Thursday, September 2, 2010

We would go forward together towards a beautiful ideal - the Superfluous Man has worn me out

But I . . . there’s nothing else one can say about me – I’m superfluous, in a word.  (“The Diary of a Superfluous Man”, 1850)

Here’s a subject of which, reading, early Turgenev, I became heartily sick.  Early nineteenth century Russia, in a pattern common in many developing countries today, had made significant improvements in education without quite knowing what its newly educated citizens would do.  The now over-educated, Westernized gentry found itself restless, bored, Byronized, and spiritually enervated.  Except for all the ones who went to work, reforming the government, increasing agricultural productivity, and so on, through gradual changes.

It takes Turgenev a while to bring those people back into his writing.  This is, instead, typical:

[S]he would not distract me from my studies; she would herself inspire me to honest, disciplined labour, and we would go forward together towards a beautiful ideal. (The Home of the Gentry, Ch. 31)

Ha ha ha ha!  The Superfluous Man also turns out to be virtually useless around women.  My greatest revelation about the Turgenevian Superfluous Man, now that I’ve read so many stories about him, is that his problems are always romantic (also, Romantic, but I knew that).  There is always a woman involved.

Often, the woman is herself superfluous.  “If he were a hero, he’d inspire her, he’d teach her to sacrifice herself – and every sacrifice would be easy for her!” (“A Correspondence”).  The women, like this one, are trapped on their estates, with no possible role available besides wife and mother, unless a heroic non-Superfluous Man comes along to rescue them.  But, unfortunately, the men are not only not heroic, but Superfluous.

Turgenev’s women are, honestly, the saving grace of his early stories.  Their frustrations are palpable, they’re the ones kicking against their restraints, while the men mope about.  Turgenev surpasses himself in the short novel On the Eve (1860), where the heroine, through her own strength of character and force of will, not only finds her hero (who, of course, is not Russian) but then, inspired by his example, outdoes him.

On the Eve is an especially subtle treatment of the Superfluous Man theme, and I recommend it easily, not for that reason, but because it is artistically superior to its predecessors.  I was particularly disappointed in Turgenev’s first novel, Rudin (1856), in part because it is actually a play in disguise.  Scenery, description of character 1, description of character 2, then talk talk talk.  Enter: new character, describe him, then talk talk talk.  Rudin, the central Superfluous character has his interest, and the heroine has her surprises, but the artistry of the novel, along with many of the early stories, is just middlin’.

If I’d skipped them, though, I would have missed this:

When the first inviting notes of the mazurka sounded, I looked around calmly and coolly, casually approached a long-faced young lady who had a red, shiny nose, a mouth that hung open awkwardly, as though it had become unhinged, and a sinewy neck reminiscent of the handle of a double bass…  She was wearing a pink dress, which looked as though it had been sick recently and hadn’t fully recovered; a striped, dismal insect of some sort attached to a thick bronze pin quivered atop her head. (“The Diary of a Superfluous Man”)

Turgenev is always good with clothes.  As though it had become unhinged!  As though it had been sick recently!


  1. I noticed music played a big part in many of Turgenev's stories, but what is it with the double bass?

    Although maybe the Freudians can symbolically tie it in with the oft-used theme of frustrated love...

  2. Oh yes, I just came across a music scene in The Home of the Gentry that is very, very nice.

    In fairness, those two double basses are ten years apart from each other. Kind of funny, though. Turgenev definitely recycles.

    I might write a bit about the frustrated love theme tomorrow. Turgenev didn't need Freud - he had Goethe.