Category Archives: Troyat Henri

Turgenev by Henri Troyat Part II

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….

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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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A glimpse of Peter the Great from Henri Troyat

I came across a section in Henri Troyat’s bio Peter the Great today, and it gave me such a good laugh, I decided to include it here.

 In 1698, Peter the Great sailed to England for “advanced studies in shipbuilding.” Once in England, the Tsar and his entourage moved to a house near the shipyards that was owned by John Evelyn. Three months later, John Evelyn went back to his house and was “horrified” by what he saw:

“The doors and windows had been taken down and burned, the hangings had been torn down or soiled with vomit and spit, precious parquet floorboards were smashed to pieces, masterpieces of painting were riddled with bullets (every portrait having served as a target), and flowerbeds were trampled as if a regiment had camped in the garden.”

I wonder if the neighbours complained?

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