At the beginning of the golden age of Russian literature, when Russia was emerging from poetry – as all developed literary societies must – and turning to glorious prose, there was Ivan Turgenev. Born into lower nobility, impoverished but still proud and clinging to the ancient ways like the old willow beside the stream which has run dry, leaves browning and weakened by too long a fight against the inevitable, Ivan Turgenev was one of the first powerful voices of change, announcing the new Russia, the Russia which was beginning its existential schizophrenic struggle over ‘east’ and ‘west’ (a struggle that continues into today). His work was probably the first to challenge the social issue of serfdom; in fact Bazarov from “Father and Sons” is considered the first Bolshevik in Russian literature. Educated in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Turgenev was actually a product of the west – a marriage of the new French style (he was good friends with Flaubert – who arguably laid the foundation upon which all modern novels are written – his novels flow with French language and German ideas) and a Russian’s sense of geography and place and the slowness of time in a world that does not change fast. In fact, Turgenev is as much a legacy of France as he is of Russia; did not even Macron recently praise Turgenev as a reminder to the world that Russia is ‘profoundly European’?
“Nest of the Gentry” is a simple love story – and in some ways feels almost like an autobiography. Though the story is about a petty-nobleman named Lavretsky, whose role in the story is falling in love and pursuing that love until he is in the end deceived and forced into a life of loveless sorrow (no spoiler here); I was more drawn to one of the minor characters, Lemm. A German composer who appears throughout the story, a luckless, lost and weary soul whose tortured path through life goes unnoticed. “Lemm’s appearance was not lovely to behold. He was short of stature and bent, with crooked shoulders and indrawn stomach, large flat feet and bluish-white nails on the stiff, horny fingers of his blue-veined red hands; he had a puckered face, hollow cheeks and tightened lips which he was forever twisting and gnawing at and which, added to his habitual taciturnity, produced an almost gruesome effect. His grey hair strayed in tufts over a low brow, his little immobile eyes smoldered like dying embers; he moved in a lumbering gait, swinging his unwieldy bulk forward at each step. Some of his gestures reminded one of the uncouth preening of a caged owl when it feels it is being observed and can but peer helplessly about with its enormous, timorously blinking and somnolent yellow eyes. A deep gnawing grief had laid its ineffaceable seal on the poor musician; it had marred and maimed his by no means engaging aspect; but to those who were not prone to be influenced by first impressions there was something good, and honest, something uncommon in this ravaged creature.” How can you not root for this figure; and even in doing so knowing that your efforts are in vain?
As I said, “Nest of the Gentry” might have been Ivan Turgenev’s attempt at an autobiography. The end of the novel is a bit of an epitaph taking place eight years after the story itself comes to an end; that is after Lavretsky has loved and lost and is coming to terms with that reality: “During these eight years he had at last turned the corner of his life, which many men pass without turning, but without which no one can wholly remain an honorable man: he had really ceased to think of his own happiness and self-interest. His spirit was quelled and – to be frank – he had grown old not only in face and body, he had grown old in heart; to keep a young heart in old age, as some people say, is difficult and almost absurd; he may well be content who has not lost his faith in goodness, tenacity of purpose and the will to act.”
And after all this, how does he face the coming night?
“For me, after this day, after these experiences, there remains but to take my last leave of you – and, in view of the approaching end and a God who waits, to say with sadness but without envy, without dark feelings: ‘Welcome, lone age! Burn out, useless life!’” Would that we all progressed so well along our own paths towards the end.