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View Diary: Books Go Boom!   100 Greatest Novels Lists (& the 5th best Russian Novel) (153 comments)

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  •  How great, and how Russian, is Turgenev? (5+ / 0-)

    In the 19th Century, they saw a troika of Great Russian Novelists: everyone in the West ranked Turgenev right up with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and he was probably favored.

    That "readability" you mention had a lot to do with it. Turgenev was by far the most readable, to European eyes, because he was much smoother, more sophisticated and polished, more European. He was favored by Flaubert and Conrad - he was also more like them, stylistically. Perhaps in personality, too - certainly Tolstoy and Dostoevsky have an awful lot of weird, and of Russian, in them.

    Henry James, who wrote no fewer than five critical essays on Turgenev's work, claimed that "his merit of form is of the first order" and praised his "exquisite delicacy", which "makes too many of his rivals appear to hold us, in comparison, by violent means, and introduce us, in comparison, to vulgar things".

    There's the rub. Turgenev's smooth craft is central to the European development of the Great Novel. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky swept in like a fierce and drenching storm off the steppes, introducing strange and sublime new flavors to the mix.

    Now, I happen to find many these raw native Russian elements particularly intoxicating, so I favor Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Objectively, I cannot say they are better than Turgenev. But my sense is, they expanded the scope of the novel in ways Turgenev never attempted.

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Sat Apr 06, 2013 at 12:48:27 PM PDT

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    •  For what it's worth, (4+ / 0-)

      I prefer the delicate, subtle humanism of Turgenev's Fathers and Children to Tolstoevsky, but I generally prefer Tolstoevsky to Turgenev, whose weaknesses are much, much worse.

      Because Turgenev fits much better in the Western tradition, it's harder to see how much of an unusual and brilliant work Fathers and Children is in a Russian context.  It's literally the only major "issues" novel of the 19th century that gives a fair shake to all the competing political ideologies.  It's very human and very pragmatic, where the others, even the great ones, are inhuman and dogmatic.*

      * I think I've cited this before, but I'm fond of a description of Chekhov that Grossman made in Life and Fate, that he was Russia's first democratic, humanist writer - because the rest are so concerned with 'God' and 'Eternity' that they forget to look at actual human beings.  I think Turgenev gets there with Fathers and Children.

      Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

      by pico on Sat Apr 06, 2013 at 05:40:23 PM PDT

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      •  Two major insights that never occurred to me. (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        RiveroftheWest, translatorpro

        Particularly enjoyed your last paragraph. Chekhov does have such a sharp and honest humanist vision. I find him so sound.

        "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

        by Brecht on Sat Apr 06, 2013 at 08:47:41 PM PDT

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