Monday, June 29, 2009

Books: Spring Torrents, by Ivan Turgenev

This short Russian novel came highly recommended from a friend during a discussion over which Tolstoy novel is superior, Anna Karenina or War and Peace. That is, the person who recommended this book knew his stuff.

And so I was a bit disappointed when, more that halfway in, it didn't seem anything more than a typical 19th Century love story: simple, melodramatic, and hyperbolic. But after spending the first three-quarters of the novel convincing you that nothing particularly interesting is going to happen, that the naive hero Sanin has simply fallen madly for the beautiful young Italian girl originally engaged to a wealthy German shopkeeper, who serendipitously loves him back, has broken her engagement, and agreed to marry our simple hero, Turgenev dissolves the fantasy that is love-at-first-sight, fate, and happily-ever with the last few page turns.

In order to appease his love's mother, Sanin needs to raise an impressive amount of money rather quickly. The only way he can think of to do this is to sell his Russian estate, but he doesn't know how he'll manage to do that without returning home—and leaving his fiance even for a few days seems unbearable. Luckily, he runs into an old school friend, who has a beautiful and wealthy wife who owns the neighboring estate and will likely buy Sanin's. He takes a short trip out of Frankfurt to the countryside, where his friend is staying with his wife, where he proposes the sale to the attractive but somehow menacing woman. She asks for a few days to think about it, and during those days, she requries that Sanin attend the theatre with her, dine with her, and then go horseback riding. Out in the woods, she leads their galloping horses to a secluded shack. Sanin hasn't liked her one bit from the moment that he met her, but he is defenseless. She is beautiful, and wild, and fully in control. She had intended this from the start, her cold, cynical intellect charmed but rightfully lacking faith in his charmingly effusive affection for his fiance.

Because he is a weakling and a romantic, Sanin does not return to Frankfurt and marry the Italian girl, keeping this small tryst a secret, as most men would and, frankly, ought do. Instead, he writes his finace a letter filled with lies and never speaks to her again, instead following this woman like a servant for years afterward, going so far as to peel a pear for her husband one afternoon when the three are riding together in her carriage. (Said husband is a rather interesting character, who looks on his wife's many such trysts with detached amusement, getting all of his pleasure from overeating).

The story is told in flashback, and when we return to the "present" (1870, when all of the action had taken place in 1840), Sanin, alone, is reminded of the Italian girl, and writes her a letter. She writes back. After receiving Sanin's engagement-breaking letter 30 years ago, she emigrated to America with her family, where she married a successful man and had some lovely children.

Though not much of a feminist, I absolutely love the fact that, in the 19th Century, when the bulk of tragic love stories (like Anna Karenina) culminate in the death of a woman who has cheated, here is a story featuring two perfectly strong women and a weak and snivelling man. While Sanin's temptress does succumb to the early death that faces all 19th Century female characters who engage in sexual activities out of wedlock, no emphasis is put on her passing. I find it rather delightful that the young Italian girl is far from ruined by her broken engagement, and simply moves on to the next (and likely better) relationship. But the thing I find most delightful is that the inane Sanin is punished, repeatedly, for his idiocy and romanticism. This is less a story about men and women than about realists and romantics, and there's nothing I enjoy more than the popping of a romantic's white balloon. How impressively modern!

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