Saturday, December 5, 2009

Books: Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev

Once I left school, I started reading the introductions to novels, when they had them, since no one was around to spoon feed me context (which in the past I disdained to consider relevant, but I come to appreciate more and more as I create my own contextual database, reading more and more). Unfortunately, reading introductions first often colors one’s reading of the novel, such that during my reading of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, I was constantly seeking the development of the early image of the “nihilist”—a figure with which I’ve been long fascinated, and which the introduction of my moldy, hardcover copy of this book (left, now, in some airplane’s seat-pocket) posits was first established in this very book. I’d always considered nihilism a particularly French sensation, and known the Russians to be Francophiles (if not Francofetishists), so was somewhat surprised that the concept might have Russian origin (for I expect communist Russians to be nihilists, of course, but Turgenev published Fathers and Sons in 1862).

But to be honest, I found Bazarov a rather disappointing nihilist—rather a romantic, in fact—and his compatriot (and the novel’s true hero) Arcadii a rather dry, typical hero of the Russian gentry, sweetly naïve and achieving fulfillment only in finding a woman even more sweetly naïve to marry and set up farm (Arcadii and Katya reappear almost in carbon copy in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as Levin and Kitty, except that each is a bit older and more tired—though no less naïve and traditional). Bazarov, a naturalist with little patience for the affection of his parents, falls hopelessly in love with the widow Odintsova. When she rejects him, he (arguably purposely) contracts the quick-killing typhus (by touching an infected person’s wound with his own open wound—an experiment someone with his scientific knowledge would know would lead to infection).

As also discovered in reading the introduction, Turgenev lost most of his readership with the publication of this novel; older readers were offended, as they thought he was siding with the young nihilists, and younger readers thought that he was caricaturizing them, and siding with the “Fathers.” Having only read one other of Turgenev’s works, I would posit that he sides with no one, only observing people and the silly games they play with their minds, with a fascination much more pure than that of those who would follow—those writers like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, who had much clearer agendas. Turgenev, rather than trying to alight on the ideal way to live, simply sees the way we do live, a bemused smile on his face and a poignant chuckle in his throat.

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