In 1861 Turgenev’s great novel Fathers and Sons was published in St. Petersburg. He was forty-three; the book was his masterpiece but it brought violent abuse upon him in Russia both from the conservatives and the young radicals who considered that they had been caricatured in the portrait of Bazarov, the Nihilist doctor. The abuse was wounding, for until then Turgenev had been able to think of himself as the liberating voice of the young. From this moment his life as an expatriate began: he left Russia in disgust and anger.
The attacks were not the sole cause of his decision to leave. There was an emotional reason of deep importance. Ever since he was thirty, indeed earlier, he had been in love with Pauline Viardot, the famous Spanish opera singer. At one time they were possibly lovers, living out the drama of A Month in the Country, but it seems that the feeling was stronger on his side than on hers and that she put her art, her career, her marriage, and her children first and kept Turgenev at a distance.
But in 1861 there was a change: the feeling or the need for Turgenev revived on her side. Her famous voice was failing although she was scarcely forty; she withdrew from the great opera houses of Europe, and she and her husband settled at the immensely fashionable spa and little court of Baden on the Rhine, where she could hold a salon, give concerts, and take a few pupils for enormous fees. Now she beckoned to Turgenev once more. He was rich. He could build a small theater for her, help her publish her musical albums, and he was an enormous social asset at her salons. The slavery (as he called it) of his old love for her revived, their affections were close. What Russians resented was that from this time until his death his home was Europe and close to the Viardots: to his estate in Russia he certainly went from time to time, but as one whose ties were elsewhere.
It is clear from his letters to his friends in the Baden period that he feared expatriation would injure his talent. More and more, he feared he would drift into mere reminiscence and lose his knowledge of contemporary Russia. He began to defend himself and to ask what was wrong with noncontemporary characters, what was wrong with the past. In 1870—which turned out to be the end of his Baden period because of the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war—we find him writing to a correspondent that a “Russian writer who has settled in Baden by that very fact condemns his writing to an early end. I have no illusions on that score, but since everything else is impossible, there is no point in talking about it…. But are you really so submerged in what is ‘contemporary’ that you will not tolerate any non-contemporary characters?” Such people, Turgenev says, have lived and have a right to be portrayed. “I admit no other immortality: and this immortality of human life (in the eyes of art and history) is the basis of my whole world.”
What is one to think of Turgenev’s writing in the Baden period? The most important book to come out of it was the novel Smoke (1867), and although the Russian critics attacked it violently for political and patriotic reasons, it is a very able book. His occasional visits to Russia had not been wasted: he had another long book in mind—Virgin Soil—but he was not ready for it and, after Smoke, his Baden period is remarkable for his long short stories in which he rarely failed. He was simply, he said, “too full of subjects.”
In his early fifties he wrote two reminiscent stories—one of them the horrifying tale “The Brigadier,” based on an incident in the life of his Lutvinov grandmother who had committed murder. A very old and senile brigadier, “of the age of Catherine,” is seen fishing, accompanied by a bullying servant who ridicules him. The brigadier has become a ruined and childish simpleton, reduced to poverty and ostracism because in middle years he had loved and lived with a terrifying young widow who, in a rage, had killed her page. Out of love and in a fit of honor the brigadier assumed guilt for her crime and was tried for it, but his sentence had been short. The widow and (after her death) her sister bleed him of all his money until he is destitute. Yet once a week he visits the widow’s grave with adoration. At last he knows he is going to die. He knows because of a dream.
I, as maybe you know, often see Agrippina Ivanov [as he now calls her] in my dreams—heaven’s peace be with her—and never can I catch her: I am always running after her but cannot catch her. But last night I dreamed she was standing, as it were, before me, half turned away and laughing…. I ran up to her at once and caught her…and she seemed to turn round quite and said to me “Well, Vassinka, now you have caught me….” It has come to me that we shall be together again.
The tale is told in the old-fashioned way of picking up the story by hearsay in the manner of a folk tale, but in the servant’s mockery there is something of the mockery of Shakespeare’s cynical comics and Turgenev has made it powerful. The hearsay, the careful reader will notice, is not flat in its convenience but is subtly varied as changes of scene and voice are made to carry it. The theme is, of course, familiar in his writings: a man dominated and enduring abasement and suffering in love. He will give everything to the monster but he lives by his honor, which is a kind of exultation. The dream of death as a woman is also a common theme and so is the myth of bewitchment offered as a psychological fact.
The theme of honor as the real test in love and indeed in all crucial circumstances is of great importance in Turgenev’s writing and it must not be taken as a romanticization of an old-fashioned or picturesque idea common enough in the historical novels of the nineteenth century. If the brigadier’s honor is not to be questioned, this is for reasons of Russian history. Turgenev believed that Russia was uncivilized in the Western sense because there had been no experience of an age of chivalry in its culture. And if we look beyond this story to his own life, it would seem that his own Quixote-like concept of love in his feelings for Pauline Viardot is a chivalrous vow which once uttered must never be betrayed; in that sense his love of her was not a weakness or an obsession. It was an anachronism—the lifelong vigil. It was not even romantic, but a spiritual law, an article of the aristocratic faith.
“The Brigadier” is not only an important story, but a very revealing one in another connection. In his own life, Turgenev felt he owed it to himself as a duty of chivalrous principle to give money secretly to revolutionaries like Bakunin and others—the Populist leader, for example—even though he hated violence and terrorism and feared the loss of his property.
The idea of honor abused is at the heart of “An Unhappy Girl,” a story drawn from his student days. The girl is half-Jewish, one of the maltreated “orphans” handed on: the Jewish aspect of her beauty is ancient, ennobled by race and aristocratic instinct. She is helplessly trapped in a coarse German family. Her tale is remarkable for its scenes of vulgar lower-middle-class life, its gambling episodes, and a drunken funeral meal which follows the funeral of the tormented girl who has been driven to suicide. Unfortunately there is an element of plot: it is suggested that the girl may have been poisoned so that her small inheritance would then pass to the awful Germans if she died unmarried. Plot-making was outside Turgenev’s competence. The girl’s wretched state is well done but Dostoevsky with his dynamic power of dramatizing the inner life of the “insulted and injured” would have made more of her, for Dostoevsky believed in free will whereas the art of Turgenev, the determinist, is in this sense static: people live under fate. Or rather time flows through them: they do not drive blindly forward through time.
In “The Story of Lieutenant Erguynov” a young naval officer is stripped of his money by a sly, amusing, fascinating girl who is a decoy used by thieves. Again the plot is awkward but there are some brilliant things in the tale, particularly in the account of Erguynov’s state of hallucination when, his drink being doped, he sails out of consciousness to the sound of the balalaika, is robbed, knocked on the head, and dumped with his skull split on the roadside. And we get pleasure from the fact that, in old age, the simple lieutenant loves telling the whole story again and again, and loves to dwell on his hallucination so that the company knows the tale by heart. For what we are shown is an innocent young sailor growing into a knowing old fellow, enlarging himself as he talks. He makes us feel that he is telling us something that is now more completely “true” than it was when it was scattered in the fragmentary experience of real life.
The point of honor crops up at the end, but comically. The thieves escape and so does the girl, but much later she writes to the sailor begging him to believe she herself was not responsible for the attempt to murder him. She had no idea they would go that far, and she would like to see him and convince him that although she did deceive him she is not a criminal. The sailor—an honorable fellow—is rather taken by the idea, but he puts it off and does nothing. The fact that he does nothing makes the story rest delightfully in suspense—which is an aspect of life.
None of these stories approaches the power of “A Lear of the Steppe.” This is a major work. The Lear is Martin Petrovich Harlov, a hulking, rough, bearlike figure who farms 800 acres and owns serfs but who, though claiming to come of noble Russian stock “as old as Vassilievitch the Dark,” is a hard-driving peasant farmer, a stern, shouting, but honest man. He lives in what he calls his “mansion,” a ramshackle homestead he has built with his own hands, a small manor with courtyard and a tumbledown thatched lodge. His own room in the house is unplastered. His riding whips, his horse collar hang from nails on the wall. There is a wooden settle with a rug, flies swarm on the ceiling, and the place smells as he himself does, of the forest. In the house live his two daughters: Anna, who is married to the whining and greedy son of a petty official, and Evlampia, who is being courted by a battered and broken major. Both girls are beauties.
The narrator is fifteen when the events begin, the son of a wealthy landowning widow. The story has, but only superficially, the tone of A Sportsman’s Sketches, but it will go much deeper. The widow has always been Harlov’s friend and adviser, so that we see Harlov through the eyes of an awed boy, as it might be Turgenev himself as a boy living with his mother at Spasskoye. If Harlov is a primitive giant he seems all the more gigantic to a boy’s wondering eyes. Turgenev is careful to convey the physical force of Harlov’s person with metaphors that evoke the man and the working scenes of his life. The voice that came out of a small mouth was strong and resonant:
Its sound recalled the clank of iron bars carried in a cart over a badly paved road; and when Harlov spoke it was as though someone were shouting in a high wind across a wide ravine…his shoulders were like millstones…his ears were like twists of bread…he breathed like a bull but walked without a sound.
It is important to the story that the boy’s mother had found a wife for Harlov, a frail girl who lasted only long enough to give him two daughters, and saw to it that they had a superior education. Times are changing: we shall see the result of this kindness. The daughters will eventually turn their father out of his own house and drive him to frenzy and death.
The wonder is that this confident, dominant, and roaring man who frightens everyone—“the wood demon” as people call him—will bring about his own downfall by an act of Lear-like weakness. He is liable to fits of melancholy during which he shuts himself up in his room and starts to hum “like a swarm of bees.” The hours of humming end in singing meaningless words. He recovers. It is after one of these fits that he comes to his friend the widow and announces that Death has appeared to him in a dream in the form of a black colt that rushes into the house, dances about, and finally gives him a kick in the arm. He wakes up aching in every bone. It is this terror that has driven him to a bid for power which is exorbitant and, indeed, a sign of folly: he is going to divide his property between his daughters now, willing it to them is not enough for he wants to see their gratitude. He wants to establish his absolute rule after death now and before his eyes. Nothing will persuade him that this is foolish.
The story now expands. We are in the Russia of A Sportsman’s Sketches. A crowd of characters come in, the lawyers, the police, officials, the grasping son-in-law, and a spiteful jeering figure called Souvenir, an orphan, the brother of Harlov’s dead wife who is a hanger-on in the landowner’s house. Souvenir has a mawkish laugh that sounds like the rinsing of a bottle, and whenever Harlov calls at the house he goes swaggering after him and saying, “What made you kill my sister?” Souvenir has a goading diabolical role to play. The deed of gift is signed and Souvenir tells the old man with delight that now his daughters will turn him out.
Turgenev always understands how to insert points of rest in which a story can grow of itself. The boy narrator goes away for the summer. In the autumn he goes out shooting snipe and sees a stranger riding Harlov’s horse. It is the first sign of the truth of Souvenir’s prophecy. Horse and carriage have been taken from Harlov by Anna and Sletkin, her husband. Harlov is being starved and stripped of everything. The two sisters are at odds. Evlampia has turned the major down and is having an affair with Sletkin—the boy catches them in the woods—and when he hears of this Harlov rushes in a state of madness to the big house. In his bid for power, Harlov has exhausted his great will. He has lost his terrifying force and has become helpless, acquiescent, and meek. This is Souvenir’s moment. He mocks the old man for his fall, jeering without pity. Suddenly the old man rises to the taunts, recovers his old violence, and rushes back to his manor, and in a terrible scene climbs to the roof and starts tearing down what he has built with his own hands. The peasants cannot stop him as he rips away the rafters and knocks down chimneys. In a final triumph of strength he wrenches a gable and a crossbeam off and is crushed when he falls with them to the ground.
One does not expect such a scene of violence from Turgenev. It succeeds because it is made to seem likely among the people of the steppe. The two daughters have been skillfully kept in the background where, by one small touch or another, they have aroused our apprehension. We have seen Anna’s cold smile; we have seen Evlampia, silent as stone, a still, sensual beauty with a store of power in her. Of Anna, the boy remarks in a disturbing Turgenevian reflection:
In spite of the negligence of her attire and her irritable humor, she struck me as before, as attractive and I should have been delighted to kiss the narrow hand which looked malignant too, as she twice irritably pushed back her loose tresses.
The tragedy is over and the story is restored little by little to the norms of peasant life.
In studying the peasants as a group, Turgenev has gone beyond the scope of A Sportsman’s Sketches, though the luminous quality of that early work gives the scene perspective and truth. At first the peasants stand aloof from Anna, but for Evlampia there was a kind of sympathy, except from an old man who said: “You wronged him; on your soul lies the sin.” At the funeral the faces of the crowd condemn the family, but the condemnation has become impersonal. That is the next stage.
It seemed as though all those people felt that the sin into which the Harlov family had fallen—this great sin—had gone now before the presence of one righteous Judge and for that reason there was no need now for them to trouble themselves and be indignant. They prayed devoutly for the soul of the dead man whom in life they had not especially liked, whom they feared indeed.
Anna’s voice, we remember, was “very pleasant, resonant and rather plaintive…like the note of a bird of prey,” but she says nothing. Evlampia, fierce, monumental—“a free bird of the Cossack breed”—fierce in the glance of her dark blue eyes, was silent too. Sletkin tries to get a word out of her, but she treats him as she has treated the absurd major who wanted to marry her.
In a day or two she has sold her interest to her sister and has vanished. Years later the narrator sees her again, driving in a smart pony trap, splendidly dressed. She has become the founder, the dominant mother of a dissenting Order of Flagellant Sisters who live without priests. Whether this is a genuine order is uncertain: is her house a place of rendezvous? For the peasants wink and say the police captain does well out of the Order. It is she who inherits the primitive spirit of her father, maybe is honest—but maybe not: the spirit of an extremist.
Sletkin, Anna’s scheming husband, has died—the peasants say, probably untruthfully, that she poisoned him—and she is now an excellent farmer, better than her father was, clever in the legal negotiations that have followed the change in the land laws after the Emancipation. The great landlords and officials respect her judgment.
In other words, after tragedy and indeed crime, a new generation rises and forgets, as Turgenev always likes to show when the present grows out of the past. Human life is short.
There is little of love in this tale, but one notices Turgenev’s skill in suggesting there has been an act of sexual love. The boy comes across Sletkin and Evlampia in the woods.
[Sletkin] was lying on his back with both hands under his head and with a smile of contentment gazing upwards at the sky, swinging his left leg which was crossed over his right knee…. A few yards from him Evlampia was walking up and down the little glade, with downcast eyes. It seemed as though she were looking for something in the grass, mushrooms perhaps: now and then she stretched out her hand. She was singing in a low voice. An old ballad.
Hither, hither threatening storm cloud
Slay for me the father-in-law
Strike for me the mother-in-law
The young wife I will kill myself.
Louder and louder she sings while Sletkin laughs to himself while she moves round and round him.
“The things that come into some peoples’ heads,” Sletkin said.
“What?” said Evlampia.
“What were those words you were singing?”
“You can’t leave the words out of a song,” said Evlampia.
And then they see the boy, cry out, and rush away in opposite directions.
The scene tells us all, even to the fierceness of an act of lust and what hidden fantasies it releases in the mind.
“A Lear of the Steppe” is, no doubt, a drama seen from the outside, but it shows Turgenev’s mature power of suggesting the inside of his people and of concealing its documentation. The kind of documentation that obtrudes, say, in Zola’s La Terre, or indeed in most stories of peasant life done by writers who are not peasants, is mercifully absent. In the manner of the greatest artists, he contrives to make us feel that people should be seen as justifying themselves. The choice of a growing boy as the narrator, with some character of his own, makes this possible and evades the smoothing-over effect of hearsay.
(This is the first of two essays on Turgenev.)
February 17, 1977