A Nest of Gentlefolk and Other Stories 
by Ivan Turgenev, translated by Jessie Coulson.
Riverrun, 568 pp., £9.99, April 2020, 978 1 5294 0405 0
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Love and Youth: Essential Stories 
by Ivan Turgenev, translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater.
Pushkin, 222 pp., £12, October 2020, 978 1 78227 601 2
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Around six in the morning​  on 19 January 1870, at the Roquette Prison in the eleventh arrondissement, Ivan Turgenev watched as a man was prepared for the guillotine. Four months earlier, Jean-Baptiste Troppmann had murdered, for money, the entire Kinck family – the owner of an engineering works, his heavily pregnant wife and their six children – and buried them in a shallow grave at Pantin on the edge of Paris, before being arrested at Le Havre while trying to leave the country. Now, Troppmann was hobbled with leather straps and his hands were tied behind his back. A priest was ‘softly reading prayers’. The executioner’s elderly assistant went to secure the prisoner with extra straps (he was only 22, and thin), but they didn’t have enough holes, so he set about boring new ones:

His unskilful fingers, swollen with gout, obeyed him badly, and, besides, the hide was new and thick. He would make a hole, try it out – the tongue would not go through: he had to bore a little more. The priest evidently realised that things were not as they should be, and glancing stealthily once or twice over his shoulder, began to draw out the words of the prayers, so as to give the old man time to get things right. At last the operation during which, I frankly confess, I was covered with a cold sweat, was finished and all the tongues went in where required.

Next, Troppmann was seated on a stool. The shirt he had just put on was cut away to his shoulders (he ‘twitched them slightly: it was cold in the room’) and his hair was trimmed. Turgenev, who was one of several guests of the prison governor, ‘could not take my eyes off those hands, once stained with innocent blood, but now lying so helplessly one on top of the other – and particularly that slender, youthful neck’. Some of Troppmann’s hair drifted across the floor and settled by Turgenev’s boot.

At last they went out the prison gates, meeting ‘the great roar of the overjoyed crowd’ (around 25,000 people were already on the spot at 3 a.m.), and Turgenev – his legs weakening beneath him – watched Troppmann climb the steps to the guillotine, ‘two men pouncing on him from the right and left, like spiders on a fly; I saw him falling forward suddenly and his heels kicking … But here I turned away and began to wait.’ There was a long pause before ‘something suddenly descended with a hollow growl and stopped with an abrupt thud … Just as though a huge animal had retched … I felt dizzy. Everything swam before my eyes.’ Afterwards, Turgenev was told that Troppmann had struggled briefly, throwing his head sideways so that it wouldn’t fit under the blade, and biting the finger of one of the executioners as he was dragged by his hair into the correct position. He was also told that spectators had crawled under the guillotine and soaked their handkerchiefs in Troppmann’s blood. His fellow guests ‘obviously felt relieved … But not one of us, absolutely no one, looked like a man who realised that he had been present at the performance of an act of social justice: everyone tried to turn away in spirit and, as it were, shake off the responsibility for this murder.’

It was typical of Turgenev, writing up the experience for a Russian magazine, to dwell on his own weakness: the cold sweat and wobbly legs, his inability to watch the execution, and his near swoon when the blade thudded against the block. He knew he had indulged a grisly curiosity by accepting the invitation: his descriptions of the foolishness of the other guests – running ahead of Troppmann in a corridor to get a better look at him – and the bloodlust of the drink-blotted Parisian crowd serve only to heighten his disgust with himself. He sees the pointless inhumanity of Troppmann’s treatment – ‘the hideousness of all those undressings, dressings, hair-cutting, those journeys along corridors and up and down staircases’ – and the savageness of a public death, as well as his own complicity. The willed blindness of the educated classes, from whose sight executions had been removed, was perfectly symbolised, he knew, by his decision to turn his back on the spectacle. It is the severity of Turgenev’s self-judgment, and the sincerity of his self-exposure, that allows him to personify and at the same time to assert societal guilt.

Turgenev was then 51. He was the son of a tyrant. His mother, Varvara Petrovna Lutovinova, was the owner and ruler of some five thousand serfs, whom she made the punchbags for a lifetime of disappointment (she had been abused by her stepfather; Turgenev’s father had married her for her money and then neglected her before his premature death). She ordered floggings, denied or demanded marriages, separated families, provoked women to infanticide and sent people to Siberia. Turgenev spent his childhood in terror of her, and of her power over his life and the lives of others. He was aware of the irony in the fact that he was first seduced by a family serf (the mother of his only child, a daughter, was another woman owned by his mother):

I was very young. I was a virgin and with the desires one has at the age of fifteen … It was rather a damp day, not a rainy day: one of those erotic days that [Alphonse] Daudet likes to describe. It began to drizzle. She took – mind you, I was her master and she was my slave – she took hold of me by the hair at the back of my head and said to me ‘Come.’ What followed was the sensations we have all experienced. But the sweet clasp of my hair accompanied by that single word – that still gives me a sensation of happiness every time I think of it.

In his adult life, this inverted power dynamic repeated itself. Turgenev was passionate – some thought insane – in his subjection to the great opera singer Pauline Viardot, to whom he was attached for forty years. Eventually, after periods of considerable unhappiness, he lived in a mostly comfortable ménage with her and her husband, Louis, and their children (his daughter, whom he named Paulinette, was also enrolled in the family). He followed them doggishly around Europe; in one house, visitors were surprised to find him lodged in the attic. Unlike his mother, Turgenev did not make a fetish of personal dignity. In 1882, he visited the Tolstoys and, at 63, performed the can-can for the children. ‘Turgenev – the can-can. Sad,’ Tolstoy wrote in his diary. Most of his European friends, by contrast, delighted in his lack of grandeur. ‘Adorable’ was Henry James’s word for him; he was ‘the most approachable, the most practicable, the least unsafe man of genius it has been my fortune to meet. He was so simple, so natural, so modest, so destitute of personal pretension … that one almost doubted at moments whether he were a man of genius after all.’ Maupassant said he was ‘simple, good, and straight almost to a fault, ready to do a favour as none before him’. Flaubert called him a ‘soft pear’, denoting, in James’s paraphrase, ‘a certain expansive softness’, as well as a ‘comprehensive indecision’. Turgenev was harder on himself. He ‘insisted that he was a coward’, a friend reported in 1881, ‘and that he had not got a pennyworth of will’.

A liberal and convinced ‘Westerner’, for most of his adult life Turgenev visited Russia only at intervals. Accounting for his decision to go to university in Berlin in 1838, he later explained, with his usual self-censure, that

I could not breathe the same air as those who stood for the things I hated so much; I could not remain at their side. I expect I had not the necessary stamina, the necessary strength of character, for that. I had to put a certain distance between myself and my enemy so as to be able to attack him more effectively from the distance that separated us. In my eyes this enemy had a clearly defined form and bore a well-known name: this enemy was – serfdom.

His attack on serfdom, when it came, was characteristically indirect: a series of short stories set in the Russian countryside, written from the perspective of a huntsman. The lives of the serfs he encounters are predictable and burdensome, and yet exceptional (because, as Turgenev understood, all lives are exceptional, in some moments). ‘Never, surely,’ James remarked, ‘was a work with a polemic bearing more consistently low in tone, as painters say … No single episode pleads conclusively against the “peculiar institution” of Russia; the lesson is in the cumulative testimony of a multitude of fine touches.’ A Sportsman’s Sketches, published in 1852, became a sensation and may have contributed to the liberation of the serfs in 1861 (Alexander II is said to have claimed it as an influence on his decision). For the rest of his life, Turgenev was the most famous Russian in Europe. His celebrity, but also the novelty of his presence, is reflected in the baffling variety in contemporary spellings of his name: Tourgéneff, Tourguéneff, Tourgenueff, Turgénieff, Turgeniev, Turgenef, Turgeneff, Toogueneff (this last when he was visiting Scotland).

T.S. Eliot wrote in the Egoist that Turgenev ‘was a perfect example of the benefits of transplantation … A position which for a smaller man may be merely a compromise, or a means of disappearance, was for Turgenev … a source of authority.’ As Orlando Figes shows in The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture, Turgenev used this authority – and his command of French, German and English, as well as some Italian and Spanish – to establish himself as the consummate cultural middleman, a human conveyor belt transporting in one direction (in his own translations or on his recommendation) Flaubert, Zola, Maupassant, Daudet, the Goncourts, Heine and Whitman, and, in the other, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Goncharov, Saltykov-Shchedrin, Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky.1 His piece about Troppmann, describing a French execution for a Russian audience, but criticising the death penalty as it operated in both countries, is an example of this transnational advocacy.

‘You know a lot about life, my dear friend,’ Flaubert told him in 1873, ‘and you know how to express what you know, which is rarer.’ Turgenev’s work deals with indecision, incapacity and inconsequence; with distraction, disappointment and disillusion. He observed contentment from a distance, apprehending the negative emotional space inhabited by those failing to arrive at it. In his work – seven novels, many novellas and short stories as well as poems and plays (A Month in the Country is still regularly performed) – men dream, propagandise, pledge themselves, hesitate, backtrack and fail, often disappointing or betraying the women who love them.

Sometimes, sexual passion cuts across a life, as it cut across Turgenev’s. In Smoke and Spring Torrents, Litvinov and Sanin destroy all their plans for the future when they are taken over by desire (when Sanin falls to his knees before his ‘sovereign mistress’, she seizes ‘his hair with all ten fingers’ – an echo of Turgenev’s own experience). In Fathers and Sons, the bullish young nihilist Bazarov is thrown off course when he falls in love with Anna Sergeevna Odintsova, who is unable to fully respond. Abandoning himself to his medical studies, he attends an autopsy and accidentally, perhaps carelessly, infects himself with typhus. Anna, visiting him on his deathbed, cannot offer solace (instead, she gives an involuntary shudder when he tells her she is beautiful).

Turgenev’s willingness to stage political debates in his fiction, combined with a refusal to come down decisively on one side, made him a controversial figure in Russia. The character of Bazarov was attacked from the right as an endorsement of anti-tsarist thought (it was Turgenev who popularised the term ‘nihilist’ by using it in the novel), and from the left as a malicious parody. Turgenev’s depiction of Russians abroad in Smoke and the travails of would-be revolutionaries in Virgin Soil also drew criticism. It was useless for him to point out that

the reader always feels ill at ease … is easily bewildered and even aggrieved if an author treats his imaginary character like a living person, that is to say, if he sees and displays his good as well as his bad sides, and, above all, if he does not show unmistakable signs of sympathy or antipathy for his own child. The reader feels like getting angry: he is asked not to follow a well-beaten path, but to tread his own path.

For Europeans and Americans, excluded from these controversies if not entirely ignorant of them, Turgenev was for decades a crucial source of information on life in Russia (‘What a very Tourguéneffish effect the samovar gives!’ Theodore Colville exclaims in William Dean Howells’s Indian Summer, set in Florence). But he was most admired for the poignancy of his work. ‘Read Lisa [A Nest of Gentlefolk] if you want your heart really broken,’ Colville tells the young woman who asks: ‘What is Tourguéneffish?’ And it’s true that Turgenev’s sideline in politics was just that. Even when, in Fathers and Sons, he does manage to incorporate political discussion effectively into the drama, these are the book’s least engaging sections. The political elements in Smoke are a distraction from his analysis of adultery. Virgin Soil is about the appeal of idealism to damaged or deprived individuals, and only vaguely and tangentially about the ideals themselves. The frailty of the human personality was his real subject. At the time of his death in 1883, Turgenev’s reputation – an elite, European reputation – as one of the century’s greatest writers seemed secure. ‘We know of several excellent critics who to the question, Who is the first novelist of the day? would reply, without hesitation, Ivan Turgénieff,’ James wrote in 1873. A little over twenty years later, he observed (note the change of spelling) that ‘Turgenev is in a peculiar degree what I may call the novelists’ novelist, – an artistic influence extraordinarily valuable and ineradicably established.’

Ineradicably? Turgenev’s reputation has been on the slide since the 1880s, when the signing of the first international copyright convention at Berne in 1886 led to a boom in Russian translations (unlike Britain, France and Germany, Russia stayed out of the convention, so no rights had to be bought, and translations were cheap). As Figes writes, ‘the discovery of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy – seemingly more Russian than the Europeanised Turgenev – altered Western expectations of Russian literature. Now … readers in the West wanted Russian writers to be roughly primitive and spiritual, motivated by the big ideas about human existence, exotically original, to write at greater length – in sum, unlike anything in the rest of European literature.’ As early as 1917, Joseph Conrad was complaining of ‘public indifference’ to Turgenev’s works. Eliot, writing in the same year, mourned that Turgenev was the ‘least exploited of Russian novelists’. He hasn’t lacked champions, starting with Conrad and Eliot, and including Woolf, Edmund Wilson (‘No fiction writer can be read through with a steadier admiration’), Hemingway (‘Turgenev to me is the greatest writer there ever was’) and V.S. Pritchett. But the patchiness with which he is now published and read, and the misconceptions this has generated – that he is predominantly a portraitist of the Russian landscape and the lives of the serfs (as in A Sportsman’s Sketches) or a commentator on the problem of Russian progress (as in Fathers and Sons) – has meant that it is Turgenev, the notorious Westerner, who is now seen as a Russian antique, while Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov have passed into the realm of the universal.

The republication​  of A Nest of Gentlefolk, with ‘First Love’ and two other superb long stories, in Jessie Coulson’s neglected translations of 1959, in addition to new versions of ‘First Love’ and five stories from A Sportsman’s Sketches by Nicolas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater, prompts us to ask again: ‘What is Tourguéneffish?’ Edmund Wilson, John Bayley and others have made the point that Turgenev in the original is more ‘textured’, modulated and idiomatic (‘He is interested in words,’ Wilson wrote, ‘in a way that the other great 19th-century Russian novelists – with the exception of Gogol – are not’) than he tends to seem in translation.2 Turgenev reads very similarly – that is to say, cleanly – in all the available English translations, which suggests that the problem of conveying this texture is insuperable. Richard Freeborn’s decision in his translation of Fathers and Sons to have Bazarov speak a slangy American does not convince otherwise.

In reading Turgenev in English we are not departing from historical precedent. The vast majority of his 19th-century readers, in company with his most distinguished European and American admirers (James, Flaubert, Zola, George Eliot, Howells, the authorities in Oxford who gave him an honorary doctorate in 1879), read him largely in French or English. His importance for Western literature is unavoidably a mediated one, and it is through translation that we see what made those readers praise him so highly.

So: Turgenev’s greatest strength as a writer was his talent for detail, which had several different applications. One of his most distinctive habits is his use of similes drawn from the natural world (the result of much time spent outside, first as a child frightened of his mother and then as a devoted huntsman). Here are a few:

He’d get hold of one of his ideas with great effort, like a ladybird climbing on to a blade of grass, and he’d sit on it and sit on it, all the time spreading his wings and making ready to fly – and then he’d suddenly fall off and have to start climbing up again.


So a quiet and gentle creature, torn, God knows why, from her native soil and immediately abandoned, like a sapling dragged out of the ground and left lying with its roots in the sun, ended her earthly course.

A Nest of Gentlefolk

The same life flowed silently, like water among marsh grasses.

A Nest of Gentlefolk

My fancies played and darted, always round the same images, like martins at daybreak round a bell tower.

‘First Love’

Indistinct streaks of lightning flickered incessantly in the sky; they did not so much flash as flutter and twitch like the wing of a dying bird.

‘First Love’

Dunyasha would gladly giggle at him and give him sidelong significant looks as she ran past him all aflutter like a little quail.

Fathers and Sons

He’ll come down on you like snow off a roof.


Nejdanov had no need of lengthy replies; he knew quite well that his friend swallowed every word of his, as the dust in the road swallows each drop of rain.

Virgin Soil

When Turgenev was dying of misdiagnosed spinal cancer, he underwent several futile operations, during one of which, he later told Daudet, ‘I searched for the words with which I could give you an exact impression of the steel cutting through my skin and entering my flesh … something like a knife cutting a banana.’ Hearing of this, Edmond de Goncourt marvelled: ‘Our old friend Turgenev is a real man of letters.’

Another manifestation of Turgenev’s talent for detail was his proclivity for giving miniature portraits of even the most insignificant figures in his books. We learn of a language and music teacher ‘who spoke indifferent French and German and played the piano after a fashion, but who made excellent pickled cucumbers’; of one character’s mother whose ‘left eye was inclined to water, and on the strength of this [she] considered herself a woman of refined sensibility’; of a priest with ‘only one not entirely pleasant habit, which was that from time to time he would slowly and carefully raise his hand to swat flies on his face and sometimes managed to squash them.’ James cited another example:

a gentleman who makes a momentary appearance as host at a dinner party, and … has our impression of his personality completed by the statement that the soup at his table was filled with little paste figures, representing hearts, triangles and trumpets. In the author’s conception, there is a secret affinity between the character of this worthy man and the contortions of his vermicelli.

James’s charge – Turgenev ‘strikes us as loving details for their own sake, as a bibliomaniac loves the books he never reads’ – has some justice, especially when it comes to the detours Turgenev likes to take. These can be tiresome, but they can’t be separated from his broader impulse to particularise. It is his restless desire to make the reader see the distinctive way somebody does something, or to convey a small but telling feature of a scene, that gives his prose its aliveness, its capacity to surprise.

Take the undemonstrative driver in the story ‘Kasyan from the Beautiful Lands’, from Sportsman’s Sketches, who, having decided to continue a journey although his cart has a broken axle, ‘carefully replaced the snuff-box in his pocket, brought his hat down over his brows without touching it, simply by a movement of his head, and climbed thoughtfully up on to the seat’. It’s the bit about the hat, by any measure unnecessary, that makes the driver real (indeed, it was details such as these, lavished on mere serfs, which made such an impression). In ‘First Love’, in the Riverrun edition, the narrator visits the family newly moved in next door and is met by a servant ‘carrying a plate containing the backbone of a herring. Closing with his foot the door leading to the next room, he said abruptly: “Yes?”’ It is the herringbone and the servant’s hasty, undignified shutting of the door with his foot that capture the grimy disorder of this household, presided over by a princess down on her luck, who is later seen scratching ‘her head under her cap with the point of a knitting needle’.3

In​  ‘A Quiet Backwater’, again translated by Coulson, Vladimir Sergeich Astakhov is invited by Mikhail Nikolaich Ipatov to stay at his house in the country, where he lives with his young daughters and his sister-in-law, Masha. One evening when they are on the terrace, there is a rainstorm and the group run laughing into the drawing room; Turgenev has us notice that ‘Ipatov’s little daughters laughed loudest of all as they shook the raindrops from their dresses.’ Later, Vladimir Sergeich is woken in the night with the news that Masha, disappointed in love, has thrown herself into the pond. He runs downstairs to find the house empty, but before he goes outside (through the doors opening from the drawing room) he spots the two girls: ‘Half-dead with fright, they stood in their little white petticoats, their hands clasped and their little feet bare, by a night-light placed on the floor.’ The scene that follows makes obvious what Hemingway took from Turgenev:

He found Ipatov at the edge of the pond; a lantern hung on a branch lit the old man’s grey head clearly. He was wringing his hands and staggering like a drunken man; near him a woman lay on the grass writhing and sobbing; there was a bustle of people all round them. Ivan Ilyich was in the water up to his knees, groping along the bottom with a pole; the coachman was undressing, his whole body shivering; two men were dragging a boat along the bank; there was a sharp clatter of hoofs along the village street … The wind shrieked past, as though straining to blow out the lanterns, and the pond, black and threatening, splashed noisily … The coachman seized one boat-hook, the bailiff another, and both jumped into the boat, pushed off and began dragging the water with their hooks; others lighted them from the bank. It was strange and terrible to see their movements and their shadowy figures in the haze above the disturbed waters of the pond, by the dim and uncertain light of the lanterns … Something white showed near the boat.

Turgenev’s use of visual detail, his power to make us see, is almost casual. He leaves us to notice, or not, the way the two little girls and their raindrops prefigure Masha’s death, or the way the group’s earlier rushing in from the rain is inverted by their panicked rushing out to the pond. His description of the scene by the water also relies for its effect on details simply stated, steadily added one to the other without emotional brocading.

But Turgenev is also a master of the detail that gives access not just to a general impression – of disarray in a princess’s household – but to individual character and circumstance. It says everything about the contradiction gripping the 16-year-old narrator of ‘First Love’, lurking in the garden at night in the hope of spying the object of his devotion with her rumoured lover, that when he hears a noise, he murmurs ‘“Who is there?” … almost inaudibly’, and when he hears laughter and ‘rustling among the leaves’, repeats the interrogative ‘more softly still’. He doesn’t actually want to make the discovery, which he has already half made, that this lover not only exists, but is his own father.

Much of the emotional power of Fathers and Sons comes from the small touches that demonstrate the attitude of the elder figures – Arkady’s widowed father, Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov, and Bazarov’s parents – to their children. Constance Garnett called her translation Fathers and Children, and though this wording has been supplanted in all modern editions, it captures something significant: your child always remains your child. The relationship includes the possibility that, through an excess of tenderness, it is the yearning parent who becomes childish.

We are aware of Nikolai Petrovich’s vulnerability from the beginning, as he waits impatiently for his son to arrive from St Petersburg (Arkady has just graduated). Nikolai Petrovich asks his coachman twice if there is any sign of the carriage before sitting down with a sigh, thinking about his dead wife, who did not live to see her son a graduate. When Arkady finally appears, they embrace, and Nikolai Petrovich is so flustered that ‘it was as if he were a little lost, and a little shy.’ It is only now that Arkady reveals that he has brought a friend, Bazarov – a cleverness on Turgenev’s part, because we feel his father’s surprise, and then his sadness that the intimacy of the reunion has been lost. The new atmosphere, and Nikolai Petrovich’s determination to show he doesn’t feel it, is conveyed to us by the way he ‘promptly’ turns and shakes Bazarov’s hand (which hasn’t been extended), formally asking his first name and patronymic. From here on, we become familiar with Nikolai Petrovich’s smiling uncertainty around Arkady – his pride and enjoyment in him, his earnest desire to understand his friendship with Bazarov, coupled with his own incomprehension. Later, we are given a brief insight into the period preceding the action of the novel. It is never referred to again, but it is all we need:

For the first time, he clearly perceived the gulf between himself and his son; he foresaw that it would grow wider and wider with every passing day. In vain, then, had he spent whole days reading the latest books during the winters in Petersburg; in vain had he listened to the conversations of young people; in vain had he rejoiced when he’d managed to interject his own ideas into their heated discussions.

About halfway through the novel, the two young men swap hosting duties and Bazarov arrives at his family home with Arkady in tow. Bazarov’s parents haven’t seen him for three years. (They are a few rungs down the social ladder: his father, a retired army doctor, served in Arkady’s grandfather’s brigade.) At dinner, Bazarov’s mother pays no attention to their guest: ‘She leaned her round face … on her closed little fist and didn’t take her eyes off her son. She sighed repeatedly … dying to know how long he intended to stay but … afraid to ask him.’ When, after only three days, Bazarov signals to his father that he is leaving in the morning, by asking off-handedly for horses to be sent for, Turgenev handles the scene with agonising delicacy. ‘I have to go and stay with [Arkady] for a little while. I’ll come back here again later,’ Bazarov says.

‘Ah! For a little while … All right.’ Vasily Ivanovich drew out his handkerchief, and, blowing his nose, bent over nearly to the ground. ‘Oh well, everything will be arranged. I thought you were going to be with us … a little longer. Three days … after three years, it’s not very much – it’s not very much, Evgeny!’

He can’t resist telling Bazarov that his mother had only just asked for fresh flowers for his room:

(Vasily Ivanovich didn’t mention the fact that every morning, just after dawn, he conferred with Timofeich [the servant], standing with his bare feet in slippers, pulling out one dog-eared ruble note after another with trembling fingers and ordering him to make various purchases, with special emphasis on good things to eat and red wine, which, as far as he could tell, the young men liked very much.)

‘Freedom – that’s the main thing. That’s my rule … I don’t want to constrain you … not …’

He suddenly stopped talking and made for the door.

‘We’ll see each other soon, Father, honestly.’

But Vasily Ivanovich merely waved his hand without turning around, and went out.

This is what makes the moment later on when Bazarov tells his father that he has almost certainly infected himself with typhus so terrible. The wait to see if the illness will manifest is even worse.

[Vasily Ivanovich] restrained himself for two whole days, although he didn’t like the way his son looked at all; he kept watching him stealthily … but by the third day, at dinner, he couldn’t bear it any longer. Bazarov was sitting with his eyes downcast, without touching his food.

‘Why aren’t you eating, Evgeny?’ he inquired, donning a thoroughly nonchalant expression. ‘The food has been prepared quite nicely, I think.’

‘I don’t want anything, so I’m not eating.’

‘Don’t you have an appetite? How’s your head?’ Vasily Ivanovich added timidly. ‘Does it ache?’

‘Yes, it does. Why shouldn’t it ache?’

Arina Vlasevna sat up and became alert.

‘Please don’t be angry, Evgeny,’ Vasily Ivanovich continued, ‘but won’t you let me feel your pulse?’

Bazarov stood up. ‘I can tell you without feeling my pulse that I have a fever.’

All is darkness after that, and we are left with the image – again drawn from nature – of Bazarov’s parents at the moment of his death: ‘Side by side … they bowed their poor heads like lambs in the noonday heat.’

It​  is in Turgenev’s use of speaking details – we might call it ‘showing not telling’ – that his influence on the development of the novel can be detected, perhaps especially as it was transmitted through James, as well as Maupassant, Chekhov and Conrad. He relies on dialogue, his plots consist of deepening relationships among a limited cast, usually over a short period of time. He rarely describes his characters’ motivations, entering their heads only to emphasise their internal inarticulacy: they are frequently unable to define their ‘nameless’ emotions, feeling confused, or unsure, surprising themselves by their actions, sometimes realising their inevitability only after the fact. ‘The drama is quite uncommented,’ James wrote. Turgenev ‘never plays chorus; situations speak for themselves.’ In A Nest of Gentlefolk, the reader is the first to see that the long disillusioned Lavretsky is falling in love with Liza: ‘As she went, Liza had hung her hat on a branch; Lavretsky gazed at that hat, with its long, slightly rumpled ribbons, with strange, almost tender emotion.’ In Fathers and Sons, we understand Arkady’s confused feelings on leaving the home of Anna Sergeevna much better than he does – he has convinced himself he is in love with her, despite knowing that she is attracted to Bazarov, and despite actually being in love with her sister Katya. ‘Arkady was the first to go down the front steps; he climbed into Sitnikov’s carriage. A butler respectfully helped him into his seat, but he would gladly have hit him or burst into tears.’

The technique is best exemplified in Virgin Soil, Turgenev’s last, longest and unfairly disregarded novel, in the relationship between the two young unmarried revolutionaries, Mariana and Nejdanov. Mariana has told Nejdanov that they can sleep together, as proof of her commitment to him. They have eloped and are staying in rooms on opposite sides of a hallway.

She went out, but in a minute or two her door opened slightly and he heard her say, ‘Good night!’ then more softly another ‘Good night!’ and the key turned in the lock.

Nejdanov sank onto the sofa and covered his face with his hands. Then he got up quickly, went to her door and knocked.

‘What is it?’ was heard from within.

‘Not till tomorrow, Mariana … not till tomorrow!’

‘Till tomorrow,’ she replied softly.

Nejdanov’s inability to accept Maria’s offer is gradually revealed as unwillingness, another aspect of his mortifying failure fully to realise a revolutionary consciousness. His collapse is described sidelong: it is as though he is being slowly suffocated by those strange, oppressive, nameless emotions that Turgenev’s other characters eventually express through action. At last, Nejdanov expresses them too – by suicide.

‘They are so short and yet they hold so much,’ Virginia Woolf wrote of Turgenev’s novels. ‘The emotion is so intense and yet so calm. The form is in one sense so perfect, in another so broken.’ The brokenness is easy to identify: Turgenev’s propensity to brake and reverse a considerable distance into the past in order to describe how a character came to their present position repeatedly stalls narrative momentum and introduces a note of artificiality (‘We must now say a few words about Markelov …’). This master of showing could not resist a great deal of unnecessary telling. His schooling in the theatre (he wrote eight plays before his first novel) explains his focus on dialogue and the exterior signs of interior states, the limited casts and settings (very often a house in the country), the swift and decisive scenes – but also the formal weaknesses, most obviously this failure to incorporate back stories. It also accounts for some of his creakier stratagems: in his otherwise desultory lecture on Fathers and Sons, Nabokov was scornful of the appearance late in the novel of the ‘overheard in the arbour’ trope (‘We have sunk to the level of a comedy of manners’). ‘His literary genius,’ Nabokov said, ‘falls short on the score of literary imagination, that is, of naturally discovering ways of telling the story which would equal the originality of his descriptive art.’

It’s a little more complicated to explain what is perfect in Turgenev’s work. But, for one thing, he can rival Austen for a romantic finale. This is Lezhnev speaking in Rudin:

‘You talk like that, Alexandra Pavlovna, because you don’t know me. You think I’m a blockhead, a complete blockhead, just wood from the neck up. But don’t you know that I’m capable of melting like sugar and spending whole days on my knees?’

‘That I confess I’d like to see!’

Lezhnev suddenly stood up.

‘Then marry me, Alexandra Pavlovna, and you will see it.’

Alexandra Pavlovna reddened right up to her ears.

‘What was that you said, Mikhaylo Mikhaylych?’ she murmured in confusion.

‘I said something,’ answered Lezhnev, ‘that has been a long, long while and a thousand times on the tip of my tongue. I’ve finally said it, and you may do now as you know best. But so as not to embarrass you I’ll now leave. If you want to be my wife … I’ll be out in the garden. If you have no objection, just ask for me to be called: I’ll understand …’

Alexandra Pavlovna wanted to detain Lezhnev, but he swiftly went out into the garden without putting on his hat, leaned on a gate, and began gazing into the distance.

‘Mikhaylo Mikhaylych!’ resounded the voice of a maid behind him. ‘Please come to the mistress. She’s asking for you.’

Mikhaylo Mikhaylych turned round, seized the maid by her head with both hands, to her great astonishment, kissed her on the forehead, and strode off in the direction of Alexandra Pavlovna.

Such happy endings are rare, but that shouldn’t obscure the fact that Turgenev’s novels, like Austen’s, usually depict an intense, pressured moment of youthful, never to be repeated romantic opportunity. ‘First love is exactly like a revolution,’ he writes in Spring Torrents. ‘The regular and established order of life is in an instant smashed to fragments; youth stands at the barricade, its bright banner raised high in the air, and sends its ecstatic greetings to the future, whatever it may hold – death or a new life, no matter.’ What gives his stories their plangency, the emotional compression and strange calm that Woolf noted, isn’t just that they usually end in failure or defeat or sacrifice. It’s what happens next: these flurried lives settle into a stillness from which, we are given to understand, they will never be disturbed. As Pritchett wrote, Turgenev ‘is moved by the rise and fall of love and not by the fullness of love realised. Hail and farewell. Spring and autumn. No high summer of fulfilment. Therefore no tragedy, only sadness.’

Turgenev had a curious relationship to time. At the age of 36 he was wistful about his ‘old age’, and, perhaps encouraged by his prematurely white hair, early adopted a languishing pose. He had trouble keeping appointments: ‘It was impossible to see much of him,’ James recalled, ‘without discovering that he was a man of delays.’ His characters, too, miss their moment, or prove superfluous to it (‘Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District’ and ‘The Diary of a Superfluous Man’ are two of his stories). In this way, Turgenev’s work is a kind of commentary, both covert and overt, on Russia, a star with which his characters’ fortunes consistently fail to align. Even Bazarov, the progressive, tells Arkady at the end of Fathers and Sons: ‘Get married as soon as you can, and build your nest, and have as many children as possible. They’ll be smart ones, because they’ll have been born at the right time, not like you and me.’ Russia is slow to change, and life is short. ‘Nowhere does time pass as swiftly as in Russia,’ Turgenev writes, ‘though they say that in prison it passes even more quickly.’

Turgenev believed that all human effort and desire – satisfied or unsatisfied – is rendered irrelevant by the passage of time. This pessimistic view allowed him to resolve his complex feelings about personal agency: from the point of view of the universe, nobody has very much for very long. ‘Men’s dreams never come true, and their regrets are futile. He who has not drawn a winning number may as well be satisfied with a losing one and not breathe a word about it to anyone.’ His stories are often told in recollection by aged narrators, or end by jumping decades into the future: in the present there is no great happiness, or melodramatic anguish; it is merely the case that time has passed and is continuing to pass. It is no more possible to remedy long ago mistakes than to choose a better moment to be born.

Turgenev’s dwelling on nature, on the turning of the days and the seasons, is his way of instructing us in our insignificance, at the same time as he holds a magnifying glass to our small and squirming human connections. Woolf put it best: ‘As we notice, without seeming to notice, life going on, we feel more intensely for the men and women themselves because they are not the whole of life, but only part of the whole.’ ‘I am not afraid of looking at the future,’ Turgenev wrote on his 42nd birthday.

Only I am conscious of the fact that I am subject to certain eternal and unalterable, but deaf and dumb laws … and the small squeak of my consciousness means as little in this life as if I were to babble ‘I, I, I’ on the shore of the ocean that flows without return. The fly still buzzes, but in another instant – and thirty, forty years is also an instant  it will buzz no more.

In all his work, Turgenev seems to be out ahead of us. ‘As a punishment of myself and as a lesson to others,’ he wrote after witnessing that execution in Paris, ‘I should now like to tell everything I saw.’

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