In the 1700s, England and France owned the novel. In the mid-1800s, Russia was rapidly leapfrogging from old folktales and imitations of Europeans, to classic homegrown novels. Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (1833), Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time (1840), and Gogol's Dead Souls (1842) were giant steps in Russian literature. Turgenev's collection of tales, A Sportsman's Sketches (1852), made his name, got him arrested, and impacted Russian literature and politics. By bringing the reading public up close to the everyday life of the serfs, it humanized them, and accelerated their eventual emancipation in 1861 - as Tsar Alexander II told Turgenev, when they met.
Fathers and Sons (1862) stands at an important historical crossroads in Russian literature. As the title implies, Turgenev is looking at generational change in Russia in the 1850s: from old conservatives to liberal reformers to the coming revolutionaries. Turgenev absorbed the influences of Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol - and also Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (who were both writing, but hadn't reached their imperial phase yet).
Turgenev took all these strands of Russian poetry, philosophy, politics and character, and wove them into a unified work, which has been called the first Russian ideological novel, and the first wholly modern Russian novel. In Bazarov he crystallized the character of Nihilism; he also drew and clarified some dichotomies in personality, morality and society. These themes continued to play out in Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and other writers' work. Dostoevsky's Demons (1871) was a direct response to the themes and characters of Fathers and Sons. Turgenev achieved his balanced portrayal by examining his characters from a certain distance, showing neither sympathy nor judgment for them; this technique was very influential, on Chekhov, Hemingway and other writers.
I've written thirty book diaries and, surprisingly, this is the first non-English language book I've reviewed. I read Richard Freeborn's translation of Fathers and Sons (1991). Generally, unless I've been recommended a particular translation of a book, I'll just google to find some reviews of different translations: then I look for one that's in fresh, clear language, and faithful to the spirit of the original.
The tale begins when recent graduate Arkady Kirsanov returns to his widowed father's country estate, bringing his friend, medical student Evgeny Bazarov. Bazarov is brash and has no respect for traditions and principles, if they cannot stand up to his questioning and empirical tests. He is all science and argument, and has no use for art or emotion. He soon butts heads with Arkady's uncle, who is a pompous dandy of the old school. Arkady's father is a kind but ineffectual man in the middle, whose estate is unravelling around him, as he tries to be liberal towards his serfs, but gets taken advantage of from all sides.
Then we meet free-thinkers trying to be fashionable, scoundrels, intriguing women worth losing sleep over, loving parents; not a vast Tolstoyan throng, but a colorful cross-section of Russian country folk, high and low. Every scene Turgenev paints, he brings to life, especially when looking at people or nature. Here is Arkady, arriving home with his father, and growing despondent at the dilapidation he sees around him:
The roadside willows were like beggars in tatters with torn bark and broken branches. Emaciated, rough-coated, almost bare-bones, cows hungrily munched at the grass in ditches. It was as if they'd only just that minute escaped from the clutches of some fearful, deadly claws - and, summoned into being by the miserable sight of these enfeebled cattle, there arose in the midst of the fine spring day the white specter of endless, joyless winter with its blizzards, frosts and snows . . .I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I'd put it next to Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment (not my favorite Dostoevsky, but gripping), as three great 19th Century Russian novels to start with. Fathers and Sons was such a pleasant page-turner, with depth and subtlety too. Nabokov put his finger on it when he praised Turgenev's "plastic musical flowing prose".
No, thought Arkady, this isn't a rich region, it doesn't strike one as either prosperous or industrious. It can't, just can't stay like this. Reforms are essential. But how to go about them, how to start?
Those were Arkady's thoughts, but while he was thinking them spring began to come into its own. Everything around glinted green and gold, everything softly and expansively waved and shone under the quiet breath of the warm breeze, everything - the trees, the bushes, the grass. Everywhere skylarks poured out their song in unending, resonant streams. Lapwings cried as they circled above the low-lying meadows or ran about silently among the tufts of grass. Rooks wandered about, darkening beautifully among the soft green of the low spring wheat and disappearing in the rye, which was already beginning to whiten, their heads showing here and there among its smoky waves. Arkady gazed and gazed and his thoughts, gradually diminishing, finally vanished completely. He threw his greatcoat from him and looked at his father so happily, so like a small boy, that his father embraced him once again.
Nabokov, though, criticized Turgenev's "labored epilogues" and "banal handling of plots". But Fathers and Sons is Turgenev's greatest novel, and neither of those flaws is apparent in it. Perhaps the characters and ideas in this one were alive enough that Turgenev didn't have to handle the plot, he just let it flow. His central characters are all very human, developed, believable; and they change and grow through the incidents and crises of the book.
Bazarov the nihilist is a marvelous creation. Turgenev called him his "favorite offspring": "I wanted to create a character who was shadowy, strange, life-size, only half developed, yet strong, fearless and honest, but nonetheless doomed to failure because he still stands only on the threshold of the future." I was fascinated yet ambivalent towards Bazarov. There is so much that's frank, practical and effective in him to admire, yet so much mocking, cynical and destructive in his feelings towards others. I wanted him both to win and to lose, and was eager to find out which it would be. But the book grew more balanced later on, as each of the characters changed from their triumphs and ordeals, and grew more three-dimensional. But this is not a Dostoevsky novel. Despite surprises and some electricity, it is not generally a strenuous book; though there are some deeply moving parts in it.
What a magnificent artistic eye Turgenev has. He brings all the sensitivity of Henry James, with more natural energy and less wordiness. Henry James thought so too. He wrote five essays on Turgenev, and called him "the novelist's novelist" and "the only real beautiful genius". Here he is, anatomizing Turgenev with just a little wordiness:
Character, character expressed and exposed, is in all things what we inveterately find. Turgenev's sense of it was the great light that artistically guided him; the simplest account of him is to say that the mere play of it constitutes in every case his sufficient drama. No one has had a closer vision, or a hand at once more ironic and more tender, for the individual figure. He sees it with its minutest signs and tricks - all its heredity of idiosyncrasies, all its particulars of weakness and strength, of ugliness and beauty, of oddity and charm; and yet it is of his essence that he sees it in the general flood of life, steeped in its relations and contacts . . . He is of a spirit so human that we almost wonder at his control of his matter; of a pity so deep and so general that we almost wonder at his curiosity. The element of poetry in him is constant, and yet reality stares through it without the loss of a wrinkle. No one has more of that sign of the born novelist which resides in a respect unconditioned for the freedom and vitality, the absoluteness when summoned, of the creature he invokes; or is more superior to the strange and second-rate policy of presenting them by reprobation or apology.