Monday, May 19, 2014

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

Realism doesn’t need to be this boring
Arkady Nikolaevich Kirsanov, a recent university graduate, returns to his parents’ farm in a remote Russian province, accompanied by a school friend named Bazarov. Arkady’s father, Nikolai Petrovich, is a widower. His brother Pavel Petrovich lives with him on his estate. Even though the “old men” in the story are only in their mid-forties, it soon becomes apparent that the two generations do not see eye to eye. Bazarov is a self-proclaimed nihilist who has taken Arkady under his wing. Bazarov scoffs at the older men’s romantic ideals and aristocratic pretensions, while they cannot fathom his total lack of moral purpose and conviction. Pavel Petrovich and Bazarov soon develop a strong dislike for one another. Nikolai Petrovich feels uncomfortable in the presence of his own son, for he is ashamed to tell Arkady that he has taken a lower-class woman as a live-in lover.

Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons, originally published in 1862, was one of the first Russian works to be widely read throughout Europe and America. The story takes place at a time when Russia was emerging from its feudal past, and the newly reformed system of land ownership was transforming serfs into tenant farmers. Each character is representative of a different social strata and ideology, though apparently reform hadn’t yet spread to the nation’s literature because none of the important characters are peasants. Much of the novel revolves around political and social issues that will be lost on today’s readers, unless you happen to be really well-versed in Russian history. What’s left for those readers who aren’t is a novel about personal relationships. For most of its length, the book is simply a series of conversations in which the characters get to know one another. Unfortunately, these dialogues are often dull and at times even annoying. As I read the book, the adjective that kept popping into my head was “well-described”. Turgenev is an observant student of human nature, extremely skilled at depicting realistic human interaction, but he is either unable or unwilling to make the reader care about these characters. Bazarov ends up being the protagonist, which is unfortunate, because he’s the least likeable person in the book. His juvenile cynicism gets old very fast. He can’t even allow himself to love for fear of cracking his nihilist facade and displaying any sentimentality that may be perceived as a sign of weakness. Arkady is a much more sympathetic character, but unfortunately Turgenev grants him a lot less ink than his unpleasant friend.

Like Bazarov, one can sense that Turgenev, when writing this book, was making a conscious effort to be modern and iconoclastic. He is determined to present a bluntly realistic world where the characters don’t behave according to romantic conventions. It’s almost as if the story is deliberately boring in order to make a point. Yet in the end he resorts to the sentimentality of love and death just to generate some interest and empathy for these characters. The last quarter of the book is much stronger than the rest, because things actually happen.

Fathers and Sons may be Turgenev’s best-known and most highly acclaimed work, but I found it so-so at best. Despite the author’s perspicacity, this novel leaves an empty feeling that would make Bazarov proud. If this is the best Turgenev’s got to offer, I think I’m done with him.

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