Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Bravo, bravo, bravo! - the pleasures of The Sportsman's Notebook

A Sportsman’s Notebook is the title Charles and Natasha Hepburn chose for their translation of Ivan Turgenev’s early book of stories, or whatever they are.  Other translators have used other titles – Sketches in place of Notebook is common, and more accurate as a description of the contents of the book.

A Turgenev-like hunter, and his servant, and his dog, roam the Russian woods and fields, hunting birds.  He meets people and writes about what he sees.  Sometimes what he hears or sees resolves itself into something like a story, sometimes not.  Landowners, peasants, merchants, men and women, sick and healthy, young and old.  The single most charming sketch is nothing more than Turgenev eavesdropping on some boys looking after horses.

One reason I would recommend the book to anyone interested in Russian literature is simply the variety of characters and social relationships, the wide range of Russian culture on display, the food and religion and superstitions and furniture.  We never visit a city, but otherwise, Turgenev covers a lot of ground.  Of course, if the book’s value were simply utilitarian, why bother?

“Kaysan from Fair Springs” is a favorite of mine.  Turgenev is in his cart, “driving back from shooting,” enjoying the scenery – “in the distance, small birch-copses were all that broke the almost straight line of the horizon, with the rounded tracery of their tree-tops” (114).  A standard beginning, including the precision, or attempted precision, of the description of nature.  He passes a funeral, which is bad luck, so his axle breaks.  Searching for a new axle, he meets a dwarf, Kaysan, who I was expecting, given the title of the story.  This wandering around has taken 5 of the 18 pages.

The sketch is a character piece, a description of the dwarf.  The trick of the story is to slowly move closer, to get to know Kaysan in little steps.  His appearance (“thick curly black hair sticking out on all sides of a tiny head like the hat on top of a mushroom” (118)), then his odd behavior, then other people’s view of his odd behavior.  Kaysan collects herbs, and imitates birds (“conversed with them”), and thinks shooting them is sinful, although he apologizes, near the end of the story, for “call[ing] all the birds away from you,” ruining the hunting.  He composes little poems, and has traveled extensively, and is a healer.  Each little fragment fills him out, but also somehow deepens him, deepens the story.  I don’t want to say that he becomes “real,” since I’m never sure what that means, but I suspect I would not have got to know him so well if I had actually met Kaysan.

Near the end of the book, Turgenev includes two stories that really make up a separate novella.  “Chertopkhanov and Nedopyuskin” is a sketch, a description of a fool of a landowner and his ridiculous life.  By the end of the piece, as with the Kaysan sketch, in a fine bit of sympathizing, the fool seems less foolish, and the life not so ridiculous.  Sort of wonderful, actually.  “’Bravo, bravo, bravo!’ Nedopyuskin gabbled after him” (317).

The next story, though, is “The End of Chertopkhanov,” so the high times can’t last.  It’s actually the most gripping thing I’ve ever read by Turgenev, even if much of the plot as such is basically a man looking for a horse.  I should reread it and try to figure out what makes it so atypically exciting, and how it can possibly feel so genuinely tragic, this tale of a fool and his beloved horse.

Update: A Common Reader's resource-packed Sportsman's Notebook post.


  1. This book was one of my favorite discoveries last year (as was Turgenev in general) and, after comparing a couple of versions, I went with the Hepburns' translation.

    I love Turgenev's description of this collection: "Much has come out pale and scrappy, much is only just hinted at, some of it's not -- right, oversalted or undercooked -- but there are other notes pitched exactly right and not out of tune, and it is these notes that will save the whole book."

  2. Thanks for the reminder - I added a link to one of your posts.

    That's quite funny, "oversalted or undercooked".

  3. Thanks for the link. I found it funny that Turgenev could be perceptive of his own work and then totally blindsided by the response to Fathers and Children.

  4. That's a good point - although, as a distant outsider, the Fatehrs and Sons controversy is hard for me to understand, too. But how Turgenev did not see it - good question.