Spring Torrents: Turgenev

Turgenev (1818-1883), one of the giants of 19th century Russian literature, is the master at creating fictional male characters who engage in relationships with women only to experience the destructive nature of passion. Perhaps a Turgenev character will lose love from a failure to commit or perhaps he will discover that the woman has another game even as he’s drawn in deeper and deeper. Bitter regret and love go hand in hand in Turgenev’s fiction.  Spring Torrents, published in 1872,  is short–only 176 pages in my Penguin Classics edition, and it’s superb quintessential Turgenev.

spring torrentsThis is a frame story, and the novel opens with a middle-aged man, Dimitry Pavlovich Sanin, now in his 50s, who, after an evening’s entertainment, feels a vague disgust and discontentment with his life. He reminisces about his past and his loves, and this brings us to Sanin at age 23, thirty years before. It’s 1840.

Sanin has inherited a little money, and he decided to use it travelling before returning to Russia and “putting on the harness of employment in a government department.” He has just left Italy, and is now in Frankfurt with just enough money to return to Russia. He has reserved a seat in a coach, the last coach leaving that night at 10 o’clock. So his life is arranged, or appears to be. Then fate sends him into an Italian patisserie for a glass of lemonade, but just as he arrives, a young boy, the son of the owner has collapsed. Urged by a beautiful young Italian girl to save her brother, Sanin steps in and revives the boy.

This dramatic event is the beginning of Sanin’s relationship with the Roselli family. Signora Leonora Roselli, the owner of the patisserie, is a widow with two children, Emilio, a young boy who does not appear to have the best health, and his gorgeous sister, Gemma. Sanin misses his coach, but no matter, he can’t take his eyes off of the beautiful Gemma. Sanin is treated as one of the family, and very quickly becomes involved with the Rosellis. He even serves in the shop a few times, and finds that playing shopkeeper is rather enjoyable. But as much as he’s charmed by the Rosellis, it’s really Gemma who draws his attention. Too bad she’s already engaged to Herr Karl Klueber, a man Sanin dislikes:

It may well be supposed that, at that time, in all the shops in all Frankfurt there was not to be found another such courteous, well-mannered, grave, and polite chief assistant as Herr Klueber. His immaculate dress was of the same high level as the dignity of his demeanour and the elegance of his manners–a little prim and stiff, it is true, in the English fashion (he had spent two years in England)-but beguiling elegance for all that. It was evident at a glance that this good-looking, somewhat stern, exceedingly well brought-up and superlatively well-washed young man was in the habit of obeying his superiors and of issuing orders to his inferiors. The sight of such a man behind his counter was indeed bound to inspire respect even in the customers. There could not be the slightest doubt that his honesty surpassed all natural limits–why, one only had to look at the points of his stiffly starched collar.

Spring Torrents examines the issue of sexuality, attraction, infatuation, obsessive passion and love. These are elements easily confused, and we see Sanin attracted to Gemma and then he’s falling in love. This all happens very quickly, and Senora Roselli expects Sanin to marry Gemma and stay in Frankfurt. He impetuously agrees to sell his Russian estates and invest his money in the patisserie, and there are hints that Sanin is naïve. At one point as Sanin works in the shop, he feels “ready to stand behind the counter for all time dealing in sweets and orgeade” as long as he has Gemma by his side, and then there’s the haste with which he finds himself engaged. After all, “he had had no thought of marriage in his mind” and had just “surrendered himself to the driving force of passion.” Now he’s planning on returning to Russia to wind up his affairs, move permanently to Frankfurt and become a shopkeeper when fate intervenes in Sanin’s life again, and he is drawn into a dark, destructive passion.

The women in the novels of Turgenev are always memorable, strong & vibrant characters–possibly a reflection of Turgenev’s incredibly tough mother, Varvara Petrovna.  In Spring Torrents, we see two very different women, and through them, two different types of passion. As readers, we ask ourselves what does Sanin really want or is he just swept along by “the driving force of passion” once again? How many times are we confronted by situations in which the image of the person we’d like to be is challenged by the reality of who we really are?

Spring Torrents delves into the stages of sexual passion, and while sex is not mentioned, several scenes vibrate with sexual possibility:

Sanin seized those listless hands as they lay, palms upwards, and pressed them to his eyes, to his lips … This was the moment when the curtain, which he had kept seeing the day before, swept up. Here it is, happiness with its radiant countenance!

He raised his head and looked at Gemma boldly, straight in the eyes. She was looking at him too–with a slightly downward glance. There was scarcely any lustre in her half-closed eyes: they were flooded with shining tears of joy. But her face was not smiling…No! It was laughing, with soundless laughter that was also the laughter of bliss.

He wanted to draw her to his breast, but she resisted him, and still laughing silently, shook her head. ‘Wait,’ her happy eyes seemed to be saying.

By the time the end of the novel arrives, it’s impossible to read about Sanin without drawing parallels to Turgenev’s life. Turgenev fell in love with the married opera singer, Pauline Viardot and followed her around Europe–not that Turgenev suffered the humiliations heaped upon Sanin, but nonetheless, Turgenev was completely absorbed by the Viardot family in a situation that alarmed his friends. Turgenev is highly recommended by this reader and he’s certainly the 19th century Russian author to read for any readers out there who feel slightly intimidated by this period.  While I preferred Nest of the Gentry, Spring Torrents is marvelous.

Translated by Leonard Schapiro

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17 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Turgenev

17 responses to “Spring Torrents: Turgenev

  1. Ah, Turgenev – the ignored Russian great (with so much Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky to get through…). I’ve only read a couple of his (‘Fathers and Sons’ and ‘Rudin’), and I’ve been meaning to read more..

  2. Reads like another classic Turgenev I haven’t read. I see parallels in many of his other novels. :)

  3. I’m glad you said it’s a good book to start with; I haven’t read any Turgenev yet. I like the idea that we think our lives are planned and we are nicely sheltered in our comfort zone until some incident happens and forces us to reconsider things. It seems there is this question in Spring Torrents; how much a person willingly takes a risk and how much is he still able to control its consequences. I suppose the idea of “will” was very much discussed in mid-end 19th century Europe.

  4. I still have Fathers and Sons waiting for me on the shelf. I need to read him and now I’m curious about this one as well.
    I think Louis Viardot was Tourgueniev’s translator.

  5. The theme of image verses the reality of people, especially in romantic relationships is a never ending source of interest for me.

    I plan to absolutely read Turgenev for the first time this year.

  6. It sounds excellent. I need to put together a Russian literature reading plan ideally. I might start with Turgenev with Home of the Gentry, having just read your review of that too. Have you ever given thought to the approach you’d recommend to someone looking to read more into Russian literature?

    • I’d suggest that anyone trying to break into 19th C Russian Lit start w/Turgenev. We all think of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and while I am an admirer of both (and consider Dostoevsky one of the greatest writers of all time), their novels can intimidate a new reader thanks to the patronymics, the length and/or the sheer number of characters. Turgenev is very focused, very thematic and very cosmopolitan, so that means he’s very accessible. I’ve thought about approaches, but that’s about as far as I get. Chekhov is also very accessible too, but I’d argue that Turgenev should be read before Chekhov due to his earlier place in Russian Lit.
      There’s an excellent film version of Home of the Gentry but I’m not sure how easy it is to find.

  7. M Z

    An ideal reading plan for Russian literature, in my opinion, would start with Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time (Nabokov’s translation); then Turgenev: Nest of Gentry, First Love, Asya, Spring Torrents, and Sportman’s Notebook; then, Dostoyevsky. Start with Crime and Punishment and Notes from the House of the Dead. By now you’re addicted and there’s no stopping you.

  8. Why the Nabokov translation MZ? Nabokov’s Eugene Onegin translation is famously accurate and also famously lacking in any of the rhythm of the original. Is he better on Lermontov?

    Thanks MZ and Guy by the way for the replies to my query. Very helpful. I’ve taken notes.

  9. The Lermontov translation is earlier than the Pushkin and based on quite different principles. It is accurate, eminently readable, and lightly and amusingly annotated.

    The Pushkin book is really a work of specialized scholarship. The Lermontov is meant to be read by anyone.

    As a bonus, the introduction begins with a great translation of one of Lermontov’s best poems.

  10. I read the Nabokov translation of Lermontov, Max. I know there are others but Nabokov loved Lermontov (loathed many Russian writers), so I thought his was the translation to go for. Which one did you read?

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