Monday, August 10, 2015

unutterably stupid and even meaningless - Turgenev's radicalism - Virgin Soil

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.


  1. brave he is, yes, wallowing through the remote hinterlands of russian lit, especially T. tried him once when i was depressed; big mistake my therapist said. i concurred. interesting perspectives anyway...

  2. Turgenev is best read when cheery, so you can laugh along with Fathers and Sons. Tomorrow will be all about the laughs in Virgin Soil.

  3. I tried this not so long ago but got a bit bogged down because I found myself not caring that much about the characters. Maybe I need to start again....


  4. My familiarity with Turgenev is limited to the Hunter's Sketches and this tangential connection: Turgenev was one of the writers O'Connor read and enjoyed when she was in grad school (Iowa Writers 'Workshop); I have more to say about that connection in a posting later this morning at Beyond Eastrod. So, your posting and the O'Connor connection has me poised to reengage with Turgenev; however, perhaps I did not read your comments closely enough, so I am left with this question: Would you recommend _Virgin Soil_?

  5. Kaggsy, I would write that up to the bad luck of the moment. You read Smoke and the slight, absurd "Faust" with success, so the characters here will likely be able to sink in.

    Having said that, Virgin Soil is second-rate Turgenev. As a work of art, it's not Fathers and Sons. My recommendation is to read Fathers and Sons first, and maybe also second and third.

    The Hunter's Sketches RT mentions, the best of them, are also outstanding.

    "I recommend ____" should always come with qualifiers!

    1. Thanks! :) I enjoyed Smoke very much so I think you're right - it was just the wrong moment for Virgin Soil - I'll return to it one day!