Thursday, February 19, 2009

The radish

A week on, almost two, I don't know where to start in discussing this book: Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev. And I came this close to crying.

[Spoiler alert.] The nihilist died! I can't believe he died. And the irony is: he wasn't a very likable person. He was an ass to his parents — and most people, really — but they have always thought of him and will remember him as a perfect son.

So what happens when a nihilist falls in love?

"Do you see, it's sometimes a good thing for a man to take himself by the scruff of the neck and pull himself up like pulling a radish out of its bed."

What makes the nihilist sympathetic is that he finds love. And it does lift him out of his nihilistic self, a bit.

But he's rejected! (Kind of.) Which makes makes him embrace his nihilism all the more! (Kind of.)

"Let bygones be bygones," she said, "especially as, to be quite frank, I was also to blame, if not by being coquettish, then in some other fashion. In short, let us be friends as we were before. The other was a dream, was it not? And who ever remembers dreams?"

"Who indeed" And besides, love . . . is a purely imaginary feeling."

"Really? I am very glad to hear you say that."

So spoke Anna Sergeyevna, and so spoke Bazarov, and they both believed they were speaking the truth. Was the truth, the whole truth, to be found in their words? They themselves did not know, and still less does the author. But in the conversation that followed each appeared to have complete faith in the other.


It's a wondrous moment.

(I can't believe the nihilist dies!)

Interesting, too, that it is the only instance, I believe, of the author inserting himself into the text.

There's an ease in the writing, in the dialogue — the story is shown, not told. So there's this beautiful love story, and another, and even another, unfolding, but all the while life, beautiful life, is happening. Turgenev exercised remarkable restraint in not waxing philosophical on the issues this novel encapsulates — he lets them speak for themselves, without passing judgment.

As the title suggests, this is a book about a generation gap. And while it's very firmly rooted in a specific time and place, I was struck by how modern, or rather how timeless, the family relationships are. The young upstarts, radicals and intellectuals, think their parents (in their 40s) have had their day. The Russian aristocracy is on the way out, the serfs are emancipated; to varying degrees all the characters see a need for reform yet still are tied to tradition. The older generation moves toward modernism as well, and in some ways more tangibly (the continued but new economic relationships with previous serfs; one father's love story transgresses class and traditional expectations) than the talk at the universities might accomplish.

Great book. If Russian literature intimidates you, if Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are too "big" for you, read Fathers and Sons.

Plus, there's a duel! (With a nihilist!)

Postscript: I did treat myself to more Turgenev last week. First Love. I first read about it at Reading Matters — a thoughtful review of an at times painfully exquisite novella.
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