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The Gentle Barbarian: The Life and Work of Turgenev

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

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 journals quoted in an epigraph to this study: “Tourguéneff le doux géant, l’aimable barbare….” The Goncourts sometimes wrote like Parisian Pooters, and this seems to be a sample. Turgenev was a large Russian, therefore a barbarian…. In fact, of course, as Mr. Pritchett himself clearly sees and shows, Turgenev was both exceptionally civilized himself, and exceptionally preoccupied with the concept of civilization. As Mr. Pritchett writes:

But the central preoccupation, wellrooted in Turgenev’s mind, was with establishing the idea of civilization—which he eventually spelled out letter by letter—and the autonomy of art in a country that, for him, had been barbarous or inert for centuries; the belief in these values, he observed, often took too hopefully the wrong road and led the unwary or the innocent into delusions and self-deception, but as values they stood firm.

In short it is less easy to see Turgenev as a barbarian than as an active proselytizing anti-barbarian, and this is precisely what the barbarian genius of Dostoevsky resented about him. Telescopes and water pipes indeed! It’s far from them we were reared, as we say in Ireland.

Turgenev’s strong inclination to civilization reflected a painful and intimate experience of a barbaric world. His mother Varvara Petrovna ruled her estate of Spasskoye, her serfs, and her children with the rigor, the caprice, and often the cruelty of an Oriental despot:

Varvara Petrovna’s command of the passions, in all their manifestations, was inexhaustible. She was a round-shouldered woman with large, glaring black eyes under heavy brows, her forehead was wide and low, the skin of her face was coarse and pocked, her mouth large, sensual and cruel, her manner arrogant and capricious. She was as self-willed as a child, though like many ugly women she could be fascinating and charm her friends, and was very witty. Her history is pitiable. She was the child of violence in a family who had got much of their wealth by means little short of robbery.

Spasskoye, where Turgenev grew up, was his mother’s fief:

The estate produced all the food and drink it needed. In addition to the waiting servants, the house serfs included her serf doctor and her office clerks: like many landowners she had her own orchestra, singers and actors, and as her sons grew there were nurses and valets and a procession of French and German governesses and tutors. She ran the place efficiently. Spasskoye was less a house than a self-sufficient feudal community, the estate was an empire numbering 5,000 “souls” and extended to thousands of acres and included twenty villages which she ruled as an absolute sovereign. Her retinue were indeed divided by rank and title. There was a Chamberlain; her personal maids were ladies-in-waiting and her private office had a dais on which she sat with her portrait behind her, ringing bells—she had a mania for bells—and gave orders and received deputations. None of her serfs could marry without her permission: many she ordered to marry. They were allowed to have children, but once the child was born it was sent away from the house. The police were not permitted to come to Spasskoye although she did soften a little towards the Chief of Police because he amused her—but he had to come to the back door.

Not surprisingly Turgenev’s feelings toward his native land were filled with the fascination and repulsion which his mother inspired in him. During her last illness, while Turgenev was living in France and resisting the idea of going back to Russia, he wrote:

Russia can wait—that immense and somber figure motionless and masked like the Sphinx of Oedipus. She will gulp me down later. I can see her coarse inert look fixed on me with gloomy attention, as befits eyes of stone. Set your mind at ease Sphinx. I shall return to you and you can devour me at your leisure if I do not solve your riddle for yet a little while.

He went back to Russia of course to find his mother “in a state of unbelievable malignancy.” In a quarrel about the estate she smashed his picture on her writing table and threw it on the floor. When she found that he and his brother had been to Spasskoye in her absence to collect their things she screamed at her butler, “How dared you let them in.”

We could not refuse them,” the trembling butler said, “They are our masters.”

Masters! Masters! I am the only mistress of this place,” she said, and snatching a riding whip she slashed him across the face.

While she lay dying, she ordered her orchestra to play dance music in the next room. Afterward a note was found in her diary which said “My mother! My children! Forgive me. And you Lord forgive me for pride, that deadly sin, was always my sin.”

God save us,” Turgenev wrote to Pauline Viardot, “from a death like that.” Pauline—in whom Mr. Pritchett discerns, with much else, the buried image of his mother—was the love of his life. It was a long, probably platonic, love affair. She was a celebrated Spanish singer; both she and Turgenev were convinced that Russia and Spain had far more in common than they had with Western Europe. Pauline’s singing had suggested to Heine “not so much the civilized beauty and tame grace of our European homeland as the terrible splendor of an exotic wilderness.” “It is an irony,” writes Mr. Pritchett, “that Turgenev the Westerner who believed the future of Russia lay in learning from Europe, should have been brought to his one great and lasting passion by what looks like an atavism: her Spanishness had its Islamic roots; his own, remote though they may be, had something of this too.”

There were other ironies. The extravagantly barbaric Varvara Petrovna had herself been a “Westerner” in her own odd way. She read French novels, and despised Russian writing. Clearly she thought of herself as civilized: it was the peasants who were savages, speaking only Russian. And it was her son who in his novel Rudin put into the mouth of the landowner Lezhnyov the classical formulation of the anti-Westernizing or Slavophil position:

Rudin’s misfortune is that he does not understand Russia and that is certainly a misfortune. Russia can do without everyone of us but not one of us can do without her. Cosmopolitanism is all twaddle, the cosmopolitan is a nonentity—worse than a nonentity, without nationality there is no art, no truth, nor life, nor anything.

It has been said of the Anglo-Irish that they feel really at home only during those brief moments when they pass the Kish lighthouse in the Irish Sea on their way to or from Ireland or Britain. Something similar was true of Turgenev. He could not live with Russia, or without her. He writes about Russia with a strange apparently passive intentness, spellbound and spellbinding. Mr. Pritchett’s acute comments on his way of writing are of lasting value. This, on one of the stories in The Sportsman’s Sketches:

So the boys go on frightening themselves and trying to brazen it out until one by one they fall asleep. Once more, Turgenev plays with his skill to catch the moments as they drop by.

The moon at last had risen: I did not notice it at first: it was such a tiny crescent.”

How naturally he catches the moment between noticing and not noticing. This, one says, is where his art lies; not simply in seeing, but in the waywardness and the timelessness of seeing. Seeing is like light and shadow, playing over what is seen. Things seen are exact yet they flow away or are retrieved: the past and the present mingle in a clear stream. There are two masters of seeing in Russian literature: Tolstoy and Turgenev. Tolstoy sees exactly as if he were an animal or a bird; and what he sees is still and settled for good. He has the pride of the eye. Turgenev is also exact but without that decisive pride: what he sees is already changing. In one of his letters he quotes with admiration an image of Byron’s “the music of the face”—the movement from note to note, the disappearance of the thing seen in time as it passes.

This on some of his writing of the 1850s:

He had little power of invention but, as many writers of talent do, he got round this by turning his defects to advantage and discovered the hidden logic and drama of mood. A trivial word spoken when the company are for a moment silent will have the grace effect of a bell-like echo later on in the story. At once the structure of the story is sonata-like, one is left with the reverberations of a note hanging in the air after it has been struck on the key.

The excellence in this story lies in the way Turgenev conveys that everyone in the party is aware of everyone else; the party moves, the eyes glance, the vapid thoughts are telegraphed with meaningless content round the room. We are only at the beginning of Turgenev’s curious liquid gift which became eventually supreme in Proust.

He quotes Herzen’s phrase about the capacity of the Russian language to express “life’s mouse-like flittings,” a phrase which brings both Turgenev and Chekhov at once to mind. And also Gogol; here is Turgenev telling of Gogol reading aloud from The Government Inspector:

With what puzzled and astonished expression did Gogol utter the phrase of the Mayor about the two rats (at the very beginning of the play)—“They came, they sniffed and they went away.” He even looked up at us slowly, as though asking for an explanation of such an astonishing performance.

A passage that smells of Russia.

Anyone who reads The Gentle Barbarian is likely to start reading Turgenev again and with enhanced appreciation.

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