IVAN TURGENEV was the first of the great Russian realists to catch the attention of Western Europe and America: he was also an early and effective advocate and interpreter of Russian literature among his literary friends in Paris. Western readers discovered the mountain peak of Turgenev's novelistic art, then under his tutelage and guidance looked beyond him, and came to believe at last that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were the "real Himalayas." The received wisdom of the 20th century, challenged from time to time by powerful dissenters, has it that Turgenev lies in the shadow of his great contemporaries, certainly as an artist and probably also as a man. An early dissenter was Henry James, who contrasted Turgenev's controlled and subtle art with those "loose, baggy monsters," as he called them, being turned out by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. David Lowe's study of Fathers and Sons offers much concrete evidence as to the special nature of that art, and an implicit argument for a reconsideration of Turgenev's stature among the great ones. Lowe brings to the novel his own insights and an impressive array of modern critical judgments. He is lucid and illuminating in his account of the interlocking system of paired characters which is the structural cachet of a novel by Turgenev. Something of the sort has been said many times, but in Lowe's study the subtlety of Turgenev's weave is revealed in new ways.
Fathers and Sons concerns the confrontation of a radical young materialist--he calls himself a "nihilist," by which he means "revolutionary"--with several members of the cultivated landowning aristocracy in whose homes he sojourns as an awkward guest. Bazarov is a blunt, angular, crude young man who is also highly intelligent, and his contempt for the outlook and manners of his hosts is eloquent, even though casual and laconic. The action of the novel is set in 1859, shortly before its publication in 1862, a time when Russian society was in a state of crisis over the impending abolition of the serf- holding system and a number of other social and political reforms. It was a period also of ferment among the young, of radical student activity and repressive government action in response to it.
Turgenev's novel is a work of high art addressed to the moral problems of the day and specifically to the generational strains those problems had given rise to throughout the society. Threads of the conflict of sons with fathers are traced in the relationship to one another of several pairs of characters, the landowner Kirsanov and his very progressive son Arkady, the nihilist Bazarov and his own doting but outdated parents; even elderly serfs who cherish the old patriarchal ways are opposed to younger "liberated" ones. The novel does not engage itself explicitly with any side in the manifold dispute, but communicates instead a feeling of impermanence and flow in human life, the sense that "nothing endures but change." Turgenev had once planned a career as a philosopher and in the 1840s he had been, like many others, a dedicated student of Hegel; the novel Fathers and Sons is Hegelian in its philosophical assumptions, but Turgenev has breathed upon the dust of that triad of abstractions--thesis, antithesis, synthesis --and created out of them human forms and faces, contrasts in expression and gesture between plebeian and aristocrat, the clash of old and new idioms of language and thought, and a "dialectical" conflict, for instance, between Bazarov's rough, simple coat and Pavel Kirsanov's effete toilette and affected headgear.
The novel has usually been regarded as a tragic work, as indeed it is from the viewpoint of the central character, Bazarov, but Lowe has obliged us to modify the more or less established view by pointing out that Fathers and Sons, while it contains elements of tragedy, belongs to what he calls the "comedic" mode as defined by Northrop Frye. The outcome of comedy is often one or more weddings that had been blocked by cruel circumstance, and as a matter of fact two happy weddings, those of the father Nikolai Kirsanov to a servant girl who had been his paramour, and of his son Arkady to his true love Katya, are the crowning events, so to speak, of Fathers and Sons. Father and son are reconciled, and Arkady, touched and to a degree transformed by his contact with Bazarov, will probably be a more humane landlord, and even, possibly, a better man. Tragedy is present in the novel, but it would be a mistake to read it as wholly pessimistic or to believe that in it, as Edward Garnett once said, "the generations are whelmed in turn by the inexorable night." There is nothing like that in Hegel, nor is there in Fathers and Sons; the "nihilist" is himself negated in favor of a new synthesis and a new and possibly "higher" phase. Lowe has performed a service in highlighting what he calls the "comedic" element in Turgenev's supreme masterpiece. He also succeeds in placing the novel in the context of Turgenev's oeuvre as a whole, and in relating it to the moral issues that troubled the times. And such issues must be addressed if we are to know Turgenev. As Henry James once put it, Turgenev's work is a "capital example of moral meaning giving a sense to form, and form giving relief to moral meaning."
Lowe's selection and translation of Turgenev's letters should lead to revision of a rather negative image of the writer as a weak man, a perennial unhappy lover, and as some kind of sentimental liberal, either wishy-washy or opportunistic. That image of him may owe something to the vile caricature of Turgenev perpetrated by Dostoevsky in The Possessed in the personage of the writer Karmazinov. Lowe is, I believe, mistaken when he says that the caricature is "painfully accurate" but in any case he has given us in the letters evidence upon which a new assessment of the man might be based.
The problems of selection and annotation that faced the editor and translator were daunting. His two volumes include only 334 of the more than 6,000 of Turgenev's published letters, less than 5 percent of the total. Obviously every specialist will have his own list of the letters he himself would without fail have included, but I think the tiny selection offered is valid, given the translator's purpose of portraying the major events in Turgenev's life and the intellectual character of the man, and emphasizing his role as a "purveyor of Russian culture in Western Europe."
The basic source of the letters translated here, in fact the only one, is the massive Complete Collected Works and Letters in 28 volumes published in the Soviet Union from 1960 to 1968, described by Lowe as the most "awesome" accomplishment of recent Soviet scholarship. That publication, a new and expanded version of which is still in progress, deserves a word of comment. It is the product of meticulous scholarship, a labor of love into which, as sometimes happens in the Soviet Union, the expertise of a remarkable scholarly collective has been channeled. The general editor, the late M.P. Alekseev, was indefatigable in his search for unpublished letters. The present reviewer called Alekseev's attention to three letters from Turgenev to Emma Lazarus in the archives of Columbia University, and the letters were duly published, though the footnote about her withholds the information I also provided that she is the author of those eloquent lines on the base of the Statue of Liberty: "Give me . . . your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free." The Soviet edition appears to include all the letters then known and available, and they appear to have been presented in full, except that Soviet prudery required the omission of "expressions unsuitable for the printed page," and there is reason to suspect additional tampering with some letters, for instance those to a young actress with whom Turgenev was more than sentimentally involved, where "three-dot" spaces interrupt the flow at critical points in an erotic message. (Of course the breaks may have been the writer's own breathless punctuation of his remarks, but there's no way of knowing.) Apart from such matters the Complete Works and Letters is a truly impressive accomplishment; and Lowe's translations from it are quite skillful; my few nits of disagreement I have consigned to the memory hole.
The recipients of Turgenev's thousands of letters included all the principal figures in Russian 19th-century literature, leaders of Russian dissident ,emigr,e colonies in the West and Russian students abroad, French, British and American writers and critics, and a vast array of lesser correspondents, always addressed with intelligence, kindness, and consideration. The letters reveal a mind in tune with the best in the Western cultural tradition, devoted to human reason and the pursuits of intellect, repelled by tyranny and repression both at home and abroad, and deeply concerned with the processes and forms of art. Turgenev was more humane and more interesting as a man than Tolstoy, whose narrowly idiosyncratic and arrogantly held views be deplored, and whom he tried to teach not to despise Shakespeare, nor downgrade human reason; or than Dostoevsky, whose extraordinary hatred of Jews, Poles, and other non-Russians Turgenev explicitly repudiated, along with that writer's mystic faith in the "Christ-bearing" Russian people; or than Alexander Herzen, whose ,emigr,e activities he supported while scornfully rejecting Herzen's romantic notion of the Russian peasant commune as the future salvation of Europe. He was a citizen of Europe and a civilized man, and for that he suffered the vitriolic contempt of Dostoevsky and many others. He probably knew Russia better than they did in spite of living abroad; at least he had no illusions about the Russian peasant. He was a great artist and a fair and decent man. On his deathbed he wrote the following note to Leo Tolstoy, an ideological and at one time a personal enemy, who had announced his abandonment of literature:
"I haven't written to you for a long time because, speaking frankly, I have been and am on my deathbed. I cannot recover--there's no point even in thinking of that. I'm writing you, in fact, to tell you how glad I was to be your contemporary--and to express to you my last, sincere request. My friend, return to literary activity! After all, that gift comes to you from where all else does, too . . . I'm a finished person--the doctors don't even know what to call my disease . . . I can't walk or eat or sleep or anything. It's boring even to repeat all this. My friend, great writer of the Russian land, heed my request! Let me know if you receive this note, and allow me once more most heartily to embrace you, your wife, and all your family. I can't go on any more. I'm tired."