All right, when I said that yesterday’s post was about Turgenev’s beautiful writing, and then singled out the line “You’re a big pig,” which I think is great, but is not beautiful, I was joking. But the joke is that there in fact are beautiful passages in Father and Sons, by which I mean examples of the original and well-balanced picturesque. These passages are likely to have poetic qualities that make them even more beautiful in Russian, but the imagery is itself good.
The morning was lovely, the air, fresh; small, dappled clouds stood like fleecy lambs in clear, pale blue sky; light dew scattered on leaves and grass glistened like silver on spider webs; the damp, dark earth seemed to retain traces of the rosy dawn; the sky was filled with the song of larks. (Ch. 24)
No, I am joking again, and so is Turgenev. This is the atmosphere before a duel. Turgenev is piling it on for the ironic contrast. To Bazarov, who might pointlessly die in a few minutes, everything is too perfectly beautiful. But on its own, I don’t know, “fleecy lambs.”
Here is a real example:
He looked around, as if wishing to understand how it was possible to have no feeling for nature. It was almost evening; the sun was hidden behind a small grove of aspens that stood about half a verst from the garden: its shadow stretched endlessly across motionless fields. A little peasant on a white nag was trotting along a dark, narrow path next to the grove; he was clearly visible, all of him, including the patch on his shoulder, even though he was in the shadows; the horse’s hooves could be seen plainly rising and falling in a pleasant fashion. (Ch. 11)
The description continues with more light effects (“their leaves looked almost dark blue”) and some bees and swallows are sketched in. “‘My God, how nice it all is!’ thought Nikolai Petrovich,” who like Bazarov later is in a receptive mood.
Such passages are not common in Fathers and Sons – the novel is in fact mostly dialogue – but they are identifiable by Turgenev doing something tricky with the light. They always serve a purpose.
Turgenev has a better trick, beautiful in its own way. Fiction writers are just learning, in the nineteenth century, how to move the point of view, independently from the characters. Turgenev has a couple of outstanding examples in Fathers and Sons. Early in the book, Arkady (along with his friend Bazarov) has just arrived home after an extended absence. His father has taken up with a maid his son’s age, and even moved her into the house. Arkady, a young man of advanced principles, is understanding. But there is something his father has not yet mentioned. This is how the reader learns the secret, in a single paragraph at the end of Chapter 4:
Both he and Bazarov soon fell fast asleep, but other people in the house were unable to sleep for some time. His son’s return had excited Nikolai Petrovich [the father]. He lay down in bed, but didn’t blow the candle out and, resting his head on his arm, thought long and hard. His brother sat up in his study long past midnight in a broad Hambs armchair before the fireplace in which some embers were glowing dimly. [snip some of the description of the uncle] And in the little back room sitting on a large trunk, wearing a light blue sleeveless jacket, a white kerchief thrown over her dark hair, was a young woman, Fenechka [the maid]; she was either listening or dozing or looking through the open door, behind which a child’s cot could be seen and the even breathing of a sleeping child could be heard.
The narrator is in some sense omniscient – he can hop around – but mostly limited, a disembodied camera filming people sleeping or thinking or mothering, scenes that can be edited together with nothing more than periods and an attentive reader’s imagination.