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Turgenev and ‘Virgin Soil’

By the 1870s Turgenev’s pre-eminence in Europe as the leading Russian novelist was unquestioned, but he was far from being known to the great public in Europe or America. In 1877 with the publication of Virgin Soil, his longest and most ambitious novel, he became world famous: a month after it was published fifty-two young men and women were arrested in Russia on charges of revolutionary conspiracy, and a shocked public in France, Britain, and America turned to the novel for enlightenment. Its effect on American readers was enormous: as powerful, in its way, as the effect of Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been. For Turgenev the novel was one more attempt to present the Russian situation with detachment, and above all he sought to show to his critics that he had not lost touch with the younger generation.

Virgin Soil is his longest and most complex novel. One can’t deny that it is very much a novel that has been willed—compare, for instance, the fatal example of “the great American novel”—nevertheless it does contain here and there some of Turgenev’s finest things. He set out to portray the various types of educated young men and women who, under the influence of the Populist movement, had thrown up the life of their class “to go the people,” live among them, dress in the clothes of workers and peasants, and to work with them and even to conspire with them.

A quotation from the Notebook of a Farmer on the title page indicates that the novel will be a piece of practical social criticism: ” ‘Virgin Soil’ should be turned up not by a harrow skimming over the surfaces, but by a plough biting deep into the earth.” The Populists were skimmers, but there were many extremists among them. To Stasiulevich, his publisher, Turgenev wrote that he expected the novel would be as violently abused in Russia as Fathers and Sons had been.

Hitherto the younger generation has been presented in our literature either as a crew of crooks and scoundrels…or as much as possible idealised…. I decided to choose the middle course and to get closer to the truth—to take the young people who are, for the most part, good and honest and show that despite their honesty their very course is so false and impractical that it cannot fail to lead them to complete fiasco.

Whether he succeeded or not, he said, the young would at any rate sense his sympathy if not for their aims, then for their personalities.

Turgenev feared the censor and indeed reluctantly suppressed things that might too obviously offend. The novel was published in two parts, and having passed the first, the censor’s committee was in a difficulty about the more disturbing second part. One faction wanted to burn it and insist on the “correction” of the first part. The chairman gave an embarrassed casting vote in its favor, but said if he had known the whole book in the first place he would have banned it. In the end, as Turgenev expected, the novel was damned by the critics of both sides who were swayed by party feeling. The conservatives, the official classes, said Turgenev was a dangerous radical who himself was personally involved with conspiracy—and indeed he did give money to the paper of the Populist leader, Lavrov, but simply because he hoped it would take the place of Herzen’s The Bell as a forum for political discussion. He knew enough about political opinion to know that its phases do not last long.

The Populists were a moral replacement of the Nihilists whose policy of rejection had soon spent itself. The conservatives, especially, derided the idea that one of his characters, the girl Marianna of the gentry class, would involve herself with the movement. The radical critics ranged from those who said he was an old man libeling the young to those who said he knew nothing about the genuine revolutionaries and that, in any case, his absence from Russia made him out of date. Turgenev proved to be more accurate than either party in his diagnosis, as he had been in the case of Bazarov in Fathers and Sons: almost immediately after the publication of his novel fifty-two young conspirators, including eighteen women, were arrested and put on trial.

Turgenev was easily affected by hostile criticism. Once more he said he was finished and, once more, that he would never write again. But presently he recovered and stood by what he had written and, like many gentle men who are bullied, he had his bitter malice and wit, and a sharp firm pride. Indeed, the novel itself has a satirical harshness which is exceptional in his works. He repeated one or two stinging epigrammatic judgments, one particularly on the notorious Oriental love of lying which so many Westerners have complained of in Russians:

A truthful man…that was the great thing! that was what touched her! It is a well known fact, though by no means easy to understand, that Russians are the greatest liars on the face of the earth and yet there is nothing they respect like the truth—nothing attracts them so much.

In the opening pages of Virgin Soil, we are pushed abruptly into a dirty attic and see a slovenly young man and a woman with coarse lips and teeth. Both are smoking and paying no attention to each other; nevertheless, we note their air of honesty, stoicism, and industry. From this moment we see how Turgenev’s familiar world and manner have changed. The style is harder, more photographic; the grace has been replaced by the instant, the summary, and the laconic. He is now attempting a larger number of characters from a wider canvas of life and is about to involve them in an elaborate plot and to grip us with a long story of imposed suspense which he had said earlier was outside his instinct and competence. We remember that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky have overtaken him, in this sense, and have given the Russian novel a density where before it had only surface and extent. We remember that what he admired in Dickens was the variety of mood—indeed he wondered, after the book was done, if he had not taken too much of the caricaturist from him. We have certainly an impression of cartoon and in that the book has something in common with, say, Dostoevsky’s The Devils.

Both Turgenev’s conspirators and his innocents who “go to the people” strike one as living in a vacuum. Conspiracy is an urban matter and Turgenev is not by nature an urban novelist, although for once he does give us a picture of a Russian town, probably Orel, for its own sake. It is well photographed:

It was Saturday night; there were no people on the street, but the taverns were still crowded. Hoarse voices broke from them, drunken songs and the nasal notes of the concertina; from doors suddenly opened streamed the filthy warmth, the acrid smell of alcohol, the red glare of lights. Before almost every tavern were standing little peasant carts, harnessed to shaggy, pot-bellied nags; they stood with their unkempt heads hanging down submissively, and seemed asleep.

Or:

The coach crossed a wide market place, positively stinking of rush mats and cabbages, passed the governor’s house with striped sentry boxes at the gates, a private house with a turret, a promenade set with trees recently planted and already dying, a bazaar filled with the barking of dogs and the clinking of chains and gradually reaching the boundaries of the town overtook a long long train of wagons, which had set off late for the sake of the cool of the night.

An un-Turgenevean scene, brutally observed, but it must be said well placed.’ For Nezhdanov, the young poet and idealist and, so to say, political guinea pig of the novel, is getting a first sight of the Russia he has vowed to live with and understand. But what one suspects already (as Richard Freeborn says in Turgenev, A Study) is that Virgin Soil is going to be a forerunner of the crude, black and white, schematic novels of the Socialist Realists of our time:

The distinction Turgenev makes between the aims of the Populists and their persons was artificial, especially for a writer who had been used to accepting both the man and his ideas.

This change is certainly felt, and although one can say that Turgenev’s effort of will in keeping in touch with Russian realities has some of the guilt of the absentee in it—a matter that was, as he put it, his fate—we know that he judged rightly when he said that the Populist movement was a pathos, that no root and branch change would take place for another twenty years at least. The central characters are nevertheless representative. The aristocratic young Nezhdanov has traits of Turgenev’s character: like the young Turgenev, he is handsome and has chestnut hair; he has a double nature; he is secretly a poet but ashamed of his poetry; his real interest is political activity. He is an idealist, passionate, chaste, timid; ashamed of these qualities, he even tries to be coarse in his language: “Life did not come easily to him.” His feelings push him forward, but beyond his power of performance. He is the Turgenevean mixture of Don Quixote and Hamlet, a throwback to “the superfluous man.” When he “goes to the people” and solemnly dresses up in workman’s clothes, the workmen see through him at once and make him drunk on raw vodka. Another time he is “beaten up” and makes a mess of everything.

Marianna, the brusque upper-class girl with whom he falls in love when he is tutoring in the grand house of the wordy liberal Sipyagin, is as innocent as he, but she is the new kind of young girl. She is a rebel who has cropped her hair, and (interesting when one remembers Turgenev’s old-fashioned habits) she belongs to the generation who has also given up hand-kissing. When she boldly runs off with Nezhdanov to “go to the people” with him, she refuses to be married and they live together in chastity.

Marianna is a rebel, not a revolutionary—a rebel eager to leave her class, to be useful and to sacrifice herself. The real revolutionary is Mashurina, the unkempt, plain, and awkward girl who silently loves Nezhdanov. She is quietly efficient in secret work, alert for traitors, spies, and mistrustful of some of the hangers-on of the movement, for example of Palkin, a cripple, a foolish yet far-seeing man, but a danger to the cause because he is an unstable and excitable chatterbox, easily flattered. It is Mashurina who will disappear deeper into conspiracy when Palkin’s foolishness and swank give the group away.

The “hero” in Turgenev’s eyes—although Palkin makes Turgenev’s point in a prophetic speech about the dull, immovable men who will eventually rule Russia—is Solomin. Turgenev calls him an American type—he knew no Americans but America had provided a utopian dream for early revolutionaries (except Herzen, who called Americans “elderly children”). Turgenev rejected the traditional Russian respect for Germans as the practical race; he looked back on them as the dear deluded philosophers of his Romantic youth; so he turned to the English and made Solomin a Russian who had learned his trade in the cotton factories of Manchester and his politics from the English reformers of the industrial revolution. There may also be a hint of Engels in him.

Solomin is sympathetic to conspirators, protects them loyally but advises caution and gradualism to the headstrong. He is strong, healthy, hardworking, generous, sober, and resourceful, a man of sense. Inevitably he strikes one as being too good to be true; though as a still portrait he is well enough done. Turgenev is unable to make him move.

Markelov, a retired artillery officer and landowner, is the dour type of cantankerous conspirator, a lonely, unhappy man who can’t farm his land effectively because he tries to run everything by giving orders in a military way. He is the same in conspiracy—too aggressive, given to acting independently and openly like a fanatical officer. He is certain to be arrested and to go grimly silent and still determined to Siberia.

These figures are well enough in the first volume of the novel which deceived the censors, for they are seen in the setting that Turgenev can always do well: the still, timeless scene of the great country house where the family and the guests dine and talk, where Sipyagin, the host, is mellifluous at the table, where his pretty wife flirts with the tutor in her boudoir, where the rebel girl gazes at Nezhdanov and sulks before her aunt, where people walk in the gardens and the carriages come and go. It is the same sort of paradise from the past as one finds in A Nest of Gentlefolk, in Fathers and Sons—but the characters are now hardened. Turgenev shows his contempt for the gentry openly, especially for the conceited and pompous young Kammerjunker, Kallomyetsov, who is an active “Red” hunter, vain of his certainty in spotting revolutionaries. He is far cruder than Pavel in Fathers and Sons or the other comical Frenchified asses of earlier novels. And Sipyagin, the bland, sporting, and mellifluous landowner with his skin-deep liberalism, is also ridiculed. The drawing room quarrels become edgy when the egregious Kallomyetsov says Sipyagin should be president of a commission that would decide everything.

Madame Sipyagin laughed more than ever.

You must take care: Boris Andreivitch is sometimes such a Jacobin….”

Jacko, Jacko, Jacko,” called the parrot.

Valentine Mihalovna shook her handkerchief at him.

Don’t prevent sensible people from talking! Marianna, tell him to be quiet.”

Marianna turned to the cage and began scratching the parrot’s neck which he offered her at once.

Yes,” Madame Sipyagin said, “Boris Andreivich sometimes astonishes me. He has something…something of the tribune.”

C’est parce qu’il est orateur,” Kallomyetsov interposed hotly. “Your husband has the gift of words, as no one else has; he’s accustomed to success, too…ses propres paroles le grisent…. But he’s a little off that, isn’t he? Il boude—eh?”

I haven’t noticed it,” she replied after a brief silence.

Yes,” Kallomyetsov pursued in a pensive tone, “he has been overlooked a little.”

It is all drifting to a row about Marianna being a Nihilist because at this time she teaches in a village school.

The things we rely on Turgenev for are here: the naturalness of all kinds of talk and the silences in it—with him it is a pianist’s gift—and his ear is just as fine when we get to the drunken and confused talk of the radicals in the second volume. His summary penetration into character does not fail. Mme Sipyagin, for example, is excellent.

She was clever, not ill-natured—rather good-natured of the two, fundamentally cold and indifferent—and she could not tolerate the thought of anyone remaining indifferent to her…. Only, these charming egoists must not be thwarted: they are fond of power and will not tolerate independence in others. Women like Sipyagina excite and work upon inexperienced and passionate natures; for themselves they like regularity and a peaceful life…. Flirtation cost Sipyagina little; she was well aware that there was no danger for her and never could be…. With what a happy smile she retired into herself, into the consciousness of her inaccessibility, her impregnable virtue, and with what gracious condescension she submitted to the lawful embrace of her well-bred spouse.

But not until we get to the second volume does Turgenev break out of talk into dramatic scenes. Madame Sipyagin seems to be a development of Madame Odintsov of Fathers and Sons but done in acid. She spies on her niece, intercepts letters, and exposes the girl’s love for Nezhdanov to her brother Markelov who had hoped to marry her. The point of this jealous intrigue is to show the extremes to which the apparently gracious Sipyagins will go to preserve the unity of their class. At the moment when the defiant Markelov dashes to support a local riot of the peasants and the conspiracy is betrayed, the hypocrisy of Sipyagin’s liberalism comes out. Turgenev is a master of the exposure of relationships which have been undermined politically. There has been an excellent scene at the end of the first part of the novel in which Markelov begins to have the force of a tragic figure. As a man of honor, reckless and incapable of spite or jealousy, indifferent to enemies, and not deceived, Markelov does not spare his host:

If we wait for the moment when everything, absolutely everything is ready, we shall never begin. If one weighs all the consequences beforehand, it is certain there will be some evil ones. For instance, when our predecessors organized the emancipation of the peasants, could they foresee that one result of this emancipation would be the rise of a whole class of money-lending landowners who would lend the peasant a quarter of mouldy rye for six roubles and extort then from him (here Markelov crooked one finger), first the full six roubles in labour and besides that (Markelov crooked another finger), a whole quarter of good rye and then (Markelov crooked a third), interest on top of that—in fact squeeze the peasant to the last drop. Our emancipators couldn’t have foreseen that. And yet even if they had done, it was right to free the peasants and not to weigh all the consequences. And so I’ve made up my mind!

And when Markelov is arrested at the end of the book he is obdurate and does not repent. It is one of Turgenev’s excellences that he is true to the basic character of people. Markelov is the incurable soldier when he reflects on his betrayal:

It is I who am to blame, I didn’t understand, I didn’t say the right thing, I didn’t go the right way to work. I ought simply to have given orders and if anyone had tried to hinder or resist, put a bullet through his head! What’s the use of explanations here. Anyone not with us has no right to live…spies are killed like dogs, worse than dogs.

Turgenev is hard to follow in the facts of the conspiracy: there are too many hints and shadow figures, but one of them is well drawn. This is Palkin, the vain, chattering, and comic exhibitionist, the born mysterious contact-man longing to be trusted and knowing he cannot be; he is burdened by the knowledge of his own muddle-headedness. The scene in which Sipyagin flatters him, inflates his conceit, snubs him, and then slyly worms everything he wants out of him and dismisses him with contempt, is very subtle comedy. Into the mouth of this walking calamity Turgenev puts shrewd prophecy. Palkin defends Solomin to whom the intellectual revolutionaries are now cool: Russia needs sturdy, rough, dull men of the people.

Just look at Solomin: his brain is clear as daylight, and he’s as healthy as a fish…. Isn’t that a wonder! Why hitherto with us in Russia has it always been the other way that to be a live man with feelings and a conscience, you had to be an invalid?

There are two more characters to whom a complete scene is given, who on the face of it have no relevance to the theme of the novel and who in fact seem to belong to a short story thrown in for a gentle relief. Turgenev was inclined to cut them out but was persuaded to let them stay. They are an elderly, childless pair of innocent doll-like, eccentric creatures, called Fomushka and Fimushka, the oldest inhabitants of the town, who have preserved themselves and their house as untouched models of the life of lesser gentry in the eighteenth century. They blissfully ignore everything that has happened since that time. They still drink chocolate because tea had not come in, they play duets, look at old albums, and sing sweet and old-fashioned songs about hopeless love in their cracked voices. They have one unbroken rule: they have never allowed their house serfs to be flogged, and if a servant turned out to be drunken and intolerable they bore with him, but after a while passed him on to a neighbor, saying “Let others take their turn with him.”

But such a disaster rarely befell them, so rarely that it made an epoch in their lives and they would say for instance “That was very long ago, it happened when we had that rascal Aldoshka,” or “When we had grandfather’s fur cap with the fox tail stolen.” They still had such caps.

The interesting thing is that this dream of an Arcadia in the past is often found in the Russian novel: in Oblomov’s dream, for example, or even in the talk of the senile Iudushka in Shchedrin’s The Golovlyov Family. In Turgenev, it is more than one of his “old portraits” or reminiscences. It is not antiquarian, it is really an incipient fairy tale or a fable without meaning which is budding in the depths of a people’s mind. It is also a relief after the vulgar scene at the merchant’s house that has preceded it, a holiday of the mind from the yearning for the future which rules the whole novel—the burden of Russia which the other characters bear. Fomushka and Fimushka bear no burden.

If Virgin Soil has not the sustained serenity of Fathers and Sons because the people in the right and the people in the wrong are too blatantly stated, it is an impressive attempt to have a final say. It can hardly be called an old man’s book for Turgenev was in his late fifties when he wrote it. The strain we feel comes from his trying to pack too much into it, and not without artifice. To the critics who said that he was out of touch with the new Russia, Turgenev replied that he was closely in touch with the scores of young Russians who came to see him in Paris; but although they may have revealed themselves to him, they did not really bring their Russia with them and were more likely to present him with arguments than with intimacy.

If what we read in Anna Dostoevsky’s diary of her life with her husband (and, of course, in Dostoevsky’s novels) is true, the quality that was missing in Turgenev’s young visitors was the fact that they lived in crowds, above all in one another’s lives: their very homes, in whatever class, were normally wide open to their relations and their friends. They have the nature of people who live on the streets or in groups. It is in the nature of Dostoevsky’s genius to show that when one of his characters appears a whole community or a confused common fate seems to be hanging out of his talking mouth. The soliloquists are never alone. Turgenev himself said that in Russia writing was easy for the novelist: the stories and people spring up around him and crowd in on him at once.

The political perspicacity of Turgenev is astonishing, and now that the state of our world has changed it seems closer to our political experience than it was to English or American admirers of Turgenev in 1900 who saw in him something close to the experience of a country gentleman of sensitive tastes. The only thing that really shocks in Virgin Soil is Nezhdanov’s suicide: the “superfluous man,” whom Turgenev invented, seems to die as a convenience in the interests of early Romanticism and Turgenev’s preoccupation with death. One understands why Chekhov in the next generation was to get so sick of the superfluous man, as a political sobsister.

(This is the second of two essays on Turgenev.)

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