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The Gentle Genius

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Turgenev’s Letters

selected, translated, and edited by A.V. Knowles
Scribner’s, 299 pp., $30.00

Ivan Turgenev died one hundred years ago. His letters contain some of his best writing; yet save for quotations in specialist studies, they have been somewhat neglected in English-speaking countries.1 Consequently, the appearance of two new editions of English versions of some of the most interesting of his letters should be a literary event of some importance.2 But this is scarcely likely to happen: it is the fate of gentle and yielding characters to be overshadowed by more formidable contemporaries. And, indeed, Turgenev was after his death duly overshadowed by the gigantic figures of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; and even now, the centenaries of Marx and Wagner, not surprisingly, have left little room for the worldwide critical appraisal of Turgenev’s writings and personality for which this centenary offers a natural occasion.

There are, Mr. Knowles tells us, 6,550 published letters by Turgenev in existence (some still remain unpublished). The life, wit, sharpness of observation, evocative power, and the lyrical quality of his descriptions in some of his letters of the sounds and sights of nature, sky, trees, leaves, the changing light and darkness, birds, and small animals of field and woodland in his part of the country, seem to me to be as remarkable as anything he ever wrote. So, too, are his sharp literary and psychological judgments and his comments on social and political events and issues. It must, therefore, have been a particularly painful experience for Mr. Knowles to have had to choose fewer than two hundred and fifty letters from this vast treasure house of writings.

His judgment, on the whole, is very dependable. All the letters selected by him are of some significance, if only for the light they shed upon the author; none could have been written by anyone else. The translation is alive, precise, occasionally anachronistic, but a good deal closer to the style and tone of this most sensitive of authors than, for instance, that of Professor David Lowe, whose two-volume edition does, however, provide versions of well over three hundred letters of equal, at times even greater, interest. Mr. Knowles’s notes are clear, succinct, scholarly, and most informative. It is strange that Anglophone readers should have had to wait so long for the reception of even so small a portion of these riches.

One of the strongest impressions conveyed by these letters is that of Turgenev’s profound and lifelong lack of confidence in himself both as a writer and as a man. Success and fame may please him but he is not deceived. He is clear that he is no master: compared to the writers he regards as truly great—Pushkin, Gogol, Goethe, not to speak of Shakespeare or Molière—he is no more than a minor figure. He tells his familiar friend, the critic Pavel Annenkov, in 1852 (the letter is not included here), that one cannot begin to compare the “free, swift brushstrokes” of the men of natural genius with the “thin squeak” of his own pen, with its puny “insect sounds.” At times, when his work receives praise beyond what seems to him to be its due, he tends to protest that a real masterpiece is far beyond his powers. Great writers are noble, tranquil spirits, and create in sweeping, wholesale fashion; you and I, he tells Annenkov, sit in retail shops and supply the day’s passing needs. Unfriendly reviews almost always seem to him convincing: he is grateful for praise by discriminating friends and admirers, but he is not persuaded.

A Sportsman’s Sketches gained him immense celebrity in Russia; the acclaim was immediate and virtually universal. He was made happy by the favor with which the left-wing intelligentsia received his work; he felt pride when told on all sides that he had played a decisive part in the movement for abolition of serfdom. He was particularly pleased when this was referred to by James Bryce, who presented him for an honorary doctorate at Oxford in 1879. He believed, plausibly enough, that his brief incarceration after his glowing obituary of Gogol had partly been caused by the government’s displeasure with the effect of the Sketches on Russian public opinion.

Yet “I have reread it,” he writes in the same letter to Annenkov. “A lot of it is pallid, fragmentary, merely hinted at. Some things are wrong, oversalted or else undercooked—still, some notes…do not sound false,” and these, he thinks, will save the book. After Rudin, he knows that as a “writer of belles lettres” he is finished: “Rudin,” he writes to the critic Druzhinin in 1855, “will have settled that.”

The hostile reaction by the young radicals to Fathers and Children convinces him that he has failed to achieve what he wanted. The friendly reception of the novel by Dostoevsky, and still more by the left-wing critic Pisarev (who identified himself with the “nihilist” Bazarov) gave him great pleasure; but this could not, as the letters show, begin to make up for the wounds inflicted upon him by the stern young Jacobins, attacks which, he thought, might be deserved. Smoke was on the whole ill received, and not by Dostoevsky alone. Turgenev knew that he had enraged both the right and the left; he shook like an aspen leaf in the storm he had aroused, but, as in the case of Fathers and Children, did not retreat, although the criticism hurt him deeply.

The ultimate defeat came with his last novel, Virgin Soil. He wrote to one of his correspondents that in his “heart of hearts” he agreed with the unanimous condemnation of it by the Russian reviewers; in a letter to his brother, he spoke of it as a fiasco. He was grateful to the historian Kavelin for his sympathetic letter about the novel. He sought to explain to one of his editors what he had wished to achieve; but he knew that it was all useless. “I am one of the writers of the interregnum,” he wrote to Sergey Aksakov (the author of A Family Chronicle and Gogol’s friend), “between Gogol and some future master. We all produce bits and pieces…which a greater talent would have compressed into one powerful whole, issuing from the depths.” And again, “I know that there is in my work a great deal that is weak and unfinished, unfinished partly because of indolence, partly—why conceal the guilty secret—because of sheer lack of power.”

Four years later he tells his admired friend the pious Countess Lambert, “The other day my heart died. I wish to report this fact.” His life is over; all feeling is dead; he says that he has turned to stone. This haunting sense of lack of true creative power oppressed Turgenev all his life. It was more than moments of discouragement—the feeling of inadequacy is never wholly absent even during the happy evenings with his intimate friends in Russia or in Paris. Late in his life he said that the unsuccessful lovers in his stories, like Rakitin in his play A Month in the Country, are himself. The constant criticism to which he was exposed in Russia (even while he was one of its most widely read authors) wounded him continuously. He was admired by the best writers in France, but it was for Russia he was writing. It was highly characteristic of him to complain that he was old at thirty-four. He had a great capacity for enjoyment: the shooting parties in Russia, the lively literary dinners in Moscow and in Paris, the sense of bliss in the company of Mme. Viardot, whose adoring slave he remained to the end—these were sources of lasting, if intermittent, happiness.

Characteristically he tended to seek advice from others about his writings before publication. He nervously tried out more than one of his novels on friends, such as Annenkov and Botkin, and usually adopted their suggestions. One cannot imagine this degree of hesitation on the part of, say, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. When Gogol read his Dead Souls to the Aksakovs and their circle, he did this out of friendship, at their pressing request, in order to give them pleasure. Turgenev needed reassurance, and accepted criticism even from people he did not like or respect, like Katkov. He kept modifying the character of Rudin—modeled on Bakunin—under pressure from his friends, who complained that he was now too kind, now too unfair, to his old friend, at the time a prisoner in the Peter and Paul fortress.

So too with Fathers and Children, read to his companions during a holiday on the Isle of Wight. Unsure of himself, he wished to gain approval not of reactionaries, not of left-wing fanatics, but of all those right and left of center, above all the young in Russia. His immense success with the Russian public did not buoy him up; he delared that he had no more strength left. He was perpetually bowing out, saying farewell to literature, putting an end to it all: it was this that Dostoevsky mocked so cruelly in the character of Karmazinov in The Possessed.

Yet this was not a pose. He worked best only if propped up by figures stronger than himself—Belinsky, Annenkov, Flaubert, Mme. Viardot. The great contralto who after all knew him better than anyone (save perhaps Annenkov) once described him as “le plus triste des hommes“: it was all she could do to make him continue to write.

This state of feeling is reflected in virtually all his writings. In an excellent article published some years ago in, I think, the New Statesman, V.S. Pritchett pointed out that whereas with Tolstoy the reader is always contemporary with the events described, carried forward, as it were, by the flow of the narrative, Turgenev’s stories look back on something that happened long ago, and is now over and done with. Indeed Turgenev said as much in a letter to Tolstoy in 1856: “Your life is directed to the future; mine is built on the past.” A thin veil of sadness is usually drawn over his narrative. The web of relationships, the emotional entanglements, the tragic and the ludicrous, the moments of exaltation, and the inevitable defeat and humiliation, all are by now in some middle distance, viewed with an all-for-giving understanding for what can only have been as it was. The notion that it might all have turned out otherwise if only one had chosen to behave differently is an illusion.

This resigned determinism is equally true of his letters: there is often regret, but scarcely ever self-reproach. It was what seemed to them Turgenev’s preoccupation with trivial emotions of trivial people, crises in the tedious lives of minor Russian gentry in decaying country houses, his evasion of the central questions of human existence, of good and evil, of the meaning and purpose of the life of the human anthill, his total failure to touch upon what alone mattered—the life of the spirit—it was this that irritated both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in their very different fashions (not wholly unlike the disparagement, from a different point of view, of Proust by Lukács).

  1. 1

    Apart from a late Victorian translation of Halpérine-Kaminsky’s edition of some of Turgenev’s letters in French and two collections of his letters to the actress Savina three years before his death, I know of nothing else in English save Edgar H. Lehrman’s selection of 1961, the fullest to date, but long out of print.

  2. 2

    In addition to Mr. Knowles’s edition, there is Turgenev: Letters, edited and translated by David Lowe (two volumes; Ardis, 1983; the set, $50.00).

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