There’s nothing quite like returning to a book last read in college, especially with the intention of leading a discussion about it with a group of dedicated readers. I barely remembered Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons when I agreed to become (somewhat of) an authority on it for the sake of the Dead Writers Society, although I did have a generally positive sense of the book—far more than I had of certain other classics of world literature that shall remain nameless (John Milton, I’m looking at you). I recalled the nihilist Bazarov and his impact on the gentry family whose country estate becomes the setting for the generational clash that defines the novel, although even if pressed I couldn’t have told you their names. That was about it. But between the erudite introduction to the Signet/NAL version that I still owned (price on the cover, 60¢, which tells you just how long ago I read the book), the reference works scattered around my office, and the mega-cheat sheet that is the Internet, I figured I was good to go.
In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting Turgenev. Like many twenty-year-olds reading a book under compulsion and worried about the exam to come, I missed the subtlety of Turgenev’s characterization and language, which shine through even in translation, the first time around. I had not then studied Russian history, so the significance of the date—1859, two years before the emancipation of the serfs, a time when planning for the emancipation was already underway—passed me by. I had a nodding acquaintance with the Slavophiles and Westernizers, so I knew that Turgenev was assigned to the latter group and that the nihilists came later, expressing a more radical and political viewpoint. But I didn’t see that Nikolai (Nicholas) Kirsanov, the gentry landowner, is a man of both the past (his peasant mistress) and the future (he has already divided his land with the local villagers in return for rents that they refuse to pay); that his son, Arkady, will one day be just like his father, despite his brief flirtation with au courant ideas; and that Bazarov, although ostensibly a radical skeptic, is knocked off his perch by old-fashioned romance. Indeed, the woman he falls for, Madame Odintsov, is in her way a better nihilist than he is; she soon sends him about his business, his ideological principles revealed as a cover for uncouth behavior and what was then known as “lack of address” but which we might call nerdiness.
The devil is in the details, as they say, and Turgenev’s details are marvelous. Consider this early introduction: “Bazarov came hurrying through the garden, taking the flower-beds in his stride. His linen coat and trousers were spattered with mud; a clinging marsh plant had twined itself round the crown of his circular hat; in his right hand he held a small sack, and something was wriggling inside it” (chapter 5, George Reavy’s translation).
Not exactly the way to endear yourself to a bunch of aristocrats who for the last hour or so have been expecting you to join them for tea. Yet Bazarov sees no problem, brusquely admitting that the sack contains frogs and he plans to experiment with them. Which he obviously does, because that evening “the two friends went off to Bazarov’s room, which was already pervaded by a sort of medico-surgical odor, mingled with the smell of cheap tobacco” (chapter 7, Constance Garnett’s translation). And this on an estate where at least one person, Arkady’s uncle, prides himself on maintaining his cultured St. Petersburg style, however rustic his surroundings. But then, Arkady’s uncle, Paul or Pavel depending on the translation, and Bazarov find themselves instantly at loggerheads. Bazarov at one point calls Pavel an “old fogey” to his face—an even bigger social solecism in 1859 than it would be today. Their relationship goes downhill from there.
Yet whatever his flaws, Bazarov is not a cliché. His awkward, impassioned character stands at the heart of the novel. He changes the lives of those around him, ordinary people with everyday concerns—so much more like most of us than the idealists and world-changers. It is as if Turgenev wants us to realize that big ideas affect everyone: those who push for social change, those who resist it, those who regard it with puzzlement, those who do their best to adapt, even those who try to ignore it. In Fathers and Sons he creates examples of all five kinds of people, throws them together, and shows us the sparks that fly when they meet.
The book is not perfect. The plot at times seems forced and the conflict contrived. The relationship between Bazarov and Madame Odintsov moves too fast for plausibility, and the ending strikes me as a cop-out, less a resolution than an example of the author’s unwillingness to let an awkward situation play itself out to its logical conclusion. But for a book that fits into two hundred pages, the thing is a masterpiece. Politics, economics, culture, gender relations, youth vs. age, city vs. country, tradition vs. science—Turgenev paints it all with delicate water colors that revive the world of Russia before the Great Reforms and make it real, even now, almost 150 years later. That’s an extraordinary achievement.