Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev was first published in 1862.  I found this to be a compelling philosophical novel populated with well crafted and complex characters. I read the Constance Garnett translation. 

This is the story of two young men, Yevgeny Bazarov and his friend Arkady Kirsanov. Bazarov is a nihilist. Arkady is a follower who has embraced Bazarov’s beliefs.  Nihilism, which was a thought system spreading through Russia at the time, is a key concept explored in this book. It is described by Arkady as follows, 

A nihilist is a man who does not bow down before any authority, who does not take any principle on faith, whatever reverence that principle may be enshrined in. 

As such, Bazarov is critical of most societal conventions, government, tradition and conceptions of beauty and art, among other things. 

The narrative follows the travels of Bazarov and Arkady as they visit several households in Russia. First, they visit Arkady’s father Nikolai Kirsanov. Nikolai is a liberal landowner which, at the time, made him someone who favored moderate reform in Russia. His political and social beliefs are at odds with the radical nihilism of Bazárov and Arkady. Nikolai’s brother, Pavel, is also on hand. Pavel is also a liberal who spends some time debating Bazarov. 

Next, the pair visit a widowed noblewoman, Anna Odintsova, and her sister, Katya.  Anna’s psyche is delved into by Turgenev in some depth. She is a woman who is somewhat obsessed with order and not rocking the boat. She is an interesting character in her own right. Bazarov begins to fall in love with her. These feelings cause his nihilistic beliefs to fray a bit. Arkady is likewise attracted to Katya. The young men's attractions to these women make up a major thread in the narrative through the end of the book. 

The pair also visit Bazarov’s parents. Bazarov’s father, Vassily, is also a liberal Russian. These political and social differences, as well as other issues, also put a strain on the relationship between Bazarov and his parents. This all plays into a major theme of the book as Turgenev explains the tensions between different generations. 

The two young men bounce back and forth between the three households throughout the story. Eventually, Bazarov’s tearing down of everything that Pavel values leads to Pavel calling out Bazarov to a duel.  This ends with Pavel being wounded, but also with the two more or less reconciling. In what I thought was some of the best writing in the book, Pavel comments on Bazárov’s degeneration of art and nature,

Nikolai Petrovitch’s head sank despondently, and he passed his hand over his face. “But to renounce poetry?” he thought again; “to have no feeling for art, for nature ...” And he looked round, as though trying to understand how it was possible to have no feeling for nature. It was already evening; the sun was hidden behind a small copse of aspens which lay a quarter of a mile from the garden; its shadow stretched indefinitely across the still fields. A peasant on a white nag went at a trot along the dark, narrow path close beside the copse; his whole figure was clearly visible even to the patch on his shoulder, in spite of his being in the shade; the horse’s hoofs flew along bravely. The sun’s rays from the farther side fell full on the copse, and piercing through its thickets, threw such a warm light on the aspen trunks that they looked liswallows flew high; the wind had quite died away, belated bees hummed slowly and drowsily among the lilac blossom; a swarm of midges hung like a cloud over a solitary branch which stood out against the sky. “How beautiful, my God!” thought Nikolai Petrovitch, and his favourite verses were almost on his lips;

I like the way, in the above passage, that Turgenev transitions from Pavel’s objection to Bazarov’s beliefs to his own musings upon the beauty of nature, to his own love of poetry and thus ends with  

his favourite verses were almost on his lips.

Turgenev was himself a moderate who rejected both the far-right reactionaries and the radical nihilists.  Both of these extremes were gaining popularity in Russia at the time that this was written. Bazarov’s character, however, was tame and moderate compared to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s psychotic and malevolent nihilistic characters, such as Verkhovensky in The PossessedDostoevsky’s nihilists also tend to gather around them a cult like following. Instead, Bazarov is somewhat likable and sympathetic. He has persuaded Arkady to embrace his cause, but he does not end up convincing anyone else. For his part, Arkady easily breaks free of Bazarov’s influence when he falls in love and becomes engaged to Katya. 

Though there was apparently some controversy at the time when this was published as to Turgenev’s view of nihilism, a little online searching makes it clear from Turgenev’s other writings and statements that he meant to be very critical of nihilism in this book. Bazarov is, however, a complex character.  He has flaws but he also has appealing traits. His philosophy is portrayed as terrible. At the same time, he is shown to be both charming and brave as he conducts himself with courage and honor in his duel with Pavel.  I would have liked it if there was more of Bazarov’s philosophizing included in the text. What there was of it, I found it to be interesting. At one point, he muses,

I think; here I lie under a haystack.... The tiny space I occupy is so infinitely small in comparison with the rest of space, in which I am not, and which has nothing to do with me; and the period of time in which it is my lot to live is so petty beside the eternity in which I have not been, and shall not be.... And in this atom, this mathematical point, the blood is circulating, the brain is working and wanting something.... Isn’t it loathsome? Isn’t it petty?

As the above illustrates, Bazarov thinks about the big issues. With that, his ultimate outlook is incredibly negative. 

I found this to be very good book.   The characters are well drawn. If they are not brilliant they do posses a lot of subtlety and nuance. The themes, particularly that of differences between generations, are well presented and interesting  I liked the political and social moderate change that Turgenev espoused here. The Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy works that I have read seemed to tell bigger stories about bigger characters. Nonetheless, this book worked well in its own way. The plot and characters are very well crafted and are likely to hold the attention of readers who like such stories. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys philosophical and character based novels. 




30 comments:

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, So glad you liked this book and your summary is excellent. I read Fathers and Sons as well a few years back and I was very impressed. In fact anyone interested in trying out 19th century Russian literature might want to start with Fathers and Sons. It was a controversial novel of its time. The older generation in Russia felt that Turgenev was promoting nihilism. The younger generation felt that nihilism was being mocked. Bazarov is a tragic figure but as you say courageous and complex and what he didn't see coming was falling in love with Anna Ordinstova. His nihilistic philosophy did not prepare him for that. I also felt Bazarov's parents were very touching figures who Bazarov needed to appreciate more.

mudpuddle said...

i've had a copy, neglected and gathering dust, on a shelf for some time... well, years to be truthful... but it does sound intriguing and i might get to it in a few... nicely written and organized post, tx...

James said...

Hi Brian, I'm glad you liked this book and wrote such an excellent commentary. You've captured the place of Turgenev vis a vis Dostoevsky as Turgenev was much less radical, though still too much so for the Tsar.
I was taken by the quote from Bazarov that you highlighted. It reminded me of Dostoevsky's "Underground Man", though not quite so extreme. Turgenev's Sketches from a Hunter's Album are also beautiful stories that seem quite liberal in their outlook - again, too radical for the Tsar's censors.
This novel is one of those I recommend to my friends who wonder if there is great Russian literature beyond Tolstoy & Dostoevsky

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James. Turgenev seems so less famous then Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. He is a writer to read as someone to move beyond them. Amazing that his writing ran afoul of the censors. I need to read both Underground Man as well as Hunter’s Album.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Muddpuddle. I have some books that have sat for decades. I would love to know what you thought if you read this.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy. It is so interesting that some thought that the novel prompted nihilism. Bazarov’s parents do bring about both warm and sad emotions. Barazov was indeed tragic unlikable me Dostoevsky’s villeinous nihilists.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I’m afraid I have never really been able to get into Russian literature, though I can watch the plays of Chekhov. Rather too depressing for me, in general. I read War And Peace as a teenager, but that was exciting as Russian lit goes, not just people gathering in drawing rooms and philosophising over tea... 😏 I have heard of Turgenev, but never read any of his work. Maybe I need to give some of this literature another go.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue - I must say that there is s lot of philosophizing in drawing rooms in this book. It also ends sadly.

Marian H said...

I really enjoyed this book...it definitely felt "smaller" than Dostoyevsky, but also more approachable. Like you, though, I would've liked to read more about Bazarov; his portrayal seemed a bit on the cautious side. But if there was controversy at publication, it's less surprisring Turgenev wrote him with restraint.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Marian - On the other hand, I think that Barazov was more like a typical person then many Dostoyevsky to Tolstoy characters. He is kind of like a modern collage student who latches on to an ideology. I have known a few people like him.

JacquiWine said...

It's good to see your perspective on this author, particularly in comparison with Dostoyevsky. My knowledge of the great Russian classics is pretty sketchy to say the least -- I've only read a little of Chekhov, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky -- but this does sound interesting from a psychological point of view. Great commentary as ever, Brian - you always highlight something valuable in your reviews.

Judy Krueger said...

Many authors of the 20th century whom I admire have lauded Turgenev. I have wanted to read him. I think this book sounds like a good one to start with. I have read some Tolstoy and Dostoevsky so Turgenev should be next for me. Your review is well written and gives a good overview of the novel.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post Brian. I have read some Turgenev but I’ve usually found him to have less impact than Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (the latter is my favourite). I did find Turgenev’s Smoke to be very good however. Dostoevsky and he were great rivals and there’s a merciless lampoon if T in The Devils...

Kaggsysbookishramblings

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jacqui- I have read some, but just some, Russian literature. I am slowly filling in the gaps. This book is a good way to go as it has the attributes that I mentioned and because, unlike a lot of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, it is fairly short.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Judy - I felt the same. I had read a bit of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy so I wanted to give Turgenev a try.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kaggy - I agree, at least in this book, Turgenev did not write stories about giants. The characters here are more everyday people. I read The Devils but I had not read smoke, I need to read Smoke and go back to that passage.

Suko said...

Brian Joseph,
I enjoyed reading your commentary and the quotations you shared. E I'll keep this Russian philosophical novel in mind for the future. It sounds compelling. Excellent post!

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian.

I read this book a couple of years ago. I guess I was one of those that thought Turgenov was trying to overturn traditional morals and such. This book reminds me a lot of Dostoevsky's Demons.

Your review allows me to see an other side. When I read it again, I'll probably have more insight.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon- It was like Denons in many ways. But it seemed a lot less intent. I thought that Bazarov was more like a college kid who embraced some crazy ideas rather then a truly dangerous and murderous person.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Suko.

baili said...

the passages from book shared by you are powerful dear Brain !

they have strong appeal and provoke to read this wonderful book as soon as possible

i always find non believers really strange and superficial ,but writer seems to point out something sprouting out from the stern crust such as" love"

I think love is something which compel us to surrender ,to submit and to kneel down front of something we believe is superior to us and this superiority disguised as IMPORTANT "

Important ,about which we care and can't afford to make him resentful to us.

i am truly moved by passages,i have read some quite old short stories from Russian literature in my school days and found them great reads too

thank you so much for this excellent commentary and for introducing this great book !
blessings!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Baili - The writing here is often powerful. I think non belief and distrust of mores and institutions can be superficial but it can be genuine and based upon ethics and reason. Religious belief and faith can, with some people also be terribly superficial, shallow and harmful too.

I see love not so much as something that leads me to want to kneel, but something that drives respect, understanding, compassion and lots of other things.

thecuecard said...

I'm glad that Arkady breaks free of Bazarov's nihilism in the end. This concept of nihilism sounds quite harsh. Like a bit of anarchy too. Sounds like quite a philosophical novel .... which reminds me of all the philosophy in The Brothers Karamazov ....

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - I think Bazarov was not that persuasive. This was a little like The Brothers Karamazov but it was like The Devils.

The Bookworm said...

I'm glad you enjoyed reading Fathers and Sons. I like the passage you shared about his noticing how beautiful the scene was and that it almost inspired his favorite verses. I feel nature can have that affect on people.
Great post as always. Have a nice weekend!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Naida - Nature can inspire all kinds of other connections to beauty. I thought that Barazov’s nihilism was put into a bad light as it was contested to that.

Paula Vince said...

I've just discovered Russian classics in the last two years, and this one has been on my list to read. It sounds really interesting and character-driven, just like some of the others. Those Russian authors certainly knew how to bring philosophy and social considerations into their stories.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Paula- The Russian novelists really had a way with philosophy. With that, this book was a lot less dramatic and was toned down compared to the Dostoevsky and Tolstoy that I have read.

Tracy Terry said...

Funny that you should post this now as there is a tv adaptation being shown here in the UK.

A book I read whilst at school but remember little of. Whether this is because I didn't enjoy or, as is more than likely, I just didn't 'get it' at that age I don't know. Anyway I thought I'd take a look at this dramatisation (not that I expect it will be as good as the book as these things rarely are) and maybe then re-read the book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - That is interesting about the television adaptation.

I would not have liked this when I was young. It is was to subtle.