Fathers and Sons: A Novel

Leypoldt & Holt
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Leypoldt & Holt
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Dec 31, 1867
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...'Tell us a story, colonel,' we said at last to Nikolai Ilyitch.

The colonel smiled, puffed out a coil of tobacco smoke between his moustaches, passed his hand over his grey hair, looked at us and considered. We all had the greatest liking and respect for Nikolai Ilyitch, for his good-heartedness, common sense, and kindly indulgence to us young fellows. He was a tall, broad-shouldered, stoutly-built man; his dark face, 'one of the splendid Russian faces,' [Footnote: Lermontov in theTreasurer's Wife.—AUTHOR'S NOTE.] straight-forward, clever glance, gentle smile, manly and mellow voice—everything about him pleased and attracted one.

'All right, listen then,' he began.

It happened in 1813, before Dantzig. I was then in the E—— regiment of cuirassiers, and had just, I recollect, been promoted to be a cornet. It is an exhilarating occupation—fighting; and marching too is good enough in its way, but it is fearfully slow in a besieging army. There one sits the whole blessed day within some sort of entrenchment, under a tent, on mud or straw, playing cards from morning till night. Perhaps, from simple boredom, one goes out to watch the bombs and redhot bullets flying.

At first the French kept us amused with sorties, but they quickly subsided. We soon got sick of foraging expeditions too; we were overcome, in fact, by such deadly dulness that we were ready to howl for sheer ennui. I was not more than nineteen then; I was a healthy young fellow, fresh as a daisy, thought of nothing but getting all the fun I could out of the French... and in other ways too... you understand what I mean... and this is what happened. Having nothing to do, I fell to gambling. All of a sudden, after dreadful losses, my luck turned, and towards morning (we used to play at night) I had won an immense amount. Exhausted and sleepy, I came out into the fresh air, and sat down on a mound. It was a splendid, calm morning; the long lines of our fortifications were lost in the mist; I gazed till I was weary, and then began to doze where I was sitting.


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.


TURGENEV was the first writer who was able, having both Slavic and universal imagination enough for it, to interpret modern Russia to the outer world, and Virgin Soil was the last word of his greater testament. It was the book in which many English readers were destined to make his acquaintance about a generation ago, and the effect of it was, like Swinburne's Songs Before Sunrise, Mazzini's Duties of Man, and other congenial documents, to break up the insular confines in which they had been reared and to enlarge their new horizon. Afterwards they went on to read Tolstoi, and Turgenev's powerful and antipathetic fellow-novelist, Dostoievsky, and many other Russian writers: but as he was the greatest artist of them all, his individual revelation of his country's predicament did not lose its effect. Writing in prose he achieved a style of his own which went as near poetry as narrative prose can do. without using the wrong music: while over his realism or his irony he cast a tinge of that mixed modern and oriental fantasy which belonged to his temperament. He suffered in youth, and suffered badly, from the romantic malady of his century, and that other malady of Russia, both expressed in what M. Haumand terms his "Hamletisme." But in Virgin Soil he is easy and almost negligent master of his instrument, and though he is an exile and at times a sharply embittered one, he gathers experience round his theme as only the artist can who has enriched leis art by having outlived his youth without forgetting its pangs, joys, mortifications, and love-songs.
The novel “First Love” was Turgénieff’s favourite work, as he more than once confessed. What the author prized in this purely intimate but beautifully finished story was its fidelity to actuality; that is to say, he prized the personal recollections of early youth. In that respect this story has a prominent interest for readers, since it narrates—according to the testimony of the author—an actual fact in his life, and that without the slightest artificial colouring. To what degree Turgénieff’s testimony is credible, remarks one critic, is a question which can be rightly decided only by biographical documents. Famous writers are particularly inclined by nature to romantic coquetry with their own personalities—a characteristic which was, apparently, to some extent, inherent in Turgénieff, despite his renowned modesty. Famous writers are fond of leading their contemporaries—and still more posterity—astray with regard to the reflection of intimate details of their lives in their artistic works.... At any rate, Russian artistic productions, in which the authors have endeavoured to set forth biographical details, must be scrutinised with extreme cautiousness. The author, while imagining that he is thoroughly sincere, may involuntarily indulge in inventions concerning himself. But in its literary aspect this story indubitably is one of Turgénieff’s masterpieces, and in it the original character of its chief heroine, Princess Zinaída Zasyékin, is depicted with remarkable clearness and charm.... The artist threw off this light and elegant little intimate study by way of relaxation after “On the Eve,” a romance dealing with a broad social problem, and by way of preparation for a new work, still more serious in intention, “Fathers and Children.”

“First Love” does not contain any social types, does not deal with any social problems. It consists wholly, so to speak, of poetry. The young Princess is one of the author’s most poetical creations. Her character is depicted with marvellous grace and elegance in the little scenes which exert so great an influence over her sixteen-year-old admirer. In this young man’s father Turgénieff sketched his own father, who did not love his wife, and whose domestic relations were identical with those here described. His wife was considerably younger than he, and he had married her for her money, One curious detail concerns the Pole, Malévsky. This “dubious Count, swindler, and, in general, dirty little gentleman,” as one critic expresses it, “drawn with great artistic vivacity, and with unconcealed scorn, is a very typical figure; and such repulsive Poles were formerly encountered in great numbers in Holy Russia,—and are still to be met with. In this character are concentrated the unpleasant characteristics of the Polish national character: spiritual deceitfulness, double-facedness, insignificance, courtliness, and a tendency to revolting intrigue.”

In “A Correspondence” we again encounter one of Turgénieff’s favourite types, the superfluous man. But the author has taken a stride in advance with Alexyéi Petróvitch. In this case the superfluous man does not blame either the insipidity of life, or society, or people alone,—he blames himself. In Márya Alexándrovna’s friend and correspondent we behold a good and worthy man, cultured in both mind and heart,—but, like many others among Turgénieff’s heroes, suffering, so to speak, from a malady of the will. One critic declares that this story is almost identical, on its exterior, with “Rúdin.” One of the Russian representatives of “the loftiest aspirations” enters into correspondence with a young girl who, as people were fond of expressing it at that period, belonged among the “choice natures.” Disillusioned with life, she is ready to submit to the conditions which encompass her. Under the influence of an ill-defined impulse of affection and sympathy toward this young girl, the hero begins to inflate her sense of being an elect person, and to stir up her energy to contend with the humdrum circle in which she dwells. Just at the moment when he has awakened her courage and her hope that he will join her in this conflict, he stumbles and falls himself, in the most pusillanimous manner. His will is ailing.

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