Turgenvey is much less famous than his contemporaries, Tolstoy and Dostoyevky. He lacks their wow factor, but give him time. There’s lots here to respect and quite a bit to love.
The uninspiring: I struggled more with Turgenev than with any writer so far on this project. He wrote loads, but, unlike Dostoyevsky, there was no manic self-loathing to carry the pace. Turgenev is very mannered. Yes, people fall in love passionately and fight duels and ruin their lives, but, at least in the translations I encountered, all without much brio. His characters, though consumed with issues of Russian identity, felt much more European than those in Lermontov, Gogol or Pushkin. The writers I’ve covered so far were cosmopolitan, but Turgenev, who sets several of his stories and chapters abroad, seems to show it more. Selfishly, I feel a bit short changed after signing up for touristy exoticism.
To respect: The vast landscape has been a feature and a metaphor in so much 19th century Russian literature, but Turgenev is the first writer to really love it in his prose. His Russian-set stories take place on country estates or out in the open. From dew on individual blades of grass to smoke on the horizon, Turgenev is the first writer to revel in the nature of his home country for what it is, not just what it represents. I respect without loving this because, personally I’m a city girl and couldn’t quite share his rhapsodies. That’s me though. These are the most evocative prose descriptions of the Russian landscape that I’ve encountered and definitely form a part of what makes Turgenev stand out from his contemporaries.
To love: Finally, finally, a Russian writer who writes about peasants.* The peasants made up at least 80% of the population and, while they weren’t the target audience for novels, they’re still desperately underrepresented in literature. The most famous Turgenev novel is probably ‘Fathers and Sons’ which is a very accomplished tale about the conflicts between the older and younger generation (and a metaphor for modernity in general). It’s got good characters and a great duel, but if you’re only going to read one book by him read ‘Sketches from a Hunters Album’. It’s not really about hunting, in case you were feeling squeamish. The narrator, as a sportsman, spends lots of his time away from large houses and civilization. His companions of choice are nearly always peasants and, in unemotional prose, he describes them, their beliefs and their trials. There is nothing sentimental, that is left for the description of nature, instead their lives are presented with journalistic-style realism. We learn of one land-owner who proved that cutting down trees does not encourage forest growth by pulling out half of the hairs of a peasant’s beard. My edition also allowed me to spend time with the ‘living relic’ a paralyzed house serf who is left to lie in a shed, in the light in the summer, in the dark in the winter, waiting for her death. This was the last volume on my Turgenev reading pile and I loved it. It felt like something completely new and taught me why Turgenev really does hold his own amongst his fellow Russian greats.
*Gogol’s ‘Dead Serfs’ does not count. I mean live peasants.