In Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev attempted to examine the forces for change operating, for the most part in isolation and frustration, in mid-nineteenth century Russia. The storm of protest and outrage produced from the moment the novel appeared indicates that he had indeed touched a sensitive nerve in Russian society. In fact, Turgenev never really got over the abuse heaped upon him; his periods of exile in Germany, France, and Italy were all the more frequent and of longer duration after the publication of the novel. One wonders at the excitement occasioned by Fathers and Sons, for a cooler reading undertaken more than a hundred years later indicates that Turgenev clearly attempted and achieved a balanced portrait of conservative and revolutionary Russia—a triumphant achievement in political fiction, where the passions of the moment so often damage the artistic effort.
The subtlety and rightness of Turgenev’s technique are most clearly seen in the central character Bazarov. Bazarov is a pragmatist, a scientist, and a revolutionary idealist. He is put into a relationship with every important character, and it is from these relationships that the reader gets to know him and to understand more about him than he understands about himself. A master of literary impressionism, Turgenev liked to do an “atmospheric” treatment of his characters, vividly rendering visual, auditory, and other sense impressions in a nicely selected setting. This technique admits all sorts of lively and contradictory details and prevents the novel—and Bazarov—from falling into mere ideological rhetoric and political polemic. Most of all, for all of his roughness and bearishness, Turgenev really liked Bazarov and sympathized with him (“with the exception of [his] views on art, I share almost all his convictions,” he wrote).
Bazarov’s chief conflict is with Pavel Kirsanov, a middle-aged bachelor with refined continental tastes and a highly developed sense of honor. Pavel stands for everything Bazarov despises: an Old World emphasis upon culture, manners, and refinement, and an aristocratic and elitist view of life. He represents the traditions that Bazarov vainly struggles to destroy in his...
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Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and SonsPrint
The power of specificity
By Dennis Covington
November 30, 2015
The one book I have kept coming back to again and again over the past 45 years is Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, the Rosemary Edmonds translation in particular.
The book’s charms are many, beginning with the fact that it’s a Russian novel, but short.
It was Fathers and Sons that introduced me to the power of specificity. The moment the servant on the first page is pinned as a “man of the advanced modern generation” because of his “single turquoise ear-ring … dyed pomaded hair and … mincing gait,” I knew that details, rather than drama, would move the narrative forward. This wouldn’t be a story with sweeping generalizations or rambling asides. They’d be replaced by a “large speckled hen who strutted gravely about” and the “smell of warm rye bread.”
The way Turgenev achieved this effect in descriptions from nature, or in the portrayal of minor characters, seemed obvious enough, but the way he did it in the creation of major characters mystified me. Bazarov, the scientific materialist and occasional physician, rises to the height, or sinks to the depth, of misogyny when he responds to Madame Odintsov’s beauty by saying he would love to see her body “on the dissecting table.” But still, he remains a compelling figure in the book—multidimensional, magnetic. And his admirer Arkady, sentimentalist though he proves to be, likewise doesn’t invite our ridicule or contempt. The two friends prove to be twin vines coiling around the trunk of the same tree.
I first read Fathers and Sons when I was 22. I’d grown up in Birmingham, Alabama, at the height of the American civil rights movement. My father was a segregationist. I was not. In college, I protested against the Vietnam War. My father supported the war, even after I had been drafted into the army. And I thought, when I opened the pages of Fathers and Sons, that the book would somehow support my side of the arguments we’d endured.
Turgenev’s characters did provide the possible answers to a series of heated questions about art, nature, politics, psychology, and spirituality.
But with his depiction of Arkady’s father and Bazarov’s parents, he answered the most important question: Is love real?
Fathers and Sons was the means by which Turgenev said yes.
Dennis Covington is the author of six books, including Salvation on Sand Mountain, a finalist for the National Book Award. His most recent book is Revelation: A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World.