From the safe distance of more than a century, it’s quite clear that Turgenev is, as Russian journalist Leonid Parfyonov states: “seen as the leader of the ‘Western’ liberals and Dostoevsky [was] the leader of the Slavophile conservatives,” but at the time, it seems questionable that Turgenev realised the monumental position posterity would assign to him. While he was much loved, feted and respected by the French literati, he was largely rejected, rather cruelly at times, by other Russian writers. Perhaps the reason for at least a large part of this trouble with his fellow countrymen can be found in the fact that Turgenev’s novels were judged primarily for their political content. Some of his novels were acclaimed by both sides of the Russian divide: the pro-Western Russians and the Slavophiles, but for the most part, Turgenev failed to keep either side happy, and he was considered passé. According to Troyat:
Turgenev had always been a misfit in every aspect of his life. He was close to the extremist conspirators, but not a revolutionary; he was Russian to the very soles of his feet, but happy only abroad; he had been in love with the same woman for twenty years and lived beside her without hope of anything more than a kind word. Pulled by two ideas, two countries, and two destinies, he suffered from constant inner conflict, yet at the same time it gave him a kind of mournful satisfaction.
Also there’s the sense that Turgenev seems mostly out of tune with the events taking place in Russia, and he expressed that thought at more than one time during his life. Of course, he was mostly living abroad and slowly selling off his land at Spasskoye to maintain his European lifestyle. Troyat states that Turgenev’s “favourite position” was that of “international onlooker,“ and this certainly seeps through in the bio. Here’s the paradox of Turgenev: Turgenev visited Russia rarely, lived abroad most of his adult life, displeased both the Westerners and the Slavophiles, and was frequently viewed as anachronistic, yet in spite of these facts Parfyonov states Turgenev is “the main author of conflicts of the epoch.”
Turgenev (1818-1893) appears primarily as a kind man who avoided turbulence: that avoidance is manifested in Turgenev’s personal life (he had a track record of jettisoning from several relationships) and he also avoided extreme politics. At the same time, he didn’t drop friends when he disagreed with them politically. This character trait, while admirable, also led Turgenev into trouble with the Tsar. In increasingly difficult political times, with intense polarization of beliefs dividing the country, Turgenev’s continued friendships with Bakunin and Herzen, for example, were both frowned on and misunderstood. Turgenev “had given a roof to Bakunin, who had escaped from Siberia, provided him with an annual stipend of five thousand francs, and launched a fund on his behalf.” Quite a commitment to a friend in trouble. Turgenev also visited Bakunin’s brothers in the Peter Paul fortress. Turgenev’s friendships with Bakunin and Herzen became increasingly difficult and fractured by political differences that Turgenev tended to ‘overlook’ as separate from the friendships. Herzen’s movement towards “pan-Slavist tendencies”, however, led him to criticise Turgenev. Here’s a politically flavoured-quote from Troyat who states that Herzen was:
attacking the petty, money grubbing civilization of western Europe and glorifying the ancestral values of the Russian people–the only people, according to him who were capable of saving mankind from total collapse. Bakunin and Ogarev had allied themselves with Herzen. Russia’s mission as reviver of the race seemed self-evident to them, and they were energetically demolishing anyone who, like Turgenev, still believed in the improving virtues of the West. They accused him of drifting away from them out of weakness and idleness, ‘epicreanism,’ or possibly old age.
Turgenev also promoted the publication of work written by revolutionaries. While Turgenev saw his tolerance and promotion as a matter of censorship and “intellectual integrity,” others viewed Turgenev as a troublemaker since he refused to draw the line on anti-Tsarist regime literature:
Russian authorities were made uneasy by his ambivalent attitude, and saw him as ‘flirting’ with the extremists at the same time he was scandalized by their deeds.
The book charts Turgenev’s turbulent relationships with Dostoevsky (he borrowed money from Turgenev), Goncharov (he accused Turgenev of plagiarism twice ) and Tolstoy (he challenged Turgenev to a duel). The single most glaring fact of this biography is that Turgenev was loved, admired and feted by French literati while it’s really no exaggeration to say that he could barely stay in the same room with Russian contemporary writers. But by the end of his career, it seems as though Turgenev was finally recognised for what he was: one of the giants of 19th century Russian literature.
It’s impossible to write about the life of Turgenev without bringing up the fact that some of his fictional characters embody the idea of the “superfluous man.” The superfluous man is a Russian literature character type who does not fit into Russian society; a member of the gentry educated abroad, he may be a drifter or perhaps he’s ridiculous or ineffective, but whatever the reason, he seems to have no fixed place in Russian society, and while elegant and charming, he is often incapable of sincere emotional attachments. It’s also impossible to read Troyat’s biography without seeing Turgenev as a superfluous man and in particular, I see the connection with one of his most memorable characters: Lavretsky in Home of the Gentry. Not that Turgenev was a cuckold, but he was certainly uncomfortable in Russian society and also uncomfortably aware that he seemed, at times, anachronistic.
For those interested in film, in the marvellous DVD set Russian Empire, Russian journalist Leonid Parfyonov tackles the sweeping centuries of Russian history. In one episode, he visits Turgenev’s chalet in France. It’s a wonderful sequence, and the chalet appears to be maintained quite beautifully. There’s also an exquisite, lovingly adapted Soviet version of Home of the Gentry (sometimes translated as Nest of the Gentry).
Finally here’s Dostoevsky on Turgenev’s story The Epoch:
In my opinion, it is full of excrement, there is something unclean, unhealthy, senile in it, something weak and therefore unbelievable, in a word, it’s pure Turgenev.
Well, you’d never really expect Dostoevsky to go halfway, would you? Turgenev, according to Troyat, considered Dostoevsky to be a “maniac.”
In a letter to Flaubert, here’s Turgenev doing some mud-slinging of his own :
I do not believe I have ever read anything as perfectly boring as Nana.
There’s simply no accounting for taste….