Skip to content

“But if insipidity is indeed the reader’s first impression, it is a very mistaken one.”

August 4, 2014

The Argumentative Old Git has a lovely essay on the “disconcertingly sane” Turgenev, reviewing Richard Freeborn’s 1967-1990 translation of Sketches from a Hunter’s Album (also known as A Sportsman’s SketchesЗаписки охотника, 1847-51 and 1872-74). I recommend the entire piece. These Sketches were already high on my list of things to reread, and I may post about them someday. In the meantime here are a few things AOG has me thinking about:

On Dostoevskii’s mockery of Turgenev: I agree that Karmazinov in Dostoevskii’s The Devils (Бесы, 1871-72) is a cruel and funny portrait of Turgenev, but it’s worth keeping in mind that Dostoevskii waited a quarter-century to get even. After the spectacular success of Poor Folk (Бедные люди, 1846), Dostoevskii couldn’t hide from his friends that he was rather pleased with himself and proud of his great talent. This led two members of his and Belinskii’s circle — Turgenev and Nekrasov — to co-write a cruel poem about him, “Belinskii’s Epistle to Dostoevskii” (Послание Белинского к Достоевскому, 1846), which starts by calling him a new pimple on the nose of literature and goes on to make light of a real episode when Dostoevskii fainted in front of a beautiful woman at a ball.* Avdot’ia Panaeva’s memoirs (which rarely put Turgenev in a favorable light) describe more of this kind of poetry:

Once, in Dostoevskii’s presence, Turgenev described how he met a certain individual in the provinces who imagined himself a man of genius, and he masterfully portrayed the ridiculous side of this individual. Dostoevskii was as white as a sheet and shaking all over, and he ran off without listening to the end of Turgenev’s story. By way of reproach I said to them all, “why must you exasperate Dostoevskii so?” But Turgenev was in the most cheerful of moods, and he carried the others away with him, so that no one ascribed any importance to Dostoevskii’s sudden departure. Turgenev started composing a humorous poem about Devushkin, as if that character from Poor Folk had written a poem thanking Dostoevskii for letting all of Russia know about his existence, and in the poem the word matochka was repeated often.

From that evening on Dostoevskii never came to see us, and he even avoided meeting anyone from our circle on the street. (from chapter 7 of Avdot’ia Panaeva’s memoirs)

The word matochka — one of those tricky affectionate terms, translated by Constance Garnett variously as the literal “little mother” and the more plausible “dearie,” “my dear,” and “my darling,” all in the first letter — appears some 241 times in Poor Folk. I believe Dostoevskii was in love with Panaeva at the time, and it probably didn’t help if Turgenev was making him look foolish in front of her. (He had left on that evening, but it seems his friend Grigorovich faithfully reported all the mean things said in his absence.)

On “sketches” as a category: Everything the AOG says about the Sketches from a Hunter’s Album being sketches and not stories is very much to the point. However, it made me wonder why, in this title, записки is so often translated as “sketches.” It’s the same word that is rendered as “notes” in Dostoevskii’s Notes from Underground or Tolstoi’s “A Billiard-Marker’s Notes,” and as “diary” in Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman.” Meanwhile there’s another word, очерк, that is generally translated as “sketch,” including in the key 1840s term “physiological sketch.” Turgenev’s записки have been called A Sportsman’s Notebook and Notes of a Hunter, so the standard “notes” has been used, but we also have A Hunter’s Sketches and The Hunting Sketches. I wonder if the tradition caught on because Garnett liked the alliteration with “sportsman,” or if it has more to do with the aesthetic quality AOG remarks on.

On the difference between Turgenev and Harriet Beecher Stowe: I do not disagree with AOG about this:

Although the oppression and the cruelties are never far away, it is not really the central purpose of these sketches to highlight these matters, either explicitly or implicitly: Turgenev was not writing a Russian version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He was interested in these characters not as props for an ideology, but as people.

At the same time I wonder if it’s overstating the case to contrast a wholly un-didactic Turgenev to a wholly didactic Harriet Beecher Stowe. The two had different approaches, but the conditions in which most of the Sketches from a Hunter’s Album appeared, with the worst censorship of at least the mid-nineteenth century, might have made Turgenev’s light touch appear as forceful — as didactically effective — as HBS’s pathos to contemporary readers. I’d like to learn more about Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Russian culture. On the one hand, there’s a scene in Turgenev’s Smoke (Дым, 1867) where a caricature of a radical woman comically reveres HBS, and on the other hand real-life radical critic Varfolomei Zaitsev sees HBS as sentimental and weak. I see John MacKay published a book on this subject last year.

On peasants in mid-century Russian literature: AOG remarks that Turgenev might be “the only major Russian writer of his times” to depict peasant characters in such a prominent way, as Tolstoi’s peasants are either “peripheral characters” in his main work or major characters in “his later shorter works, but by that stage his fiction had become too didactic to allow for objective depiction.” My first thought was that the tier of mid-century prose writers just below Turgenev, Dostoevskii, and Tolstoi had plenty of slave and ex-slave characters. But a lot of these characters are house servants rather than peasants in the sense of field slaves, including Goncharov’s Zakhar (Oblomov’s servant) and Leskov’s Nikolai Afanas’evich. One writer who does have a lot of characters who are peasants sensu stricto is Pisemskii. He gives us the woman who falsely accuses herself of a crime to be sent to Siberia to escape her husband; Mar’ia, who falls for Baklanov when he seduces her before 1861, but refuses him mockingly after 1861; Annushka, the longtime consort of Esper Ivanych [update 8/8/14: Annushka was a house servant, a “young maid,” which is how she met Esper Ivanych; I’m not sure why I initially put her in this list. See part 1, chapter 6]; Marfusha, who is kidnapped and raped and told to blame her disappearance on the “wood goblin.” But most of these are peripheral characters, as is even Makar Grigor’ev, a sort of paradoxical father-figure who looks after Pavel Vikhrov in Moscow, where he is a prosperous man, though he is owned by Vikhrov’s family and his wife remains on their rural estate. In other words, while I’m sure others can think of more and better exceptions to the rule, AOG’s point that peasant characters are rarer than you’d think in nineteenth-century Russian literature is truer than I realized.

* For more on this see Moisei Gin. I think Joseph Frank mentions it too.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2014 8:14 am

    I’ve never been able to think well of Turgenev since learning about how he treated the young Dostoevsky; I find that kind of bullying despicable.

    As for peasants, Narezhny is full of them — his affectionate treatment of peasants and Jews is just one of the reasons I think he should be revived/translated. And speaking of early-19th-century Russian Jews, I’m reading the introduction (which Amazon sends you free as a sample) to The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, and I’m looking forward to reading the whole thing when it comes out in paper (or a used copy becomes available cheap) — it’s a study of what Petrovsky-Shtern calls the Golden Age shtetl (or местечко), from the 1790s to the 1840s, when it was a thriving type of community (taken over by the Russian Empire from Polish “private towns”) in which Jews ran the economy (fairs, markets, taverns). It provides essential background for understanding the Ukrainian and Belorussian communities early-19th-century Russian novelists wrote about.

    • August 5, 2014 12:49 am

      Thanks for all this! Narezhny is someone I hadn’t thought of for peasant characters, and Petrovsky-Shtern’s book sounds like a useful thing to read to understand not just early 19c writers, but also Leskov, who I think wrote about those communities when they were in decline, and/or repeated some unfounded ideas about them held by outsiders.

      I didn’t know that sense of местечко. Interestingly, Ushakov’s and Ozhegov’s dictionaries include Ukraine and Belorussia in the definition, but say nothing about Jews.

  2. August 4, 2014 12:38 pm

    Thank you very much for this – virtually all of this is completely new to me. I had no idea, for instance, about Turgenev’s bullying – for it’s hard to see how else it may be described – of Dostoyevsky. Dostoyevsky certainly got his own back afterwards, though: the scenes involving Karmazinov are hilarious.

    It’s a very interesting point that Turgenev’s lighter touch in the context of a severe censorship was in its own way powerfully didactic. I understand that Turgenev did apparently write some stories more overtly didactic than any in this collection, but I haven’t yet read them.

    • August 5, 2014 1:06 am

      I think an environment of strict censorship can teach people to read a lot into the things they read. I’m sometimes afraid I make too much of that possibility, though. Once a mid-19c censor cut a few key sections from a piece published in Nekrasov’s journal, and the author wrote blaming Nekrasov, the editor, for ruining his article. Nekrasov was exasperated, thinking that if even someone publishing in a major periodical understood how censorship worked so poorly, then his rank-and-file readers must have a much shakier grasp of the system than he’d supposed.

      Thanks for your original post, by the way – as you can see, I enjoyed it very much!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: