From his early shorter works ‘The Diary of a Superfluous Man’ (1850), ‘A Sportsman’s Sketches’ (1852), ‘Mumu’ (1854) & ‘Faust’ (1855), Turgenev went on to write seven novels: ‘Rudin’ (1856), ‘A Nest of the Gentry’ (1859), ‘On the Eve’ (1860), ‘Fathers and Sons’ (1862), Smoke (1867), ‘Torrents of Spring’ (1872) & ‘Virgin Soil’ (1877). There are also excellent short pieces written during this period such as ‘Asya’ (1858) & perhaps his best ‘First Love’ (1861).
But which of the seven novels is the best? Whilst this is a crass question and a pointless task, it is nonetheless a discussion in which we feel obliged to partake, the kind of nonsensical and pointless thinking, egged on by god knows what vague feelings of unease or incompleteness, that particularly interested Turgenev himself. So here we go…
In chronological order:
- ‘Rudin’ (1856)
Rudin depicts a typical man of this generation (known as ‘the men of forties’), intellectual but ineffective, an interpretation of the ‘superfluous man’: someone who possesses great intellectual ability and potential, but is unable to realize them. Turgenev’s own view of human nature is centred on the difference between the egotistical Hamlet, too deep in reflection to act, and enthusiastic and un-thinking, and the active Don Quixote. The main character of the novel, Rudin, is easily identified with Hamlet. In the novel this Rudin turns up and captivates everyone. Then Rudin has his first conversation with Natasha, the love interest, she speaks of him highly and says he “ought to work”, he replies with a lengthy speech: “Yes, I must act. I must not bury my talent, if I have any; I must not squander my powers on talk alone — empty, profitless talk — on mere words’. Rudin eventually confesses his love for Natasha, she too loves him. Problems arise. Natasha wants to know what plan of action is Rudin going to propose, but he does not fulfil her expectations when he says that one must “submit to destiny”. She leaves him, disappointed and sad. Before his departure he writes two letters: one to Natasha and one to Sergei. The letter to Natasha is particularly notable in its confession of the vices of inactivity, inability to act and to take responsibility for one’s actions – all the traits of a Hamlet which Turgenev later detailed in his 1860 speech. The protagonist – not Rudin – defends Rudin’s “genius” while saying that his problem is that he had no “character” in him. This, again, refers to the superfluous man’s inability to act. He then toasts Rudin. The chapter ends with the description of Rudin travelling aimlessly around Russia. In the Epilogue, Lezhnev happens by chance to meet Rudin at a hotel in a provincial town. Lezhnev invites Rudin to dine with him, and over the dinner Rudin relates to Lezhnev his attempts to “act”. In all of his attempts Rudin demonstrated inability to adapt to the circumstances of Nicholas I’s Russia, and subsequently failed, and was in the end banished to his estate. Lezhnev then appears to change his opinion of Rudin as inherently inactive, and says that Rudin failed exactly because he could never stop striving for truth. But we’re not heard the last of Rudin: the novel ends with his death at the barricades during the French Revolution of 1848.
- ‘A Nest of the Gentry’ / ‘Liza’ (1859)
The novel’s protagonist Lavretsky, a nobleman who shares many traits with Turgenev, is brought up at his family’s country estate by a severe maiden aunt, then pursues an education in Moscow, and while he is studying there, he spies a beautiful young woman at the opera. Her name is Varvara Pavlovna, and he falls in love with her and asks for her hand in marriage. Following their wedding, the two move to Paris, where Varvara Pavlovna becomes a very popular salon hostess and begins an affair with one of her frequent visitors. Lavretsky learns of the affair only when he discovers a note written to her by her lover. Shocked by her betrayal, he severs all contact with her and returns to his family estate. Upon returning to Russia, Lavretsky visits his cousin, Marya Dmitrievna Kalitina, who lives with her two daughters, Liza and Lenochka. Lavretsky is immediately drawn to Liza, whose serious nature and religious devotion stand in contrast to the coquettish Varvara Pavlovna’s social consciousness. Lavretsky realizes that he is falling in love with Liza, and when he reads in a foreign journal that Varvara Pavlovna has died, he confesses his love to her and learns that she loves him in return. After they confess their love to one another, Lavretsky returns home to find his supposedly dead wife waiting for him in his foyer. The novel ends with Lavretsky visiting her at the convent and catching a glimpse of her. Lavretsky finds comfort in his memories and is able to see the meaning and even the beauty in his personal pain.
3. ‘On the Eve’ (1860)
About a girl with a hypochondriac mother and an idle father, who is pursued by a free-spirited sculptor (Pavel Shubin) and a serious-minded student (Andrei Berzyenev), and then Berzyenev’s revolutionary Bulgarian friend, Dmitri Insarov, with whom she falls in love, secretly marries, and then off they go to their doom. Though we admire the pair, we are also confronted with their naiveté and fanaticism: Turgenev’s objective approach to his protagonists, his presentation of their choices / life path, and the manner in which he lets their decisions play out, give the reader the job of judging them, a job the reader is never really up to. Oh, the reader thinks, there you go. But there are no answers. Judgement founders.
4. ‘Fathers and Sons’ (1862)
About a pair of friends Arkady &Bazarov who return from university to Arkady’s father’s modest estate. The father gladly receives the two, but the uncle becomes upset by the strange new philosophy called “nihilism” which the young men, especially Bazarov, advocate. The two young men then decide to visit a relative of Arkady’s and meet Madame Odintsova, an elegant woman of independent means, who cuts a seductively different figure from the pretentious or humdrum types of her surrounding provincial society of gentry. Both are attracted to her, and she, intrigued by Bazarov’s singular manner, invites them to spend a few days at her estate. While Bazarov at first feels nothing for Anna, Arkady falls head over heels in love with her. Bazarov finds falling in love distressing because it runs against his nihilist beliefs. However, he soon announces his love. Then off to Bazarov’s home, where the pair of friends are received enthusiastically by his parents, and the traditional mores of both father and mother, who adulate their son, are portrayed with a nostalgic, idealistic description of humble people and their fast-disappearing world of simple values and virtues. Bazarov’s social cynicism is still quite clear however, as he settles back into his own family’s ambiance. But Bazarov changes as he turns to help his father in being a country doctor. He cannot keep his mind on his work and while performing an autopsy fails to take the proper precautions….
5. ‘Smoke’ (1867)
The German bathing resort of Baden-Baden in the summer of 1862, the young Russian Grigory Litvinov has arrived en route home to Russia to meet his fiancée Tatiana Shestov, who will soon be arriving with her aunt and guardian, Kapitolina Markovna Shestov, from Dresden. One evening in his rooms, Litvinov finds a letter from his father and also a gift of heliotrope flowers on his windowsill brought by a mysterious woman who, according to the servant, did not leave her name; they strike a deep and powerful resonance with Litvinov. Later that night, unable to sleep, he suddenly realizes who might have brought them. And so the story reverts to about a decade earlier to relate the background story of the young Grigory Litvinov and Irina Osinin. Acquaintances in Moscow, the two fall in love when barely out of childhood and promise themselves to one another. Unlike Litvinov, Irina comes from an ennobled family of long pedigree, though in recent times fallen into near penury. One day the Osinin family, in view of their nobility, are invited to a ball being thrown by the emperor on his visit to Moscow. Irina agrees to go though she pleads with Litvinov not to go himself and Litvinov acquiesces to her wishes, though he does bring her a bouquet of heliotrope. Irina’s beauty makes quite an impression at the court ball and her life is forced into a different path. Off she goes. Marries rich. And now, in Baden-Baden in the summer of 1862, is back to once again ruin the life of the protagonist with strong feelings / love. Will he escape this time?
6. Torrents of Spring’ (1872)
This one centres on the middle-aged Dmitry Sanin rummaging through the papers in his study when he comes across a small cross set with garnets, which sends his thoughts back thirty years to the summer of 1840, when, as a twenty-two-year-old he arrives in Frankfurt en route home to Russia from Italy where he meets a beautiful young Italian woman, Gemma Roselli, the daughter of a baker’s widow. Sanin forgets himself and forgets about his plans to return to Russia. On meeting Gemma’s fiancé, Karl Klüber, he manages to take a dislike to him (which the reader very much shares) and also to upstage him, winning Gemma’s affections and ruining their engagement. The following morning a friend of the offending German officer arrives early at Sanin’s door demanding either an apology or satisfaction on behalf of his friend. Sanin scoffs at any notion of apologizing and so a duel is arranged for the following day near Hanau. For his second Sanin invites the old man Pantaleone, who accepts and is impressed by the nobility and honour of the young Russian, seeing in him a fellow “galant’uomo.” Sanin keeps the planned duel a secret between himself and Pantaleone, though the latter reveals it to Emilio. Departing the Roselli home that night, Sanin has a brief encounter with Gemma, who calls him over to a darkened window when she spots him leaving along the street. As they whisper to one another there is a sudden gust of wind that sends Sanin’s hat flying and pushes the two together. Sanin later feels this was the moment he began to fall in love with Gemma. However, Sanin must now sell up in Russia in order to pay for his planned nuptials and settling down with Gemma. By chance, he meets in the street the next day an old schoolmate of his, Hippolyte Sidorovich Polozov, who has come to Frankfurt from nearby Wiesbaden to do some shopping for his wealthy wife, Maria Nikolaevna. On meeting this woman everything changes: she is too much. In every way. Sanin is hooked by her, drugged, captured: he really doesn’t have a hope. When we catch up with the older Sanin in the here and now we too have learnt our lesson. It has been a painful schooling for the reader; the lesson is one often taught by Turgenev – the dangers of passion.
7.Virgin Soil (1877)
Turgenev’s final novel centres on the lives of a few young people in late nineteenth century Russia who decided to reject the social structures of their time, join the Populist movement, and set about in some way changing the world, fomenting insurrection, going amongst the people, making a difference, and generally being difficult, but always in the interests of a ‘people’ who don’t really want their interests taken up in this way, or at all really. The novel centres on Alexey Dmitrievich Nezhdanov, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat, who seeks to radicalise the peasantry and involve them in political action. He is given a job as tutor to Kolya, the nine-year-old son of Sipyagin, a local politician, and goes to live on his country estate. Whilst working there he becomes attracted to Marianna, the niece of the family. In typical Turgenevian fashion Nezhdanov falls foul of himself. He is that recurring ‘superfluous-man’ character of nineteenth century Russian Literature, which Goncharov nailed down so comprehensively in ‘Oblomov’ in 1859, but Turgenev very definitely got the ball rolling with ‘The Diary of a Superfluous Man’ of 1850. Nezhdanov is so thoroughly unconvincing as a human being who will never amount to anything, but such ‘amounting’ is the stuff of so many great novels by Turgenev. Perhaps ‘Nezhdanov’ isn’t the greatest of such creations by Turgenev; however, he is another convincing and enthralling iteration: maybe he’s crowded out by so much other stuff in this ‘ambitious’ novel; I find the ambition in this Turgenev’s last novel, kind of crowds out what one most cherishes in a Turgenev novel: the superfluous-man going about his business, going around and around in ever decreasing circles, a more subtle tragedy than the Shakespearean, but a better Hamlet because of it.
Ranking the Seven?
In order of how deeply they might affect a reader, I’d say the novels should be ranked thus:
- Torrents of Spring’ (1872) – I think this is the one that hurts the most. Knowing that Sanin does it, that he falls victim, does himself in, or otherwise jumps off a precipice; each step in this novel inevitably hurts, each twist is the twist of a rusty crooked knife; Turgenev is enjoying this it would seem, and so are we. By the end of this we are bruised but alive. Such, one supposes, is life. Even if we don’t fall victim in such a way to love.
- ‘A Nest of the Gentry’ (1859) – it’s hard not to feel a wallop of sympathy for Turgenev’s hapless heroes – this guy – Lavretsky – really gets a going over from life / women / love – each of the three seem to be things that happen to men as far as Turgenev’s protagonists are concerned, so they deserve to suffer – but how they suffer. It seems that the loss of control / volition / agency is the key ingredient for love – only when you’re well and truly caught are you in love. Any love you initiate, control and oversee isn’t really love at all. Learning to appreciate it? Always happens too late.
- ‘Fathers and Sons’ (1862) – there are women in this too – hence the ‘proper’ if less well-known English title – ‘Father’s & Children’ – but it is the boys who take centre stage, and it is very much the boys who make a mess of things and of themselves, thereby garnering the reader’s sympathy. But unlike a character such as Rudin in ‘Rudin’, we do feel that Bazarov really could have done something (though what really does anyone ‘do’) – but alas… I think it’s because Bazarov comes to an untimely end that makes this novel so sad. The death of Rudin is a throwaway comment; the death of Bazarov is truly tragic because he had more or less learnt to live his life, and left behind the juvenile concerns – obsession with new-fangled notions, conceptions of society, the future, progress, the lack there of, and all of that kind of thing – that dominate 19thcentury Russian intellectual life, and very much distract us from the substance of one’s life.
- ‘Virgin Soil’ (1877) – If ideas and revolution and so on is one avenue that presents itself to us, living your life is more akin to falling in love: it’s always about that particular morass with Turgenev. The other morass, the kind of Dostoevskian quagmire of ‘The Brothers Karamazov, and its twentieth century manifestations where one worries about ideas and society and evil all of that kind of serious stuff, are very much secondary. One feels that Turgenev is feeling obliged in this novel to give ideas, politics and revolution more space than he really thinks justified: I want him to get back to characters properly ripping themselves to shreds. Worrying about the fate of the people, the future of society, poverty, progress, morality and all of that kind of thing seems unimportant in comparison. For Turgenev there’s more substance in your commitment to a woman/man than your commitment to a cause – and women are always better at this: it seems Turgenev has less faith in men such as himself, what with knowing himself so thoroughly and maybe hoping that women weren’t quite so crap. Because of the distraction of ideas / politics that is in excess of ‘Fathers and Sons’, I feel this one must come in fourth place. Less of a tragedy too. But what a shock – the ultimate fate of Nezhdanov
- ‘Smoke’ (1867) – women are at it again in this novel – in the guise of women – with their eyes and legs and hair – you can’t trust them in this manifestation – men are utterly at their mercy. Apparently, such was to be Turgenev’s own fate, in contradistinction to the fate of his father, who was dripping in will, grit, and that go-get them attitude that Turgenev worshipped and bemoaned. That these Turgenev men keep doing it to themselves, know that they themselves are culpable, and nonetheless keep doing it, wallowing in their pretty shallow but oh-so-deeply felt victimhood, doesn’t in the end seem to excuse the reader from giving a damn: we’re heartbroken too, as we are meant to be – Turgenev, it turns out, is not only very good at feeling sorry for himself, he can pull the wool over everyone else’s eyes too, as we wallow in our own self-pity.
- ‘On the Eve’ (1860) – with this novel the difference is that it’s the woman who’s at the centre of our experience; this one is all about the girl, and surrounded as she is by a clutch of those Turgenev men, she too is in very dangerous waters. This is what gives this novel the edge over ‘Rudin’ in terms of the impact it makes: Oh Elena Stakhova, to be lumbered with the great man Insarov! But being thus lumbered gives her life substance. Being unencumbered – or being only weighed down by vague romantic notions, a clutch of abstract concepts that seem huge, but are in fact of no real substance – mean that Insarov, the Bulgarian nationalist, can shuffle off the stage, Rudin fashion, and the reader sill merely shrug their shoulders: well, at least he was happy, with his pretty notions.
- ‘Rudin’ (1856) – the epilogue should be excised from every future edition, but otherwise it’s still hard to care for the Rudin type: just get over yourself. Everything you’ve stood for has amounted to nothing. Such is life. You should have loved. That said, it is nonetheless a profoundly moving novel, and sets the marler down: the Turgenev protagonist will miss chance after chance after chance to live their lives.