Friday, September 19, 2014

No neck, haystack hair, ears like bread - it's Turgenev's King Lear of the Steppes

Ivan Turgenev responded to Pushkin differently than Tolstoy.  Turgenev stripped down the elements of the story while piling up the prose.  He and Tolstoy were working towards similar goals, though  - how to put what was real, the Truth, into fictional prose.  Different ideas about what was true; different aesthetic satisfactions.

This is the title character of Turgenev’s 1870 novella A Lear of the Steppes:

Picture to yourselves a man of gigantic stature.  On his huge carcase was set, a little askew, and without the least trace of a neck, a prodigious head.  A perfect hay stack of tangled yellowish-grey hair stood up all over it, growing almost down to the bushy eyebrows.  On the broad expanse of his purple face, that looked as though it had been peeled, there protruded a sturdy knobby nose…  (Ch. 1)

And then his eyes and ears – “just like great twists of bread, full of bends and curves” – and so on.  Martin Petrovich Harlov, the Russian King Lear, is another in the long line of 19th century strong men.  At the story’s climax, he literally tears apart his house with his bare hands, like Samson, not Lear.  Had Turgenev been reading Les Misérables or Toilers of the Sea?  Of course he had, everyone read Hugo, but had they inspired this character?

Turgenev had the bad habit of introducing characters with long, instantly forgotten descriptions, as if he were writing not a story but a play.  That objection does not apply to the above opening.  A little bit of grotesquerie aids the memory.

Harlov only has two daughters, and when, after a dream urging repentance, he divides his kingdom among them, they both offer homage, so again this does not seem all that much like Shakespeare, except that the unmarried daughter Evlampia does not offer enough praise, is not sufficiently thankful for her early inheritance, and thus the trouble begins.

Anna at once dropped on her knees and touched the ground with her fore head; her husband, too, doubled up after her.  “Well, and you?” Harlov turned to Evlampia.  She crimsoned all over, and she too bowed to the earth ; Zhitkov bent his whole carcase forward.  (Ch. 12)

Zhitkov is a mix of Edmund and Cornwall, a scheming parasite.  I do not believe there is a Gloucester, or a Fool, nor does Harlov have three dogs, Blanche, Sweetheart, and Trey.  In the game of adapted Shakespeare, one of the arts is to know what to abandon.  The point of the story is not to identify correspondences between texts, although there are more in this book than in Turgenev’s 1852 story “Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District” or Leskov’s harrowing 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.  Three examples is enough to make a genre, yes?

It’s not Fathers and Sons, but it’s a good story.  Everyone gets to keep their eyes, which is all right by me.

I am looking at Constance Garnett’s translation, published in Volume 12 of a 15 book “Novels of Ivan Turgenev.”


  1. Is it just me thinking that something is odd here, or is there something at work that is a bit like hubristic chutzpah when an author appropriates a blatantly identified Lear-character for his own fiction? Hey, if I want Lear, I know where to go. It ain't Russia. Am I being too churlish by suggesting something more original might have been a better creative option? Yeah, I'm being too cranky. That is, I guess, my natural tendency these days.

  2. How about Saint Theresa of Tipton Parish? Or Napoleon of Notting Hill? Or Don Quixote of Seawood Abbey? Gentlemen, We've gotten ourselves a brand new literary genre here.

  3. Tim, someone needs to get you a copy of Scott Bailey's The Astrologer (2013), a fine contemporary example of the genre (there's some Hamlet in the book). He for some reason did not use the naming convention suggested by Cleanthess, but chose to veil the connection.

    Turgenev and Leskov were embracing Shakespeare - Look how real his characters are - they're all right here! Star Trek fans will insert a joke about how Shakespeare was actually Russian.

  4. AR(Tom), my default setting is to be a nattering nabob of negativity about all derivatives, parodies, satires, and homages. A superb original deserves better treatment. Now, with my tongue still in my cheek, I continue by saying that you are correct. And, also now, I think I will pull down from the shelf my copy of King Lear (the one by that English poet and playwright). As for your allusion to Star Trek, you've lost me; perhaps I need to watch more Big Bang Theory in order to get up to speed on all things ST. Now, where is that Lear? (Sad case that Lear fellow. Here is the Twitter version: Self-centered old fool makes big mistakes and learns to be more human when it is all too late. Sad.)

  5. Back in the old days, there was a Russian character (named Chekhov, ha ha ha) on Star Trek who routinely claimed that all great artists and other achievements of civilization were Russian. Who, in the far future, can say he is wrong?

    Bailey's novel is excellent, by the way. Get it, get it!

    1. FYI

    2. Oh, excellent. It ain't Hamlet, I'll grant that.

      I am glad I have a physical copy - someday I will have Bailey autograph it.

  6. Just to be perfectly clear, I was referring to Middlemarch and two of Chesterton's novels.
    On the other hand, Twitter's got it all wrong about Lear; according to the author of Hamlet Explained, Lear had been having incestuous relations with Cordelia, breaking all fatherly bonds and duties, and, because of that, he was afraid of the consequences after he was no longer king, so he wanted Cordelia to confirm that everything was cool between them and things between them will remain a secret before giving her a third of the kingdom (and thus the power to get herself avenged), only to get this reply:

    LEAR: Strive to be interess'd; what can you say to draw
    A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.
    CORDELIA: Nothing, my lord.
    KING LEAR: Nothing!
    CORDELIA: Nothing.
    KING LEAR: Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.
    CORDELIA: Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
    My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
    According to our bonds; nor more nor less.
    KING LEAR: How, how, Cordelia! mend your speech a little, Lest it may mar your fortunes.
    CORDELIA: Good my lord,
    You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
    Return those duties back as are right fit,
    Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
    Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
    They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
    That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
    Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
    Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
    To love my father all.

    1. I wish it was bunk, I really do, but sadly the author of Hamlet Made Simple proves beyond any reasonable doubt the meaning of Lear's very first words in the play: 'Meantime we shall express our darker purpose', and, while he's at it, he also shows in what sort of incestuous hanky panky Prospero and Miranda have been involved, and many other overlooked Shakespearean complications. In short, Shakespeare allows for more complex readings of his works than, say, Nabokov.

    2. Hamlet corrects Polonius about shapes in clouds, and (almost) all things are possible in Shakespeare.

  7. I suppose someone should be churlish and point out that Shakespeare didn't invent Lear. He found him in Holinshed's Chronicles, which took him from Geoffrey of Monmouth; he may have used the anonymous play "King Leir" too. Shakespeare was an upstart crow, after all, beautified with others' feathers.

    1. Yes, good points, and I know about all of that, but no one any longer imitates, parodies, plagiarizes, or offers homages to Holinshed or Geoffrey. But I agree with you. I would be churlish to do otherwise.

    2. Shakespeare is a funny case, because his work is canonical, but his subjects were often historical. We'll probably see any work about Hamlet or Lear as a gloss on Shakespeare, but might not feel the way about Henry VIII or Antony and Cleopatra. How would you feel about a "Julius Caesar of the Steppes"? Still, though, you have to admit that Shakespeare used his pastiche and plagiarism well.

    3. There are figures who are half-Shakespearean, half-historical: a novel involving Henry VIII won't be measured against Shakespeare's version. A novel about Richard III probably will be. Any elderly merry fat man is Falstaffian, but- fortunately- he does not always have a Prince Hal to betray him. In fact Prince Hal is an interesting case: he is Shakespearean, but when he turns into Henry V he can sometimes become historical.
      Shakespeare permeates our culture- children rebelling against parents and the Lear bell rings; son seeking revenge for his father and we see Hamlet. The ultimate example- as George Orwell pointed out- is Tolstoy, who denounced King Lear at length and ended up with a death like Lear's.

    4. Poema da gare de Astapovo/Astapovo Train Station Poem
      Mario Quintana

      Old man Leo Tolstoy ran away from home at age eighty
      only to die at the Astapovo Station!
      Surely he sat on an old bank
      (One of those banks glossy with years of use
      that are found inside all of the world's poor old train stations)
      Against a bare wall ...
      He must have sat and smiled bitterly ...
      Of all the glory he had amassed
      Throughout his life,
      That toy rattle full of bells and colorful ribbons
      In the hands of a decrepit old man
      was all that was left!
      And then Death,
      Seeing him so alone at that hour
      At the deserted station,
      must have thought that he was waiting for her,
      But he only sat to rest a little!
      Death came in her old toy locomotive
      (She always arrives punctually at the unexpected time...)
      But maybe he did not mind, the great Elder...
      And who knows, maybe he even did die happy: he had escaped ...
      He had run away from home ...
      He ran away from home at eighty years of age ...
      Not everyone gets to realize their old childhood dreams!

    5. Shakespeare is now like Homer - of course we use those stories to tell other stories.

    6. Should "bank/banks" in line three and four be "bench/benches", Humblehappiness?

    7. Hey, don't blame me. Blame Google Translate!

  8. Always needling me about Nabokov! But appropriate here, since Gontar could be kin to Kinbote. Yet Shakespeare demands no less, and Kinbote was right - those ambiguities are inherent in the text. They are inherent in the act of reading. Where would literary criticism be without the freedom to pursue bunk? I think there might be some bunk here or there at Wuthering Expectations.

    Really fascinating. I had not heard of the Gontar book. And I would never have gotten those Chesterton references. I did not even know the titles of his books, although now I do, which is good.

    Doug, not churlish, no; it's a central aspect of Shakespeare's creativity. Maybe everyone's. If I had to give up derivatives, parodies, and so on I would have to give up literature.

    Congratulations, by the way, on the publication of the new Allais book. A copy is on its way to me.

    1. Thank you! This one is shorter. I may tackle Charles Cros next; you've been warned.

  9. Please know that my "accusation" about bunk was intended as a humorous needling. I hope I have not been too boorish. Blame in my Polonius DNA.

  10. Oh no, not boorish. My position is essentially pro-bunk, both bunk that is the purest nonsense and bunk that turns out to be true.

  11. Ah but everyone knows Shakespeare was originally written in Klingon :)

    Love the character description. I am disappointed there are no eyes removed with spoons. Without a Gloucester, does that mean there is no Edgar either? Edgar has some of the best scenes in Lear.

  12. Oh right, the later Star Trek writers kept extending the joke.

    No Edgar. That whole plot is trimmed off, or else I did not understand how it was subtly woven into the main story.