Tag Archives: superfluous man

The Duel by Chekhov

I picked up Chekhov’s The Duel because I wanted to read it before watching the film version. My copy of The Duel is from a collection of Chekhov’s short novels, and it’s a translation from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I have a fascination for dueling, and it’s a topic I’ll read about if I get the chance. Imagine getting pissed at someone at work, smacking them back and forth across the face with a pair of gloves, and then … pistols at dawn.

Maupassant included a duel in Bel Ami in a wonderful section of one of my favourite novels. The duel takes place between rival journalists, and Georges (Bel Ami) is more-or-less shoved into it. Terrified, he gets drunk beforehand. It’s duel as farce, and when it’s over, exaggeration sets in. In Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, we see the social significance of the duel which must only take place between social equals. You can’t duel with a peasant!

Then, of course, there’s Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time–an incredible novel in which a duel becomes a defining moment for the central character. There’s also Kuprin’s The Duel ; in this book the duel seen as a type of social dominance but it’s also a symptom of the decay of Russian society. Can’t forget, of course, that both Lermontov and Pushkin met their all-too-early deaths as the result of duels. What a waste.

Chekhov wrote The Duel while also working on Sakhalin Island. The latter, Chekov’s longest published work is a non-fiction account of life in Siberia’s “most notorious penal colony.” The introduction to my copy, written by translator Richard Pevear, stresses that Chekhov’s experiences at Sakhalin had a profound, although, indirect, impact on The Duel.  After reading Chekhov’s The Duel, I have the sense that Chekhov saw dueling as a silly, dangerous social drama, and yet at the same time, the duel that takes place in this excellent novella has some unexpected ramifications….

The Duel is set in a seaside town in the Caucasus, and the story focuses on just a handful of characters. One of the main characters is 28-year-old Ivan Andreich Laevsky. He’s a minor bureaucrat, and he proudly calls himself a “superfluous man.” He’s run off to the Caucasus with another man’s wife, Nadezhda Fyodorovna, and when the story begins, the romance between the two has cooled considerably. Local doctor, the “sinless” Samoilenko, is Laevsky’s confidant while the two men swim one day:

“Answer me one question, Alexander Davidych,” Laevsky began, when the two of them, he and Samoilenko, had gone into the water up to their shoulders. “Let’s say you fell in love with a woman and became intimate with her; you lived with her, let’s say, for more than two years, and then, as it happens, you fell out of love and began to feel she was a stranger to you. How would you behave in such a case?”

Laevsky’s question isn’t, of course, theoretical. He’s tired of Nadezhda and wants to get rid of her. The situation is complicated by the fact that Nadezhda’s husband has died, and Laevsky has just received a letter with the news. He’s reluctant to tell Nadezhda as now he’ll be expected to marry her. But he’s asking for advice from the wrong person. Samoilenko is a bachelor and envies Laevsky’s relationship with the beautiful and intelligent Nadezhda. Samoilenko tells Laevsky that “love can’t last long,” and that it’s his “duty” to marry the woman he’s ruined. 

Laevsky argues with Samoilenko, presenting extenuating circumstances in his effort to get the answer he wants to hear. Eventually Laevsky hits on the idea of borrowing money from Samoilenko so that he can return to his mother in Russia, or even “escape” North and abandon Nadezhda in the process. Samoilenko tries to borrow the money from zoologist von Koren. Von Koren who hates Laevsky sniffs that Samoilenko wants to borrow the money only to give it to Laevsky, and the request sets off a chain of dramatic events.  

The Duel reminds me of The Lady with the Dog for its modern approach to human behaviour. At one point, Laevsky bitches about Nadezhda to Samoilenko:

Yes, she loves me to the extent that, at her age, and with her temperament, she needs a man. It would be as hard for her to part with me as with powder or curling papers. I’m a necessary component of her boudoir.

Laevsky is very judgmental about Nadezhda. Can she be as bad as he says she is?

Laevsky’s dislike of Nadezhda Fyodorovna expressed itself chiefly in the fact that everything she said or did seemed to him a lie or the semblance of a lie, and that everything he read against women and love seemed to go perfectly with himself.

He seems unduly harsh. Can Nadezhda really be that shallow? Well we soon find out the answer to that question. While Laevsky is beginning to loathe Nadezhda, von Koren despises Laevsky and finds him utterly transparent and hold him responsible for the moral decline of the community:

The activity of Mr. Laevsky is openly unrolled before you like a long Chinese scroll, and you can read it from beginning to end. What has he done in the two years he’s been living here? Let’s count on our fingers. First, he has taught the town inhabitants to play vint; two years ago the game was unknown here, but now everybody plays vint from morning till night, even the women and adolescents; second, he has taught the townspeople to drink beer, which was also unknown here; to him they also owe a knowledge of various kinds of vodka, so they can now tell Koshelev’s from Smirnov’s No. 21 blindfolded. Third, before, they lived with other men’s wives here secretly, for the same motives that thieves steal secretly and not openly; adultery was considered something shameful to expose to general view; Laevsky appears to be a pioneer in that respect: he lives openly with another man’s wife.

While Chekhov’s novella concerns a duel, there’s another duel taking place–the duel between opposing ideas, and these opposing ideas are embodied by the two characters, Laevsky and von Koren–with the former representing the “liberal  egotism of the 1840s” while von Koren is representative of the “rational egoism of the 1860s.”  Here’s von Koren on why he loathes Laevsky and all he stands for:

From the very first, he struck me with his extraordinary falseness, which simply made me sick. In the quality of a friend, I chided him, asking why he drank so much. Why he lived beyond his means and ran up debts, why he did nothing and read nothing, why he had so little culture and so little knowledge, and in answer to all my questions, he would smile bitterly, sigh, and say: ‘I’m a luckless fellow, a superfluous man,’ or ‘What do you want, old boy, from us remnants of serfdom,’ or ‘We’re degenerating…’ Or he would start pouring out some lengthy drivel about Onegin, Pechorin, Byron’s Cain, Bazarov of whom he said: ‘They are our fathers in flesh and spirit.’ Meaning he is not to blame that official packets lie unopened for weeks and that he drinks and gets others to drink, but the blame goes to Onegin, Pechorin, and Turgenev, who invented the luckless fellow and the superfluous man. The cause of extreme licentiousness and outrageousness, as you see, lies not in him but somewhere outside, in space. And besides–clever trick!-it’s not he alone who is dissolute, false, and vile, but we…  ‘we, the people of the eighties,’  ‘we, the sluggish and nervous spawn of serfdom,’ ‘civilization has crippled us…’ 

Or in other words, as von Koren continues, Laevsky is but a “victim of the times.”

In Chekhov’s novella we see the duel as farce, but it’s a worn-out, tired farce. And since this is Chekhov, the author’s humanism will not permit the duel to be but a cruel joke–instead it’s a tragifarce–an event that leaves his characters both mystified and a little humbled by the experience.



Filed under Chekhov, Fiction

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….


Filed under Non Fiction, Troyat Henri, Turgenev

A Hero of Our Time by Lermontov (part II)

Pechorin: Byronic Hero or Superfluous Man?

A Hero of Our Time has a rather intricate structure. The novel is really a series of 5 stories: Bela, Maksim Maksimich, Taman, Princess Mary and The Fatalist. (A very short section, Introduction to Pechorin’s Journal is placed between the two stories Maksim Maksimich and Taman.) In his translation, Nabokov goes into some detail regarding the sequence of these stories, and placed in chronological order the stories are Taman, Princess Mary, The Fatalist, Bela and Maksim Maksimich. The structure of the novel (the order of the stories) is rather an important issue as Lermontov’s sequencing presents Pechorin in a rather different way than if we had, let’s say, read the stories in chronological order. Another interesting factor about the novel’s structuring is that it has a series of narrators. The first narrator is an unnamed traveler who meets the soldier Maksim Maksimich in the southern Caucasus. Maksimich entertains the traveler with the story Bela and it’s in this story that the character of Pechorin is introduced. Thus we first see Pechorin through Maksim’s eyes, and Maksim is, as it turns out, rather admires Pechorin. 

Maksim Maksimich and the traveler meet again in the second chapter, Maksim Maksimich, and at that point these two characters also meet Pechorin. The traveler’s eagerness to meet Pechorin is matched by our own interest in a character we’ve only seen so far at a distance. But the meeting between Maksim and Pechorin, such as it is, is a disappointment to the older soldier. Pechorin makes a brief appearance and tosses away his notebooks before he leaves for some new adventure. The traveler grabs the notebooks and the last three chapters or stories of A Hero of Our Time are sections from Pechorin’s journals.

By structuring the novel in this fashion, we see Pechorin first through the eyes of Maksim Maksimich, a seasoned middle-aged career soldier who is proud to have served under the legendary General Ermolov and who worships the memory of a younger officer Pechorin. Maksim describes Pechorin to the traveler as respectful and as a bit of an effete–a man who complains about the cold and yet is bold and fearless during a boar hunt. Maksimich decides that Pechorin is “a little odd,” but by the time the tale Bela ends, Pechorin seems to be more than a little odd. Pechorin’s treatment of Bela serves to highlight Pechorin’s salient characteristics–selfishness, boredom, and the manner in which he views other human beings as objects for his amusement.

The second story, Maksim Maksimich brings Pechorin directly into the picture, and this story gives yet another view of Pechorin. Here he’s seen very unsympathetically. Callous to Maksim’s patient, pathetic gestures of friendship, the flesh and blood Pechorin is thoughtless, cold and autocratic. Failing to live up to the expectations created in Bela, it’s clear that the relationship between Maksim and Pechorin had significance only for the older soldier.

But by the time we arrive at the third story, Princess Mary, told by Pechorin through his abandoned notebooks, we see still another view of Pechorin. Layers of his complex personality are peeled away through the introspective focus of the notebooks.  Now Pechorin, in his own voice, appears more than cold, more than odd–he’s deeply troubled, extremely destructive and also self-destructive. Here’s Pechorin off to attend a ball in Pyatigorsk:

“Is it possible,” I thought, “that my only function on earth is to ruin other people’s hopes? Ever since I have lived and acted, fate has always seemed to bring me in at the denouement of other people’s dramas, as if none could either die or despair without me! I am the indispensable persona in the fifth act; involuntarily, I play the miserable part of the executioner or the traitor. What could be fate’s purpose in this? Might it not be that it had designated me to become the author of bourgeois tragedies and family novels, or the collaborator of some purveyor of stories for the ‘Library for Reading’? How should one know? How many people, in the beginning of life, think they will finish it as Alexander the Great or Lord Byron, and instead, retain for the whole of their existence, the rank of titulary counsellor?”

Every bit as seminal as Lovelace, Pechorin, the hero or anti-hero of Lermontov’s novel has to be one of literature’s most fascinating creations. In each story, Pechorin leaves destruction in his wake, but he’s not only destructive, he’s also contaminating. He kidnaps a Circassian girl on a whim, and the ripple out effect of this act results in murder. He thoughtlessly rides his horse to death, scatters an ad-hoc family of smugglers into destitution or worse, and his delight in manipulating human behaviour ends in the pointless, meaningless death of another man. Is there anyone who benefits from knowing Pechorin? And that brings me to that “mad, bad and dangerous to know” idea.

Pechorin is a perfect Byronic hero (and Byron is mentioned in the novel a few times) but according to critics he also fits the criteria of The Superfluous Man–a type of archetypal character identified in Russian literature. Frankly, I have a problem with this.

Turgenev is the master in creating sublime examples of the Superfluous Man. Consider Lavretsky …  in Home of the Gentry Lavretsky is an ineffectual man who seems out-of-place wherever he goes. The world wouldn’t be a bit different with Lavretsky gone from the planet. Lavretsky simply doesn’t matter–not to his wife, his friends, his neighbours, or even his serfs for that matter. Then there’s Goncharov’s Oblomov–a man so overcome with inertia, he’s happy to spend his life in his dressing gown.

The shared characteristics of the Byronic Hero and the Superfluous Man are not necessarily mutually exclusive (men who don’t fit in society, for example), but at the same time it’s difficult to imagine a character straddling both categories. While it’s impossible to see Lavretsky or Oblomov as anything except Superfluous Men, Pechorin seems to be a different breed altogether. He’s a destructive force, and everyone he touches suffers from the relationship in some way. Destructive and ineffectual behaviour are mutually exclusive, and so I argue for Pechorin as the Byronic hero and not the Superfluous Man.  Here’s Pechorin the night before the duel as he contemplates the possibility of death:

If I am to die, I’ll die! The loss to the world will not be large and, anyway, I myself am sufficiently bored. I am like a man who yawns at a ball and does not drive home to sleep, only because his carriage is not yet there. But now the carriage is ready … good-by!…



Filed under Lermontov

The Duel by Alexander Kuprin

Anti-Romanticism and Despair

the duelIn spite of the possibility of a deadly outcome, in literature and film duels often have a romantic connotation. But for those who love Russian literature it’s impossible to forget that duels destroyed the great Russian writers, Pushkin and Lermontov.  In the novel The Duel byRussian Silver Age writer Alexander Kuprin, duels are a symptom of a twisted, decaying society destined to shortly self-destruct.

Published in 1905, The Duel is the story of Second Lieutenant Romashov who’s stationed in a drab little town in Southern Russia. The story begins with Romashov and some of his fellow officers during training exercises as they discuss slights and insults to their notions of honour:

There was the young ensign ‘who didn’t even shave yet’ scattering ‘a knot of gesticulating Jews’ at a street corner in a small frontier town. There was the lieutenant who slashed a student to death in a Kiev dance hall because the student had jogged him with his elbow at a bar. There was the officer in a restaurant–was it in Moscow or Petersburg?–who shot down ‘like a mad dog’ a man who’d remarked to him that gentlemen do not try to pick up ladies who are accompanied by another gentleman.”

Romashov tries to reason with his fellow officers that  such “bloody on the spot reckonings” are morally questionable since the officers involved were armed and the civilians were not, but his words fall on deaf ears. This early scene illustrates Romashov’s alienation from the officer corp, and also his vaguely uncomfortable attitude that something else must exist beyond the violent convoluted notions of honour and ceremony.

In The Duel Kuprin depicts a hellish existence within the strict, confining hierarchy of the army. While the days are spent on endless drills against enemies “such as rioters, students, horsethieves, Jews, Poles”, the evenings are devoted to tawdry company ‘balls.’ While at first Romashov was entranced by the apparent romanticism of these festive ceremonies, he now sees them as shabby, superficial affairs:

“He realised that much of the illusion had been created by bad novels, in which balls and the expectation of balls often figure. And he also knew now that the regimental ladies usually wore the same ball dresses for years, making pathetic attempts to alter them a bit, and that their white kid gloves had been painstakingly cleaned with benzine. The ladies’ love of pendants, brooches, imitation jewelry, ribbons, false flowers now seemed laughable, and pathetic to him, an artificial, tasteless home-made luxury. They used powder, rouge, eye shadow, used them unskillfully and naively, and because of this the faces of some of them had a sinister, ghostly air. But Romashov was mostly repelled because, like everyone else in the regiment, he knew too well the life behind every ball, every dress, almost every witty remark; he knew the miserable poverty, the painful efforts, the gossip, the mutual hatred, the colour-blind parody of elegance and sophistication, and finally the dull, boring love affairs which were a part of this life.” 

At the beginning of the novel, Romashov is engaged in the army’s pathetically sad social life, drinks to excess and is mired in a rather limp affair with an unpleasant married woman he dislikes.  But even as he begins to despair about his life, he’s unable to significantly alter the path he has chosen. Trapped, he flails around unhappily with his fellow officers. Some of Romashov’s questioning and reappraisal of his life is manifested through his relationship with the soldier Private Khlebnikov, the platoon’s underdog. While Romashov bitterly cannot contemplate a life outside of the army, he shows compassion for Khlebnikov who is mistreated and savagely beaten by non-coms. Romashov identifies with Khlebnikov’s misery and calling him “my brother,” he persuades Khlebnikov not to desert and argues that although “it’s all senseless, savage cruel nonsense,” they “have to take it.” While Romashov’s compassion for Khlebnikov is admirable, it’s also apparent that due to vast class differences, Romashov is incapable of truly grasping the Private’s position in life. Compared to Khlebnikov, who is beaten daily and must hand over his paltry wages to bribe non-coms with “presents,” Romashov leads a life of relative privilege. But in spite of the disparity between these two men, Romashov’s connection with Khlebnikov has a sobering effect on the young officer as he recognizes the misery of a fellow human being.

One of the novel’s greatest characters is Lieutenant-colonel Rafaelsky who lives in relative isolation in a ramshackle house known as the ‘zoo.’ The officer, who’s single, is completely absorbed in his haphazard collection of animals, and Rafaelsky successfully manages to avoid army society for the most part while he concentrates on his ‘hobby.’ As a result, he is the only character in the novel who can be categorised as ‘happy’ and his greatest worry is whether or not the regiment will be reassigned since that will mean moving his aquarium.

The novel is packed with intricate details of Russian society and army life, and of course notions of honour and duels figure prominently. In one scene, officers discuss what makes a duel authentic.

“A duel, gentlemen, if it is to take place at all must have fatal or, at least, very serious consequences. Otherwise it’d be nothing but stupid horseplay, make-believe, a farce. The fifty-step-distance and one single shot affair is just bad taste, a sentimental comedy, like those French duels we read about in the papers. ‘The duel had a happy ending. The opponents exchanged shots without injuring each other but displayed throughout the procedure admirable courage and composure. At breakfast the erstwhile foes exchanged a friendly handshake.’ Such dueling, gentlemen, is nonsense–and certainly its introduction won’t improve our conduct.”

And of course, the duel in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami is just one of those farces with the participants egged on by others, Bel Ami showing up drunk and both men widely missing their targets–although of course their stories later told how the bullets whistled by their ears.  

Apart from the wonderful social commentary of the times, the novel shows how Romashov is hopelessly trapped in the corrupted societal systems in a decayed, suffocating culture. Romashov’s friend, the alcoholic Nazansky, encourages him to leave the army, but depressed and held prisoner by a deadly lassitude, Romashov can envision no future beyond his uniform.  The Duel shows Russian society in its death throes. There’s no escape. Nowhere to go and no future.

It’s impossible to read Kuprin’s marvellous novel without thinking about one of my favourite novels, Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. Lermontov’s bored protagonist, Pechorin, the destructive hero of the novel is a young, handsome arrogant army officer. Written in 1839, the novel is full of descriptions of the wide open spaces of the Caucasus. While the novel also contains details of military life and its obligatory systems and ceremonies, Pechorin’s adventures are suffused with travel, adventure and Romanticism.

But while Pechorin is a fictional character (perhaps a fictional manifestation of Lermontov), Kropotkin’s memoirs detail Russia in transition from hope of reform to end-stage decay. The memoirs include a section in which Kropotkin selects a distant assignment in Siberia rather than stay with the career track of hobnobbing with the Tsar in St Petersburg. Kropotkin’s acquaintances thought he’d taken leave of his senses when he left for Siberia in 1862, but Kropotkin was still in his idealistic reform phase when he imagined that changes would really take place and that Russia, as he knew it would be transformed. Of course, Kropotkin’s suggested reforms fell foul of the reactionary wave that swept Russia and a few years later in 1873, Kropotkin was an anarchist languishing in Peter and Paul Fortress.

Kuprin’s Romashov is yet another example of the 19th century Russian literary phenomenon the Superfluous Man, and the list includes: Pushkin’s Onegin, Goncharov’s Oblomov, Lermontov’s Pechorin, and Turgenev’s Lavretsky (although I argue on the issue of Pechorin in my posts on that book). In The Duel, the superfluous man is Romashov, but here with the dying gasps of the Russian Empire, there are no shreds of romanticism left–just bleak despair of a man trapped in a cage constructed by a decayed and corrupt society in its final phase before complete chaos.

Translator Andrew R. MacAndrew explains that “Kuprin’s ‘unaffiliated’ protest against the cruelty of life under the Tsarist regime caused him trouble with authorities.” But no lover of the Bolsheviks, Kuprin went into an unsuccessful exile. He was  re-repatriated in 1938 and died shortly afterwards.


Filed under Kuprin Alexander

Home of the Gentry by Ivan Turgenev

The Home of the Gentry, Ivan Turgenev’s second novel, is an important work that explores the idea of the “superfluous man.” Written in 1858, its main theme is the maladjustment of the upper classes to their native Russian culture. The “superfluous man” is typically a member of the nobility who’s either been educated abroad or educated to worship all things European, and this leads to a complete emotional detachment and alienation from Russian culture. This adoration of Western culture created a longtime debate and split within Russian society’s intelligentsia, and on the other side of the debate  was Slavophilism with its disdain for Western culture. Home of the Gentry (sometimes translated as Nest of the Gentry) examines the fallout of the distancing of the upper classes from their own country through its main character, Lavretsky.

home of the gentryThe novel opens in the provincial town of O in the home of the Kalitins with affluent widow, Marya Kalitin who shares the house with her elderly aunt Marfa. The widow has two daughters and a son and leads a quiet, pleasant life spent with friends, acquaintances and neighbours. Marya Kalitin anticipates a match between her eldest daughter, the serious-minded Elizaveta (Liza) and a vain, visiting fop named Panshin. Panshin is a petty, penniless government official–the sort of man who excels at nothing, but thrives in mediocrity and can prattle on for hours without saying anything substantial. Of course, it will be a disastrous match of incompatible natures, but Marya Kalitin, a shallow, superficial woman approves of Panshin–mainly because he’s the sort of man she likes.

Panshin, the son of a “notorious gambler” inherits “paltry and chaotic material means.” But he finds his way quickly in life by means of his glib social manner and through the skill of innate craftiness:

“He was not at all bad-looking, gay, entertaining, always in good health and ready for anything; respectful when necessary, scathing whenever possible, and an excellent comrade, un charmant garcon. The promised land of high society spread out before him. Panshin soon learned the secret of such a life; he learned how to imbue himself with real respect for its rules, how to talk nonsense with quasi-facetious importance and give the impression of considering everything important to be nonsense, how to dance to perfection and dress in the English style….But basically he was cold and devious and even during the wildest of debauches his clever brown eyes were ever watchful and on guard.”

While Panshin’s conquest of Liza seems assured, all plans are upset when a neighbour returns to the area. This neighbour is Lavretsky, a burly middle-aged man who has returned home to his Russian estates after suffering the humiliation of discovering that he was a cuckold.

Lavretsky admires Liza from afar  and attracted by her religious sentiments, he silently bemoans the knowledge  that she will soon be lost to Panshin. Although Lavretsky married for love and recently suffered through horrible disillusions about his wife, he sees in Liza an opportunity for a renewed belief in love and purity. But as a married man, he’s not free to speak to Liza, and his continued presence at the Kalitin home is seen by Liza’s mother as a nuisance. Panshin had a clear field for Liza until Lavretsky’s return, and his hours alone with the young girl are challenged by Lavretsky’s ‘intrusion.’ Realizing that his secret love for Liza is pointless, Lavretsky then reads of his wife’s death in a Parisian newspaper, and suddenly beginning again with a new love seems possible….

While Home of the Gentry is on one level the simple story of a middle-aged married man who falls in love with a young innocent girl, the book is far more complex in its portrayal of Russian society. A fair amount of the novel is spent explaining Lavretsky’s background. He’s the result of a spite marriage between a serf and a member of the nobility, and while Lavretsky’s father made some sort of moral point by marrying his serf mistress, he spent years abroad, avoiding his responsibilities and dallying in England’s high society. When Lavretsky’s father, now a firm “anglomaniac” does return, his main interest is to take over his son’s education intending to make him a “Spartan.” This boils down to “dressing his son in a Scottish outfit” while the boy receives a useless hodge-podge of knowledge, including learning how to shoot a cross-bow and being “made to run around a high pole, on a string.”

As an adult, Lavretsky makes attempts to attend university but is harpooned by Vavrara, the first avaricious woman who comes along, and then he is dragged off to Paris. While Vavrara becomes the toast of Parisian salons, Lavretsky is seen as a buffoon. When he discovers his wife’s affair, he returns to his sadly neglected Russian estates with some notion of  ‘ploughing the land.’ In his long absence, his estate has begun to decay. His neglected house is in a state of disrepair with rooms covered with dust and dead flies:

” [The] estate had not yet gone wild, but it seemed already to have sunk into that quiet repose which possesses everything on earth wherever there is no restless human infection to affect it.”

The novel explores Russian society’s worship of all things European through its characters who lace their drawing room chatter with French words and phrases, and imagine that their lives are “just as in the best Paris salon.” Varvara’s “thoughts and feelings revolved about Paris,” and to her fellow Russians she seems to be a “foreign lioness.”  On the opposite side of these so-called ‘freethinkers’ who fail to appreciate Russia and all it has to offer is Lavretsky’s long-dead aunt Glafira, a solid if somewhat sour influence on events, and Aunt Marfa, an elderly woman who manages to lead an almost entirely separate life in her own quarters within the Kalitin household where visitors are plied with Russian food.

Turgenev’s marvellous novel is at its best when relating Lavretsky’s history and the affectations of the gentry. Also particularly effective are the descriptions of Lavretsky’s neglected properties. After all, if Lavretsky’s estates are his ‘nests,’ not many creatures–human or otherwise–foul their own nests, and so when Lavretsky returns to the decay and filth of his country estate, the neglect is a manifestation and a reflection of the upper-classes and their unheathly attitude towards Russia. The love story in the novel is its weakest point. The rapidly growing (almost instant) love between Lavretsky and the largely undeveloped character, Liza, happens so quickly with Lavretsky seeing Liza as an ideal–rather than as an individual. Lavretsky interprets Liza’s religious bent for sincerity and seriousness (she is–after all an antidote to his wife). But since he selects unsuitable women, she’s just his next choice.

Turgenev is sometimes derided as the epitome of the Westernized-Russian, but Home of the Gentry shows that this label is a simplification of Turgenev’s belief system, for it’s clear in the novel that Turgenev loves Russia and the Russian countryside but sees a dangerous polarization between feudalism and modernization. The upper class Russian worship of western society is seen in the novel as a patchy, pretentious, bastardized translation of  foreign ideas and which results in a system of education for the nobility that ultimately encourages an emotional divorcement from Russia. Lavretsky is the result of this system. Half serf and half nobility, he fits into neither. He’s taught that everything worthwhile in life has its genesis in Europe, so he goes there and doesn’t fit in. Returning home to his neglected property, he’s still useless and as such he’s the epitome of the superfluous man. Turgenev’s novel appeared about 60 years before Russian society’s violent explosion of ideas, values, and class differences, and in many ways it’s a presage for the revolution.

My Penguin edition is translated by Richard Freeborn.


Filed under Turgenev