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The Least Unsafe Man of Genius’

Turgenev: His Life and Times

by Leonard Schapiro
Random House, 382 pp., $15.95

Professor Schapiro’s extremely well-prepared biography of Turgenev is the latest word on the subject, taking into account all the new material of the recent decade. It is particularly strong on the social and political background, the “times” at the center of which Turgenev so unerringly stood; and it is throughout discreet, judicious, fair-minded—a book of which Turgenev would have approved, for it has been written very much in his spirit. The authors does not claim to have altered a by now familiar picture. Turgenev’s is a story that has been often told, and told satisfactorily. Nor does Schapiro allow himself to “interpret” Turgenev. He presents the facts of his literary and personal life, with scrupulous care to ensure that these will be reliable; and he maintains that readers will probably find his book confirming them in views they already hold. He does, however, express one central conviction about the man:

What makes him remarkable and exceptional on the Russian scene is that he cannot be readily labeled—unless love of liberty, decency, and humanity in all relations can be called a “label.” Everything in Russian conditions conspired to force people into categories: if you were critical of the radicals, you belonged in the same box with Katkov and the other avowed reactionaries; if you attacked inhumanity and obscurantism in government policy, you were for practical purposes a Red. Turgenev was one of the very few nineteenth-century Russian figures who rejected this typically Russian tyranny of categories and labels, which is one reason why his political outlook is more acceptable to a Western European liberal than that of Dostoevsky, or Tolstoy.

Nobody would quarrel with that description of Turgenev. These are the virtues that Isaiah Berlin has praised so warmly in his Romanes lecture of 1970, Fathers and Children, and the whole tenor of this biography makes it clear that Professor Schapiro shares his admiration, though he adds to the paragraph quoted above one important caveat: “Turgenev was no Western European liberal in the accepted sense.” And Schapiro is also careful to point out the very real predicament of Herzen, for example, from whom Turgenev was separated, despite an eventual show of bonhomie on both sides, by deep disagreement once their common cause, the abolition of serfdom, had led to the Emancipation of 1861 and the growing disillusionment of radical thinkers with its outcome.

The most conspicuous fact about Turgenev is that he lived for long stretches of time abroad. His position was unusually privileged: to an exceptional degree, having a large, though wastefully administered, estate he could please himself. The reason for residence abroad was the devotion of some forty years to Pauline Viardot and her family, the one constant in his emotional life, on which Schapiro writes with sensitivity and understanding. It might have hampered Turgenev disastrously as a recorder of the Russian scene. But the opposite would seem to have been the case. The greater part of his first success, the Sketches from a Sportsman’s Notebook, was written abroad; Fathers and Children began to take shape in the Isle of Wight. He had doubts that his last novel, Virgin Soil, might prove him to have lost all touch with his country, and he returned there to complete it. In fact, the book showed him to have been more keenly aware of what was happening in Russia of the 1870s than most people on the spot. The distance from home would appear to have clarified his seeing, and he could bring to the work that sense of European civilization by which he judged Russia, a “binocular vision” not unlike Tocqueville’s of the United States.

Russian intellectual life, then as now, spilled over into the emigration, where Turgenev could meet Herzen, living in permanent exile, and later the populist Lavrov. He was able to form a network of friendships astonishing in its catholicity. Who else could have been the intimate—even if at different times—of Belinsky (“the Savonarola of his generation,” as Berlin calls him) and of Belinsky’s very opposite, Flaubert? Not all his attempts at friendship succeeded. Tolstoy got on far more comfortably with the poet Fet than Turgenev did with either of them. He could make no headway whatever with the intransigent radical, Dobroliubov—ideological and class differences went too deep—though with another critic of that stamp, Pisarev (“a member of the gentry, which no doubt helped!” and a Westerner too), he had relations that were surprisingly cordial. The full diapason of his friendships must be unrivaled. If Turgenev had ever shared Yeats’s vanity and cared to devise a memorial phrase for himself, he too could have proclaimed “my glory was I had such friends.”

In his writing, as in his life, there is a good deal to admire. Fathers and Children beyond any doubt is one of the best Russian novels of the century (though less remarkable, I should say, than either Dead Souls or Oblomov, which bring a dimension of myth denied to Turgenev—not to call into comparison the major works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky). Some of the other novels, such as Rudin or Smoke, have at least a historical interest for their bearing on the political scene; On the Eve and Virgin Soil, though not free from imperfections, both said something of real importance in their day. The Sketches from a Sportsman’s Notebook made a protest against serfdom beautifully calculated to win assent, including that which most counted at the hour, that of Tsar Alexander II. This work reveals a social critic no less effective in his appeal than Harriet Beecher Stowe, but subtle to the degree of James in The Bostonians.

A Nest of the Landed Gentry won everybody’s approval, and no other book by him so plainly exhibits what is meant by that term, scarcely tolerable today, the “charm” of Turgenev. He writes in his stories, his memoirs, and his letters with a notable felicity (well caught by Constance Garnett in her translations). But for this felicity there was a price to pay. He falls, when below his best, into that “dialect as it were of Parnassian” to which Hopkins believed “great poets” are liable:

at last…they can see things in this Parnassian way and describe them in this Parnassian tongue, without further effort of inspiration.

Turgenev was never, in any sense, a “great poet,” though he began his career as a competent practitioner in verse. But he is often praised for his “poetry.” His notion of poetry—to judge by the obtuse rearrangements of Tiutchev’s rhythms he made as editor (which recall Higginson’s dealings with Emily Dickinson), or his total resistance to the admittedly uneven distinction of Nekrasov—was quite as conventional as his preferences in music and painting. Turgenev often has no more to give than a refined mediocrity (the mediocrity, however, of a golden age in prose fiction). There are times when his felicity is closer to Addison’s than to Jane Austen’s.

Implicit in this biography is a question that at certain moments makes itself felt, as when Schapiro looks forward to the celebrated volume of essays, Landmarks, appearing in 1909 as a critique of the Russian intelligentsia in what was now recognized to be its crisis. It aroused, as Schapiro says, “a storm of protest from the entire Russian radical movement, from the recently formed liberal parties to Lenin.” He points out that “Herzen would have understood and sympathized with this attitude because he too felt that the only decent position which any self-respecting critic of the Russian regime could occupy was on the barricades….” Turgenev saved the honor of his empty spellbinder, the “superfluous man,” Rudin, by the afterthought of death on a Parisian barricade in 1848. But he was by every instinct a moderate. His predicament was indeed that exposed by Berlin as befalling the sensitive liberal who detests violence and must steel himself against the obloquy of both left and right.

Turgenev, like many of his contemporaries, shivered in the cold wind of Schopenhauer. But he had an optimistic view of human nature (and regarded the Russian language as a reassurance of the people’s moral worth, one day to be realized). He knew that men are capable of extreme cruelty: the dark annals of his mother’s family and certain savage caprices of her own had revealed this. He understood also that love could be a devastating rage in the blood, undoing even the disciplined Bazarov. But his reading of human nature was too benevolent for him to realize another form of frenzy which, like sexual passion, has its own irresistible and heady excitement. In the 1870s, to which he brought political insights of an undoubted finesse, Turgenev quite missed the import of terrorism. His famous prose-poem of 1878, “Threshold,” hesitates between two descriptions of the girl who will resort to crime (meaning murder) for the sake of the revolution. One voice calls her “Fool!,” another “Saint!”

That ambivalent response, from one who, a skeptical Hamlet himself—to quote the distinction he made in a famous lecture—always admired the self-sacrificing Quixote, was not cowardly. Turgenev was here, as nearly everywhere, honest in his dilemma, and it often exposed him to much scorn. If solitude and misapprehension are the lot of the original artist, who cares only for the truth burned upon his consciousness, then Turgenev has his credentials.

But is he really such an artist?

Professor Schapiro does not “claim to offer a work of literary analysis,” and he remarks justly enough that others have provided this, and with much distinction. All the same, it was as a novelist, with unusual responsiveness to the Russia of his day, that Turgenev became celebrated, and some attempt is called for, I feel, to evaluate the political attitudes in their effect on the art.

Berlin, whose view of Turgenev as artist would probably not be rejected by Schapiro, claims for him, in the closing words of the Romanes lecture, that he recognized already in his time the dilemma of the modern liberal mind “and described it with incomparable sharpness of vision, poetry, and truth.” But it must be admitted that Turgenev, though acute as a social observer, lacked generally the “passion of creative contemplation” that Pasternak found in Tolstoy. Nor was his “vision” anything like the uncanny divinatory power of Dostoevsky. “Vision” and “poetry” in the fullest sense work for a different order of truth.

He belongs, of course, to an honorable company—one thinks of Arnold, Renan, George Eliot, Henry James, with the last three of whom he was on terms of sympathetic acquaintance, and in that high liberal culture he was truly at home. Turgenev stands for many of the things we approve in Arnold—for civilization, for the mind open to a current of fresh ideas, for “urbanity,” “the tone of the center.” It is easy to see why he was so readily received by those cultivated readers in Great Britain or in New England who could appreciate the Revue des deux mondes. Turgenev’s well-mannered melancholy, the light elegiac touch, the countryman’s eye (he had all the field lore of a good shot), his strong sense of domestic order, his conviction that the company of men without the presence of an intelligent woman is like “a great cart with ungreased wheels”—all these preferences and assumptions make him a European gentleman of the nineteenth century, “the most practicable, the least unsafe man of genius” it had been James’s fortune to meet.

Two leading Russian poets of this century must be allowed to break the spell. Blok in his diary for March 28, 1919, is arguing with himself about the relation between art and politics. He says that for the humanists of his day there was no more sacred name than that of Turgenev, in whom however “were so diabolically united a great artist with a feeble, playing-the-squire, liberal-constitutionalist.” Hence for Blok the “anti-musical” quality in Turgenev, his “lack of full resonance.” Twenty years later Anna Akhmatova, in conversation with Lydia Chukovskaya, gave a similar judgment. “Everything is shallow in him, the characters shallow and the events, and himself he is utterly shallow.” Some while before she had said that he described people too much in a lordly way—“from the outside, disdainfully.”

These are very severe strictures, and many readers will find them unacceptable. But we must remember their setting—for Blok, the grim Petrograd of “War Communism,” for Akhmatova the scarcely less grim Leningrad of a breathing space between the Great Purge and the Nazi blockade. Turgenev’s moderation in politics was a congenital virtue with him, and it called for nerve and honesty. Yet the fact has to be faced that Turgenev does not speak powerfully to the Russian emigration in our time. Did he allow reasonableness, a longing for consensus, perhaps even an undue diffidence, to infiltrate his art overmuch? The sensitive liberal has one failing not always enough recognized—he still hankers secretly for the respect of the Jacobin. But it might be argued that the greatest writers have in them an assurance that is akin to that of the Jacobin—a conviction of exceptional force that goes with the exceptional force of their vision.

Turgenev, I suggest, does not stir passionate inquiry because there is not enough in his art with which to wrestle. From the actual excesses and setbacks of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky—from their exaggerations of a necessary truth, or their momentary admissions of a tormenting failure—those who succeed them have most to learn. The final test of a great Russian writer from a previous age will not always, one hopes, be what he can do for the emigration. But it is there for the present that the most cruel and urgent problems have to be confronted. Turgenev, “the least unsafe man of genius,” is not challenging enough for its needs. To have identified the attitudes that make up Bazarov was a remarkable stroke. To have seen the Russia of his day with such steady attention, and with so much delicate feeling, was also no ordinary merit. And yet with Turgenev there can be so little exchange, outside the terms and conditions of his day. In that setting he was undoubtedly a true servant of civilization. But the day and most of the civilization have gone. As a representative figure he does them credit. Today’s needs may call for men whose significance could not be contained by their own time.

These reservations should not deter the reader from exploring Professor Schapiro’s biography. Turgenev moved so freely and with such a hospitable grace among the eminent people of his age that it is always a pleasure to accompany him. We may reckon his sociable, ironic, generous spirit to be among our lost amenities.

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