The Strengths Of His Passivity - Ivan Turgenev

A GAME might be played about the great Russian authors: With which of them do we feel most at home? Feeling at home with them is important, for it explains their extraordinary popularity with Englishspeaking readers from the time translations of their work first appeared. The Victorian intellectuals deeply respected Goethe and the German philosophers and admired Balzac and Victor Hugo, Bbut Tolstoy and Turgenev, and later on Dostoyevsky as well, they really took to their hearts. Of course, their enthusiasm was for the charm of the unknown, which suddenly seemed wonderfully accessible and familiar. But that enthusiasm was based on an often remarkable ignorance. In the course of a rhapsodic review of the French translation of ''Anna Karenina,'' Matthew Arnold broke off to remark patronizingly that ''the crown of literature is of course great poetry'' and the Russians had not produced a great poet. Presumably he had never heard of Pushkin.
But Arnold certainly knew all about Turgenev, who was taken up in England as much as or more than in cosmopolitan Germany and France; he was invited out shooting on great estates and was given an honorary degree at Oxford. The English (and Henry James) saw him as one of themselves. Not only was he obviously a gentleman, but his art - to borrow the perhaps unintentionally ironic verdict of the literary historian Prince Mirsky - ''answered to the demands of everyone.'' The right admired its sensitivity and esthetic beauty and the left its liberal tendencies, which they saw as embodying their own radical and revolutionary program. But the danger of pleasing everyone is that in the end you please no one; that happened to Turgenev, even in his own lifetime. More than any other factor, perhaps, it has contributed to the gradual eclipse of his once great reputation.
One feels that Turgenev's novels should have increased in stature by virtue of their wise and civilized impartiality, while those of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky should appear more and more clearly as having been written by opinionated fanatics. But art does not work that way. Turgenev's humanity now looks like weakness. As his best biographer, Leonard Schapiro, has observed, ''Much of Turgenev's life and work can be explained in terms of a longing and admiration for the kind of all-consuming will he himself lacked.'' Probably he never recovered from the capricious domination of his mother, a rich, embittered and often sadistic woman, who flogged the serfs on her large estate and sometimes treated her son as if he were one of them. Though he had one or two affairs with servant-girls, and produced an illegitimate daughter whom he looked after but who remained a constant source of worry to him, Turgenev never achieved a mature relationship with a woman. All his later life he clung to Pauline Viardot, the masterful Parisian opera singer who, together with her husband, provided him with a ready-made home and family.
There seems to be a connection between weakness of will in an author and the length at which he can most successfully work. Turgenev admired Tolstoy's stories but abominated ''War and Peace.'' The repetitive patterns in his own novels - indecisive men and pure, strong-hearted women - make them predictable and boring before they end; but weakness comes into its own in the forms Turgenev was best at - the sketch, the story and the personal letter. ''A Sportsman's Sketches,'' which is supposed to have contributed to the emancipation of the serf, still holds its own as a work of singular freshness and charm; Turgenev's mother said its prose reminded her of the scent of wild strawberries.
But the tale that exploits most effectively Turgenev's gifts of pathos and humor, insight and self-awareness - the strengths of his own passivity, so to speak - is ''First Love.'' It is a masterpiece that shows the curious literalism of Turgenev's talent. He is best when eschewing all fancy stuff and describing exactly what happened, as he does in ''First Love,'' in ''A Sportsman's Sketches,'' in the miniature memoir ''A Fire at Sea'' and in his extraordinary eyewitness account of the death by guillotine of a French murderer, ''The Execution of Tropmann.'' His famous style seems built for international consumption; he wrote in French as easily as in Russian, and he was fluent in German and competent in English, though the letters he wrote to English friends demonstrate a rather peculiar vocabulary. But appearances are misleading. Turgenev's Russian style, far from going easily into other languages, is exceedingly difficult to translate: The ordinary sort of faithful rendering, which will do nicely for Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, quite fails to do him justice. The translator must understand, from inside, the wonderful supple intimacy of his Russian and evolve a comparable kind of ease in English idiom. This Isaiah Berlin has triumphantly managed, producing the best translation available of Turgenev's most effective tale.
Turgenev was more honest with himself than the other great Russian writers, and in his prose this transparent honesty combines with a profound sympathy for romantic delusion. In ''First Love,'' the young Vladimir falls in love with Zinaida because he knows about love from reading Schiller and sentimental fiction. But the literary springs of his feeling do not in the least affect the passionate and spontaneous nature of the emotion. When she mockingly tells him to jump off his seat on a high wall if he really loves her, he finds himself falling as if pushed from behind. Going to bed, he lays his head down carefully, afraid of upsetting the precarious joy that fills his entire being.
Zinaida herself is by far the most realistic of Turgenev's heroines, and her passion for the boy's father has a kind of earthiness and substantiality that is wholly convincing. Turgenev knew how to render the erotic. The white blind that Vladimir sees suddenly and softly descend over the dark transparency of Zinaida's window is more suggestive than any account of doings in bed. Zinaida's mother, a slatternly old princess, and the hero's father, with his withdrawn and dangerous attractiveness, are memorable portraits from life. The events of the tale are certainly taken from the writer's own adolescence, his father having been a noted roue who married his mother for her money and died young.
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