Something wonderful and rare, let us be permitted to say." It is significant that in not one of Turgenev's seven novels is the villain of the story a man. Women simply must play the leading role in his books, for to them he has given the power of will; they lead men upward, or they drag them downward, but they are always in front.
The virtuous heroine of Torrents of Spring, Gemma, is unlike any other girl that Turgenev has created. In fact, all of his good women are individualised — the closest similarity is perhaps seen in Lisa and Tanya, but even there the image of each girl is absolutely distinct in the reader's mind. But Gemma falls into no group, nor is there any other woman in Turgenev with whom one instinctively classifies or compares her. Perhaps this is because she is Italian. It is a long time before the reader can make up his mind whether he likes her or not — a rare thing in Turgenev, for most of his good women capture us in five minutes. Indeed, one does not know for some chapters whether Gemma is sincere or not, and one is angry with Sanin for his moth-like flitting about her radiance. She at once puzzles and charms the reader, as she did the young Russian. Her family circle are sketched with extraordinary skill, and her young brother is unique in Turgenev's books. He has, as a rule, not paid much attention to growing boys; but the sympathy and tenderness shown in the depiction of this impulsive, affectionate, chivalrous, clean-hearted boy prove that the novelist's powers of analysis were equal to every phase of human nature. No complete estimate of Turgenev can be made without reading Torrents of Spring; for the Italian menage, the character of Gemma and her young brother, and the absurd duelling punctilio are not to be found elsewhere. And Maria is the very Principle of Evil; one feels that if Satan had spoken to her in the Garden of Eden, she could easily have tempted him; at all events, he would not have been the most subtle beast in the field.
In 1876 Turgenev wrote Virgin Soil. Of the seven novels, this is the last, the longest, and the least. But it did not deserve then, and does not deserve now, the merciless condemnation of the critics; though they still take up stones to stone it. Never was a book about a revolutionary movement, written by one in sympathy with it, so lukewarm. Naturally the public could not swallow it, for even God cannot digest a Laodicean. But the lukewarmness in this instance arose, not from lack of conviction, but rather from the conviction that things can really happen only in the fulness of time. Everything in the story from first to last emphasises this fact and might be considered a discourse on the text add to knowledge, temperance: and to temperance, patience. But these virtues have never been in high favour with revolutionists, which explains why so many revolutions are abortive, and so many ephemeral. It is commonly said that the leading character in Virgin Soil, Solomin, is a failure because he is not exactly true to life, he is not typically Russian. That criticism seems to me to miss the main point of the work. Of course he is not true to life, of course he is not typically Russian. The typical Russian in the book is Nezhdanov, who is entirely true to life in his uncertainty and in his futility; he does not know whether or not he is in love, and he does not know at the last what the "cause" really is. He fails to understand the woman who accompanies him, he fails to understand Solomin, and he fails to understand himself. So he finally does what so many Russian dreamers have done — he places against his own breast the pistol he had intended for a less dangerous enemy. But he is a dead man long before that. In sharp contrast with him, Turgenev has created the character Solomin, who is not at all "typically Russian," but who must be if the revolutionary cause is to triumph. He seems unreal because he is unreal; he is the ideal. He is the man of practical worth, the man who is not passion's slave, and Turgenev loved him for the same reason that Hamlet loved Horatio. Amid all the vain babble of the other characters, Solomin stands out salient, the man who will eventually save Russia without knowing it. His power of will is in inverse proportion to his fluency of speech. The typical Russian, as portrayed by Turgenev, says much, and does little; Solomin lives a life of cheerful, reticent activity. As the revolution is not at hand, the best thing to do in the interim is to accomplish something useful. He has learned how to labour and to wait. "This calm, heavy, not to say clumsy man was not only incapable of lying or bragging; one might rely on him, like a stone wall." In every scene, whether among the affected aristocrats or among the futile revolutionists, Solomin appears to advantage. There is no worse indictment of human intelligence than the great compliment we pay certain persons when we call them sane. Solomin is sane, and seems therefore untrue to life.
It is seldom that Turgenev reminds us of Dickens; but Sipyagin and his wife might belong to the great Dickens gallery, though drawn with a restraint unknown to the Englishman. Sipyagin himself is a miniature Pecksniff, unctuous, polished, and hollow. The dinner-table scenes at his house are pictured with a subdued but implacable irony. How the natural-born aristocrat Turgenev hated the Russian aristocracy! When Solomin appears in this household, he seems like a giant among manikins, so truly do the simple human virtues tower above the arrogance of affectation. The woman Marianna is a sister of Elena, whom we learned to know in On the Eve; she has the purity, not of an angel, but of a noble woman. She has that quiet, steadfast resolution so characteristic of Russian heroines. As for Mariusha, she is a specimen of Turgenev's extraordinary power of characterisation. She appears only two or three times in the entire novel, and remains one of its most vivid personages This is ever the final mystery of Turgenev's art — the power of absolutely complete representation in a few hundred words. In economy of material there has never been his equal. The whole novel is worth reading, apart from its revolutionary interest, apart from the proclamation of the Gospel according to Solomin, for the picture of that anachronistic pair of old lovers, Fomushka and Finushka. "There are ponds in the steppes which never get putrid, though there's no stream through them, because they are fed by springs from the bottom. And my old dears have such springs too in the bottom of their hearts, and pure as can be." Only one short chapter is devoted to this aged couple, at whom we smile but never laugh At first sight they may seem to be an unimportant episode in the story, and a blemish on its constructive lines but a little reflection reveals not only the humorous tenderness that inspired the novelist's pen in their creation, but contrasts them in their absurd indifference to time, with the turbulent and meaningless whirlpool where the modern revolutionists revolve. For just as tranquillity may not signify stagnation, so revolution is not necessarily progression. This old-fashioned pair have learned nothing from nineteenth century thought, least of all its unrest. They have, however, in their own lives attained the positive end of all progress — happiness. They are indeed a symbol of eternal peace, the shadow of a great rock in a weary land. Turgenev, most cultivated of novelists, never fails to rank simplicity of heart above the accomplishments of the mind.
Turgenev's splendid education, his wealth which made him independent, his protracted residence in Russia, in Germany, and in Paris, his intimate knowledge of various languages, and his bachelor life gave to his innate genius the most perfect equipment that perhaps any author has ever enjoyed. Here was a man entirely without the ordinary restraints and prejudices, whose mind was always hospitable to new ideas, who knew life at first hand, and to whose width of experience was united the unusual faculty of accurately minute observation. He knew people much better than they knew themselves. He was at various times claimed and hated by all parties, and belonged to none. His mind was too spacious to be dominated by one idea. When we reflect that he had at his command the finest medium of expression that the world has ever possessed, and that his skill in the use of it has never been equalled by a single one of his countrymen, it is not surprising that his novels approach perfection.
His own standpoint was that of the Artist, and each man must be judged by his main purpose. Here is where he differs most sharply from Tolstoi, Dostoevski, and Andreev, and explains why the Russians admire him more than they love him. To him the truth about life was always the main thing. His novels were never tracts, he wrote them with the most painstaking care, and in his whole career he never produced a pot-boiler. His work is invariably marked by that high seriousness which Arnold worshipped, and love of his art was his main inspiration. He had a gift for condensation, and a willingness to cultivate it, such as no other novelist has shown. It is safe to say that his novels tell more about human nature in less space than any other novels in the world. Small as they are, they are inexhaustible, and always reveal beauty unsuspected on the previous reading.
His stories are not stories of incident, but stories of character. The extraordinary interest that they arouse is confined almost entirely to our interest in his men and women; the plot, the narrative, the events are always secondary; he imitated no other novelist, and no other can imitate him. For this very reason, he can never enjoy the popularity of Scott or Dumas; he will always be caviare to the general. Henry James said of him, that he was particularly a favourite with people of cultivated taste, and that nothing cultivates the taste better than reading him. It is a surprising proof of the large number of readers who have good taste, that his novels met with instant acclaim, and that he enjoyed an enormous reputation during his whole career. After the publication of his first book, A Sportsman's Sketches, he was generally regarded in Russia as her foremost writer, a position maintained until his death; his novels were translated into French and English very soon after their appearance, and a few days after his death, the London Athenaeum remarked, "Europe has been unanimous inaccording to Turgenev the first rank in contemporary literature." That a man whose books never on any page show a single touch of melodrama should have reached the hearts of so many readers, proves how interesting is the truthful portrayal of human nature.
George Brandes has well said that the relation of Turgenev to his own characters is in general the same relation to them held by the reader. This may not be the secret of his power, but it is a partial explanation of it. Brandes shows that not even men of genius have invariably succeeded in making the reader take their own attitude to the characters they have created. Thus, we are often bored by persons that Balzac intended to be tremendously interesting; and we often laugh at persons that Dickens intended to draw our tears. With the single exception of Bazarov, no such mistake is possible in Turgenev's work; and the misunderstanding in that case was caused principally by the fact that Bazarov, with all his powerful individuality, stood for a political principle. Turgenev's characters are never vague, shadowy, or indistinct; they are always portraits, with every detail so subtly added, that each one becomes like a familiar acquaintance in real life. Perhaps his one fault lay in his fondness for dropping the story midway, and going back over the previous existence or career of a certain personage. This is the only notable blemish on his art. But even by this method, which would be exceedingly irritating in a writer of less skill, additional interest in the character is aroused. It is as though Turgenev personally introduced his men and women to the reader, accompanying each introduction with some biographical remarks that let us know why the introduction was made, and stir our curiosity to hear what the character will say. Then these introductions are themselves so wonderfully vivid, are given with such brilliancy of outline, that they are little works of art in themselves, like the matchless pen portraits of Carlyle.
Another reason why Turgenev's characters are so interesting, is because in each case he has given a remarkable combination of individual and type. Here is where he completely overshadows Sudermann, even Ibsen, for their most successful personages are abnormal. Panshin, for example, is a familiar type in any Continental city; he is merely the representative of the young society man. He is accomplished, sings fairly well, sketches a little, rides horseback finely, is a ready conversationalist; while underneath all these superficial adornments he is shallow and vulgar. Ordinary acquaintances might not suspect his inherent vulgarity — all Lisa knows is that she does not like him; but the experienced woman of the world, the wife of Lavretsky, understands him instantly, and has not the slightest difficulty in bringing his vulgarity to the surface. Familiar type as he is, — there are thousands of his ilk in all great centres of civilisation, — Panshin is individual, and we hate him as though he had shadowed our own lives. Again, Varvara herself is the type of society woman whom Turgenev knew well, and whom he both hated and feared; yet she is as distinct an individual as any that he has given us. He did not scruple to create abnormal figures when he chose; it is certainly to be hoped that Maria, in Torrents of Spring, is abnormal even among her class; but she is an engine of sin rather than a real woman, and is not nearly so convincingly drawn as the simple old mother of Bazarov.
Turgenev represents realism at its best, because he deals with souls rather than with bodies. It is in this respect that his enormous superiority over Zola is most clearly shown. When L'Assommoir was published, George Moore asked Turgenev how he liked it, and he replied: "What difference does it make to me whether a woman sweats in the middle of her back or under her arm? I want to know how she thinks, not how she feels." In that concrete illustration, Turgenev diagnosed the weakness of naturalism. No one has ever analysed the passion of love more successfully than he; but he is interested in the growth of love in the mind, rather than in its carnal manifestations.
Finally, Turgenev, although an uncompromising realist, was at heart always a poet. In reading him we feel that what he says is true, it is life indeed; but we also feel an inexpressible charm. It is the mysterious charm of music, that makes our hearts swell and our eyes swim. He saw life, as every one must see it, through the medium of his own soul. As Joseph Conrad has said, no novelist describes the world; he simply describes his own world. Turgenev had the temperament of a poet, just the opposite temperament from such men of genius as Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant. Their books receive our mental homage, and deserve it; but they are without charm. On closing their novels, we never feel that wonderful afterglow that lingers after the reading of Turgenev. To read him is not only to be mentally stimulated, it is to be purified and ennobled; for though he never wrote a sermon in disguise, or attempted the didactic, the ethical element in his tragedies is so pervasive that one cannot read him without hating sin and loving virtue. Thus the works of the man who is perhaps the greatest novelist in history are in harmony with what we recognise as the deepest and most eternal truth, both in life and in our own hearts.
The silver tones and subtle music of Turgenev's clavichord were followed by the crashing force of Tolstoi's organ harmonies, and by the thrilling, heart-piercing discords struck by Dostoevski. Still more sensational sounds come from the younger Russian men of to-day, and all this bewildering audacity of composition has in certain places drowned for a time the less pretentious beauty of Turgenev's method. During the early years of the twentieth century, there has been a visible reaction against him, an attempt to persuade the world that after all he was a subordinate and secondary man. This attitude is shown plainly in Mr. Baring's Landmarks in Russian Literature, whose book is chiefly valuable for its sympathetic understanding of the genius of Dostoevski. How far this reaction has gone may be seen in the remark of Professor Brückner, in his Literary History of Russia: "The great, healthy artist Turgenev always moves along levelled paths, in the fair avenues of an ancient landowner's park. Aesthetic pleasure is in his well-balanced narrative of how Jack and Jill did not come together: deeper ideas he in no wise stirs in us." If A House of Gentlefolk and Fathers and Children stir no deeper ideas than that in the mind of Professor Brückner, whose fault is it? One can only pity him. But there are still left some humble individuals, at least one, who, caring little for politics and the ephemeral nature of political watchwords and party strife, and still less for faddish fashions in art, persist in giving their highest homage to the great artists whose work shows the most perfect union of Truth and Beauty.
- There is an interesting and amusing reference to Harriet Beecher Stowe in the fourth chapter of "Smoke."
- In the original, A Nobleman's Nest.
- See an article in the Forum for August, 1910.
- To the best of my knowledge, these reviews have never before been translated. These translations were made for me by a Russian friend, Mr. William S. Gordon.
- I cannot believe that even Mr. Edward Garnett loves him, though in his Introduction to Constance Garnett's translation, he says, "we love him."
- It is difficult to find out much about the original of Bazarov. Haumant says Turgenev met him while travelling by the Rhine in 1860; but Turgenev himself said that the young doctor had died not long before 1860, and that the idea of the novel first came to him in August, 1860, while he was bathing on the Isle of Wight. Almost every writer on Russian literature has his own set of dates and incidents.
- I cannot doubt that Turgenev got the hint for this chapter from Gogol's tale, Old-fashioned Farmers.