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…in which I discover that I own an awful lot of Turgenev books…

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As I mentioned in my review of “A Nest of the Gentry”, I have a *lot* of Turgenev books on Mount TBR, few of which I’d actually read, and I thought I’d dig them out to find out what I actually own(!) This was actually something of an eye-opener, particularly in the amount of duplication there is – which kind of shows how unsystematic I often am about buying books!

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So here is the Turgenev pile – and there’s a lot of it, but as you can see several multiple copies. For example:

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Why do I own two Penguin Classics versions of “Sketches from a Hunter’s Album”? I have no idea, but I need to do some checking to see if there are any differences between the two and if not, donate one!

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“Fathers and Sons”/”Fathers and Children” – one of Turgenev’s best-known works (possible *the* best-known). I’ve had the ancient Penguin for as long as I can remember, whereas the shiny new Alma edition was part of a competition prize. Different translations, obviously, and I really should get onto reading this one soon.

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The volume with five short novels contains “Rudin” and “Superfluous”, but also “Spring Torrents” and “First Love” which I have in separate editions. *Sigh* – yet more duplication…

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And finally, “Home of the Gentry”, “A Nest of the Gentry” or indeed, as the little red book is titled, “Liza”… These are, of course, all the same story – apparently early translations of Turgenev’s second novel were sometimes given the name of the central female character, which is a bit misleading really as the book is about much more than just her (though I suppose you could argue that as she comes to embody Russia she’s fairly pivotal…) However, I can’t have realised this when I picked up the book ages ago, obviously just thinking it was a different work. Ho hum.

So – there is an awful lot of Turgenev in my collection and it does need a little judicious pruning. And I shall have to learn to pay attention when I’m picking up books in second-hand stores, because it’s obviously very easy to end up with superfluous copies….!

The Love of a Superfluous Man

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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.

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“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.

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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…

It’s a Dog’s Life!

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Five Russian Dog Stories
Translated by Anthony Briggs

When I visited the lovely Kew Gardens last summer, I dropped into the Kew Bookshop on my way and picked up this little volume of canine tales (or tails – ha!) from a selection of Russian authors. Published by Hesperus and translated by Anthony Briggs, it seemed ideal to turn to during my book hangover following “Dead Souls”!

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The book does indeed contain five dog stories: “Mumu” by Turgenev; “Good old Trezor” by Saltykov; “Chestnut Girl” by Chekhov; “Arthur, the White Poodle” by Kuprin; and “Ich Bin from Head to Foot” by Ilf and Petrov. The stories are interspersed with little verses and rounded off by a postscript by Turgenev. First off, I should give a TRIGGER WARNING – these dogs don’t in the main have happy lives and as my Middle and Youngest Child used to cryptically say to each other, “End well it will not”.

“Mumu” and “Good Old Trezor” tell tales of long-suffering dogs and it’s immediately clear that you should read these as allegories, with the sufferings of the dog standing in for the suffering of the peasants – and in fact the peasants in the stories don’t have a particularly nice life either. “Chestnut Girl” is less bleak, with the title dog running away from home and meeting up with a circus performer and becoming part of his act. But the call of home, however much worse it is than the new life, is always there….

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“Arthur…” also features a performing dog, but here the range of the story is a little wider as the canine and his owners travel the Russian coast performing and trying to make a living. Their encounter with a rich family and an unbelievably spoiled brat makes for a very entertaining tale. And the final piece by Ilf and Petrov is a wonderful satirical story of a poor dog attempting to fit into the restricting requirements of Soviet realism and failing miserably…

ilf_PetrovThis volume was a lovely collection, very enjoyable to read and despite the sadness, very thought-provoking. It’s quite clear that you wouldn’t want to be either a peasant or a dog in either Tsarist or Soviet Russia! The translations read well in the main, although I did have some quibbles with the Chekhov… As I read, I realised I’d already encountered this story, in the “Moscow Tales” book I read a while back. There, it was titled “Kashtanka” (the animal’s actual name); the dog was described as “rust-coloured” which I rather felt captured the dog’s nature and circumstances better than “chestnut”; and the other circus animal all had their original names (proper Russian forename and patronymic) which again conveyed the quirkiness of the whole situation better. The way the names had been Anglicised somehow smoothed the story out, made it less Russian and less comic and for me, I prefer the version in “Moscow Tales” by a long chalk.

However, that caveat aside, I liked my peep into the world of Russian dogs – the only question is now, what to read next!

Little Black Classics – The Russian Edition!

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It’s been common knowledge round the Ramblings that I’ve been suffering from a bit of a reader’s block – not a thing that happens often, but nevertheless very painful when it strikes. For days I was unable to settle to reading *anything* at all and began to wonder if I would ever be able to get through another volume. Fortunately, salvation came in part from the Penguin Little Black Classics! Commendably enough (in my view, anyway) the series features number of classic Russian authors, all of whom I’ve read and all of whom I love. So these were the perfect way to revisit them in small bites and ease back into reading! I tackled them in the order below and I’ll share just a few thoughts on each.

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The Nose – Nikolai Gogol

Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (1809 – 1852) is one of Russia’s most important authors, and generally regarded as the country’s first realist writer. He wrote on classic novel, “Dead Souls”, and some brilliant short works; this volume contains “The Nose” and “The Carriage”. The first is one of his most famous tales, in which a Collegiate Assessor wakes up one morning to find that his nose has disappeared and taken on a life of its own. Of course, without a nose of his own, it’s quite impossible that he should appear in his normal circles, and the story follows his attempts to track down his nose, which makes appearances here and there wearing a uniform and attempts to establish its existence in its own right. This is wonderfully absurdist nonsense which shows up the prejudices of the class system and civil service in Russia as well as being very, very funny. “The Carriage” is a cautionary tale about what happens when you get drunk and boast too much. The protagonist, Chertokutsky, lives in a small town which goes from dull to lively when the army is posted nearby, and is foolish enough to brag about the wonderful carriage he possesses; unfortunately, owing to imbibing just a little too much he oversleeps and forgets to warn his wife that there will be officers calling on them the next day to have a look! Gogol was a satirical genius and these tales display his talents brilliantly!

Gooseberries – Anton Chekhov

Chekhov needs no introduction on the Ramblings, and this volume collects three tales, “The Kiss”, “The Two Volodyas” and “Gooseberries”. Basically, the man could write short stories like no-one else… “The Kiss” is a poignant tale of a man haunted by a mistaken embrace; “The Two Volodyas” about the choices we make in love; and “Gooseberries” about the choices we make in life. Read Chekhov – just read him! 🙂

Kasyan from the Beautiful Lands – Ivan Turgenev

Turgenev is possibly best known for his novels (and his famous dispute with Dostoyevsky) but he was also great at the shorter form. There are two stories in this volume, the title one and “District Doctor”. The latter is very moving, the tale of a provincial doctor and a lost love. The title story portrays serfs living on the land, the hardships they endured and the strangeness of some of their beliefs. Turgenev’s tales apparently helped with the campaign to abolish serfdom, and they’re also excellent reading.

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How Much Land Does A Man Need? – Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy also needs no introduction; the giant of Russian literature produces works that were as short as “War and Peace” were long! The two stories here (the title one and “What Men Live By” are suffused by Tolstoy’s faith and “How Much Land….” (a parable of a peasant’s bargain with the Devil) is apparently considered by James Joyce to be the world’s greatest story. I don’t know about that, but it’s very powerful and thought-provoking!

The Steel Flea – Nikolay Leskov

I was particularly delighted that Leskov was included in the LBCs, as he’s a Russian author that often doesn’t get as much attention as the others. Also, he’s suffered a lot at the hands of translators as his particular style of vernacular speech and punning is apparently very hard to translate. The version of one of his most famous stories (also known as “Lefty”) is in the translation by William Edgerton, which comes highly recommended by ace translator Robert Chandler (for his thoughts about working on Leskov, see here). This is a fabulous and fantastic little story about the rivalry between craftsmen of different nations (and thus the nations themselves), rendered with verve and lots of punning!

The Meek One – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Last, but most definitely not least – the wonderful Dostoevsky. I’ve read many of his longer works but less of his short ones. This is a magnificent piece of writing, 57 pages of pure genius. The style recalls that of “Notes from Underground” in that it’s in the form of a monologue by an unreliable narrator. He’s a pawnbroker and he’s telling us the story of marriage, leading up to his wife’s story. Initially we’re unsure of the facts, but as the story unfolds it becomes clear that the pawnbroker has a somewhat disreputable past and much of what happens is due to his obsessive love of his wife, his inability to express his emotions and his stifling of any natural relations with his wife. As the story builds to a climax, the tension is almost unbearable and the powerful narrative is totally absorbing. At the end it’s not even clear which of the two is the meek one of the title, but the tragic story is brilliantly told. Dostoyevsky is a writer of genius and if you were only going to read one of the Russian LBCs then I would really say that this is the one!

So a wonderful reading experience with these little books. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of reading the Russians and fortunately there are still plenty I haven’t tackled yet!

(As an aside, I’ve reproduced the author names exactly as they are on the books – and isn’t it interesting how the names can be transliterated with different spellings depending on the translator – languages are fascinating!)

Recent Reads: Smoke by Turgenev

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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!

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“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.

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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.

Russian Reading Month: Final Day and Update!

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Well, it’s the last day of November and so Russian Reading Month draws to a close!  I have enjoyed taking part in this and I certainly won’t be stopping reading the Russians just because it will soon be December – especially as I still have to complete “In The First Circle”, which will run on well into the next month!

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But I’m very pleased with the books I have read for this challenge which have been:

The Conquered City by Victor Serge

Nicolai Gogol by Nabokov

Faust by Turgenev

Notes from the Underground by Dostoevsky

and over half of In The First Circle by Solzhenitsyn!

The month has also been fascinating because it’s made me think much more about the volumes I’ve read in the past, the translators and their translations and what it is I really enjoy about Russian books.  I’m also keen to re-read many of my old favourites like Ilf and Petrov. So thanks to Tuesday in Silhouette for setting this up – it’s been great fun!

As for the chunkster – it’s turning out to be a great joy. Everything I read by Solzhenitsyn raises his status as a writer in my eyes, and “In The First Circle” is no exception.  It’s a complex, well constructed and many layered work, but surprisingly easy to read and I shall look forward to reviewing it soon!

 

Recent Reads/Russian Reading Month – Faust by Turgenev: Pt 2 (Yakob Pasynkov)

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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!

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