Fathers and Sons is a novel about Russia, above all. A Russian empire still firmly under Tzarist control before the wars against the Ottomans and the Germans undermined and eventually ended that ancient dynasty. But its also about a Russia on the cusp of change. Ivan Turgenev was one of the first loudest voices raised in defiance against Russia’s intractable intransigent feudalism. A serfdom that was unchanging and embedded in the vast lands that spread across half the earth.
The story is about Bazarov, a youthful rebel, an aristocratic do-nothing and a nihilist. Maybe literature’s first nihilist (I’ve heard that said); trying to make the case to his family and friends that nothing matters. But then he falls in love; following which he contracts a disease and (spoiler alert) dies young – as he does raging against that unwelcome specter not in a youthful tantrum but in a sorrowful lamentation of life left unlived – and he expires, leaving his father and mother to mourn him. The last scene, his parents visiting his grave at the cemetery, rings true for those of us who have sons and for those who also know that the natural order is never for a father to have to bury his son.
Nihilism is popular in our modern world, a marriage of cynicism with increased knowledge butting up against a stubborn powerlessness that does not change. But it is also a youthful indiscretion; as we age, that which seemed to have no meaning is forgiven and we find purpose in watching our sons grow, in the extraordinary experiences lived upon this planet and in a renewed faith in our God that it all is in preparation for something; a bus station waiting room where we rage at the rules penned on the wall until we realize soon we are to leave.
A classic is a book still read 100 years after its publication. Turgenev, then, becomes one of Russia’s greatest classicists.