Saturday, July 24, 2010

One Good Turgenev

In the sweepstakes of Russian literature where he is up against Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, I have always thought Turgenev a distinct runner-up. Well: "Bezhin Lea" is a gem of a story, but his signature Fathers and Sons has always struck me as little more than a political pamphlet. And Virgin Soil seems to me little more than a somewhat lumpish extension of the same. I therefore have tended to ally myself with those who think that Turgenev is overpraised because he is the housebroken and westernized alternative to his more unsettling contemporaries.

But I just stumbled on a Turgenev that seems to be worth the trouble. That would be First Love, as presented in a Librivox download which I carried with me lately for a couple of long drives. Here, at least, we have a framework that seems to fit T's talents: it is a "country-house novel" just as much as so much of Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse. But it it is neither Christie nor Wodehouse: it is understated and compassionate, and it has the restrained dignity of a formal dance. I figured out the plot about half way--rare for me, I am abysmal on plot and often have to have them explained to me after it is all over. But this time I said ooh noo! and then stood by to watch in horrified fascination as the collision came to pass. The last novel that worked for me in quite this way was Malamud's The Fixer: in each case, you know what is going to happen, you don't want it to happen, you don't want to watch, but you find yourself locked in anyway.

Country-house novel: I suppose you could sniff that this still leaves him as a minor talent. Fine, but a really first-class second-rate is still first class, even if in its own way. Or if nothing else, at least go read "Bezhyn Lea." Here's a free version on line.

Afterthought: Is this the first time I've hyped Librivox? I think maybe. Too bad. They're a great resource and I should do whatever I can to help keep them strong.


Anonymous said...

I read FL in England in '76 and promptly fell in love with Turgenev. Steve, who doesn't read much fiction at all, likes Sportsman's sketches.

Buce said...

Come to think of it, I vaguely remember that. Would have been ideal for the intelligent & aware 14 yr old. Bezhin Lea is one of the Sportsman's Sketches.