Monday, September 7, 2009

Turgenev’s Rudin

Returning to Russian novels I first read over 20 years ago in college is a strange sensation: despite lots of déjà vu, sometimes I remember so little of the plots and characters that I might as well be reading the books for the first time.

Case in point: Ivan Turgenev’s “Рудин (Rudin, 1855), a portrait-novel of a superfluous man of the 1840s. I read Rudin on my own and suspect I favored it over “Отцы и дети”(Fathers and Sons) because I heard no lectures or canonization, and could enjoy the book on my own terms. Looking back, I admit I was probably Bazarov-ish in my relative dislike of Fathers and Sons. (Previous post on Fathers and Sons, which I read again last summer.) (Note: Blogger is always quirky, and today it will not allow Cyrillic and italics together.)

If I had to choose between the two books now, I’d probably take Fathers and Sons over Rudin, though I think I like “Дворянское гнездо” (Nest of the Gentry) more still. Which is not to say I didn’t enjoy Rudin, Turgenev’s first novel, on my second reading. I did. And I’m a little surprised that what I liked “back then” is still what I like best: I’ve always found (anti?)inspiration in portraits of superfluous men who talk nicely about ideas and ideals but never get around to doing much to affect change.

Rudin is a literary kick in the pants, and Dmitrii Rudin is a literary descendant of Pushkin’s Evgenii Onegin and Lermontov’s Pechorin. (Previous post on Hero of Our Time) Rudin is more inert and benign than Pechorin, though: a duel situation is defused, a much-younger woman ends up telling him off, and he slinks out of town. He even knows he’ll never amount to much, which makes him all the more tragic. The slight technical similarities between the two books are also interesting: both writers use other characters to describe their title figures in detail. Rudin doesn’t narrate any portion of the novel like Pechorin does, but other figures tell stories about him that piece together a picture of his life.

Turgenev also uses one of my favorite simple plot structures. Rudin enters a fairly closed social situation where he affects others’ lives, acting as a catalyst on romantic and intellectual relationships. My favorite scene takes place on the ruins of an estate, when Natal’ia, a girl Rudin claims to love, shows admirable spine by, among other things, calling him малодушный (faint-hearted, literally small + soul) after he accepts her mother’s refusal to let them marry and cries, dramatically, “Боже мой!” (“My God!”).

Now that I think about it, maybe it was Natal’ia that I appreciated so much when I first read the book… To quote from D.S. Mirsky’s A History of Russian Literature:

The men, again, are very different from the women. The fair sex comes out distinctly more advantageously from the hands of Turgenev. The strong, pure, passionate, and virtuous woman, opposed to the weak, potentially generous, but ineffective and ultimately shallow man, was introduced into literature by Pushkin, and recurs again and again in the works of the realists, but nowhere more insistently than in Turgenev’s.

Turgenev on Amazon

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