I have been trying to fill in some of the gaps in my education by reading some classic novels. I didn’t read that many in high school because my school had an atrocious English department (the literature teacher graduated with an art degree) and I was interested in other reading. In college I did a little better but my focus was on history not literature. As an adult (in theory anyways) I figure I have the time and maturity to appreciate these great works.
Besides the aesthetics of the works themselves I am attracted to the book designs. I have already mentioned the Barnes and Noble Collectors Editions. I am also a fan of the Everyman’s Library Classics and own a dozen or so. Now I have another cool set of classic works to keep an eye out for, The Oxford World’s Classics. What’s not to love? Nicely bound, slim volumes of classic works with introductions from well known authors. Finding one of these in a used or remaindered bookstore is what makes book hunting so much fun.
Anyways, the discussion above is motivated by the fact that I stumbled across an Oxford World’s Classics volume of the Russian classic Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev. I really enjoyed this fascinating portrait of Russia with its meditation on generational conflicts. It is eminently readable and still quite relevant today.
The main story centers on two young men and their relationship with their families. Arkady Kirsanov is the son of Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov, part of the landed Russian gentry – liberal but still traditionalist in most things. Evgeny Vasilev Bazarov is the son of a retired Russian military doctor and a friend of Arkady’s tagging along as the recent graduate returns home to his family. Bazarov and Arkady are young intellectuals who have rejected the social and political norms of their elders. Bazarov in particular is portrayed as the nihilist, rejecting anything not tied to the physical laws of nature.
The tension in the novel comes from Bazarov’s blunt and disrupting, yet strangely attractive to many, attitude. Arkady claims to believe in the same ideals as Bazarov but is often put off by his interaction with other people; particularly his arguments with Arkady’s uncle Pavel. Leaving Arkady’s homestead, the two men travel to town and subsequently to the estate of a beautiful widow. Their interaction with this captivating women leads to the unraveling of the friendship or at least the weakening of the bond. Arkady soon realizes his feelings and beliefs are deeper than he had been willing to let on and that in order to move forward in his life he must leave behind Bazarov’s radical notions. Bazarov, on the other hand, also falls victim to his feelings but unrequited love only reinforces his nihilism and his ostracism. He is isolated by his fierce beliefs.
The fathers of both Bazarov and Arkady struggle with how to connect with their sons. Turgenev skillfully illuminates the awkward and sometimes painful relations sons and fathers have as the younger generation try to find its place in the world. The sons love their fathers but also seek to put some distance between them and their families; to achieve some independence, to be different in some way. The setting is Russia in the 1800’s but the issue is really timeless.
In fact what makes this work a classic is the very timelessness of the story. Every society deals with the tension between dangerous radicalism and stagnant tradition. The complexities of love and family are universal. The tension and conflict between generations is always there. Turgenev weaves these issues into an interesting and enjoyable story. With characters that are multidimensional and real. The sign of a good character is that you care what happens to them. This is certainly true with Turgenev. I found myself reading faster to try and find out how all of the tensions and issues would be worked out.
One interesting issue is raised by Alain De Botton in his introduction. He relates that Turgenev wanted to reader to love Bazarov despite all his faults and that he felt the work was a failure if that was not the case. Perhaps love is too strong a word. I found myself sympathetic to Bazarov, especially toward the end, as he wrestled with his place in the world but I wasn’t really on his side. I was rooting for Arkady as he seemed the one with the deeper heart; who like his father meant well but often struggled in knowing what to do. In a novel of ideas, perhaps I felt to strongly about the importance of tradition and order against the destruction and materialism of Bazarov’s nihilism. His arrogant and reckless ideas turned me off while for others they might resonate more. When the work was originally published neither side was happy. The radicals felt the portrait of Bazarov was slanderous and a smear while the traditionalists were unhappy that Turgenev treated him with sympathy; too softly in other words. Each side wanted a ideologically black and white portrait but that would have drained the human touch from the novel. It is to Turgenev’s great credit that he can make you care about unattractive characters; that he can make you see their human side.
All in all, Fathers and Sons is an enjoyable and fascinating work. A novel of ideas, a sort of literary history of a time and place, and a sociological portrait all in one. There is a reason these books are called classics . . .