Liberals, Radicals, and the Making of a Literary Masterpiece

Turgenev was thirty-three years old when “A Sportman’s Sketches” came out, and life was good. His despotic mother had died two years earlier, and he inherited a fortune, which he used liberally: he liked to eat well, going so far as to acquire a well-known chef for a thousand rubles, and he didn’t mind loaning money to his friends. Some people found him a little too eager to please, or distastefully vain; Tolstoy, who lived with Turgenev briefly in St. Petersburg, couldn’t stand how much attention he paid to his own grooming. But, from another perspective, Turgenev was principled and brave. In 1852, he had his first serious run-in with the authorities, after publishing a too praiseful obituary of Gogol, whom many viewed as a satirist of tsarism. This, on top of the politics of his stories about serfs, was too much for Nicholas I. Turgenev was arrested and spent a month behind bars in St. Petersburg, after which he was confined to his estate. The arrest, and the publication of his book, catapulted him to the forefront of Russian literature. Dostoyevsky, just a few years younger than Turgenev, was then serving a much longer and harsher sentence in Siberia; Tolstoy, a decade younger than Turgenev, was still busy losing money at cards.

Turgenev’s novels and stories in the next few years were a great success. “Rudin,” his first novel, painted a portrait of the idealistic but ineffectual intellectuals of the eighteen-forties, able to commit themselves neither in politics nor in love. (The title character, Dmitry Rudin, was based partly on Bakunin.) “A Nest of Gentlefolk,” a story of disappointed love, showed the old Russian nobility at their best, trampled in their finer feelings by less scrupulous people, but holding on to their morals and their dignity. Throughout this time, Turgenev also published stories and occasional essays. He was in his glory. “His art answered to the demands of everyone,” the great Russian literary critic D. S. Mirsky later wrote. “It was the mean term, the middle style for which the forties had groped in vain. It avoided in an equal measure the pitfalls of grotesque caricature and of sentimental ‘philanthropy.’ It was perfect.”

This love affair with the reading public could not last. The reception of Turgenev’s next novel, “On the Eve,” from 1860, was far less kind. Yet another tale about love and politics, this one begins with two young men, a sculptor named Shubin and a scholar named Bersenev, vying for the hand of a pretty young woman named Elena. She clearly prefers the serious Bersenev to the flighty Shubin, and all seems well except that Bersenev can’t stop talking about his amazing friend from school, Insarov. Insarov is a Bulgarian exile and a revolutionary, biding his time in Russia until he can return to his home country and lead his people to throw off the yoke of the Turks. Bersenev is adamant that Elena should meet Insarov; when she finally does, she falls in love with him, and they run off to liberate Bulgaria together. Insarov dies on the way, but Elena goes on without him. No one from her family ever sees her again.

Politically minded young readers were disappointed—especially by Insarov’s nationality. Why was he Bulgarian? “We understand why he can’t be Polish,” the radical critic Nikolai Dobrolyubov wrote, alluding to the burgeoning movement for Polish independence from the Russian Empire. “But why he isn’t Russian—in that lies the entire problem.”

“Wouldn’t it be great if we could do this anonymously online?”

Cartoon by Liam Francis Walsh

Dobrolyubov’s review of the novel was seventeen thousand words long and appeared in Russia’s premier literary journal, The Contemporary, to which Turgenev had for years contributed and whose editor was a close friend. The journal had published “A Sportsman’s Sketches” and his first two novels; it had also been Belinsky’s home, and Herzen’s, and Tolstoy’s. But in the mid-eighteen-fifties, keeping up with advanced opinion, it had taken a sharp leftward turn. In this, it was led by two young literary critics, Dobrolyubov and Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Unlike Turgenev and Tolstoy and most other writers up to that time, Dobrolyubov and Chernyshevsky were not landed gentry; their fathers were priests, and both had graduated from divinity school. This set them apart socially, as well as politically, from the older literary generation.

The new radicals were impatient with their predecessors, and the death of Nicholas I and his replacement by Alexander II, a young, reformist tsar, only made them more so. As often happens, a little bit of reform led to calls for much wider reform. The younger generation was in no mood to wait on the Tsar’s good intentions. They were revolutionaries, and said so over and over, in very long book reviews, of which Turgenev was increasingly the target.

In later years, Turgenev claimed that “Fathers and Sons” was inspired by an encounter with a young Russian doctor on a train; the doctor amazed Turgenev by caring much more about his plans for curing cattle diseases than about literature. But another model for Bazarov, which everyone recognized at the time, was Dobrolyubov, and by extension the other young radicals. Turgenev saw in them a crude but powerful materialism that counterposed the needs of the peasantry against the vague consolations of art. Turgenev’s friend Belinsky had proclaimed that art must have a social purpose; the new radicals were sometimes willing to dispense with art altogether. As Bazarov says, “A decent chemist is worth twenty poets.”

The final piece of the novel’s background was more personal than literary. Turgenev had never married. Like his earlier character Rudin, he had engaged in various flirtations that brought him to the brink of proposing—including with a sister each of Bakunin and Tolstoy—but he’d always pulled back. And, as was common, he had slept with serfs on his mother’s estate. By far his longest-lasting attachment, however, was to a married woman named Pauline Viardot, a celebrated French opera singer whom he had met in St. Petersburg in the early eighteen-forties and then followed around Europe; he often lived in the Viardots’ house, as a close family friend and occasionally Pauline’s lover.

But he did, in his early twenties, have an out-of-wedlock child, a daughter, with a woman on his mother’s estate. Unofficially, he acknowledged the girl and took on financial responsibility for her. When she was eight years old, he sent her to France to live with the Viardots. In the eighteen-fifties, when he himself started to make a home in France, he and his daughter, now named Paulinette, began to spend more time together. Turgenev found it frustrating work. “She does not like music, poetry, nature—or dogs—and that is all that I like,” he complained to a friend back in Russia. This did not make her a bad person, Turgenev went on. “She replaces the qualities which she lacks by other, more positive and more useful qualities. But for me—between ourselves—she is Insarov all over again. I respect her, and that is not enough.” The invocation of Insarov, the Bulgarian revolutionary from “On the Eve,” coupled with the date of this letter (October, 1860, as Turgenev was beginning work on “Fathers and Sons”), led at least one prominent Turgenev scholar to argue that “Fathers and Sons” is also a book about Turgenev’s relationship with his daughter.

The book feels jagged at times. Bazarov insults and annoys the Kirsanov brothers—Arkady’s father, Nikolai, and uncle, Pavel—and then grows bored and persuades Arkady to go into town with him. There they drink and eat and meet a pretty aristocrat named Odintsova, with whom they both fall in love. “What a body!” Bazarov remarks. “I wish I had her on my dissecting table.” She invites them to her estate. This part of the book, where Turgenev returns to the familiar ground of people sighing over one another, is the weakest. But then Bazarov and Arkady go visit Bazarov’s family. It turns out that the fearsome Bazarov is worshipped by his parents. His mother breaks down in tears at the sight of him. His father annoys Bazarov with his solicitousness. When old Dr. Bazarov gets up the courage to ask Arkady what he thinks of his son, and when Arkady tells him honestly that he thinks Bazarov will be a famous man someday, the father is overcome with emotion. Naturally, Bazarov soon grows bored of his parents, and he leaves to see Odintsova and then even to visit the Kirsanovs again.

The fathers in “Fathers and Sons” are not the tyrannical or distant fathers of the previous generation—they are not Turgenev’s father. Nor are they the vicious serf owners of “A Sportsman’s Sketches.” They are loving, out of date, and ineffectual. In fact, they are liberals. And still they cannot communicate as they would like with their sons. Perhaps they are too soft. They spent their youth having long conversations about Hegel. Barred from genuine political action by an oppressive state, they turned in on themselves. When Bazarov sees Arkady’s father reading Pushkin, he scoffs. For Turgenev, who as a student had twice caught glimpses of Pushkin in St. Petersburg before the poet’s death, this was borderline sacrilege. But Bazarov is right! Maybe Nikolai Kirsanov should read something other than Pushkin while his estate falls into ruins.

And what of the sons? Arkady loves his father and seeks to find common ground with him; in the end, he gets married, returns home, and takes up the management of the estate. As for Bazarov, and Turgenev’s attitude toward him, you can see why people were confused. Bazarov is brilliant and dynamic; he says something interesting nearly every time he opens his mouth. He is also basically a decent guy—when he shoots Pavel Kirsanov in the leg after the older man challenges him to a duel, he immediately treats the wound. At the end of the book, he contracts typhus from a patient and dies, too young. (Dobrolyubov, Turgenev’s literary tormentor, died of tuberculosis in late 1861.) There are many things in the book that call forth sympathy for Bazarov in the reader.

At the same time, Bazarov is unaccountably rude. He yawns in people’s faces. (According to Chernyshevsky, Dobrolyubov had once cut short a conversation with the much older Turgenev, saying, “Talking with you is boring me.”) Bazarov is also, for a guy committed to science and the revolution, very horny. Of just about every woman mentioned in his presence, he asks, “Is she pretty?” He might say in his defense that the question cuts through a lot of romantic mumbo-jumbo. “Take a look at the anatomy of the eye,” he tells Arkady. “Where are you going to find that enigmatic glance you spoke of? It’s all romantic rubbish, moldy aesthetic rot.” (And then: “Let’s go and look at my beetle.”) But there are also direct political criticisms of Bazarov in the book. Much of the time, he speaks of the needs of the peasantry. He will dedicate his life to the people. Yet he is an élitist. Discussing with Arkady a silly progressive-minded aristocrat of their generation, Bazarov says, “I need fatheads like him. It’s not for gods to waste their time baking pots, is it now?” Arkady is shocked. “Only now,” Turgenev writes, “did he glimpse the bottomless depth of Bazarov’s vanity.” In the future, this vanity would reappear as Lenin’s theory of the revolutionary vanguard.

Turgenev was advancing, novelistically, a line of thought that runs through all his work. Beliefs are admirable, strong beliefs perhaps even more so. But there is a point at which belief can tip over into fanaticism. Turgenev had seen this with Belinsky, and in Bazarov he re-created and dramatized it. Bazarov loves nature but turns it into a science project, loves Odintsova but feels bad about it, and loves his parents but refuses to indulge this affection by spending time with them. All of this, from Turgenev’s perspective, is a mistake. It’s well and good, in other words, to talk about the existence of God and the future of the revolution, but you need to take a break for lunch.

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