‘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,…

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