Turgenev by Henri Troyat Part I

I’ve enjoyed a couple of Turgenev novels (Home of the Gentry & Fathers & Sons) and I plan on reading other titles starting in 2011. It seemed like a good time to move into a Turgenev bio,  so I picked up Henri Troyat’s study of Turgenev to get the details. Troyat (real name Lev Tarasov) was born in Russia in 1911, but the family left in 1920 and settled in Paris.  When dealing with some aspect of Russian history (and Troyat does discuss certain names and beliefs in this book), it’s a good idea to know where the author stands on the subject of 19th century Russian politics.

Troyat was a prolific author and produced over a vast number of books before his death in 2007. One of his specialties was the biography. His Russian subjects include:

Dostoevsky

Pushkin

Tolstoy

Pasternak

Gogol

Gorky

Turgenev

Apart from covering a fair number of 19th century Russian authors, Troyat also tackled monarch biographies and later in his writing career moved onto the French giants of literature including: Balzac, Maupassant, Flaubert and Zola. According to someone who’s read nearly all Troyat’s Russian bios, at just over 160 pages, Turgenev is a relatively light analysis when compared to the Pushkin bio which clocks in at well over 600 pages.

Russian journalist Leonid Parfyonov, calls Turgenev “the main author of conflicts of the epoch” –the most prominent 19th century so-called Westernized Russian author. Turgenev, a tireless promoter of Russian literature in Europe, was reviled by most of his Russian peers, but then the Russian literati scene was as fractured as Russia itself:

In those days the literati of Russia were divided into two camps: the Slavophiles, for whom there was no salvation, in art, philosophy, or even politics, except in traditional, Russian, Orthodox, grassroots sources; and the Westerners, who maintained that all thing good came from abroad. The former vibrated solely to the nation’s past, its specific personality; they feared pollution from new ideas, they claimed that Russia should become the spiritual guide to all mankind. The latter proclaimed themselves open to the world, to progress; they wanted to see Russia merge with Europe.

Here’s another quote from Parfyonov who states that “Turgenev was seen as the leader of the ‘Western’ liberals and Dostoevsky was the leader of the Slavophile conservatives”:

They were authorities of those doctrines, rulers of other people’s minds. But they themselevs were free from those doctrines. But they were not free from their own minds.

It seems difficult to slot someone like Tolstoy into either the camp of the Western liberals or the Slavophile conservatives. Plus where do the revolutionaries fit in? I don’t feel comfortable with catch-all terms such as ‘left,’ ‘right,’ ‘radical’ and ‘liberal’. Real life is much more muddled and complicated than that. Here’s a quote from The Magical Chorus by Solomon Volkov on exactly where Tolstoy was supposed to fit in the scheme of things. Hint: he didn’t:

Since Tolstoy the writer was cast by critics as the patron saint of everything from realism to socialist realism, it comes as no surprise that politically he was variously labeled as well. Contemporaries tried to pin him down as a repentant aristocrat, or the voice of the patriarchal Russian peasantry, or a Christian anarchist, and even as a die-hard revolutionary. It was all true to a point: Tolstoy preached an extreme simplicity of life and took a hard libertarian stance toward government, which he considered immoral and illegal, yet he also rejected all forms of violence. In his famous 1909 article ‘I Cannot Be Silent,’ he protested capital punishment in Russia and did not recognize the authority of organized religion. This inevitably led the rebel count into conflict with the autocracy and the Russian Orthodox Church. Many believed that a confrontation with Tolstoy gravely weakened both institutions.

Polyglot Tolstoy, who doesn’t fit neatly into either the Slavophile or the Western camp, is often described as an anarcho-pacifist. 

But back to Turgenev….Turgenev’s era was hardly the first time the Western/Slavophile debate raged in Russia. After all Tsar Peter the Great founded St Petersburg with the idea that it would serve as a ‘window to the west’, but the debate was gathering steam. For most of his life, Turgenev, with a lifelong horror of violence and “radicalism,” found himself increasingly alienated from his Russian peers. While the Slavophile author, Aksakov found much to admire in the pure Russian sensibilities of the 1852 story Mumu, within a few years, in increasingly turbulent political times, Turgenev’s great novels were largely trashed by critics on all sides.  Russian critical appreciation of Turgenev’s work came, finally, towards the end of his life.

Troyat takes a strictly chronological approach and begins with some initial background information about Turgenev’s parents. This sets the scene for the family dynamic–a tyrannical mother who failed, in spite of her superior material circumstances, to rule her indolent husband–a man who appeared to prefer the easy company of serf girls. Turgenev’ s mother, Varvara Petrovna sounds as though she was a tough, hard woman. After her mother’s death, at age 16, Varvara’s stepfather tried to rape her:

She left home and walked sixty versts half naked through the snow to Spasskoye an estate belonging to a maternal great-uncle.

A verst is about 2/3 of a mile, by the way. Life at Spasskoye sounds rather explosive, for while the great-uncle allowed Varvara to stay there, they fought continuously, and Troyat tells us that:

Just as he was about to disinherit her, he died, in rather peculiar circumstances.

After dropping that nugget of information, Troyat explores it no further. Frustrating.

Varvara inherited the “vast estate” of Spasskoye which included twenty villages and over 5,000 serfs. When making tallies of serfs women and children were not counted, so we can extrapolate the real total from 5,000. Varvara, naturally, had her pick of suitors  and selected Sergey Nikolayevich Turgenev. He was, according to Troyat “a lover of luxury” and of course, “drowning in debt.” The marriage does not sound happy. He “lived in idleness and opulence” bedding the serf girls. Varvara “took her revenge for the humiliations she suffered at her husband’s hands by maltreating the servants.” According to Troyat, this became a lifelong habit, and at one point she actually told Turgenev that she’s beat the serfs if he didn’t come home and visit. How’s that for transparent manipulation?

Troyat argues that Varvara–a powerful, indomitable and controlling woman–had a profound impact on the lives of both of her sons. Not only did they stay away from her as much as possible, but they both consequently sought out similar women for their lasting relationships. Here’s a wonderful quote from the book which particularly stands out as it describes Varvara as a veritable unchallenged tsarina of her own kingdom at Spasskoye:

The domain over which she ruled as an absolute monarch included, in addition to the ordinary household staff, tutors, and governors, singers, serf actors and an orchestra. The household servants formed a brotherhood of some sixty families; they all lived within a few hundred yards of the main house, which had forty rooms. They worked as locksmiths, blacksmiths, carpenters, gardeners, cooks, land surveyors, tailors, shoemakers, upholsterers, coachmakers. It was like a rural principality living in a closed economy. Everything needed for survival could be produced on the estate. Varvara Petrovna took great pride in the fact she could sustain her little world without any outside help. She called her butler “court  minister,” and it was the “minister of the post” who brought her her letters from Mtsensk, after they had been scrutinized by the court minister, who decided, in light of their contents, whether the mistress of the house should be prepared for their perusal by a cheerful tune or a mournful one. Every morning at the same hour she sat in her office to hear the reports of her private secretary, estate manager, and steward, and, from her seat in a throne-like armchair on a raised platform, issued orders to her minions, who stammered with subservience. She had her own police force composed of retired guardsmen. Her justice was implacable. On her ruling, two serfs were sent to Siberia for failing to take off their hats in her presence. She had a waterfall rerouted because it disturbed her sleep. There were horsemen whose task it was to bring her a sort of porridge that could be made to her taste only in one village a long way from the house. 

 That’s a long quote, but it’s included to show both the absurd and the despotic behaviour Turgenev grew up with.  Both Turgenev and his brother were kept on an allowance with their mother refusing to loosen the purse strings. The widowed Varvara, by the way, later bore an illegitimate child with her doctor–none other than the father of Sonya, who later became the wife of Tolstoy.

Troyat charts the major events in Turgenev’s life: his most significant love affair was with opera singer Pauline Viardot. Turgenev adored Pauline and he followed her around Europe, setting up house upon several occasions with Pauline, her husband and her children. One of those children may possibly have belonged to Turgenev. This premier relationship, however, did not stop Turgenev from “capricious” dalliances with several women of the gentry class (the list included Bakunin’s sister, Tatyana and Tolstoy’s sister, Marya, and this may partly explain why both Bakunin and Tolstoy were often out-of-patience with Turgenev). Turgenev engaged in several relationships in which he jettisoned right before that crucial commitment, and it seems that he left more than one woman feeling confused and anguished about the disrupted courtship.  He also sired a child, named Paulinette (after his married idol), by a serf girl. The child was later raised by the Viardots.

I mentioned earlier the reference to the “mysterious death” of Varvara’s great-uncle. No explanation is given,  just innuendo, but since Troyat brought up the subject, he really should have dug around a bit more.  Later Troyat mentions that the Viardots had some financial difficulties due to the Franco-Prussian war, and money troubles were compounded by the gradual loss of Varvara’s voice. At one point she was giving singing lessons to augment the family’s income, and according to Turgenev the Viardots were “virtually ruined.”  Later, Turgenev wrote to a friend that “The Viardots and I have bought a wonderful villa” at Bougival.  Turgenev had a modest “chalet” built close by, and there is some indication that his friends found Turgenev’s living conditions alarming–not that his place was a dump by any means, but it hardly met the standards of his previous residences (the book includes a photo of the palace Turgenev built but could not afford to furnish at Baden-Baden). In addition, he was forced to sell his painting collection at a huge loss as he needed money so badly. Putting these facts together, it seems very likely that Turgenev, who’d more or less ‘adopted’ the Viardots, was footing the bills. There is mention made that Pauline Viardot was concerned at one point that Turgenev might stay in Russia. Troyat says she “needed him at her side to make her ‘household’ complete.” While Troyat wisely avoids any nastiness towards Pauline Viardot, once again, there’s significant unexplored innuendo that Pauline Viardot’s desire to keep Turgenev in France was very possibly rooted in financial interest.  

Troyat’s book seems slight but competent at 162 pages. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by Patrick Marnham’s excellent bio of Simenon

Part II up next….

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4 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction, Troyat Henri, Turgenev

4 responses to “Turgenev by Henri Troyat Part I

  1. I read some novels by Troyat, a long time ago. I don’t even remember the titles, just that they were really good page turner books.

    Your introduction is really interesting, I didn’t know about the Slavophiles vs Westerners conflict in the Russian literary world of that time. I have never read Turgenev so far.

    What a despotic and megalomaniac mother! Does Troyat explain when Turgenev started to write and how his childhood influenced his writing? Maybe the answer to this question will be in your next post.

    • It sounds as though Turgenev was always writing something, but the bio is not terribly detailed. By page 15, to give you an idea, he is already 24 years old. I would say that Troyat’s disection of Turgenev’s work is also competent but light. He mentions key themes in the works, but it is not his focus.

  2. Troyat’s choice of biographies reminds me a lot of Zweig, would certainly be interesting to compare their respective biographies of Balzac or any other on which they both wrote. I haven’t ready any Troyat or can’t remember. 162 pages does sound slim for a biography… Just started to read First Love the other day but somehow didn’t get into it. There are other Russian writers I like more but his biography sounds interesting… The portrait of the mother sounds intriguing.

    • Hello Caroline: At one point, the mother had this huge monument made at the entrance to her estate inscribed with the words “They Will Return.” “They” were her two sons. Apparently the relationship between Turegenev & his mother did not end well. At the end of her life, there was a bit of a scene in which Turgenev told his mother that everyone was afraid of her & she threw him out. She left final orders for her steward to “sell everything for a pittance” and to “burn the crops.” It sounds as though there was a final reconciliation with her son Nicholas who managed to get to his mother’s death bed, but Turgenev was in St Petersburg and missed it.

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