This exquisite novel, first published in 1859, like so many great works of art, holds depths of meaning which at first sight lie veiled under the simplicity and harmony of the technique. To the English reader On the Eveis a charmingly drawn picture of a quiet Russian household, with a delicate analysis of a young girl's soul; but to Russians it is also a deep and penetrating diagnosis of the destinies of the Russia of the fifties.
Elena, the Russian girl, is the central figure of the novel. In comparing her with Turgenev's other women, the reader will remark that he is allowed to come into closer spiritual contact with her than even with Lisa. The successful portraits of women drawn by men in fiction are generally figures for the imagination to play on; however much that is told to one about them, the secret springs of their character are left a little obscure, but when Elena stands before us we know all the innermost secrets of her character. Her strength of will, her serious, courageous, proud soul, her capacity for passion, all the play of her delicate idealistic nature troubled by the contradictions, aspirations, and unhappiness that the dawn of love brings to her, all this is conveyed to us by the simplest and the most consummate art. The diary (chapter xvi.) that Elena keeps is in itself a masterly revelation of a young girl's heart; it has never been equalled by any other novelist. How exquisitely Turgenev reveals his characters may be seen by an examination of the parts Shubin the artist, and Bersenyev the student, play towards Elena. Both young men are in love with her, and the description of their after relations as friends, and the feelings of Elena towards them, and her own self-communings are interwoven with unfaltering skill. All the most complex and baffling shades of the mental life, which in the hands of many latter-day novelists build up characters far too thin and too unconvincing, in the hands of Turgenev are used with deftness and certainty to bring to light that great kingdom which is always lying hidden beneath the surface, beneath the common-place of daily life. In the difficult art of literary perspective, in the effective grouping of contrasts in character and the criss-cross of the influence of the different individuals, lies the secret of Turgenev's supremacy. As an example the reader may note how he is made to judge Elena through six pairs of eyes. Her father's contempt for his daughter, her mother's affectionate bewilderment, Shubin's petulant criticism, Bersenyev's half hearted enthralment, Insarov's recognition, and Zoya's indifference, being the facets for converging light on Elena's sincerity and depth of soul. Again one may note Turgenev's method for rehabilitating Shubin in our eyes; Shubin is simply made to criticise Stahov; the thing is done in a few seemingly careless lines, but these lines lay bare Shubin's strength and weakness, the fluidity of his nature.
A beautiful spring day was drawing to a close. High aloft in the clear sky floated small rosy clouds, which seemed never to drift past, but to be slowly absorbed into the blue depths beyond.
At an open window, in a handsome mansion situated in one of the outlying streets of O., the chief town of the government of that name—it was in the year 1842—there were sitting two ladies, the one about fifty years old, the other an old woman of seventy.
The name of the first was Maria Dmitrievna Kalitine. Her husband, who had formerly occupied the post of Provincial Procurator, and who was well known in his day as a good man of business—a man of bilious temperament, confident, resolute, and enterprising—had been dead ten years. He had received a good education, and had studied at the university, but as the family from which he sprang was a poor one, he had early recognized the necessity of making a career for himself and of gaining money.
Maria Dmitrievna married him for love. He was good-looking, he had plenty of sense, and, when he liked, he could be very agreeable. Maria Dmitrievna, whose maiden name was Pestof, lost her parents while she was still a child. She spent several years in an Institute at Moscow, and then went to live with her brother and one of her aunts at Pokrovskoe, a family estate situated fifteen versts from O. Soon afterwards her brother was called away on duty to St. Petersburgh, and, until a sudden death put an end to his career, he kept his aunt and sister with only just enough for them to live upon. Maria Dmitrievna inherited Pokrovskoe, but she did not long reside there. In the second year of her marriage with Kalitine, who had succeeded at the end of a few days in gaining her affections, Pokrovskoe was exchanged for another estate—one of much greater intrinsic value, but unattractive in appearance, and not provided with a mansion.
HOR AND KALINITCH
Anyone who has chanced to pass from the Bolhovsky district into the Zhizdrinsky district, must have been impressed by the striking difference between the race of people in the province of Orel and the population of the province of Kaluga. The peasant of Orel is not tall, is bent in figure, sullen and suspicious in his looks; he lives in wretched little hovels of aspen-wood, labours as a serf in the fields, and engages in no kind of trading, is miserably fed, and wears slippers of bast: the rent-paying peasant of Kaluga lives in roomy cottages of pine-wood; he is tall, bold, and cheerful in his looks, neat and clean of countenance; he carries on a trade in butter and tar, and on holidays he wears boots. The village of the Orel province (we are speaking now of the eastern part of the province) is usually situated in the midst of ploughed fields, near a water-course which has been converted into a filthy pool. Except for a few of the ever-accommodating willows, and two or three gaunt birch-trees, you do not see a tree for a mile round; hut is huddled up against hut, their roofs covered with rotting thatch…. The villages of Kaluga, on the contrary, are generally surrounded by forest; the huts stand more freely, are more upright, and have boarded roofs; the gates fasten closely, the hedge is not broken down nor trailing about; there are no gaps to invite the visits of the passing pig…. And things are much better in the Kaluga province for the sportsman. In the Orel province the last of the woods and copses will have disappeared five years hence, and there is no trace of moorland left; in Kaluga, on the contrary, the moors extend over tens, the forest over hundreds of miles, and a splendid bird, the grouse, is still extant there; there are abundance of the friendly larger snipe, and the loud-clapping partridge cheers and startles the sportsman and his dog by its abrupt upward flight.
VILLAGE OF SHEEP'S SPRINGS, March 20, 18—.
The doctor has just left me. At last I have got at something definite! For all his cunning, he had to speak out at last. Yes, I am soon, very soon, to die. The frozen rivers will break up, and with the last snow I shall, most likely, swim away … whither? God knows! To the ocean too. Well, well, since one must die, one may as well die in the spring. But isn't it absurd to begin a diary a fortnight, perhaps, before death? What does it matter? And by how much are fourteen days less than fourteen years, fourteen centuries? Beside eternity, they say, all is nothingness—yes, but in that case eternity, too, is nothing. I see I am letting myself drop into metaphysics; that's a bad sign—am I not rather faint-hearted, perchance? I had better begin a description of some sort. It's damp and windy out of doors.
I'm forbidden to go out. What can I write about, then? No decent man talks of his maladies; to write a novel is not in my line; reflections on elevated topics are beyond me; descriptions of the life going on around me could not even interest me; while I am weary of doing nothing, and too lazy to read. Ah, I have it, I will write the story of all my life for myself. A first-rate idea! Just before death it is a suitable thing to do, and can be of no harm to any one. I will begin.
Markedly transitional, however, as was the Russian mind of the days of Smoke, Turgenev, with the faculty that distinguishes the great artist from the artist of second rank, the faculty of seeking out and stamping the essential under confused and fleeting forms, has once and for ever laid bare the fundamental weakness of the Slav nature, its weakness of will. Smoke is an attack, a deserved attack, not merely on the Young Russia Party, but on all the Parties; not on the old ideas or the new ideas, but on the proneness of the Slav nature to fall a prey to a consuming weakness, a moral stagnation, a feverish ennui, the Slav nature that analyses everything with force and brilliancy, and ends, so often, by doing nothing. Smoke is the attack, bitter yet sympathetic, of a man who, with growing despair, has watched the weakness of his countrymen, while he loves his country all the more for the bitterness their sins have brought upon it. Smoke is the scourging of a babbling generation, by a man who, grown sick to death of the chatter of reformers and reactionists, is visiting the sins of the fathers on the children, with a contempt out of patience for the hereditary vice in the Slav blood. And this time the author cannot be accused of partisanship by any blunderer. ÔA plague oÕ both your houses,Õ is his message equally to the Bureaucrats and the Revolutionists. And so skilfully does he wield the thong, that every lash falls on the back of both parties. An exquisite piece of political satire is Smoke; for this reason alone it would stand unique among novels.Ê