Tuesday, August 11, 2015

closely dotted with big spots like warts - Turgenev goes back in time

Writers, especially those with long careers, can become cavalier about form as they age.  Visual artists, too.  The ones I am thinking of become less concerned with perfection or elegance.  Turgenev is one of my examples.  At some point his books get longer and less carefully constructed.  Spring Torrents (1871) is practically two novels in one, as if Turgenev broke it down the middle.

This is not at all a complaint.  I’m only thinking of great writers.  The results can be interesting.  Who wants them to write the same thing again and again?  That is where late Turgenev is weakest.  Another Superfluous Man, who cares?

Virgin Soil is constructed more loosely yet.  A play about revolutionaries in a garret turns into a country house romance.  Then it becomes a picaresque, as the protagonist visits his neighbors, all a bunch of eccentrics, as if the novel is turning into Dead Souls.  Turgenev in fact wondered if he had been too influenced by his recent reading of Dickens, but it is no surprise that Dickens filtered through Turgenev looks like Gogol.  The political novel returns, with sad results for most of the characters.

I want to look at one of the Dead Souls-like scenes.  It is so odd.  I remind myself that this is a novel about a group of young anarchists who want to overthrow the Czar by violence by means (I think) of peasant uprisings, and who will be shot or sent to Siberia if discovered. Yet a chapter in the middle of the book is entirely devoted to Fomushka and Fimushka, a married couple “of pure Russian descent,” “the oldest inhabitants of the town” (Ch. 19, 123).

“Time seemed to have stood still for them,” freezing them in the 18th century.  Their house serfs have become house servants, but otherwise nothing has changed.  One member of the household is a dwarf, “kept for entertainment”!

The house itself is full of tiny rooms and closets “and raised landings with balustrades and alcoves raised on rounded posts, and all sort of little back premises and cellars” (124).  The carriage, used no more than once a month, resembles “a terrestrial globe with one quarter cut out in front, lined within with foreign yellow material, closely dotted with big spots like warts,” while the coachman “was an exceedingly aged man, redolent of train-oil and pitch; his beard began just under his eyes, while his eyebrows fell in little cascades to meet his beard” (125).

Turgenev loves describing this decayed fairy-tale couple and their magical house full of antiques and old-fashioned habits.  He has a lot of fun with it.  I had a lot of fun with it.

Fomushka brought out and showed his visitors his favourite carved wood snuff-box, on which it had once been possible to distinguish thirty-six figures in various attitudes; they had long ago been effaced, but Fomushka saw them, saw them still, and could distinguish them and point them out.  ‘See,’ he said, ‘there’s one looking out of window; do you see, he’s put his head out…’ and the spot to which he pointed with his chubby finger with its raised nail was just as smooth as all the rest of the snuff-box lid. (130)

Now that, I tell ya, smacks of symbolism.  Could this humorous, incongruous episode, featuring a dozen characters who are never seen again (though some are at least mentioned) be part of Turgenev’s argument?  The great “Oblomov’s Dream” episode of Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov was a return to a idealized version of 18th century Russia.  I spent some time there and then in Sergei Aksakov’s A Russian Gentleman, so I have literary precedent.  Is Turgenev arguing with a living political idea here, some demand to return to the days of bound serfs and a French-speaking nobility?  Fomushka literally sleeps with a copy of Candide  – “in a secret box under the head of his bed he kept a manuscript translation of Candide” (132).  Well, I don’t know what any of this exactly, but I can sure tell that it is something.

In the next chapter, the picaresque tour moves to the 20th century – “’Golushkin’s such an advanced man that it wouldn’t do to reckon him in the nineteenth.’”  Also a clue.  Virgin Soil rarely does what a well-made novel is supposed to do.  Turgenev had moved beyond such petty notions.  Good for him.

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