For some reason I took three novels on vacation that all featured radical revolutionary politics. Not sure what I was thinking. Virgin Soil (1877) by Ivan Turgenev, Germinal (1885) by Émile Zola, and In the Days of the Comet (1906) by H. G. Wells. I had no idea what was in the Wells, so at least I have than excuse.
All three books gave me about the author’s attitude towards his radical characters. Not the actual author’s attitude, about which who cares, but the implied author’s attitude. The text is organized to make an argument, several arguments. What might those arguments be? The Wells novel seemed contradictory, the Zola closer to sly. All three books approach their politics ironically. They are all literature, so they behave like literature.
Turgenev seemed easier to place because I have a long history with his previous thirty years of writing, particularly his theme of the Superfluous Man and its many updates.
“’Do you remember at one time, a long while ago, there used to be a great deal of talk about “superfluous” people – Hamlets?’” (Ch. 30, 233)
Yes, I do remember that. The generation of Nihilists replaces the Superfluous Men, only to discover that they themselves were superfluous, and now the more violent, conspiratorial, anarchistic Populists elbow out the nihilists, finding, to their despair, that they are entirely superfluous. A couple of alternatives are provided, though, one of whom is a spot-on Communist International Leninist forty years ahead of the real thing. What any of this has to do with actual revolutionary movements in Russia in 1877 I can only guess. V. S. Pritchett writes that Virgin Soil is the novel that made Turgenev famous outside of Russia: “a month after it was published fifty-two young men and women were arrested in Russia on charges of revolutionary conspiracy, and a shocked public in France, Britain, and America turned to the novel for enlightenment” (p. iii). The novel was read as news.
Nezhdanov had enough sense to know how unutterably stupid and even meaningless what he was doing was; but he gradually worked himself up to such a point that he did not realise what was sense and what was nonsense. (Ch. 32, 246)
A one-line summary, is how I would take that. The novel is like a Bildungsroman in reverse.
Turgenev is continuing the argument he kicked off in Fathers and Sons, the argument with Chernyshevsky and Dostoevsky and many others. To my surprise, Virgin Soil begins in St. Petersburg, in a garret “saturated with tobacco fumes” full of cash-strapped revolutionaries plotting violence, written essentially like a play with one set, lots of dialogue, and entrances and exits. I was amazed – a Turgenev novel not set on a country estate!
Four chapters in, the first act of the play is over and the protagonist, the superfluous Nezhdanov, so ineffective that he is not just a revolutionary but a poet, is whisked to a country estate. “The air of the room, heavy with the scent of lilies-of-the-valley (great nosegays of these exquisite spring flowers made patches of white here and there, was stirred from time to time by an inrush of the light breeze which was softly fluttering over the luxuriant leafage of the garden,” (Ch. 5, 32). In other words, the kind of place where one finds Turgenev characters. There Nezhdanov falls in love, meets a variety of curious specimens, and realizes that he is hopelessly compromised by his inherent Romanticism. That’s the plot summary. Maybe I should move it higher up in the post.
My understanding is that Henry James substantially based The Princess Casamassima (1886) on Virgin Soil. I will have to see it to believe it.
Quotations are from the Constance Garnett translation, page numbers from the Grove Press edition, which has the Pritchett introduction.