Despite my love of Russian literature, it actually was only last year that I first read a book by Ivan Turgenev (see here), regarded as one of that country’s masters (and actually one of the masters generally – Hemingway says about him.’Turgenev to me is the greatest writer there ever was.’) Wikipedia has this:
“Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev, November 9 [O.S. October 28] 1818 – September 3, 1883, was a Russian novelist, short story writer, and playwright. His first major publication, a short story collection entitled A Sportsman’s Sketches (1852), was a milestone of Russian Realism, and his novel Fathers and Sons (1862) is regarded as one of the major works of 19th-century fiction.”
Alma Classics, one of my favourite publishers, produce four of his works, and “Smoke”, a recent volume translated by Michael Pursglove, sounded very enticing so when I was given a Waterstones gift card recently, it made its way onto Mount TBR!
“Smoke”, published in 1867, tells the tale of Grigory Mikhailovich Litvinov, the son of a retired merchant official, who has spent some time living in the west and is travelling back to his homeland. He stops off in Baden-Baden, a well-known gambling town and haunt of Russian ex-pats where he is to meet up with his fiance, Tatyana, before they continue their journey. However, in Baden he encounters an old flame, Irina, who jilted him in his youth and his passions are once more inflamed. But Irina is now married and a highly regarded society woman and it is not clear how events will turn out; will Litvinov be seduced once again by his old love, or will he remain loyal to his fiance?
If this sounds a little like a simplistic love story, “Smoke” is emphatically much more than that. For Turgenev was writing against a background of intense debate about the future of Russia, where a huge schism had grown up between the Slavophiles, who deified the simple Russian peasant life above all, and the Westernisers, who thought that traditional Russian life had produced no intrinsic culture and that the Slavs needed to absorb western ideas to progress.
Turgenev is dealing with large topics here, but he has such a light touch that the book never gets bogged down by this. He has an odd, appealing and somewhat discursive narrative style, where he will break off from the main plot to fill the reader in with a piece of back story which we don’t even know if the characters even know! There is much discussion of the rights and wrongs of Russia and in fact Litvinov is a kind of everyman, caught between two different worlds and two different loves. The worlds are extreme opposites but that is what Turgenev intends to show. Set against this backdrop, our ordinary man tries to cope with conflicting emotions and the draw of passion matched against a sensible outlook.
And there is a wonderful array of characters in “Smoke”, from the outwardly solid but inwardly passionate Litvinov, to the manipulative and intense Irina, the loyal Tatyana, the officers and society people who mix with Irina and the group of Slavophiles trying to draw Litvinov into their circle. But there is one character who stands out and that is Potugin (who seems to be intended to represent Turgenev in the novel.) He is the bridge between the two worlds portrayed, having regular contact with both, and he is also the book’s conscience and voice of reason. It is Potugin who tries to talk sense to Litvinov and Potugin who is the sane, sober person trying to point out the dangers of his position.
“It’s a fact – there’s no avoiding falling into someone’s hands… There’s no avoiding it. Men are weak, women are strong. Fate is omnipotent. It’s difficult to reconcile oneself to a colourless life; it’s impossible to forget oneself completely. There lies beauty and affection; there lies warmth and light. How can one resist?… And it ends with your losing the taste for everything and ceasing to understand anything. First, you won’t understand how it’s possible to love, then you won’t understand how it’s possible to live.”
This is a very readable, well written book and whilst reading I sensed echoes of Anna Karenina, particularly in the concept of the debate of peasant vs. nobleman and the best way for Russia to progress. However, interestingly enough Smoke was published several years before Tolstoy’s masterpiece. However, both books capture the same zeitgeist but from different perspectives: Turgenev was writing in effect from outside Russia and was something of a Westerniser, whereas Tolstoy was very much a Slavophile. The books share themes and there are superficial similarities between Litvinov and Kostya Levin; but Turgenev stops short of the religious aspect of Tolstoy’s work.
Turgenev in many ways takes the middle ground, lambasting both groups equally – this is his view of the Slavophiles:
“Take the Slavophiles…. everything is in the future, they say. There is nothing substantive at all, and in the course of ten whole centuries old Russia has produced nothing of its own, in government, the judicial system, science, art, or event in crafts… But wait, be patient. Everything will happen. But, pardon my curiosity, why will it happen? Because, so they say, we educated people are rubbish, but the people… oh, they are a great people! Do you see this peasant coat? That will be the source of everything. All other idols are destroyed; let us believe in the peasant coat. But if the peasant coat betrays you? No, it won’t betray you.”
But when it comes to the ex-pat aristos he is quite sarcastically scathing:
“… three carriages appeared, from which there emerged a fairly large group of ladies and their escorts. Litvinov immediately recognised them as Russians, although they were all speaking French, or rather because they were all speaking French. The ladies’ outfits were notable for their stylishness; their escorts were wearing frock coats, brand-new, but tight-fitting and waisted, which is somewhat unusual nowadays, grey-striped trousers and extremely shiny town hats. A black cravat, tied low, constricted the neck of each of these gentlemen and there was something martial in their whole deportment. They were indeed military men….their importance was everywhere manifest: in their restrained casualness, in their affably lordly smiles, in their tense, distracted looks, in the effeminate twitching of the shoulders, swaying of the waist and bending of the knees. It was manifest in the very sound of their voices, which appeared to be thanking a crowd of subordinates with affection and loathing.”
Irina is foolish enough to expose Litvinov to the society she has bought into by in effect selling her beauty in exchange for luxury; she is not strong enough to break away from it (unlike Anna K) and so gives Litvinov the chance to be her lover, following her and her husband round slavishly – a demeaning offer which fortunately he has the strength to reject.
“Would that there had been even a drop of living water beneath all this discarded rubbish. What outmoded, useless nonsense, what miserable trivia occupied all these heads and hearts on that evening, not just in high society, but also at home, every hour and every day, throughout the length and breadth of their being! And what ignorance, when all’s said and done! What failure to understand everything on which human life is built and which with it is adorned.”
The book ends on a positive note with the possibility of a reconciliation between Litvinov and Tatyana; although Turgenev does not let up on the society dandies or the Slavophiles. At the end of the stories, many of the ex-pat Russians have returned to their estates and instead of finding salvation in the land are seen tyrannising the peasants and each other, their lives wasted. Turgenev certainly knew how to mock the cult of the peasant.
Much of what takes place in the story is seen as just smoke and mirrors, illusions; the glossy, glamorous image of Irina; that of the Slavophiles, with their pie-in-the-sky notions; the officer class with their posing, their idiocy and their mad beliefs. Very little separates them under the skin in real terms, both groups following chimeras and having no grounding in reality. Litvinov, the ordinary man, is the only one with a chance at survival.
“Smoke, smoke,” he repeated several times, and suddenly everything appeared to him to be smoke, everything: his own life, Russian life, everything human and especially Russian. “Everything is smoke and steam,” he thought.”
Part of what drew me to this book initially was the Baden-Baden connection – I loved Dostoevsky’s “The Gambler” when I recently re-read it, and it’s fascinating to see what a different focus each writer has. Dostoevsky’s is determinedly personal, dealing with the effects of gambling on the soul and telling a rollicking good tale; whereas Turgenev, although again telling a great tale, has much to say about the state of the Russian soul. As always with Alma Classics, there is excellent material at the back giving an outline of the author’s life and work. The detailed introduction also send me off in search of the cult book “Summer in Baden-Baden” which I’ve never read and which presumably features the stand up row between FD and IT in that very town! This was a great and very enjoyable read, and I’m looking forward now to exploring more Turgenev.