Sunday, September 14, 2008

Back to Classics: Turgenev and the Generation Gap

The Writer: Ivan Turgenev

Works and Dates: Отцы и дети (Fathers and Sons) (1861)

Why it’s important: Fathers and Sons depicts, with considerable irony, differences between middle-aged romantic idealists and progressive young materialists from the generation that came of age during the 1860s in Russia.

Criticism and commentary: Criticism of the book was so strong that Turgenev considered retiring from writing. With its irony and equal treatment of all sides, the book turned into an equal-opportunity offender. One critic who praised it was Dmitrii Pisarev. A brief summary.

IMHO: Fathers and Sons feels like the quintessential Russian novel thanks to family strife, politics, long-term houseguests, love, people hiding in bushes, class differences, and, of course, a duel. It is elegantly but simply written, and, weighing in at 200 pages and roughly 10 characters, felt like a homey ensemble piece after reading Vasilii Grossman’s epic Life and Fate.

The primary character is one Evgenii Bazarov, a nihilist who enjoys dissecting frogs. His views and philosophies at the beginning of the novel come close to “down with everything!” He has a tendency toward boorishness and invents quotes from Pushkin. What is important to Bazarov? That two times two equals four. This theme echoes throughout Russian literature, most notably in Dostoevsky’s 1864 Notes from the Underground.

We meet Bazarov, whose name is rooted in the Russian word for bazaar, as he arrives with his friend Arkadii Kirsanov for a visit at Arkadii’s family estate. Trouble, of course ensues, as Bazarov mixes it up verbally with Arkadii’s foppish Uncle Pavel, who enjoys sprinkling his speech with French words.

I won’t outline the book’s plot – which includes plenty of travel for Arkadii and Bazarov – because excellent summaries are available on Wikipedia (here) and in novelist Gary Shteyngart’s “You Must Read This” installment for NPR (here). Besides, the fun of the novel comes in its light humor, accompanied by, to steal a bit from Shteyngart, Turgenev’s compassion and lack of derision.

Many episodes in the book are a bit absurd, but none more than Bazarov’s duel with Arkadii’s Uncle Pavel. Pavel proposes the duel in exceedingly polite terms, and Bazarov decides to accept the challenge “in a gentlemanly way.” The two amicably decide to skip the formality of a reason. Lacking patience for each other is enough, and Pavel avoids mentioning the slightly scandalous scene he witnessed, from behind a lilac bush, that triggered the challenge. When Bazarov injures Pavel, Bazarov bandages him up, and Pavel tells his brother he challenged Bazarov because of a political conversation about Sir Robert Peel.

To me, the real irony of the duel is that Pavel looks almost like a nihilist, willing to give his life up for no formal reason other than dislike, and Bazarov looks almost like a traditionalist by agreeing to a duel to defend his honor. Bazarov has, however, already abandoned many of his principles and even fallen in love at least once, notably with a frosty woman named Odintsova, whose name begins with the Russian word один, “one.”

(Please don’t read the next one paragraph if you don’t want to know how the novel ends.)

To cap things off, when Bazarov succumbs to death -- the ultimate negation that cannot be denied – his parents have a priest perform last rites. I found the deathbed scenes very sad, probably because Bazarov came to feel so human with his contradictions and because his parents, who live far more modestly than the Kirsanovs, loved him so much and had great hopes for his medical career. The book ends at Bazarov’s grave, where his passionate, rebellious, sinful heart hides. The flowers growing on his grave speak of eternal tranquility and life. Even in death, Bazarov, his corpse helping the flowers grow, embodies a bazaar of ideas.

Fathers and Sons also includes a bazaar of relationships. There are literal fathers and sons – Bazarov and his healer father – and there are metaphorical father and sons – Bazarov and Arkadii, his follower. Odintsova watches over her younger sister, and Arkadii’s father has a complicated relationship with his servant Fenechka, who is, of course, not his social equal, but who eventually becomes his wife after bearing his son.

I enjoyed watching these connections develop because Turgenev treats his readers with compassion, too. He shows us conversations and gestures that characterize his people, and his brief descriptive passages are memorable because he fills them with distinctive objects that establish atmosphere and their owners’ personalities. Turgenev’s combination of social significance, characters who feel just usual and odd enough to be real, and spare literary techniques make Fathers and Sons an exceedingly pleasant book to read when you’d like to consider how people relate to each other and their ideas.

Summary: Fathers and Sons is a cleanly structured short novel that combines a snapshot of a historical time with gentle humor and irony. I certainly misunderstood the book in college when I called it a “period piece,” provoking my professor to, rightly, accuse me of not understanding the novel. Though duels and horse-drawn carriages seem to have gone out of fashion, the book’s larger questions about generations and mentors, philosophies and ideals, feel surprisingly fresh in the contentious election year 2008. Besides, students, nihilist or not, still dissect frogs.

Turgenev Books on Amazon


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