Turgenev and Tension Among the Generations

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When I first read Fathers and Sons by the great Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, I hadn’t been prepared first by Isaiah Berlin’s essay on the Russian intelligentsia. This time around I read Berlin’s essay which serves as an introduction to the Penguin edition. I learned that the outsider, young scientist Bazarov, who comes to visit with his pal Arkady, represents the nihilists (Arkady uses this term to describe his blunt, brusque friend), who wanted to sweep all the stuck-in-the-mud or snooty Russian bureaucrats and aristocrats away, but had rather nothing to put in their place.

Frankly, no matter how true this was to the period when Turgenev was writing–the book was published in 1862–what strikes me on this second reading is how contemporary Turgenev’s portrayal of generational conflict feels to the present. Arkady has completed his education in Petersburg and returns to his father Nikolai’s estate which has been much reduced by division of the land with the peasants. A gentle peace-maker, Arkady and his not so elderly father are moved to tears and awkwardness by this reunion. Nikolai has taken a very young mistress after his wife’s death, and early in the novel, he tries to explain Fenichka’s presence and that of her baby boy. This creates a forward-and-back dance of tension between father and son. Arkady displays manly adult acceptance, and his father the reticence and embarrassment of having to acknowledge a sexual life after his wife’s death.

Bazarov could not be more unlike his friend Arkady–brusque, often silent, not at all given to emotional responses (he is, after all, an outsider), Basarov goes out of his way to insult the fourth man of the group, Pavel Petrovich, who is Arkady’s uncle. Pavel could not be more unlike his brother Nikolai. Where Nikolai is very much the country squire, easy-going, affectionate, not overly fancy or persnickety about linen or food, etc., his brother Pavel continues to wear beautifully tailored clothes; is always scented with perfume, eats hardly anything, and generally comports himself as the disappointed and idle dandy that he was in younger days. It’s a mark of Turgenev’s skill that we accept this scheme of opposing pairs in two generations as the most natural occurrence in the world.

Isaiah Berlin comments that Turgenev was not a politically minded writer, unlike Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, his younger contemporaries. In fact, Turgenev spent many years of his adulthood in France where his long-time mistress, the singer Pauline Garcia-Viardot, lived with her husband and children, pursuing a career. Thinking about his acceptance into this household (where his own daughter by a seamstress was brought up), I glimpse what perhaps was the real-life experience on which Turgenev bases the odd sexual relationship between the father Nikolai and his much younger mistress, and the feints and gradual revelations of this liason which make up the first half of the novel.

Then there’s Basarov and Pavel, so opposed in behavior and allegiances that they must come to blows. And so they do, in an awkward but murderous duel which leaves Pavel dead. After this, Basarov must leave, which he does, returning to his own parents, not far away, his father a one-time army doctor, and his mother one of the unforgettable characters in Russian literature, humble, entirely given over to cooking to please her son, and devout in the entreme. Among his own people, Basarov’s nihilism becomes less extreme; his care for the peasants a touching corrective to his brusqueness with the fancy aristocracy, and his agonizing death from typhus (which his doctor father cannot cure), another of the novel’s dramatic and highly touching scenes.

Thinking of these young men and their relations to their parents, I’m reminded not so much of myself, as of my husband Fran and his missionary parents. Fran was one of the young radicals of the 1960s, protesting the Vietnam war and eventually allowing himself to be sent to prison as a pacifist–he refused the various “outs” that might have worked, such as exiting to Canada or declaring himself a conscientious objector. I use his story to frame Vietnam protest in my book Stop This War: Americans Protest the Vietnam Conflict (available from Amazon). Fran’s father had also been a pacifist sent to prison after refusing to register for the World War II draft. What has often touched me about Fran’s prison experience is the fact that his father did not visit him. His mother came, the parent with whom Fran had the greater conflict. I interpret this as the father not wanting to acknowledge that his son had upstaged him. The mother, who had lived with her in-laws during her husband’s incarceration, felt, I imagine, the hollowness that must be part of such a radical choice. This hollowness echoes in Basarov and his death, which seems such a waste. As does Fran’s imprisonment, a chunk of 17 months out of his life, from which he had to recover. And yet, in our modern instance, there’s also the alternative to consider: 17 months in Vietnam would no doubt have left a far deeper and more lasting wound. As Turgenev so gently shows, the young are put or put themselves on the front line of a culture’s decadence.

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