LEONARD SCHAPIRO is a former English barrister, now teaching at the London School of Economics, who has devoted himself to the study of Russian politics and culture, and is best known for his classic history, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union . He has now turned from Soviet politics and the study of 19th-century Russian thought, to offer, as a labor of love, a book on Ivan Turgenev.

New material on this most attractive of major Russian novelists -- at least to our Anglo-American lsiberal tastes -- has kept turning up over the years; and though mone of it is very spectacular, Professor Schapiro uses it to give us a more solid and much more detailed picture of Turgenev's life than any we have had in English. V. S. Pritchett's The Gentle Barbarian , which appeared a year or so ago, is only a slight sketch completely overshadowed by Schapiro's compact but definitive and finely-shaded portrait. Also, Schapiro's outstanding knowledge of Russian history and culture enables him to set Turgenev firmly in his time, and to place his private life, as it should be placed, within the context of the fierce ideological quarrels raging among the Russian intelligentsia whose world the writer portrayed. Turgenev's greatest works all reflect these conflicts in one way or another, and respond to them in his own personal terms.

Turgenev's early years were spent in one of those huge Russian country estates which he so often describes so charmingly, those self-enclosed little worlds governed by their own laws and the Tsar had set over the hapless serfs. Turgenev's mother, an enormously wealthy land-owner, had a vile and despotic character, and ruled her domain with what Schapiro labels "a rule of terror." Her son did not escape this terror and suffered from it all his life; some of the softness and indecisiveness of his character certainly can be traced to the punishments he was forced to endure, and which he tried to avoid by not giving offense. Moreover, his astonishing lifelong affair with the famous Spanish-French singer Pauline Viardot probably also has its roots in his tangled emotions about his mother. For Turgeney was totally submissive and subordinate to the tempestuous Pauline, and acknowledged enjoying what all his Russian friends considered a humiliating status.

Despite all the efforts of countless investigators, it still remains obscure whether he ever had sexual relations with Pauline Viardot. Schapiro, who examines the facts with legal rigor, writes: "Were Turgenev and Pauline lovers, in the accepted usage of the world? It is impossible on the available evidence to know, but it seems probable that their love was consummated on some occasions in 1849 and 1850." In any case, he adds, "It is probable that for Turgenev the physical side of love was never of the greatest importance." This is true, but perhaps insufficient. He had numerous affairs on the side with serf girls in Russia, and produced an illegitimate daughter. One is rather reminded of Baudelaire, impotent with superior women whom he idealized but quite sensual with prostitutes or others with no spiritual pretensions.

Turgenev first came to the fore as a writer with the publication of his Sportsman's Sketches , the first work to picture the Russian peasant without exaggeration or sentimentality as a sensitive and suffering human being. These stories, whose power comes from the restraint and delicacy of their lyricism, helped to stir the groundswell of revulsion against serfdom which led to its final abolition in in 1861.

Turgenev soon came under attack, though, from a new generation of radicals, who resented his depictions of "superfluous men" (weak-willed liberal aristocrats incapable of decisive action), and who were enraged by his hero Bazarov in Fathers and Sons . Bazarov was supposed to be a portrait of the new Russian radical of the 1860s; and he is not weak-willed at all. But Turgenev, in the eyes of the younger generation, made him so tormented and betrayed. Whatever she did, she inspired love.Sister Ethel wrote after the hunger strike, "'I couldn't have lived or fought through anything if I hadn't known you.'" Her sons loved her; her husbands adored her the more, the worse she treated them.

Gray has done well to quote so copiously from letters; Sanger's volatile, warmhearted charm comes through, and we are disarmed, though rarely, by her "bursts of self-realization." Though she insisted she felt no guilt when Peggy died, she marked and mourned the child's birth- and death day for 50 years, till she died herself. "'No woman in this life'" she writes, "'can be more unsatisfactory as a wife, mother, and friend than M.S. has been and still is doubtless forever will be.'" She writes to a lover: "'the struggle... with diseased desire to "boss" grows harder and harder. I have begun to feel that no one can stand praise or encouragement without losing balance.'" Most extraordinary of all, in her 70s she wrote a letter to poor, adoring, ruined Bill. She never sent it, but kept it 12 years, "'to be opened after my death.'" Bill was dead by then, so, characteristically, it did him no good. But it was "full of humility, pleas for foregiveness, and tender memories of their early love."

For reasons which I fear are not far to seek, Gray has devoted an inordinate number of words to a chronicle of lovers and sex life -- as much as can be found of it in her warm but decorous lov-letters. Though a granddaughter reports that Sanger as an old lady told her that if love was "sincere," sex "three times a day was about right," we are not told anything about her own method of contraception. It might be interesting to know, for her train of lovers started early, and though it was years befoer she actually informed herself fully on reliable techniques, she seems never to have had an unwanted pregnancy. Unfortunately, the relationships with lovers, though these included men like H. G. Wells and Havelock Ellis, are not very interesting, and in her head-long effort to get them all in -- and keep them in, since Sanger would never let one go -- Gray neglects potentially more interesting questions.

The narrative begins with Margaret's father, Michael Higgins, the archetypal Irish ne'er-do-well with the gift of gab, a free-thinker who wouldn't have Margaret baptised. He put her tubercular mother through 18 pregnancies, 11 of them full term, and he delivered his children himself. He took Maggie to the cemetery to educate her in the various national styles of art illustrated by the tombstones; when his wife could not be comforted because: she had no picture of a son dead of croup, he and Maggie "dug up the freshly made: grave, opened the casket, and made a plaster cast of the boy's face." Sanger maintained her father in her house in Truro until the end of his life, and he seems a lot more interesting than her English lovers, as well as more significant influence on her own development. Yet little is said of their relationship; his death is not even mentioned.

Gray's strength is not as a social historian. She has Edna Millay burning the candle at both ends in 1912.She appears to think World War II began in 1937, and identifies Senator Pat McCarran, who in 1934 cast the deciding vote against legalizing the right of doctors to give contraceptive information, only as a divorce lawyer and prominent Catholic. The book is shallow, breathless, and patchy. But it's also sensible, and lots of people will read it, and draw from it an idea of a real woman and what things might still be like if she had never lived.