Saturday, 19 January 2013

Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev

Anyone who takes a look at my bookshelf can tell you I like a nineteenth century novel. While it is the Victorians who really have my heart I do branch out occasionally. Ivan Turgenev is one of the lesser known Russian authors - outside of Russia that is. During his lifetime he rivalled Tolstoy for popularity, and his signature work is Fathers and Sons. Having enjoyed his novella First Love, I rather expected more from this novel. It is an interesting insight into the divides in mid-nineteenth century Russian society, but in his attempt to create characters that are emblematic of both the nihilistic and the westernised schools of thought, I felt they began to lack actual character. I suspect this problem is exacerbated by the stifling censorship Russian artists found themselves under; this is especially clear at the end of the novel.

As you can probably guess from the title, the book tells the story of two generations of Russians: Nikolai Kirsanov - a wealthy landlord, his son Arkady Kirsanov, and Arkady’s friend Yevgeny Bazarov. Bazarov is a nihilist and has recruited the impressionable Arkady to his cause. At the beginning of the story they have returned to the Kirsanov lands from St Petersburg, and find their philosophy brings them into conflict with Arkady’s father, and uncle Pavel. They both belong to the older generation of Liberals who admire Western values. We also meet in the novel characters who represent traditional Russian views, particularly Bazarov’s parents. These conflicts are tacked onto a mish-mash of lovers, broken hearts, marriages, and even a duel.

At the time of its publication the novel inspired much debate. The conflicting opinions over Russia’s future is apparently historically accurate. The young generation insisted that it did not recognise itself in Turgenev’s depiction. Likewise, the older generation did not like its depiction, although both thought the other well described. It is something of a relief that the generational bashing we see in bollocks newspaper articles (Gen Y is narcissistic, the baby boomers are greedy) is nothing new. At times though I wondered if the real answer is that neither is very well depicted.

It isn’t bad. I’m not saying ‘it is a terrible novel, what have the Russians been thinking for 150 years!’ I just found it uncompelling. This is partly because Turgenev relies too much on telling us things, rather than making them be. Bazarov’s mother is an excellent example of this. For most of the book she bursts into tears every time she thinks of her son, and professes herself almost to frightened to talk to him. Turgenev devotes a few paragraphs to describing this woman, her superstitions, how she doesn’t read books or write many letters, her phobias of mice, frogs, sparrows etc etc. Then suddenly asserts that she is ‘in her own way not at all stupid’. Really? Because you kind of convinced me she was an incredibly stupid woman.

The main problem with this novel, though, is the end. To give a nice neat ending Turgenev resorts to killing off a character. It is done in a particularly ridiculous way. This ending enabled him to get the book published without incurring wrath from the censors. Anything other than an acceptance of the status quo in Russia would have been risky and Turgenev had reason to be wary, having been exiled to his country estates once before. One does wonder what he would have written if he could have. It certainly reads like a missed opportunity.

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