'Smoke' was first published in 1867, several years after Turgenev had fixed his home in Baden, with his friends the Viardots. Baden at this date was a favourite resort for all circles of Russian society, and Turgenev was able to study at his leisure his countrymen as they appeared to foreign critical eyes. The novel is therefore the most cosmopolitan of all Turgenev's works. On a veiled background of the great world of European society, little groups of representative Russians, members of the aristocratic and the Young Russia parties, are etched with an incisive, unfaltering hand. Smoke, as an historical study, though it yields in importance to Fathers and Children and Virgin Soil, is of great significance to Russians. It might with truth have been named Transition, for the generation it paints was then midway between the early philosophical Nihilism of the sixties s and the active political Nihilism of the seventies.
Markedly transitional, however, as was the Russian mind of the days of Smoke, Turgenev, with the faculty that distinguishes the great artist from the artist of second rank, the faculty of seeking out and stamping the essential under confused and fleeting forms, has once and for ever laid bare the fundamental weakness of the Slav nature, its weakness of will. Smoke is an attack, a deserved attack, not merely on the Young Russia Party, but on all the Parties; not on the old ideas or the new ideas, but on the proneness of the Slav nature to fall a prey to a consuming weakness, a moral stagnation, a feverish ennui, the Slav nature that analyses everything with force and brilliancy, and ends, so often, by doing nothing. Smoke is the attack, bitter yet sympathetic, of a man who, with growing despair, has watched the weakness of his countrymen, while he loves his country all the more for the bitterness their sins have brought upon it. Smoke is the scourging of a babbling generation, by a man who, grown sick to death of the chatter of reformers and reactionists, is visiting the sins of the fathers on the children, with a contempt out of patience for the hereditary vice in the Slav blood. And this time the author cannot be accused of partisanship by any blunderer. 'A plague o' both your houses' is his message equally to the Bureaucrats and the Revolutionists. And so skilfully does he wield the thong, that every lash falls on the back of both parties. An exquisite piece of political satire is Smoke; for this reason alone it would stand unique among novels.
The success of Smoke was immediate and great; but the hue-and-cry that assailed it was even greater. The publication of the book marks the final rupture between Turgenev and the party of Young Russia. The younger generation never forgave him for drawing Gubaryov and Bambaev, Voroshilov and Madame Suhantchikov—types, indeed, in which all revolutionary or unorthodox parties are painfully rich. Or, perhaps, Turgenev was forgiven for it when he was in his grave, a spot where forgiveness flowers to a late perfection. And yet the fault was not Turgenev's. No, his last novel, Virgin Soil, bears splendid witness that it was Young Russia that was one-eyed.
Let the plain truth here be set down. Smoke is not a complete picture of the Young Russia of the day; it was not yet time for that picture; and that being so, Turgenev did the next best thing in attacking the windbags, the charlatans and their crowd of shallow, chattering followers, as well as the empty formulas of the laissez-faire party. It was inevitable that the attack should bring on him the anger of all young enthusiasts working for 'the Cause'; it was inevitable that 'the Cause' of reform in Russia should be mixed up with the Gubaryovs, just as reforms in France a few years ago were mixed up with Boulanger ; and that Turgenev's waning popularity for the last twenty years of his life should be directly caused by his honesty and clear-sightedness in regard to Russian Liberalism, was inevitable also. To be crucified by those you have benefited is the cross of honour of all great, single-hearted men.
But though the bitterness of political life flavours Smoke, although its points of departure and arrival are wrapped in the atmosphere of Russia's dark and insoluble problems, nevertheless the two central figures of the book, Litvinov and Irina, are not political figures. Luckily for them, in Gubaryovs words, they belong 'to the undeveloped.' Litvinov himself may be dismissed in a sentence. He is Turgenev's favourite type of man, a character much akin to his own nature, gentle, deep, and sympathetic. Turgenev often drew such a character; Lavretsky, for example, in A House of Gentlefolk, is a first cousin to Litvinov, an older and a sadder man.
But Irina—Irina is unique; for Turgenev has in her perfected her type till she reaches a destroying witchery of fascination and subtlety. Irina will stand for ever in the long gallery of great creations, smiling with that enigmatical smile which took from Litvinov in a glance half his life, and his love for Tatyana. The special triumph of her creation is that she combines that exact balance between good and evil which makes good women seem insipid beside her and bad women unnatural. And, by nature irresistible, she is made doubly so to the imagination by the situation which she recreates between Litvinov and herself. She ardently desires to become nobler, to possess all that the ideal of love means for the heart of woman; but she has only the power given to her of enervating the man she loves. Can she become a Tatyana to him? No, to no man. She is born to corrupt, yet never to be corrupted. She rises mistress of herself after the first measure of fatal delight. And, never giving her whole heart absolutely to her lover, she, nevertheless, remains ever to be desired.
Further, her wit, her scorn, her beauty preserve her from all the influences of evil she does not deliberately employ. Such a woman is as old and as rare a type as Helen of Troy. It is most often found among the great mistresses of princes, and it was from a mistress of Alexander II. that Turgenev modelled Irina.
Of the minor characters, Tatyana is an astonishing instance of Turgenev's skill in drawing a complete character with half-a-dozen strokes of the pen. The reader seems to have known her intimately all his life: her family life, her girlhood, her goodness and individual ways to the smallest detail; yet she only speaks on two or three occasions. Potugin is but a weary shadow of Litvinov, but it is difficult to say how much this is a telling refinement of art. The shadow of this prematurely exhausted man is cast beforehand by Irina across Litvinov's future. For Turgenev to have drawn Potugin as an ordinary individual would have vulgarised the novel and robbed it of its skilful proportions, for Potugin is one of those shadowy figures which supply the chiaroscuro to a brilliant etching.
As a triumphant example of consummate technical skill, Smoke will repay the most exact scrutiny. There are a lightness and a grace about the novel that conceal its actual strength. The political argument glides with such ease in and out of the love story, that the hostile critic is absolutely baffled; and while the most intricate steps are executed in the face of a crowd of angry enemies, the performer lands smiling and in safety. The art by which Irina's disastrous fascination results in falsity, and Litvinov's desperate striving after sincerity ends in rehabilitation,—the art by which these two threads are spun, till their meaning colours the faint political message of the book, is so delicate that, like the silken webs which gleam only for the first fresh hours in the forest, it leaves no trace, but becomes a dream in the memory. And yet this book, which has the freshness of windy rain and the whirling of autumn leaves, is a story of ignominious weakness, of the passion that kills, that degrades, that renders life despicable, as Turgenev himself says. Smoke is the finest example in literature of a subjective psychological study of passion rendered clearly and objectively in terms of French art. Its character, we will not say its superiority, lies in the extraordinary clearness with which the most obscure mental phenomena are analysed in relation to the ordinary values of daily life. At the precise point of psychological analysis where Tolstoi wanders and does not convince the reader, and at the precise point where Dostoievsky's analysis seems exaggerated and obscure, like a figure looming through the mist, Turgenev throws a ray of light from the outer to the inner world of man, and the two worlds are revealed in the natural depths of their connection. It is in fact difficult to find among the great modern artists men whose natural balance of intellect can be said to equalise their special genius. The Greeks alone present to the world a spectacle of a triumphant harmony in the critical and creative mind of man, and this is their great pre-eminence. But Smoke presents the curious feature of a novel (Slav in virtue of its modern psychological genius) which is classical in its treatment and expression throughout: the balance of Turgenev's intellect reigns ever supreme over the natural morbidity of his subject.
And thus Smoke in every sense of the word is a classic for all time.