• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Gentle Genius

Dostoevsky’s hysterical attack on Turgenev as a renegade to his country, recorded in these letters, left Turgenev relatively unaffected. The notoriously troubled relationship with Tolstoy is a far more complicated affair, and was not entirely due to personal factors. There was a strong element of nineteenth-century positivism in Turgenev. He freely admitted that he found any form of mysticism, transcendentalism, visionary religious experience deeply alien to him; so were all forms of irrationalism, subjectivism, and especially the nostalgic neo-medievalism of the Slavophiles, with their craving for an imaginary, organic, pre-Petrine Russian society. This inevitably made him deeply skeptical about Herzen’s search for salvation, after the failure of the revolutions of 1848, in the “natural socialism” of the Russian village commune. He regarded this as pure fantasy; moreover, such worship of the “peasant’s sheepskin” boded no good for the cause of the progress of reason and individual liberty, which he saw menaced from all sides.

Turgenev’s views had been deeply and permanently influenced by the “Westernism” of the friends of his youth. He believed in the light of reason, social and intellectual progress, political and individual liberty and democracy (“a man with a heart has only one country—democracy,” he wrote Mme. Viardot in 1849, deeply upset by the invasion of Hungary by Russian troops to crush the revolution). Most of all he believed in the supreme value of beauty and of art. This remained his credo to the end of his life. It was scarcely likely to endear him to Tolstoy, even before his “conversion.” Progressivism, aestheticism, liberalism, the literary life, the visits to the opera, were precisely what Tolstoy came to dislike more and more.

True, there was a moment in the late 1850s when Tolstoy wrote Botkin about the need for a new periodical to be devoted solely to aesthetic questions and to exclude, above all, the kind of political and social issues with which, for instance, Chernyshevsky was concerned. In a letter of 1858 (not, alas, provided here), Turgenev, often represented as the archpriest of an aesthetic approach to life, told Tolstoy that he was wrong to avert his gaze from social questions—“it was not lyrical twittering that the times are calling for, nor birds singing on boughs…. You loathe politics, and it is, indeed, a dirty, dusty, low business, but then there is dirt and dust in the streets, yet we cannot, after all, do without towns.” But this moment passed; the moralist in Tolstoy never allowed it to recur. Tolstoy began by liking and disliking Turgenev by turns, but was progressively more and more irritated by him. They took a natural interest in each other’s writings, but after the 1850s their relations never grew genuinely warm again.

Turgenev felt uneasy with Tolstoy from the very beginning. In the letter to him of 1856 already quoted (Professor Lowe has included it in his edition), he tried to attribute the “gulf” between them to his own clumsy attempts to deepen their friendship: “I went too far, and when I saw that this embarrassed, irritated you, I retreated too quickly.” A year later he tells Tolstoy that his perpetual feeling of repulse of his relationships with others, as well as of his own emotions, must make his life difficult for him (and, presumably, for others also. This letter is not given here). Turgenev is clear that their paths diverge, but their friendship need not suffer, although their differences will remain. He recognized Tolstoy’s genius from the beginning, and urged him not to stay in the army, to write. “Be warned by my example.” he wrote him in 1858 in a letter not translated here, “do not let life slip between your fingers…. These are the words of a deeply and deservedly unhappy man.” As time went on, relations between them deteriorated; but that did nothing to alter his lifelong conviction that Tolstoy was a writer of towering genius, greater than any other living writer. Even after the celebrated break in their relations, Turgenev urged his Paris friends to read War and Peace, and single-handedly arranged the publication of the French translation.

At the same time, it is difficult not to suppose that the harsh things he says about Tolstoy’s novels are unconnected with Tolstoy’s wounding attitude toward him. He seems to look for faults in Tolstoy’s writings as he does not dream of doing in those of, say, Gogol or Flaubert; there is no touch of envy, only a somewhat worked-up indignation with what he regards as Tolstoy’s occasional sleight of hand as a writer.

In letters to Annenkov and Borisov, after saying that he finds the descriptions of hunts, sleigh rides at night, and similar scenes “first rate, marvelous…the work of a master beyond compare,” he complains that the historical passages, “which the readers adore, are absolutely farcical, a charlatan’s tricks.” Tolstoy amazes the reader with “the pointed tip of Alexander’s boot,” or “Speransky’s laugh…in order to make him think that he knows everything about the matter since he goes into such detail, whereas all he knows are only these small trifles—a trick and no more, but the public falls for it.” And again: “There are things here which will not perish so long as the Russian language exists…but there is no trace of any real reconstruction” of the period. Moreover, “there is no development of character…just an immense amount of the old psychological business (‘What do I think? What is thought about me? Do I love or detest?’ etc.) which is a kind of monomania on Tolstoy’s part.” He speaks of his continual resort to “vibration and oscillation of feeling” as simply a trick, like the tedious, repeated mention of the selfsame small traits, “the down on Princess Volkonsky’s upper lip,” and the like.

All this irritates him. “Of course, there are marvelous things which no one else in the whole of Europe could write, and which puts me in ‘a chill and fever of esctasy.’ ” He cannot bear Tolstoy’s quirkiness, his ridiculous ideological obsessions, his hobby-horses, his amateur philosophizing (which also annoyed Flaubert), his habit of going off on irrelevant tangents; yet he remains an unapproachable genius.

When Anna Karenina appeared, Turgenev could restrain himself no longer. He told one of his correspondents that it was now clear that poor Tolstoy had completely lost his way; of course, the set pieces—the hunt, the horse race, the reapers, were marvelous; but much of the rest was tedious, trivial stuff. “It is all due to Moscow, the Slavophile gentry, old maids of the Orthodox faith, his solitary life, his lack of real artistic freedom.” True, “even his grimaces are grimaces of genius,” but all this preoccupation with upperclass life is a great pity. One year later, in 1876, he repeats it all to his friend, Baroness Vrevskaya. However great his gifts, Tolstoy

cannot get out of the Moscow bog into which he has walked. Orthodoxy, the gentry, the Slavophiles, gossip…ignorance, self-importance, the officer in him, the lord of the manor, hostility to everything foreign, sour cabbage soup, the absence of soap, in a word chaos! And this is the chaos in which so gifted a man must perish! But it is what is always happening in Russia!

He had recommended Childhood to Mme. Viardot as a classic: this, he tells Annenkov in 1866, was a mistake—it is very poor, very poor indeed.

As for Tolstoy, after 1861 he took relatively little notice of Turgenev or his novels; he thought them well written, sincere enough, but lacking in serious content. After a none-too-successful effort at reconciliation, he did, after Turgenev’s death, say a few obituary words of mild praise of his gifts and character.

Differences of view and of styles of life can scarcely alone account for this degree of mutual antipathy. After all, Turgenev did not mind being scolded by his other country neighbor, the poet and landowner Afanasy Fet, for his liberal opinions and unfortunate addiction to rational opinions and the enlightened West. He knew perfectly well, he told Sergey Aksakov, that the Slavophiles thought him a mere rag; but the broadsides of the traditionalists did not upset him: “a rag can be torn,” he told Aksakov, “but heavy blows do it no damage.” He did quarrel with the archreactionary Fet, but he loved him, and the friendship was restored. We owe to Fet the knowledge that Tolstoy’s dislike for Turgenev was founded on contempt for a man who wasted his gifts on trivialities, and Annenkov and Panaev corroborate this. The continuation of a real relationship was evidently unthinkable.

Yet Tolstoy’s view is arrogant and false. Even on the evidence of this small portion of Turgenev’s published letters, it is clear that, despite his endless vacillations, Turgenev held firm and coherent social and political views until the end of his life. His moderation, hatred of fanaticism, passionate belief in human rights, belief that only liberal compromises, only gradualism, and not revolution, would protect men from brutal oppression and violence, were not rationalizations of timidity and skepticism, but part of a firmly held outlook of an exceptionally intelligent and consistent critical thinker. He knew that these opinions would not be popular with either conservatives or radicals, but he did not retreat, and defended them patiently and tenaciously in the face of continued attacks in his own country. In the West, he was principally (and mistakenly) regarded as a greatly gifted, unpolitical, literary artist. His letters testify to the opposite, to his conscious, intellectually thought out, rejection of historical schemas and of all the varieties of teleology dominant in his youth, historical, theological, metaphysical, to which he had listened as a student in the university of Berlin.

Nature is not for him the benevolent guide and protectress of eighteenth-century thinkers—Mistress nature, Dame nature, and the like; nor has the life of society an inbuilt pattern without the understanding of which there can be no salvation. Men have only themselves to look to. Nature (he had read Schopenhauer who had also influenced Tolstoy) is indifferent to human endeavor: omnipotent, irresistible, all-devouring, it offers the spectacle of mingled beauty and cruelty. The same force that creates genius and visions of the ideal, at the same time destroys the good and the innocent.

In a letter to Mme. Viardot, he gives a harrowing description of meeting ruined French peasants sitting in helpless misery after their harvest had been destroyed by a hailstorm: the implied protest against the social order which leads to such despair is not far distant from that of Proudhon and Courbet. Nature is nothing but a biological process; to demand a theodicy to justify it is meaningless; at the same time it is a source of infinite delight to him. In an early letter to Mme. Viardot, he says:

I cannot bear the sky…but life, reality, its capriciousness, randomness, its habits, its fleeting beauty…all that I adore. I—I am bound to the earth. I should prefer to watch the hurried movements of a duck at the edge of a lake as it scratches the back of its head with its moist foot, or the long gleaming drops of water, slowly falling from the mouth of a cow after it has drawn its fill from the pond, standing motionless up to its knees in water, than anything the cherubim…can see in their heaven.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print