Sunday, December 8, 2013

One thing I ask of you: no fine talk - Turgenev's next generation

“Oh Arkady Nikolaich, my friend!” cried Bazarov.  “One thing I ask of you: no fine talk.” (Ch. 21)

The ideas in Fathers and Sons that got Russia so worked up are embodied in and expressed by a single character, Bazarov, and a single word, “nihilism.” 

“We act on the basis of what we recognize as useful,” Bazarov replied.  “Nowadays the most useful thing of all is rejection – we reject.”



“What?  Not only art and poetry… but even… it’s two awful to say…”

“Everything,” Bazarov repeated with indescribable composure.”  (Ch. 10, ellipses in original)

Bazarov is young, charismatic, intelligent, and has really impressive side-whiskers.  Although radical in opinion (“’First, the ground must be cleared’”) he has withdrawn from action, apparently choosing the career of country doctor as a way of rejecting ambition or perhaps for some other reason.  I believe Chekhov returns to this idea in Uncle Vanya (1897), although I fear I have overlaid Chekhov’s doctor (who is actually  a failed idealist) on Bazarov.

Turgenev had spent a decade, in works like Rudin (1856) and Home of the Gentry (1859) and “The Diary of a Superfluous Man” (1850), working on the idea of the Superfluous Man, educated beyond any available use, a common type in developing countries, in the 19th century Russian case usually found puttering around his estate where he introduces mismanaged and useless agricultural reforms while his serfs rob him blind.  Fathers and Sons features two kinds of Superfluous Men, the father and uncle of Bazarov’s disciple and friend Arkady.  Turgenev has shifted the generations a notch, now, so the new generation is no longer superfluous but something else – nihilists, whatever that means.

Thus the debate.  Is this really what young people believe?  A few or many?  Are they active or passive?  Bazarov is a lifelike, well-made character, but much of the controversy needed little more than the kinds of conversation recorded above.  What is “everything,” for example?  No  need for “fine talk” to hash this out.  Coarse talk will do.

Whatever argument Turgenev was trying to make is ambiguous.  As Isaiah Berlin writes in Russian Thinkers, “[i]n a country in which readers, and especially the young, to this day look to writers for moral direction, he refused to preach” (272).  Bazarov fails in some important ways, but he seems to be at odds not with society but with Nemesis, as if he is in a Sophocles play.  He rejects romantic love and is surprised to find himself in love with a worthy but distant woman.  He rejects medicine and is killed by an infection.  His weak-willed disciple finds real love with a less interesting woman, makes peace with his family, and lives happily on his estate where he makes modest but real improvements.

The arbitrariness of the endings defeats any attempt to prove a thesis.  Turgenev had a stronger sense of the limits of fiction than many of his peers and readers.  Both Napoleon and evil landladies are safe from Turgenev characters, even strong, active, thoughtful ones like Bazarov.

This is all from the Michael R. Katz translation, in the Norton Critical Edition.


  1. Ah, nihilism and arbitrariness--two of my favorite literary religions. Time for me to get back to the Russians soon! Love how "with indescribable composure" provides such an in-your-face slam dunk at the end of that initial Bazarov sequence. Such a fine (and non-arbitrary) choice of words for such a humble-seeming three-word description, no?

  2. Bazarov is a great character. Great in the literary sense, and possbily great in a "great man" sense. Supremely confident. Arrogant. Sometimes a huge jerk. But also sometimes visibly young, almost adolescent. Always checking his phone.

    My God, he's a Millennial.

  3. This is a very interesting post. I'm wanting to get into Turgenev a lot more next year, partly, I have to admit, I'm curious of because his association with Émile Zola. I've read a few a long time ago, but aiming to re-read Home of the Gentry and Fathers and Sons.

  4. This is sounding a lot funnier than I remember; perhaps I just read the wrong translation, Constance Garnett's English is perhaps too serious and dreary for the subtle humor of the Russians.

    All this talk about Russians is getting me anxious to read one of them again.

  5. Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard is populated with quite a few "superfluous" people. Perhaps only Firs (the abandoned servant) and Lopakhin (the new owner of the cherry orchard) escape that indictment. At least both of those characters have offered solutions for the future of the estate. All other characters offer nothing to the future of the society. However, unlike Turgenev, I think, Chekhov puts his incomparable comic "spin" on the nihilism of this characters. Perhaps, though, that is both an unfair and too simple comparison. Clearly, I need to read more Turgenev. Thanks for the inducement.

  6. The Superfluous Men are not nihilists but idealists. Usually failed idealists, making them perfect Chekhov types. That doctor is Uncle Vanya, for example, is of all things an environmentalist!

    But maybe Bazarov's nihilism is also a form of idealism. This gets into interpretation.

    Chekhov's comedy is deeper than Turgenev's. No question of that.

    Miguel, see what you think of the passages that will be in my next post, whenever that might be. I am not a Garnett-basher, but she can't be good at translating everyone.

    Now o is going to operate a big Russian Challenge in 2014, always a good idea, exactly for the reasons I am talking about here. There is a huge diversity of work available in English, but there can be a coherence to Russian literature that is fun to pursue. So for example variations of ideas or characters from Turgenev pop up in Chekhov, Bely, Pasternak, and onward. And the act of creating literature is always so important.

    Isaiah Berlin's Russian Thinkers is helping me clarify my thoughts, or else is muddling them beyond hope with too many new ideas. He addresses, for example, Turgenev's relationship with French literature and writers. Zola is only mentioned once, as part of Turgenev's circle (o is also working on an ambitious Zola project).

  7. There's a level of subservience required to become a beta wolf that is problematic. Susan Sontag wrote about how once, when she was very young, her older alpha she-wolf tried to corrupt her by having her sleep around with random men (and the two women were engaged on a romantic relationship at the time!). Turgenev was so needy of acceptance from his French clique that he would go to extremes. Once, after having undergone an operation, he labored for hours to find 'la sentence juste' to describe his experience to his French friends: the scalpel cutting through his flesh felt like a dull knife cutting through an unpeeled banana.

  8. Just to clarify, because I highly respect Sontag, her work and her life choices, let me add that she didn't comply with the wishes of her older romantic partner at the time and remained uncorrupted.

  9. Probably a stupid question: did Turgenev and Dostoevsky (my favorite) meet?

  10. Turgenev and Dostoevsky knew each other well. The world of these intellectuals and artists (in Russia, at least) was so small.

    Leonid Tsypkin's novel Summer in Baden-Baden includes a brilliant fictionalized version of one of their real meetings. It is excruciating. Dostoevsky cannot overcome his resentment of Turgenev. A wonderful scene.

    Turgenev was the best Russian available for the French writers - perhaps the only one who would fit in their scene at all - but he was not quite what Flaubert of James thought he was.

  11. The structure of Turgenev's novels is very un-Russian, very tightly knit in the manner of Flaubert. What I remember about Fathers and Sons is less the politics (I think On the Eve is more deeply felt in the way of politcs, maybe) than the formal balance of the narrative, and the excellent way the naturalist writing shapes itself around the story and characters. There's a bit about horses and chickens on the road, maybe the arrival of the son and his nihilist friend, that's quite good. And some stuff about the land surrounding the farm is really exquisiste, too. Beautiful writing throughout.

    I remember being fond of the uncle, and I have a suspicion that the uncle is the closest thing in Fathers and Sons to a stand-in for Turgenev. Isn't the uncle in love with a serf housemaid? Didn't Turgenev father a child on a young serf? Not that I like to read fiction as a form of the author's biography or anything.

    I have not read the Chernyshevsky so I'll have to sit down soon and read the Turgenev, the Chernyshevsky and Notes all in a row, to see what the row was. I have Summer in Baden-Baden sitting on my to-be-read stack even now. Maybe after the T/Ch/D trifecta I'll see about that one.

  12. Without the What Happened Next, Fathers and Sons would not seem especially political.

    Yet this aesthete is also the author of the Uncle Tom's Cabin of serfdom, A Sportsman's Sketches. That book does not appear to be remotely political, yet it became a key part of the case against the system of serfs.

    Russia, Russian literature - a different world.

    All the men in the novel are in love with that maid.