I’m really starting to enjoy this month of discovering and rediscovering Russian writers. Some of the pivotal books in my life have been from that great nation (“One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich”, “Dr. Zhivago”, “Dead Souls”, “The Master and Margarita”, anything by Platonov) but what I’m also enjoying is reading some of those authors I’ve meant to for year but haven’t got round to.
One such is Turgenev – I have several volumes on my TBR mountain, but the one I have just actually read is a new one. I’m afraid my purchase of this was very much motivated by two factors – it is a lovely little book published by Alma/Oneworld Classics, and it’s translated by Hugh Aplin, whose work I’m starting to trust a lot!
There are actually two short pieces in this book and the first is entitled “Faust” (after the Goethe story and of course because it reflects the strong impact a piece of literature like this work can have upon a person’s sensibility). The story takes the form of a series of 9 letters, written by the main protagonist Pavel Alexandrovich to his friend Semyon Nikolayevich. Pavel has moved away from St. Petersburg to the country, to an old estate. He obviously has not visited for some time as the servants have all become older, the house more dusty and neglected, and there is a sense of much time having passed. We are not clear why Pavel has retreated here, but he seems in need of quiet and rest, enjoying his solitude, reconnecting with his books and generally happy to be on his own. The state of his emotions is made clear by the fact that he dissolves into tears for no particular reason and seems somewhat emotional.
However, his calm retreat is disturbed by the discovery that he has as neighbours a rather dull old school friend Priyimkov, who is married to another old acquaintance – Vera Nikolayevna. Pavel knew Vera when she was young, growing up under the strict rule of her mother, Mrs.Yeltsova, who would only let her read factual books and kept her on the straight and narrow. Pavel at one point had asked for Vera’s hand in marriage but was refused, and then left for Berlin.
As Vera’s mother has now passed away, and she is living close by with husband and daughter, Pavel decides this is the time to acquaint her with the classics and begins reading the Faust of the title to Vera, Priyimkov and a local German scholar Schimmel. As readers, we can probably anticipate some of the events that follow, but nevertheless the denouement is moving and a little shocking.
I enjoyed my first exposure to Turgenev a lot, and I put a lot of that down to the very beautiful and readable translation. I’ve seen Turgenev described as one of the most European Russian authors and certainly the prose and descriptions here are lovely. The character of Pavel is revealed very cleverly by the moods portrayed in his letters and events unfold gradually. The epistolary device is a good one, allowing time to pass between messages and the action to move on just enough for us not to feel rushed.
Turgenev covers a number of themes here and one strong aspect is the effect of great literature and poetry on the deep sensibility of a woman who has never encountered them before. Much is made of Vera’s heritage and her rather lively grandmother, as if there are tendencies in Vera which are a throwback to an earlier generation. It is hinted that Vera’s mother recognised and controlled these tendencies to keep her on the straight and narrow.
And then there’s the so-called supernatural aspect. From the foreword, it would seem that Turgenev was criticised for introducing something like this into his fiction, but I have to agree with Aplin’s assessment that this element is not necessarily to be taken literally. Instead, we can view it as an illusion that the protagonist concerned was labouring under, a psychological effect and not a real one. Nevertheless, I felt this part of the story was very well-handled and didn’t detract at all from the drama of the story and the writing.
So my first encounter with Turgenev was a very positive one. I love the format of the book and the quality of his writing very much and I’m looking forward to the next story in this little volume.