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 Knowles tells us, 6,550 published letters by Turgenev in existence (some still remain unpublished).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…

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