Following on from my first read of Turgenev with the title story in this volume, the second tale was equally rewarding. “Yacob Pasynkov” has a simpler plot, involving once again a first person narrator. Yakob of the title does not make his appearance straight away, but he is a great friend of the narrator, as well as the N family, with whom both are intimately involved. There are two daughters, Sofia and Varvara, plus the complication of another acquaintance, Asanov. Yakob is a pure soul, an orphan brought up by his school teacher, poor but educated and basically the nicest and most poetic person you would wish to meet. He befriends the narrator while they are at school together and they become inseparable bosom buddies, united by their love of literature. But as so often with classic tales of male friendship, it is a woman who causes a kind of friction. Although their paths drift apart, they will meet again towards the end of the tale, but under different circumstances.

(cover of the Hesperus version)

There are similarities between the two works, most notably the influence of German literature on the sensibilities of Russian intellects – this time in the form of the poetry of Schiller. There are also overbearing parents, and a sequence of romantic misunderstandings. The wrong people are in love, those who are loved do not love back, there is a fair dollop of tragedy and a rather moving end. As this work is so short, it’s hard to say too much without giving a lot of the story away. But the characters are as beautifully drawn as in “Faust” and Turgenev is obviously the master of the short form.

I have read a little about the concept of the “superfluous man” which was prevalent in the 1840s/50s in Russia, and in fact Turgenev did write a story entitled “The Diary of a Superfluous Man”. He is a kind of Byronic hero, outside of the normal everyday lift, a little detached and cynical, with no real purpose in life and no outlet for his intellect. Certainly both of the protagonists of these stories would fall into that category and this book is an elegant portrayal of the lack of purpose of mid 19th century Russian man!

The story did not quite gel in a couple of places for me. I didn’t see the point of Maria Petrovna, a peasant woman who loved Yakob and whose introduction seemed to serve no real purpose. There were a couple of scenes with Sofia’s daughter which again were a little obscure, and unclear references to Sofa’s absent husband.  This tale also packed a little less punch than the first story – there was more drama, a little more about nature and the setting in “Faust” which gave it a stronger atmosphere and an edge – with “Yakob” the story was more firmly focused on the human relationships. However, these are minor quibbles and in so short a work perhaps it is hard to tie everything together.

I suspect with Turgenev that a little might be a lot. I enjoyed these stories and found them moving and engrossing, but I don’t feel the instant need to go out and read more. I’m sure I will return to his work – but not for a little while!