MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 14

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]

FATHERS AND SONS

Ivan Turgenev, 1862

Franklin Library 1984.  Translated by Constance Garnett.  Illustrations by Elaine Raphael and Don Bolognese.    Half navy leather, embossed in gold, with ridged spine; marbled end papers, gold edges to pages, and satin ribbon.

Is Bazarov a worse case than Raskolnikov?  Bazarov is the bane of us all – the young man who knows better than those who came before him.  He has found out the answer – and there can only be one answer.  So sure is his faith, that he knows that to implement his answer and lift the clouds of bondage and ignorance from the eyes of his countrymen, the end justifies the means.  He is, in short, a fanatic, or zealot – and in Russia he prefigures the horror of Communism.  The commentaries say Bazarov was a nihilist.  I looked that term up in Professor Blackburn’s Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.

A theory promoting the state of believing in nothing, or of having no allegiances and no purposes.

When you think about it, if you subscribe to that theory – that you believe in nothing – you are involved in a contradiction in terms.  ‘I believe that I don’t believe anything.’  That is like repudiating Cogito; ergo sum.  But triumphal hell-raisers are not confined by refinement.

Some writers are described as the writers’ writer or the novelists’ novelist – the latter was the term applied by Henry James to Turgenev.  Turgenev has as good a claim as any to the title.  His writing is easy, graceful and detached.  It is not long before you know that you are in the hands of a master.  It’s like getting into a car and realizing that you are in a Bentley.  It comes as a change from those great Russian writers who could explode into exclamation marks at the drop of a hat. 

This uncommittedness was as important in Russia then as it is today.  At that time, Russian fiction was intensely political.  In his Open Letter to Gogol, written in 1847, Belinsky had given a radical creed for the next generation – for the sons rather than the fathers.  It showed the way to would-be revolutionaries.  Dostoevsky read it to a private gathering and was condemned to death.

Turgenev came from a family that at least pretended to aristocratic roots.  There is more than a whiff of condescension is some of his writing.  But Turgenev was nothing if not urbane, and both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky distanced themselves from a man who looked to prefer Europe to Russia.  For his part, Turgenev was close to Flaubert and thought that the other two Russians were too preoccupied with religion.  That looks to us to be understandable, but things got so bad that Tolstoy challenged Turgenev to an uneventful duel.  They did not speak for seventeen years.  Writing in Russia then was combustible.

Turgenev is best remembered, and read, in the west for On the eve and Fathers and Sons.  In the latter, the author, who admired Hamlet, looked again at the inevitable conflict between the generations – that underlies so much of Hamlet.  It is about the personal and political coming of age of two young men – Arkady Kirsanov and Yevgeny Bazarov – and the grief that this brings to their fathers.  A connecting agent in the story – which looks to have been destined for the stage – is an attractive and wealthy widow, Madam Anna Odintsova.  The older generation has what may be called liberal views about the still medieval condition of the serfs in Russia – the Russians were at least six hundred years behind England – but the new generation has lost patience and rejects the lot of them.  As with all annihilators, they are light on about what to put in place after the revolution.  Like our politicians now, they are also shy of hard experience of life in the raw.  Although the author was far from being a radical, the reaction to Fathers and Sons was such that he thought it was as well to leave town for a while.

We are introduced to Bazarov in a sequence that Chekhov would have read.  We are told that he had ‘a special faculty for winning the confidence of the lower orders, though he never pandered to them and indeed was very offhand with them.’ Well, people who profess to love ‘the people’ often go to water or ice if they meet the real thing. 

But Bazarov is not one of those.  He is a young man of science – medicine – and his superiority lies there.  Arkady takes him home to meet his father and uncle.  Before breakfast the next day, Bazarov goes out to collect frogs – for science.  It does not take long for Bazarov to get well and truly under the skin of the uncle.  For Pavel Petrovich, a man who recognises nothing respects nothing.

Pavel Petrovich spoke with studious politeness.  He was secretly beginning to feel irritated.  Bazarov’s complete indifference exasperated his aristocratic nature.  This son of a medico was not only self-assured: he actually returned abrupt and reluctant answers, and there was a churlish, almost insolent note in his voice…… ‘He has no faith in principles, only in frogs.’

This is Madam Odintsova.

Anna Sergeyevna was a rather strange person.  Having no prejudices of any kind, and no strong conviction even, she was not put off by obstacles and she had no goal in life.  She had clear ideas about many things and a variety of interests; but nothing ever completely satisfied her; indeed, she did really seek satisfaction.  Her mind was at once probing and indifferent; any doubts she entertained were never smoothed into oblivion, nor ever swelled into unrest.  If she had not been rich and independent, she might perhaps have thrown herself into the struggle and experienced passion…..But life was easy for her, though tedious at times, and she continued to pursue her daily round without haste and rarely upsetting herself about anything.  Rainbow-coloured dreams occasionally danced before even her eyes, but she breathed more freely when they faded away, and did not regret them.  Her imagination certainly ranged beyond the bounds of what is considered permissible by conventional morality; but even then her blood flowed as quietly as ever in her fascinatingly graceful, tranquil body….Like all women who have not succeeded in falling in love, she hankered after someone without knowing what it was.  In reality, there was nothing she wanted, though it seemed to her that she wanted everything.

Here then is man at home with you and me – and with his pen.  Could Goya have improved on that portrait?  How would this widow react if one of these virile but unworldly young radicals fell for her?

Underlying all this conflict between the generations is a question that immediately came to the fore in France after 1789, but which is barely touched on in this book.  If you are going to rid yourselves of the caste of serfdom, why not get rid of the caste of royalty and the aristocracy?  That is always the big question.  Where and when will it all end?  And, more importantly, how will I be placed when the carousel comes to rest?  In Russia, the crushing answer came with Lenin.

This novel is a graceful reflection on our humanity, and we are blessed to be able to enjoy it and be enriched – even if it does prefigure the misery we are faced with by the Institute of Public Affairs.

This Franklin edition is a joy to hold and read.

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