The Universal Particular: Turgenev's Fathers and Sons

Sometimes a work is so much a product of its times that, for all its genius, it no longer translates beyond those times. I’ve read many works that are full of incredible satire, insight, and profound art, yet would be virtually meaningless to a modern reader. I think specifically of a great work like Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, which makes me laugh more than almost any book written; however, so much of the laughter comes from knowing the ideas and
culture of the early 18th century, without which all the jokes at Colley Cibber’s expense fall rather flat. These books inevitably become the property of college classrooms, where a patient teacher can tease out the references so that the work, little by little, becomes enjoyable again. This is the Scylla and Chabrydis that any author must face: too topical, and the work doesn’t last a decade; too general, and the work speaks to no one at all. 

And then you have the rare work that is extremely topical, with up-to-the-minute detail, yet translates effortlessly a hundred years later. This can only work when an author realizes that all the modern fads and hip philosophy are so many antiquated knock-offs. Nothing is new under the sun, yet our experience of life is so narrow, that we can’t possibly keep all the permutations of fashion in mind. After all, when we love, it’s for the first time—and the world feels brand new again. So how to write of the world outside your window and yet make it recognizable to the world your great-grandchildren will see and experience? Ivan Turgenev, the great writer of thoughtful, Romantic novels, managed to do this throughout his career, but nowhere so brilliantly as in his celebrated novel Fathers and Sons (or, Fathers and Children, which is the literal translation). This novel, published in 1862, documents the struggles between two generations—fathers and sons—in Russia in the ‘60’s (not so dissimilar from our own 60’s). The old landowners are facing a very new world, particularly in the form of their sons, many of whom have returned from university with modern ideas. Some want to liberate the serfs and create a land of universal equality; others want to abolish tiresome Russian customs in favor of more ‘enlightened’ ideas from the continent and England. Romantic literature is suspect; science, alone, can lead the nation to a golden age of wisdom and prosperity. Even in the 1860’s, the world of Communist Russia seemed close at hand. 

And yet, this is not a political novel. The revolutionary hero—in this case Bazarov, the self-styled nihilist who wants to throw a bomb at the Russian aristocracy—is not a didactic stand-in for liberal propaganda. The author remains aloof throughout, merely allowing characters to interact, pontificate, and despair without guiding them to this or that revelation. The best comparison to Turgenev’s novel is surprisingly Jane Austen, since both authors chose love and class conflict as their favorite themes. The story is simple, a mere frame to prop up a wealth of psychological detail that has no agenda other than to open a window on the human soul. Arkady, a young man fresh from university, returns home to visit his father with his best friend, the scientist Bazarov, in tow. Arkady is enthralled with Bazarov’s nihilism and adherence to science and logic (imagine Bazarov as a more cynical Spock). Arkady’s father, Nikolai, is a man who enjoys the simple pleasures of his estate and indulges in the mid-life indulgences of food and poetry. His brother, Pavel, is a man of society who had long lived abroad, and only reluctantly returned to Russia after a failed love affair. The two generations clash at once, with Bazarov condemning both men for their ‘medieval’ pursuits, and Pavel in particularly for his bourgeois affectations. Pavel, in turn, despises Bazarov’s presumption and finds in him a man without character or culture. A typical exchange illustrates this clash of fathers and children:

“Permit me to say, Pavel Petrovich,” said Bazarov, “here you are full of respect for yourself and sitting with your arms folded. What good’s that for the bien public? You’d be better off not respecting yourself and doing something.”
Pavel Petrovich went pale.

“That’s a completely different question. I don’t have to explain to  you now why I am sitting with my arms folded, as you are pleased to express it. I simply want to say that aristocratism is a principle, and without principles only immoral or empty-headed people can live in our time...”

“Aristocratism, liberalism, progress, principles,” Bazarov had already started saying, “just think what a lot of foreign...and useless words! A Russian wouldn’t need them if you gave them to him!” (Oxford World’s Classics ed., 58-59).

While this is torn out of the headlines of 1860, it is also astonishingly contemporary. What teenager doesn’t despise the ideals of his parents, finding notions such as character or principles so much outdated wallpaper? And what parent doesn’t shake his head at the unprincipled and often misguided pursuits of the young, who see action as a means in itself? Bazarov rejects anything with a tradition, since too many traditions become mere props to hang up a two-bit existence. As the novel progresses, Pavel ultimately challenges the bewildered Bazarov to a duel. This moment of honor becomes something of a farce, as Pavel follows the polite discourse of the dueling ritual (can I have the honor of killing you tomorrow; splendid, I look forward to meeting you, etc.), while Bazarov finds himself, for all his nihilism, unable to risk his losing his honor in the face of a foolish social convention. What both young men discover is that one cannot be 21 the same way one can be 45; maturity sneaks up on you, deepening your understanding of the world, as well as what you find meaningful, beautiful, and absurd. I had a conversation with another young Bazarov not long ago where he assured me that he would always feel the way he did, think the same thoughts, despise the same ideas, etc. He asked me, “how can you tell me otherwise, you’re not me.” And I could only say, “well, I’m not you, but I have been your age—but you’ve never been mine. Youth isn’t all that original, when it comes down to it, and neither is age. But one does inevitably lead to the other.”

As Bazarov attempts to spread his philosophy of...well, of negation, he finds himself ensnared in the most conventional cliche of them all: he falls in love. The object of his affections, Anna Sergeyevna, is a worldly beauty, charmed with Bazarov but unable to rouse her provincial boredom into bona fide affection. The rejection infuriates him, as he realizes he has a nice dollop of Pavel Petrovich in his makeup.  He decides that to be happy is to be conventional, so he has to throw it all aside and become a slave to his work—in this case, becoming an uncelebrated country doctor. He does this out of a perverse blend of condescension and self-sacrifice, yet the peasants for whom he suffers finds him a bit of a fool (much the way he dismisses the older generation).  In his folly he contracts tyhpus and dies in his parents home, two kindly, simple people of the older generation who could never understand their son’s indifference to life.

While Bazarov meets an end that would smack uncomfortably (to him) of a Romantic novel, Arkady embraces life. While initially captivated by Anna Sergeyevna, he quickly becomes friends with her younger sister, Katya, and this friendship flourishes through walks in the country, poetry, and music. Soon he is head over heels in love, and rather than reject it out of adolescent angst, he decides that this is the brave new world he always dreamed of. While other authors might have laughed at him for this, Turgenev never does; indeed, he is entirely sympathetic to the charms of growing old with love and beauty, even if he was keenly aware of the changes engulfing Russia. Like Austen, Turgenev realizes that the greatest struggle is one of character: how one finds one’s self, and who one learns to love—and what one is willing to sacrifice to achieve it. Arkady has to throw his hero worship aside to find his true identity with Katya, who is herself trying to emerge out of his sister’s shadow. Even Bazarov, in a sense, realizes that you can’t figure everything out in your 20’s. His last wish is to see Anna Sergeyevna before he dies, the most sentimental scene imaginable, and yet he no longer fears the scorn of others (or worse, himself). He realizes that when all is said and done, the only regret is not sacrificing your body and soul for happiness. Even Pavel Petrovich did this, the one thing Bazarov couldn’t bear to do until he was at death’s door, safe from the foolish consequences of falling in love. To quote Sappho, “for me neither the honey nor the bee,” meaning that either you fall in love and deal with the possible complications, or you are denied love entirely.

While a student of Russian history will find significance in every character and conversation, the student of human history (or the 19th century novel) will fall in love with this book. As translated idiomatically (with occasional British slang) by Richard Freeborn, the novel sings with Turgenev’s signature prose and sharp dialogue. This is a nice counterpoint to Austen’s novels on similar themes, such as Mansfield Park  or Emma, and a near cousin to Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady.  However, what makes Turgenev unique is his understanding of nature, both of the natural world and the nature that resides in our hearts. I left this book feeling deeply attached to the characters, wanting to live among them for a few pages more, and feeling nostalgia for a world I never belonged to. Who wouldn’t want to be Russian after reading this book?