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Fathers and Sons by Turgenev

May 3, 2015 23 comments

Fathers & Sons by Turgenev (1861). French title : Pères et fils. Translated by Françoise Flamant. For quotes, I have used English the translation by Richard Hare that I found online.

Turgenev_Peres_FilsWe are in Russia in 1859 and Arkady Kirsanov comes home to his father’s small country estate. He has finished school and brings with him his friend Bazarov. The book opens with a warm chapter where the Kirsanovs, father and son, meet again after Arkady’s long absence. Nikolai Petrovich is very affectionate with his son and really happy to have him back. In return, Arkady clearly dearly loves his father. Arkady’s mother is dead and the Kirsanov household is composed of his father Nikolai Petrovich, his uncle Pavel Petrovich and Arkady soon discovers that his father has a young mistress, Fenichka and that they have a child together.

Bazarov is introduced right away as a nihilist. He speaks his mind, believes in nothing, is only interested in science and considers art as useless. He despises women and sentiments. He likes arguing for the sake of it and rapidly enters into verbal fights with Pavel Petrovich. Arkady is full of admiration for Bazarov, Nikolai Petrovich is ready to give him some credit since his son finds him so fascinating. The first chapters of the books show these arguments between the young generation represented by Bazarov and the old generation represented by Pavel Petrovich. Bazarov speaks like an extremist, probably fueled by his youth. Turgenev is obviously trying to state a point through these dialogues. He belongs to Pavel Petrovich’s generation and statements such as this one:

Autrefois les jeunes gens étaient obligés d’étudier ; ils n’avaient pas envie de passer pour des ignares, ils se donnaient du mal, bon gré, mal gré. Aujourd’hui, il leur suffit de dire : fariboles, tout n’est que fariboles ! Et le tour est joué. Ils sont bien contents, les jeunes gens. C’est vrai, cela: autrefois ils étaient tout bonnement des propres à rien, et maintenant les voilà tout d’un coup promus nihilistes Formerly young men had to study. If they didn’t want to be called fools they had to work hard whether they liked it or not. But now they need only say ‘Everything in the world is rubbish!’ and the trick is done. Young men are delighted. And, to be sure, they were only sheep before, but now they have suddenly turned into Nihilists.

made me cringe. This sounds like the eternal dispute between parents and children and I don’t like the idea that youth is depraved, less cultured than their parents, blah blah blah. Every generation has said things like this about their children and for me it comes more from an inability of the oldest to adjust to society’s changes than from the youth being less worthy. Anyway.

After a short stay at Nikolai Petrovich’s, the young men go to town and end up staying at another estate that belongs to Anna Sergeyevna. She’s a young widow who lives with her sister Katya. Arkady has a crush on Anna Sergeyevna who has put him in the friend zone. However, she’s fascinated by Bazarov and they spend long moments discussing, leaving Arkady to entertain the young Katya.

And poor Bazarov who has loudly exposed how foolish it is to fall in love finds himself in a love trap with Anna Sergeyevna while Arkady starts to appreciate Katya’s company. And I won’t say more about the plot.

At the beginning, I didn’t like Bazarov at all. Surely, harsh judgments like this one…

« Pourquoi ne veux-tu pas tolérer la liberté de pensée chez les femmes ? dit-il à mi-voix.- Mon vieux, parce que, d’après mes observations, les seules femmes qui pensent librement sont des horreurs. » “Why do you disagree with free thought for women?” he asked in a low voice.“Because, my lad, as far as I can see, free-thinking women are all monsters.”

…didn’t help his case with me. And it’s repeated several times only with different words.

He has the arrogance of the youth who think they know everything and despise the older generation, on principle. The man is full of principles about everything and also full of himself. Time teaches you that you need to stick to your values in life but be a bit more malleable about principles, otherwise compromises are hard to find. Being in love forces Bazarov to look at himself in a new light. He’s not better than the others and feelings cannot be helped.

After a while, they leave Anna Sergeyevna’s estate and go to Bazarov’s parents. The prodigal son is welcomed with warm embraces and tears of joy. Bazarov’s father was a doctor in the military. The family lived the life of wanderers before Bazarov Senior retired to his wife’s property. Now he grows vegetables, takes care of the villagers and spends time with his wife. He’s like Candide, minding his own business and cultivating his garden. The unwanted love feelings that can’t be repressed alter Bazarov’s behavior. He becomes less arrogant, understands his father better and shows more what his apparent harshness hides, like here, in this discussion with Arkady:

Bazarov ne répondit pas aussitôt.« Sais-tu à quoi je pense ? dit-il enfin en croisant ses bras sous sa tête.- Non. A quoi?

– Au fait que mes parents ont la belle vie ! A soixante ans, mon père se démène, il a plein la bouche de ses “palliatifs”, il soigne les gens, joue les grands cœurs avec les paysans, il s’en paye, quoi; ma mère aussi est heureuse: ses journées sont à ce point bourrées d’occupations de toute sortes, et de gémissements, et de lamentations, qu’elle n’a même pas le temps de se voir vivre ; tandis que moi…

– Toi ?

– Moi je pense que je suis là, couché au pied d’une meule…La toute petite place que j’occupe est si infime en comparaison du reste de l’espace où je ne suis pas et où rien ne me concerne ; et la portion de temps qu’il me sera donné de vivre est tellement insignifiante à côté de cette éternité où je n’étais pas et où je ne serai pas…Et dans cet atome, dans ce point mathématique, le sang circule, le cerveau travaille, désire aussi…Quel scandale ! Quelle inanité !

– Permets moi de te faire observer que ce que tu dis là s’applique à tous les hommes en général…

– Tu as raison, repartit Bazarov. Je voulais dire qu’eux, là, mes parents, ils sont occupés et ne s’inquiètent pas de leur propre insignifiance, elle ne leur monte pas à la gorge…tandis que moi je…je ne ressens que de l’ennui et de la haine. »

Bazarov was silent for a while. “Do you know what I’m thinking about?” he said at last, clasping his hands behind his head.“No. What is it?”

“I’m thinking how happy life is for my parents! My father at the age of sixty can fuss around, chat about ‘palliative measures,’ heal people; he plays the magnanimous master with the peasants–has a gay time in fact; and my mother is happy too; her day is so crammed with all sorts of jobs, with sighs and groans, that she hasn’t a moment to think about herself; while I…”

“While you?”

“While I think; here I lie under a haystack…The tiny narrow space I occupy is so minutely small in comparison with the rest of space where I am not and which has nothing to do with me; and the portion of time in which it is my lot to live is so insignificant beside the eternity where I have not been and will not be… And in this atom, in this mathematical point, the blood circulates, the brain works and wants something … how disgusting! How petty!”

“Allow me to point out that what you say applies generally to everyone.”

“You’re right,” interrupted Bazarov. “I wanted to say that they, my parents I mean, are occupied and don’t worry about their own nothingness; it doesn’t sicken them …while I …I feel nothing but boredom and anger.”

At that stage I thought that poor Bazarov had now seen the real reason to his zeal. He was trying to fill the void.

Apart from the conflict of generation, there’s also a political side of Fathers and Sons about the agrarian reform that occurred these years in Russia. If I understood well, the main change is that serfs became farmers. Nikolai Petrovich and Anna Sergeyevna are liberal and in favor of the change. I’m not familiar with this reform and the political context of Russia at the time. Turgenev wanted to make a point but I can’t write about it. The novel is also stuffed with references to scientific theories and scientists of the time as Bazarov is a doctor and interested in sciences. They flew far above my head and only impaired my reading.

Fathers and Sons was our Book Club choice for April and it unanimously received mild appreciation. I have mixed feelings about this novel. Sure, it is interesting on many levels and it is a great piece of literature. I can see what Turgenev brought to Russian literature. But –of course, there’s a but—I never felt engaged in the characters’ story. I felt they were created for the writer to put his ideas in a literary form. Turgenev wanted to make a point more than he wanted to tell a story. I could feel it and that’s why I didn’t love the book.

PS : In May we’re reading Machine Man by Max Barry.

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