Wednesday, December 11, 2013

‘My God, how nice it all is!’ - ok, this is the beautiful Turgenev

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. 


  1. I loved Turgenev, when I read his books years ago, he's one of the writers I mean to reread at some point

  2. I think I will add his Sportsman's Scetches to my 2014 reading list.

  3. Fathers and Sons was a great pleasure to reread. Little treasures were scattered all through it.

    The best of A Sportsman's Sketches are among the all-time great short stories. It is sometimes hard, however, to escape the impression that Turgrenev was too strongly under the influence of Chekhov.

  4. AR(T), I second the motion about Sportsman's Sketches' greatness. Many unforgettable moments on those stories. For example here's the germ from which Auden's Horae Canonicae sprouted:

    'In people who are constantly and intensely preoccupied with one idea, or one emotion, there is something in common, a kind of external resemblance in manner'.

    Or Radilov's recollection of his reactions to the death of his wife:
    I bowed to the ground, and hardly shed a tear. My heart seemed turned to stone--and my head too--I was heavy all over. So passed my first day. Would you believe it? I even slept in the night. The next morning I went in to look at my wife: it was summer-time, the sunshine fell upon her from head to foot, and it was so bright. Suddenly I saw ... what do you think? One of her eyes was not quite shut, and on this eye a fly was moving.

  5. If I ever knew that Auden poem, I have completely forgotten it. Thanks for pointing it out.

  6. Great post, not least because the omniscient narrator observation at the end unexpectedly reminded me of Hawthorne's hectoring narrator from that one amazing chapter in The House of the Seven Gables. When/where did that technique come about? Closer to home, I appreciate the quip about the fleecy lambs and your note about the light effects. The latter sort of thing, when I notice it, almost always makes me want to write a second post about a rich novel long after I've written the first one. There's so much that has to get left out with just one blog entry about a book (no worry for you, I know) or when you're just trying to come to grips with a book after having read it for the first time. Present company excluded, sometimes I think that blogging's bad for reading, he he.

  7. The development or discovery or simply renewed use of the limited third person by Flaubert and so on (including Turgenev) gets all the attention, but these refinements of the omniscient narrator (which Flaubert also does) seem at least as interesting to me.

    I have wondered about your last point. I hope we all have,

  8. I don't know about blogging being bad for reading - but it's certainly bad for getting a proper night's sleep! Here I am, catching up on your posts, when any sensible person should be abed...

    << It is sometimes hard, however, to escape the impression that Turgrenev was too strongly under the influence of Chekhov.>>

    That made me laugh out loud!

  9. I do not normally think in terms of "strong" and "weak" with writers, but I have this sense that Turgenev is a little bit weak, so that the style of later writers he influenced somehow washes back over him. The effect is extremely strong with his play "A Month in the Country," which feels like a diffuse, slightly awkward Chekhov play, even though it is quite good and of course the influence runs the other way.