Turgenev: A Study
WITH A FOREWORD BY JOSEPH CONRAD
LONDON: 48 PALL MALL
W. COLLINS SONS & CO. LTD.
GLASGOW MELBOURNE AUCKLAND
Dear Edward—I am glad to hear that you areabout to publish a study of Turgenev, that fortunateartist who has found so much in life for us and nodoubt for himself, with the exception of bare justice.Perhaps that will come to him, too, in time. Yourstudy may help the consummation. For his luckpersists after his death. What greater luck anartist like Turgenev could wish for than to find inthe English-speaking world a translator who hasmissed none of the most delicate, most simplebeauties of his work, and a critic who has knownhow to analyse and point out its high qualities withperfect sympathy and insight.
After twenty odd years of friendship (and myfirst literary friendship too) I may well permitmyself to make that statement, while thinking ofyour wonderful Prefaces as they appeared from timeto time in the volumes of Turgenev’s completeedition, the last of which came into the light ofpublic indifference in the ninety-ninth year of thenineteenth century.
With that year one may say, with some justice, thatthe age of Turgenev had come to an end too; onlywork so simple and human, so independent of thetransitory formulas and theories of art belongs asyou point out in the Preface to Smoke “to all time.”
Turgenev’s creative activity covers about thirtyyears. Since it came to an end the social andpolitical events in Russia have moved at an acceleratedpace, but the deep origins of them, in the moraland intellectual unrest of the souls, are recorded inthe whole body of his work with the unerring lucidityof a great national writer. The first stirrings, thefirst gleams of the great forces can be seen almostin every page of the novels, of the short storiesand of A Sportsman’s Sketches—those marvellouslandscapes peopled by unforgettable figures.
Those will never grow old. Fashions in monstersdo change, but the truth of humanity goes on forever, unchangeable and inexhaustible in the varietyof its disclosures. Whether Turgenev’s art, whichhas captured it with such mastery and such gentleness,is for “all time” it is hard to say. Since, asyou say yourself, he brings all his problems andcharacters to the test of love we may hope that itwill endure at least till the infinite emotions of loveare replaced by the exact simplicity of perfectedEugenics. But even by then, I think, womenwould not have changed much; and the womenof Turgenev who understood them so tenderly, soreverently and so passionately—they, at least, arecertainly for all time.
Women are, one may say, the foundation of hisart. They are Russian of course. Never was awriter so profoundly, so whole-souledly national.But for non-Russian readers, Turgenev’s Russia isbut a canvas on which the incomparable artist ofhumanity lays his colours and his forms in the greatlight and the free air of the world. Had he inventedthem all and also every stick and stone, brook andhill and field in which they move, his personageswould have been just as true and as poignant intheir perplexed lives. They are his own and alsouniversal. Any one can accept them with no morequestion than one accepts the Italians of Shakespeare.
In the larger non-Russian view, what shouldmake Turgenev sympathetic and welcome to theEnglish-speaking world, is his essential humanity.All his creations, fortunate and unfortunate, oppressedand oppressors are human beings, not strangebeasts in a menagerie or damned souls knockingthemselves about in the stuffy darkness of mysticalcontradictions. They are human beings, fit to live,fit to suffer, fit to struggle, fit to win, fit to lose, inthe endless and inspiring game of pursuing from dayto day the ever-receding future.
I began by calling him lucky, and he was, in asense. But one ends by having some doubts. Tobe so great without the slightest parade and so finewithout any tricks of “cleverness” must be fatalto any man’s influence with his contemporaries.
Frankly, I don’t want to appear as qualified tojudge of things Russian. It wouldn’t be true. Iknow nothing of them. But I am aware of a fewgeneral truths, such as, for instance, that no man,whatever may be the loftiness of his character, thepurity of his motives and the peace of his conscience—noman, I say, likes to be beaten with sticksduring the greater part of his existence. Fromwhat one knows of his history it appears clearlythat in Russia almost any stick was good enoughto beat Turgenev with in his latter years. When hedied the characteristically chicken-hearted Autocracyhastened to stuff his mortal envelope into the tombit refused to honour, while the sensitive Revolutionistswent on for a time flinging after his shadethose jeers and curses from which that impartiallover of all his countrymen had suffered so muchin his lifetime. For he, too, was sensitive. Everypage of his writing bears its testimony to the fatalabsence of callousness in the man.
And now he suffers a little from other things.In truth it is not the convulsed terror-hauntedDostoevski but the serene Turgenev who is undera curse. For only think! Every gift has beenheaped on his cradle: absolute sanity and thedeepest sensibility, the clearest vision and thequickest responsiveness, penetrating insight andunfailing generosity of judgment, an exquisite perceptionof the visible world and an unerring instinctfor the significant, for the essential in the life of menand women, the clearest mind, the warmest heart,the largest sympathy—and all that in perfectmeasure. There’s enough there to ruin the prospectsof any writer. For you know very well, my dearEdward, that if you had Antinous himself in a boothof the world’s-fair, and killed yourself in protestingthat his soul was as perfect as his body, you wouldn’tget one per cent of the crowd struggling next doorfor a sight of the Double-headed Nightingale or ofsome weak-kneed giant grinning through a horsecollar.—Yours,
For permission to use certain Prefaces, which Iwrote originally for my wife’s Translations of theNovels and Tales of Ivan Turgenev, and for the useof a few quotations from her versions I have tothank Mr. William Heinemann, the publisher of theCollected Edition.
|Turgenev’s Critics and his Detractors||1|
|Youth, Family and Early Work||25|
|“A Sportsman’s Sketches”||35|
|“A House of Gentlefolk”||73|
|“On the Eve”||91|
|“Fathers and Children”||107|
|Note on Turgenev’s Life—His Character and Philosophy—“Enough”—“Hamlet and Don Quixote”—The “Poems in Prose”—Turgenev’s Last Illness and Death—His Epitaph||185|
TURGENEV’S CRITICS AND
TURGENEV’S CRITICS AND HIS DETRACTORS
A writer, Mr. Robert Lynd, has said: “It is thecustom when praising a Russian writer to do so atthe expense of all other Russian writers. It isas though most of us were monotheists in our devotionto authors, and could not endure to see anyrespect paid to the images of the rivals of the godsof the moment. And so one year Tolstoy is laidprone as Dagon, and another year, Turgenev. Andno doubt the day will come when Dostoevsky willfall from his huge eminence.”
One had hoped that the disease, long endemic inRussia, of disparaging Turgenev, would not havespread to England, but some enthusiastic explorersof things Russian came back home with a mildvirus and communicated the spores of the misunderstanding.That misunderstanding, dating atleast fifty years back, was part of the polemics ofthe rival Russian political parties. The Englishmanwho finds it strange that Turgenev’s pictures ofcontemporary Russian life should have excited suchangry heat and raised such clouds of acrimonioussmoke may imagine the fate of a great writer inIreland to-day who should go on his way serenely,holding the balance level between the Unionists, theNationalists, the Sinn Féin, the people of Dublin,and the people of Belfast. The more impartial werehis pictures as art, the louder would rise the hubbubthat his types were “exceptional,” that his insightwas “limited,” that he did not understand either thepoliticians or the gentry or the peasants, that hehad not fathomed all that was in each “movement,”that he was palming off on us heroes who had “noreal existence.” And, in the sense that Turgenev’sserene and beautiful art excludes thousands ofaspects that filled the newspapers and the minds ofhis contemporaries, his detractors have reason.
Various Russian critics, however, whom Mr.Maurice Baring, and a French biographer, M.Haumant, have echoed, have gone further, and intheir critical ingenuity have mildly damned theRussian master’s creations. It seems to thesegentlemen that there is a great deal of water inTurgenev’s wine. Mr. Baring tells us that Tolstoyand Dostoevsky “reached the absolute truth of thelife which was round them,” and that “people arebeginning to ask themselves whether Turgenev’spictures are true (!), whether the Russians that hedescribes ever existed, and whether the praisewhich was bestowed upon him by his astonishedcontemporaries all over Europe was not a grossexaggeration.”
“Turgenev painted people of the same epoch, thesame generation; he dealt with the same material;he dealt with it as an artist and as a poet, as a greatartist and a great poet. But his vision was weak andnarrow compared with that of Tolstoy, and his understandingwas cold and shallow compared with that ofDostoevsky. His characters beside those of Tolstoyseem caricatures, and beside those of Dostoevsky theyare conventional.... When all is said, Turgenevwas a great poet. What time has not taken away fromhim, and what time can never take away, is the beautyof his language and the poetry in his work.... Turgenevnever wrote anything better than the book whichbrought him fame, the Sportsman’s Sketches. In thisbook nearly the whole of his talent finds expression.
“No one can deny that the characters of Turgenevlive; they are intensely vivid. Whether they are trueto life is another question. The difference betweenthe work of Tolstoy and Turgenev is this: that Turgenev’scharacters are as living as any characters arein books, but they belong, comparatively speaking, tobookland and are thus conventional; whereas Tolstoy’scharacters belong to life. The fault which Russiancritics find with Turgenev’s characters is that they areexaggerated, that there is an element of caricature inthem, and that they are permeated by the faults of theauthor’s own character, namely, his weakness, and,above all, his self-consciousness.
“... Than Bazarov there is no character in thewhole of his work which is more alive ... (but he is)a book-character, extraordinarily vivid and livingthough he be.... Dostoevsky’s