A Nest of the Gentry by Ivan Turgenev
Translated by Michael Pursglove
Russian author Turgenev was a very prolific man (as can be witnessed by the amount of his books I have lurking on Mount TBR – but that’s for another post….) However, despite owning all these works, I don’t seem to have read many of them; just “Smoke”, “Faust” and the short story “Mumu” that I can be sure of. So the arrival of a lovely shiny new translation in the form of a pretty edition of “A Nest of the Gentry” seemed like a good way to get on with reading more of his work.
“Nest” has been translated under a number of titles, most often it seems “Home of the Gentry”,”A Nest of the Gentlefolk” and even “Liza” after one of the main characters (more on that in that forthcoming post). This new version from Alma Classics comes with a lovely cover and the usual excellent notes and supporting material. And the book itself is an interesting read.
“Nest” was Turgenev’s second novel, published in 1859, and it focuses primarily on Fyodor Lavretsky, a minor landowner. The epitome of the Russian superfluous man, he’s had a fragmented, incomplete education, a fractured upbringing and no real experience of life. So when he comes across the beautiful Varvara, he’s instantly smitten and the two soon marry. However, Varvara is more interested in the money and status she gets from the marriage rather than the somewhat provincial man who’s her spouse, and so the pair rattle around the capitals of Europe with Fedya rarely coming out of his shell; and it isn’t long until he discovers his wife’s infidelity and separates from her completely.
All of this is told in flashback, after Fedya has returned to his “nest”, the family home in the province of O-. Here he encounters a number of relatives, including Liza. During his absence she has grown from the child he knew to a beautiful young woman – pious, artistic and kind-natured, she already has suitors including the self-centred Panshin; she’s also adored from afar by her old German music teacher Lemm.
News reaches Fedya via the gossip columns that his wife is dead, and he desperately sends off for proof. Meanwhile, he and Liza have been growing closer and the inevitable happens. However, there will be several twists in the plot that will prevent a happy ending and it seems that Fedya is destined to be superfluous in more ways than one.
So on the surface this is a fairly straightforward, one might say predictable love story and it was no difficulty to anticipate the twists and turns the story took. However, I think there *is* a subtext here, and that relates to the character of Fedya and his lack of purpose in life. The Superfluous Man was a regular trope in Russian fiction of the time, and it was applied to someone with no real focus or purpose, a loafer or a drifter, obviously with enough money to support him in his chosen lifestyle! At one point, Fedya meets up with his old school friend Mikhalevich, who berates him for having a life lacking in meaning, and it’s true that he *does* seem to drift around in a bit of a fog.
…you’re a loafer, a nasty loafer, and you know it. You’re not just a plain and simple loafer – they lie on the stove and do nothing, because they’re incapable of doing anything. They don’t even think about anything, but you’ve got an active mind – and yet you just lie there. You could be doing something – and you do nothing. You lie on your back with a full stomach and say: this is the life, lying like this, because whatever people do, it’s all rubbish and pointless nonsense.
However, there seems to be an underlying strand dealing with the conflict between Western life and the more traditional Russian ways. Fedya’s return to his ancestral home, his “nest”, brings him back into contact with tradition and the land, and Liza comes to personify this for him. There are pastoral scenes where the two fish and spend time with nature, and perhaps Turgenev is saying that the solution to the problem of superfluity is to live a good life as an honest, hardworking landowner and not to seek meaning in Western culture.
There is some beautiful writing in the book, particularly when Turgenev describes the landscape and the rural settings. And the symbolic return of the prodigal to the house of his late aunt, where he opens the windows to let in the light, cleans and refurbishes and reconnects with the servants is well handled. And yet… I hesitate to be critical, but I found the book to be a little underwhelming, and I can’t put my finger on why. There’s nothing bad I can say about it; the characters were well-drawn and amusing; the story entertaining; and the denouement moving. Perhaps it’s that I found that the love story, which was a little predictable, dominated too much and clouded whatever else Turgenev was trying to say. Certainly, I didn’t engage as strongly with the book as I hoped to and at times found my interest drifting.
Nevertheless, “A Nest of the Gentry” is an evocative book, capturing bucolic rural Russia and its inhabitants well; and it may be that if I read the book again I would respond differently. Certainly, if you want to read this particular Turgenev work the Alma edition is a good one to have as the translation read smoothly and well, and the supporting material is particularly useful. As for the other Turgenev books I have on the shelves – well, I’m off to take some pictures for my next post…