Tuesday, November 9, 2010

To Turgenev

One last thing I wanted to mention before heading off to bed...

Today is the birthday (post-humous) of one of my favourite Russian writers, Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883). His name is pronounced ee-VAHN tour-GAY-nev, which sounds completely different from the way I was pronouncing it before I moved here (EYE-vin tur-je-NEV). I don't mean to sound like a pompous snob giving you the correct pronunciation; it's only because, as everyone who knows me can attest, I so frequently mispronounce words and names that I try to save others the embarassment I put myself through!

How do I love Turgenev? Let me count the ways...

1) He was a smart guy. University-educated, well-travelled, an ardent admirer of the Enlightenment, and a vocal opponent of serfdom in Russia.

2) One of his best friends was Gustave Flaubert, the French author of Madame Bovary and another one of my favourite writers. How cool is that? I'd love to have been a fly on the wall during one of their conversations.

3) He was the first noted writer in Russia to actually (gasp!) give peasants a literary voice. No longer were they relegated to tertiary, one-dimensional characters. Turgenev showed readers that peasants were people too, with their own dreams, thoughts, and desires.

4) His writings perfectly capture the zeitgeist of the times, yet still manage to remain relevant and poignant today. Russia in the 1840s, 50s, and 60s was a tumultuous country in the middle of redefining itself. Would it gravitate towards the East or the West? Would serfdom (ie. slavery) finally be abolished? Not only do his books make excellent social commentary on the contemporary issues facing Russia, but they also transcend the time period. Who hasn't experienced inter-generational conflict? Fathers and Sons, Turgenev's most famous novel in the West, perfectly illustrates this age-old "tug-of-war" between parents and their children. Yeah, it's cool to see the historical relevance of the novel, but what I loved most about the book was the feelings it evoked in me. You truly feel for the father, Nikolai Kirsanov, as his idealistic young son basically writes him off as an old fogey. Nikolai struggles to embrace the new technologies and trends, but he really just comes off as endearingly pathetic, and his son's mocking new friend, Bazarov, is so lifelike and vibrant that he stays with you long after you've turned the last page of the book.

5) Turgenev is famous for his strong female heroines. Female protagonists are a rare find to begin with in such a patriarchal society as Russia in the nineteenth century, making Turgenev's heroines - who often save the day, rather than need to be saved - a welcome addition to his cast of characters.

Turgenev may not be one of the "literary giants" we associate with Russian literature. His name is not as well known in the West as Tolstoy's or Dostoevsky's. Which might actually be the reason why you should give him a try. I'll be the first to admit, when I decided to start tackling Russian literature, I was afraid. It all seemed so imposing, so monumental! I mean, let's be real here - War and Peace is a freakin' behemoth. There were days when I had to force myself to read it, and I took well over a month to finally get through it all (note: this was during my first month off of school in first year, so I wasn't working yet and didn't have anything to do BUT read, and it still took me a long time!). The Brothers Karamazov? Well, it's a good thing I decided to read it during exam time when I was desperate for any excuse to not study, because it was only AFTER the first 500 pages that it started to get interesting for me. But the thing is, Russian literature does not need to be scary. There are still books I'm either still intimidated by, or I've tried reading but inevitably abandoned - Dostoevsky's The Idiot, for example. But Turgenev is one writer that has never turned me off or lost me in the first few difficult, begrudging chapters. So maybe give him a shot. And what the hell? Try War and Peace or The Brothers K too. You never know what you might like. Whether you end up with Turgenev or Tolstoy, Tarasov or Tsvetaeva, you just might discover a brand new favourite author.

So here's to Turgenev - happy birthday and na zdarovie! (Cheers!)


  1. What, Katie, no push for Anna Karenina?

  2. haha I will do that after I go to the Tolstoy museum here!!

  3. Thanks for the pronounciation, I was thinking it was the other way too. Just about to read Fathers and Sons after having read a ton of the other Russian great. Check out Bulkagov's "Master and Margherita"- both hilarious and deep. And any time you can get any Russian novel in a translation by Pevear and Volokonsky, do- they really breath fresh life into the works.

  4. Almost in any bookshops in Russia, the book "Master and Margarette" by M. Bulgakov is marked as "the most favourite novel of Russian readers". If you haven't read this yet, I highly recommend it! I read it 5 times and it's my favourite book ever!

    1. I loved The Master and Margarita! I tended to read mostly Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Goncharov, Gogol, etc...the older greats...so when I tried Bulgakov it was definitely a departure for me. When I lived in Moscow last year, I loved to wander around Patriarshy Prudy where the first scene of the book is set! :)

      Not to generalize, but it seems like EVERY Russian I know absolutely loves The Master and Margarita! Why do you think it is the favourite? And are there any other Bulgakov novels you would recommend, or indeed, any other Russian writers? I love, love LOVE Akhmatova.

    2. I don't know why it's the favourite one. I was attracted to it by the unusual idea and view upon Evil. Though I might interpret Bulgakov's ideas wrong. The other Bulgakov's books are also great! I'd advise "Heart of a Dog" book. There's also the old movie based on this book which is actually very worth watching. I also read "A Country Doctor's Notebook" but it didn't catch my attention so much as "Master and Margarita" that's why I don't remeber the plot very well. Yeah, Akhmatova is great. But personally I prefer novels, poems require special mood :)If you like poems I'd reccomend you to read something by Vladimir Vysotsky (you might have heard a lot of things about him). And I love Bulat Okudzhava's poetry!