The Gentle Barbarian: The Life and Work of Turgenev

by V.S. Pritchett
Random House, 243 pp., $10.00

Ivan Turgenev
Ivan Turgenev; drawing by David Levine

“There has not yet been a definitive biography of Turgenev in any language,” writes Mr. Pritchett in a short prefatory note.

My own book is a portrait and, having no Russian, I have relied entirely on sources in English and French translation…. My chief concern has been to enlarge the understanding of his superb short stories and novels and to explore the interplay of what is known about his life with his art. He was a deeply autobiographical writer.

Russians will probably not like the idea of someone with no Russian setting out to “enlarge our understanding” of this great Russian writer. Yet I think Mr. Pritchett’s attempt is legitimate and largely successful. Turgenev is now part and indeed—in a slightly different sense—always was part not merely of Russian but of Western literature. The greater part of the audience for whom Mr. Pritchett has written will know Turgenev only through his excellent translators, both of the nineteenth and of the twentieth century. Turgenev himself was a Westerner, not merely by inclination, but also to a significant extent in spirit and even in language. To the class to which he belonged—the Russian landed gentry—French and German came as easily as Russian, and in some cases more easily. Their own Russian was therefore often strongly Westernized, as Turgenev’s was. For the Western student of Russian, Turgenev is a particularly “easy” writer (though deceptively so of course) precisely because he is so Western himself. “I have never written for the people,” wrote Turgenev to Countess Lambert with characteristic honesty. “I have written to that class of the public to which I belong.” That class did not stop at the frontiers of Russia, nor did Turgenev himself like to stay long behind those frontiers.

Both Tolstoy and—much more savagely—Dostoevsky quarreled with Turgenev because they resented his “foreign” leanings and habits. Meeting in Baden-Baden, Dostoevsky told him that if he was trying to write about Russia he had better buy a telescope. “A telescope,” said the startled Turgenev. “What for?” “Because Russia is a great distance from here. Train your telescope upon Russia and it will not be difficult to see us distinctly.” Dostoevsky’s vicious caricature of Turgenev in The Devils, as Karmazinov, depicts an uprooted expatriate helping the town council of Karlsruhe to lay a new water pipe and saying: “I felt in my heart that this question of water pipes in Karlsruhe was dearer and closer to my heart than all the questions of my precious Fatherland.”

Turgenev would I think have been pleased that his work should be the object of the attention of so alert and sensitive a British critic as Mr. Pritchett, and he would not have been likely to make much of the linguistic obstacles. He might, however, have resented the title of this book. The Gentle Barbarian is a shortened form of a phrase from the Goncourt…

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