Friday, September 3, 2010

The possibility of lifelong happiness - Turgenev calculates the keen and quivering ratio

Now that I have finished Ivan Turgenev’s second novel, Home of the Gentry (1859), along with a (small) shelf of other early Turgenev works, I can say with confidence that he was one miserable cuss.  Or his view of the world, at least, is one of fundamental unhappiness, punctuated by moments of bliss.  Those moments may last as long as, I don’t know, a week.

Or maybe this is not Turgenev’s view of the world.  He sure writes as if it is:

I saw within reach, almost held in my hands, the possibility of lifelong happiness – and then it suddenly vanished; just as in roulette, the wheel has only to turn a fraction more and the beggar perhaps becomes a rich man. But if it’s not to be, it’s not to be – and that’s the end of it. I will do what I have to do with clenched teeth, and tell myself to keep quiet… (Ch. 41)

Lavretsky, a Superfluous Man, returns to Russia, fleeing a bad marriage.  He allows himself to fall in love with a distant relative.  There are some fine scenes of Lavretsky In Love – see Chapters 33 and 34, full of nightingales and trees whispering softly and music that breathes of immortal sadness.  Maybe a little goopy, actually.  But then a soap opera plot twist pulls everything apart.  Lavretsky renounces worldly happiness (see above) and in the process becomes a No-Longer-Superfluous Man.

Renunciation – this is the word I use when I pretend that I understand Goethe.  Turgenev is a keen student of Goethe, keener than I am, and has filtered a lot of Goethe through his own sensibility, most blatantly in the story “Faust” (1856), in which the hero somehow destroys the woman he loves by reading Goethe’s Faust to her.*  This is why I kept hearing echoes of Turgenev’s contemporary Theodor Storm, another Goethe disciple, another author of numerous stories of lost chances at love and happiness.  I just read an Emily Dickinson poem (#125) Turgenev might have liked:

For each ecstatic instant
We must an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ratio
To the ecstasy.

For each beloved hour
Sharp pittance of years –
Bitter contested farthings –
And Coffers heaped with Tears!

The reader who agrees wholeheartedly might be more enthusiastically responsive to Turgenev than I am.  Home of the Gentry was a treat, comparable to First Love and On the Eve – in fact, these three books make a nice little thematically consistent trilogy.  All three are finely written.  Try Chapter 19 of Home of the Gentry, Lavretsky’s return, after many years, to his childhood home:

A pinch of tea was sought out, wrapped in a twist of red paper; a small but exceedingly fiery and noisy samovar was unearthed, along with sugar in very small lumps which looked as if they had been melted.  Lavretsky drank his tea from a big cup; he remembered this cup from his childhood: it had playing cards painted on it – and he drank out of it now as if he were a guest.

The book is full of little pleasures like this.  Turgenev does offer some hope in the end, too, some happiness, but it belongs to the next generation, not his own.  Fathers and Sons will greatly complicate this idea, and many others.

* Amusing that this story is exactly contemporary with Madame Bovary, the greatest reading-will-ruin-your-life novel.  Or second greatest, depending on how you interpret Don Quixote.


  1. I'm glad you liked this one, AR: it's my favorite Turgenev so far, with Fathers and Sons a close second. (I liked Rudin more than you did and (heavens!) have not yet read On the Eve.)

    There's also a film adaptation of Nest of the Gentry; I thought it was pretty good. The director is Andrei Konchalovskii, the same guy who made Tango & Cash. My!

  2. The things Hollywood makes foreign directors do!

    I urge anyone interested in Turgenev to go to Lisa's piece on Rudin, linked in her comment.

  3. Actually Goethe's drama 'Faust' was completed long before 1856, the second part being completed in 1832 the year of Goethe's death.

    Turgenev, one of Russia's greatest 19th century writers was only gloomy in response to the socio-economic circumstances Russia experienced, though I agree there has been some good film adaptions of his novels.

  4. Waddayamean, "actually"? Turgenev's story "Faust" was published in 1856. Goethe's play "Faust," which is a central part of the story, was, yes, earlier.

    "Only gloomy in response to socioeconomic conditions" - you really believe that? Under different socioeconomic conditions (say those of Paris or Baden Baden), Turgenev would have been a walking beam of sunshine?

  5. die geneigte LeserinSeptember 6, 2010 at 5:05 PM

    I think he was gloomy in response to environmental conditions: the miasma exuded by Flaubert. On the other hand, if you spend a lot of time with Flaubert, you're almost bound to appear cheerful in comparison.

    Seriously, though, I can't say that he's gloomier than Flaubert or that his outlook is grimmer than Maupassant's. The lot of them were gloomy partly as a result of being post-romantic, which is a sort of degenerative diseases that attacks the heart, but mainly irritates the nervous system.