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12 October 2013

A Despised Balancing Act: Turgenev’s Fathers & Sons

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Young Man to Middle Aged Man: “You had content but no force.”
Middle Aged Man to Young Man: “You had force but no content.”

– the original epigraph to Fathers and Sons

Fatherssons turgIvan Turgenev’s novel of poetic realism is seen today as a recognized masterpiece in its theme of clashing generations. Unlike many masterpieces of days gone by (it was first published in 1861) which today may seem clunky, obsolete in form and message, and worst of all, redundant, (think Uncle Tom’s Cabin for example) Turgenev’s novel of generational and political discord still strikes true with forceful relevance a century and a half later.

As with all great works of art, a novel at its best must possess the multiple layers of universal meaning necessary to allow it to survive the cultural erosion that time alone can inflict upon it. Like E.M.Forster’s multi-thematic Howard’s End, Turgenev’s greatest work also has hidden messages and thematic gems that allow the reader to rediscover new things in it time and time again, no matter how many times he reads it. Perhaps this is the true definition of a masterpiece; no matter how many times one experiences it, one never grows tired of it, and one always comes away from it in possession of something new.

What is interesting about this work is that not everyone has ever shared this viewpoint. Turgenev’s two great contemporaries, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were contemptuous of all of his work, and of his political fence-sitting. Anna Akhmatova, arguably Russia’s greatest poet, and a brilliant literary scholar besides, also disliked Turgenev, referring to him as “shallow”, as well as “haughty and superficial.” Clearly, his literary legacy left his readers divided, at the very least.

But the fact remains, that although he inspired savage critical responses all of his life, Turgenev’s work was so vitally alive and compelling, that it survives to this day, still inspiring debate, as readable and engaging as it was when it was written. Even as late as the early 1960’s, Soviet critics were arguing about the book’s merits, and the writer’s place in Soviet history. Was he for or against them? Even though they could not deny the genius of his writing, they still could not, a century after the novel’s publication, decide where to place the author politically. This is not especially surprising, when we consider that in his lifetime, Turgenev himself was nothing if not uncertain of that question as well.

The pastoral life that was rural Russia of 1861 no longer exists 151 years later. The divide between the wealthy landowners and serfs who worked the land was as unbridgeable as it was seemingly permanent, and appears as far off and unknowable to us as the continent of Pangaea. The reality that was the Russia of Turgenev’s youth and young manhood was of a vast and backwards country where the percentage of educated people was extremely small compared to the vast numbers of the population who lived in unbelievable conditions of abject poverty, disease, severe political oppression and ignorance. In his lecture on the novel in 1970 at Oxford, Isaiah Berlin commented that the existence of the majority of the Russian populace in that time was so appalling that it was questionable as to whether or not they could even be called citizens.

As everyone on the planet now knows, this desperate state of affairs would change only after a seismic revolution nearly sixty years later and a long bloody aftermath following. Until then, nothing would significantly alter the political and economic landscape of a society that for years, had simply not worked.

This was the world then in which Ivan Turgenev grew up, and which shaped his outlook in life and in his art. At the time of the novel’s publication (he would die 21 years later in Paris) Turgenev was 43 years old, and already the author of five books. He had grown up, the only child of a wealthy widowed mother, who as an unhinged hysteric, routinely and savagely beat her serfs in fits of rage. It would appear she came by this monstrous cruelty naturally. One of Turgenev’s earliest memories was of his grandmother’s murder of a boy serf who had enraged her. Striking the boy and wounding him, she knocked him to the ground and then smothered him with a pillow. Turgenev witnessed scenes like these a great deal as a child, and the wonder of it was that he did not grow up to be as murderous in his impulses as his predecessors were in theirs. It took him most of his life to work through the horrors that he had witnessed as a boy, and as a result they are rife in his stories.

Rather than becoming a monster, he grew up instead with a broken spirit, gentle and sensitive, cultured and sympathetic. His overall impulse while growing up was to please, and he hated strife or conflict of any variety. His writing was drawn to personal feeling, to beauty and in a sense, art for art’s sake, which has always been viewed as an unforgivable self-indulgence in that certain segment of the Russian intelligentsia. He has been described as a pure aesthete, and this perhaps is unfair, for he was also quite painfully conscious of the suffering the large majority of his countrymen underwent, and the fact that this drew fire from critics in his writing gives proof to the lie that he was frivolous and unconcerned with the ongoing political, social and economic agonies his country suffered.

Spending many years in France, I suspect, was what drew a great deal of the scorn he accumulated from his Russian critics. Dostoyevsky for one scorned his writing as containing so many “mercis” and it’s to be considered that Russian xenophobia and not just political extremism may have had a hand in his critics’ vilification of him.

As for the man himself, he was viewed somewhat contemptuously by even some of his friends as being, “kind and soft as wax”, whereas the French and European artists viewed him quite differently, “la doux geant” as Edmond de Goncourt called him, “the gentle giant”, and his

nickname in literary circles was “the Siren” because of his charming, agreeable and entrancing talk. He was a friend to such literary giants as Flaubert, Zola, Maupassant, and George Sand. His western influences made the Russian authorities uncomfortable, and they let it be known that at times, he was distinctly unwelcome in his homeland. Yet if Russia periodically didn’t want him, he never lost his longing or concern for his homeland. Unlike the thunderous sermons delivered by Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy, Turgenev had an almost supernatural ability in his calm, measured prose, of entering into the psyches and sympathies of characters whose viewpoints and natures were virtually antithetical to his own. This is what made his novels so politically dangerous to the authorities and so disturbing to the reactionaries; he saw the truth and the lies of each and exposed them freely. Given that this gift was forever juxtaposed against his overwhelming personal need to be liked, it was only logical that torment was sure to follow. As he learned painfully, telling the truth in art, however brilliantly, may not win you anything but scorn and hatred.

This need to be amenable to everybody has its roots not only in his childhood, but in the exposure he had as a young man to western thought. He studied philosophy at the University of Moscow and at nineteen went to Berlin to study as well, convinced that Europe held the real font of knowledge that he sought. At nineteen, he was already a published poet, and at twenty-five, he fell madly in love with a married Spanish opera singer, and sent the illegitimate daughter he eventually had with a local seamstress to be raised by the singer and her husband with their children. In terms of his life, he was passionate, but did not appear to possess much force, except when it came to expressing his views in his art.

Like all Russian writers of his time, he was greatly concerned with the state of his country, and its future. The monarchy was entrenched, and the Czar Alexander was noted for his repressive regime. Censorship was enforced, but after the Napoleonic wars, it was becoming more and more difficult to stop the encroachments of western thought into the deeply divided strata of Russian society.

Unlike his contemporaries Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Turgenev was not a committed political animal, that is to say, he was neither a reactionary or a radical. What he was, apparently, was a moderate liberal, who sought conciliation in a country whose passions and views were too intense and too opposed to allow for anything even remotely approaching mutual sympathy and understanding. Empathy was just not possible.

With his early philosophical training in Europe as a guide, to say nothing of his horrific childhood, and heavily influenced by the philosophy and radical morality of his mentor, Vissarion Belinsky, (it could be argued that more than any other literary critic, Belinsky helped to define the modern Russian writer’s task) Turgenev turned his clear eye on the plight of the serfs in relation to the landowners and tried to explain the one to the other in his stories. He wrote honestly, perhaps too honestly about what he saw of the relationship between the haves and the have-nots in Russian society. Because he neither favoured one side or the other, he drew fire from both sides for his objective and honest appraisal of this relationship throughout his literary career.

From the reactionaries of his own class, he was seen as a seditious traitor, and from the radical revolutionaries who opposed that class, he was seen as a weak and contemptible old man, who spoke of reform but did not have the guts necessary to go far enough to achieve real change. Despite his grief at the attacks he sustained, Turgenev did not stop in his clear-eyed and astonishing portraits of both sides, as he reviewed and wrote about their prejudices and flaws for all to see, to the astonishment and horror of many. In doing so, he exposed the central painful truth that endlessly tormented Russian society and left himself extremely vulnerable to endless attacks from both sides.

In Fathers and Sons, Turgenev enshrines the coming political changes in the wind in the person of his principal anti-hero, Bazarov. The original “angry young man”, Bazarov convinces with a blindness that is immediately believable in its contemptuous tone and unswerving bitterness. Reading the book today, we immediately recognize his type. We have all met and heard our share of Bazarovs, angry, intelligent and well read young men whose fury at the world around them is sometimes hidden under a seemingly unassailable mask of political extremism that calls for revolution.

Campus radicals in US universities during the 1960’s must have felt a shock of recognition and just a little embarrassment, reading Bazarov’s contemptuously casual dismissal of his friend Arkady’s father, (“Your father’s a good man, but he’s old fashioned, he’s had his day.”) realizing that this “modern” generational censure was in fact, already a century old. In this light, it’s easy to see how truly accurate Turgenev’s observations were of this character, when we review 20th century figures like writer Clifford Odets and activists like Abbie Hoffman, or Jesse Jackson. They too have their spiritual roots in Bazarov’s rebellion against the status quo. That they too were flawed and ultimately failed, and were too transparent in their hungry ambition also speaks to the hypocrisy Turgenev saw in a lot of the young revolutionaries of the 1860’s. Turgenev realized, (as few would admit) that if the outdated, autocratic system of the ruling class was indeed corrupt, then so too was the revolutionaries’ hypocritical, power hungry ambition disguised as political cant.

The background of the book is fascinating, but that in itself would ring hollow if the book itself were not a riveting peek at the average life of the average Russian in this period. Turgenev doesn’t romanticize any of his people, and it is this, some 150 years later which makes the novel seem fresh, and more incredibly, quite current. There is no sense of antiquity and quaintness in his people. None of them are encased in bombazine and mothballs, but are instead amazingly fresh, vital and alive, in all of their faults and virtues. None of them strike the reader as flat, stock characters. Each character, from Fenichka, the servant lover of Arkady’s father, Nikolai Petrovich, to the Princess, a querulous old aunt of Anna Sergeyevna’s, are all fully realized, no matter how minor or prominent a role they play. All are painted in quite three-dimensional depth, with astonishingly few brush strokes. When the Princess is described as having a “clenched fist of a face”, swathed entirely in yellow under a grey wig, we have no difficulty not only imagining her in our mind’s eye, but also knowing precisely what kind of a miserly figure she cuts. In this, Turgenev is surprisingly similar to Dickens, in his genius for illuminating very specifically who these people are, inside and out.

The seemingly simple story of generational differences was, in fact deceptively politically clever, as Turgenev himself knew well, and he used it to illustrate the very real hatreds that existed not only between warring political factions, but through the warring generations themselves. The war between the aristocracy and the serfdom that existed predominantly throughout Russia was also a war between the west and the xenophobic Russian motherland, the new and the old, tradition versus revolution, and endless variants thereof. No strata of Russian society was exempt it seemed. Battle lines were drawn and Turgenev exploited the hatreds he saw simmering everywhere. Knowing his countrymen as he did, Turgenev was far too sophisticated to believe that any one doctrine was the answer to his country’s suffering, and as prescient as he was, he must have known that revolution was not only probable, but ultimately inevitable. Profound political change was needed, he recognized, but he knew human nature far too well to naively suppose that the change would be beneficial to all, or that the Eden both sides promised would ever materialize, no matter what the eventual predominant political will dictated and/or promised. This unwillingness to follow either camp’s political agenda, and his further refusal to soften his razor sharp portrayal of either side only further added to his unpopularity in his homeland. Even the Czar, who was once an admirer, came to view Turgenev’s writings as something of a bête noir. The sense of accuracy and specificity he described in his country’s makeup makes it clearly understandable why his works infuriated so many in his day. Nobody likes the ugly truth of themselves presented plainly and unadorned. Turgenev wrote the truth of his people and of his times, and did it so accurately and so vividly, that no one was spared from his unflinching eye. Ironically, the one who suffered the most from his devastating honesty about his nation’s foibles was Turgenev himself. If however, he and his reputation were attacked and mercilessly pilloried in his day, his art has stood the test of time, and revealed not only a period of history long since vanished, but a humane and compassionate vision of that history that lasts even to this day.

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