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The Gentle Genius

He worships the beauty of nature, but not its “greedy, egoistic power,” the careless force that creates the stars above “and the warts on my skin,” and the nightingale that pours forth its marvelous song “while some wretched half-crushed insect is dying in agony in its craw.”

He has no religion, but having learned Spanish, doubtless for the sake of Mme. Viardot, he tells her in an early letter how profoundly moved he is by Calderón’s overwhelming Catholic vision. But it is not for him: he is with those who protest—“Prometheus, Satan, revolt, individuality.” “I may be an atom,” the letter continues, “but I am my own master—I love truth, not salvation, and expect to find it in reason, not grace.”

He abhorred the violence, and recoiled from the extremism of the revolutionary groups, but this did not drive him into the arms of either the government or the Slavophile opposition. In the famous controversy about the character of Bazarov in Fathers and Children, he declared that he did not know whether he loved or hated him, or by what mysterious process Bazarov turned out as he did; but he insisted to all his critics, Fet, Herzen, Sluchevsky, Saltykov-Shchedrin, that Bazarov, in spite of his unattractive qualities, was, nevertheless, a positive figure for him, because what he believes in is fundamentally right: because the rebellion of the sons against the ruling class is not simply a reaction to the cruelty or corruption of the fathers, or to a bad up-bringing—that would prove nothing—but because coming as they often do from loving homes, they are simply more sensitive to the needs of the people.

Yet “the people” can never itself transform society, since it is, he is convinced far too ignorant and reactionary for that; only an educated minority, the kind of public that he knew that he was writing for, can do that. Hence his refusal to sign Herzen’s manifesto on the emancipation of the serfs, which seems to him populist patter. The Slavophile-populist antithesis of the West as being beautiful without, but ugly within, while Russia is the opposite, is nonsense.

Russia (he tells Herzen in a letter included by Professor Lowe) is not “a Venus of Milo in rags and bonds, she is like her Western sisters,” and will suffer the same fate. A decade later, on one of his visits to Russia, he thought that he saw this happening: “it may be that Bazarovs are not needed now,” he wrote to the feminist Filosofova in 1874; there is a new generation of men of progressive mind, quiet resolution, and practical ability—useful men, patient workers without outstanding gifts and brilliance of personality who will radically change things in Russia. Today “there is no need to move mountains.” Still Bazarov in his day had been greatly needed; he was a forerunner of things to come.

In his next novel (Turgenev wrote in a letter three years later), his portraits of the young revolutionaries would show them neither as a gang of rogues and crooks nor as ideal heroes. The novel—his last—Virgin Soil was badly received by the reviewers. Turgenev, as his letters show, did not dispute their verdict. As always, when the criticism was adverse, he tended to think it basically just. The novel was, he wrote to his brother, a fiasco. His obvious sympathy with the revolutionaries did not, however, pass unnoticed either by the authorities or the student radicals; nor did his financial support for the revolutionary Russian journal in Paris edited by the socialist Lavrov. After Turgenev’s death, the young revolutionaries, for all his lifelong disbelief in revolution, claimed him for their own.

His position remained what it had always been. Like Herzen, he was repelled by the new hard men of the 1860s, by their brutality, their contempt for the liberal values of Western civilization, their fanatical belief in terrorist methods. Herzen still clung to his Rousseauian faith in the “natural socialism” of the Russian peasant; he found the young fanatics who followed Cherny-shevsky unbearable—the antipathy was mutual—but he was ready to support any attempt to bring down the Russian autocracy. Turgenev, always milder and more realistic, felt an almost eighteenth-century horror of the unbridled mob, liberated slaves likely to sweep away all that he and his friends lived by. He did not share Herzen’s apocalyptic vision of a barbarian invasion of the West as being, nevertheless, a cleansing storm.

In one of his curious fantasies—in a story called Ghosts—the author is carried aloft by a supernatural female figure, curiously called Ellis, on a journey through past centuries, and one of the scenes he witnesses is that of a savage raid by sixteenth-century Volga piraterebels who, according to legend, murdered one of Turgenev’s ancestors: it is a nightmare vision of pillage and slaughter conveyed with terrifying power. The precarious framework of humane culture, the preservation of a minimum of decency, was everything to him. He was not too optimistic about the consequences of the social upheavals of his time, even when he favored them. A vein of mingled hope and subdued pessimism runs through virtually all political comments in the letters to his Russian correspondents.

The letters to his familiar friends at home, Annenkov, Borisov, Toporov, Fet and Polonsky, Sergey Aksakov, the three favored ladies, Anna Filosofova, Countess Lambert, Baroness Vrevskaya, even to the satirist Saltykov (who did not greatly like him)—all the letters provided in these collections—are much more free, and spontaneous, and say a great deal more than the letters to his French and German correspondents, even intimate friends like Flaubert or the German painter Pietsch.

These Russian letters in the 1850s and 1860s are filled with an obsessive contempt for Parisian culture—it is cold, narrow, artificial, banal. He says that he likes only music, poetry, nature, dogs; poetry in France is trivial, music tends to cheap vaudeville, nature is hideous, hunting is quite disgusting. In Rome, greatness is all around one; there is immortal beauty everywhere. England is a superior country—the English are genuine, sincere, only unable to express themselves—but Paris! He tells Tolstoy that he simply cannot like the French. “Everything that is not theirs seems to them wild and stupid.” Their heads are filled with clichés, set opinions which nothing can alter. He speaks of the “jangling clatter of Victor Hugo, the feeble whimperings of Lamartine, the chatter of George Sand” who has “written herself out” (he is writing in 1857); Dumas fils, and Mérimée, for all his interest in Russian literature, fare little better. Only Michelet escapes the onslaught. Among composers, now that Rossini has ceased writing and Bellini is dead, only Meyerbeer and Mme. Viardot’s protegé Gounod are approved of.

He detests the militarism, arrogance, tyranny of the Second Empire: “I cannot tell you how deeply I hate everything French and especially Parisian,” he writes to his friend Fet in 1860; he is seized by an unbearable longing for the smells and sights of the Russian autumn, “the plowed, by now cool, earth, bread, wisps of smoke, the sound of the head peasant’s boots in the hall,” and the sight of dear Fet himself bustling about his estate with his short cavalryman’s steps. “Why can I not leave Paris?” Why not indeed? The answer is not in doubt: he moved easily enough to Baden Baden, but only when the Viardots decided to do so.

This attitude alters once the Franco-Prussian war is over. The Viardot household returns to France, and he makes friends with the leading writers, Edmond de Goncourt, Zola, Daudet, Renan, the young Maupassant, above all he renews his warm relations with Flaubert; they all admired and adored him far more deeply than did any writers in Russia. After 1871 the diatribes against Paris cease, but his letters show that he is still thinking only about Russia and Russians.

His letters to Mme. Viardot, who entirely dominated the last thirty years of his life, and whom he idolized to his dying day, are at times oddly conventional. He writes about musical, literary, and social events and personalities; there is much amusing talk about mutual friends, there are touching expressions of total love and devotion (often in German); but apart from wonderful descriptive pages about the shooting country in his corner of the woods, there is relatively little that is either arresting or genuinely intimate, even when he is writing about his own physical or mental states.

Perhaps it is a matter of language: he seems to feel and perceive more vividly and authentically when he is in Russia, or thinks in Russian, than through the spectacles of French or German, almost perfectly as he knew these languages. It is only too obvious from the tone of his correspondence, and the lack of any deliberate order as he moves from topic to topic, that his letters were not written with an eye on posterity; they sprang from the need to be in constant contact with others, to be among friends, to talk to them and be answered. It was for Russians (as he admitted) that he was writing; it was by them that he wished to be judged.

The letters to his daughter Paulinette (an odd way of symbolizing his love of Pauline Viardot) are the most painful reading in these volumes. Turgenev loved her after his fashion; he took great care to educate and set her up in France; but, as he kept repeating to his friends, he had too little in common with her: she liked neither music nor literature, not even the hunting dogs he loved so well; nor was she grateful enough to Mme. Viardot who had (he kept repeating to her) so generously undertaken to look after her and was so good to her. Paulinette seemed to him headstrong and perverse and unresponsive, and not to realize how great a proportion of his money he had had to spend on her needs. He was constantly trying to marry her off, and when finally she did marry a Frenchman, it ended badly, both financially and personally.

It is strange that of all people the author of A Month in the Country should not have shown a deeper understanding of the humiliating situation of an illegitimate child, taken from her serf mother and handed over as a quasiward to a foreign, dominating, inevitably worldly prima donna. The censorious tone of Turgenev’s letters, the dutiful but unconvincing affirmations of his love for her, can only have made matters worse. Evidently, the artist and the man are not always one and the same.

The least interesting, as may well be imagined, are the letters about the management of his Russian estates included in Mr. Knowles’s volume. As for the love letters to the actress Savina, they are a touching but deeply pathetic record of an old man’s last infatuation. One can naturally respect Mr. Knowles’s wish to illustrate the full breadth of Turgenev’s interest. Still, it is a pity that, even within the severely narrow confines to which he must have been restricted, he could not have substituted for the largely business letters to such professional acquaintances as Hetzel, Bodenstedt, Durand, and Ralston, a few of the more real letters to Annenkov or Borisov (in which he really lets himself go); or the letter to Herzen of 1867 in which he gives a particularly vivid account of his views on the “social question” in Russia, or even the six lines from the letter to Maria Milyutina (of February 1875) in which he states his basic beliefs; or (but this may be getting unfair) the remarkable short letter he wrote to the editor Stasyulevich in January 1877 about Virgin Soil; or the strange dream reported to Mme. Viardot in 1849 which casts a fascinating light on the element of fantasy in his writings.

But one cannot have everything, and Mr. Knowles’s selection is, in general, very well made. His comment on Turgenev’s political naiveté (as opposed to whose wiser views? Tolstoy’s? Herzen’s? Chernyshevsky’s?) itself seems a trifle naive. But his vignettes of Turgenev’s correspondents, his notes, and his editorial skill are wholly admirable—models of their kind.


Corrections November 24, 1983

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