Friday, 24 February 2017

A Lear of the Steppes by Ivan Turgenev


Turgenev liked to hunt and the observation of ground, wind, rain, the tingling chill of autumn and days when the field is closed strike to his heart. We feel that there are two kinds of weather, good for hunting and bad for hunting:

In the middle of October, three weeks after my interview with Martin Petrovitch, I was standing at the window of my own room in the second storey of our house, and thinking of nothing at all, I looked disconsolately into the yard and the road that lay beyond it. The weather had been disgusting for the last five days. Shooting was not even to be thought of. All things living had hidden themselves; even the sparrows made no sound, and the rooks had long ago disappeared from sight. The wind howled drearily, then whistled spasmodically. The low-hanging sky, unbroken by one streak of light, had changed from an unpleasant whitish to a leaden and still more sinister hue; and the rain, which had been pouring and pouring, mercilessly and unceasingly, had suddenly become still more violent and more driving, and streamed with a rushing sound over the panes.
(Constance Garnett trans.)

Harlov (Martin Petrovitch) is too proud to rue his foolish signing over of his estate to his daughters but it is inwardly tormenting him. His sense of being born of righteous people is affronted by their treatment and surely his volcanic nature will assert itself. That this should happen to him:

One day my mother took it into her head to commend him to his face for his really remarkable incorruptibility.
‘Ah, Natalia Nikolaevna!’ he protested almost angrily; ‘what a thing to praise me for, really! We gentlefolk can’t be otherwise; so that no churl, no low-born, servile creature dare even imagine evil of us! I am a Harlov, my family has come down from’—here he pointed up somewhere very high aloft in the ceiling—‘and me not be honest! How is it possible?’

The narrator’s mother, offers a doubt about Harlov’s proposed division:

‘Death is in God’s hands,’ observed my mother; ‘though that is their duty, to be sure. Only pardon me, Martin Petrovitch; your elder girl, Anna, is well known to be proud and imperious, and—well—the second has a fierce look.…’
‘Natalia Nikolaevna!’ Harlov broke in, ‘why do you say that?… Why, as though they … My daughters … Why, as though I … Forget their duty? Never in their wildest dreams.… Offer opposition? To whom? Their parent … Dare to do such a thing? Have they not my curse to fear? They’ve passed their life long in fear and in submission—and all of a sudden … Good Lord!'

Why would he do such a foolish thing? I think that it was due to the capture of his intelligence by an inflated idea of his heritage and his confidence in his own noble character together with a omen of death. His loud and perhaps imperious ways may have been the seed of a resentment that turned on him when he abrogated his power. And yet such stories are so commonplace everywhere that there’s even a name for it - elder abuse. The young narrator has encountered evil with bemusement. A proper plan is required, adjustments are to be made. What exactly is the misunderstanding? This can be fixed. ‘Honour thy father and thy Mother, that thy days may be long in the land’. Can I get back to you on that?

This novella reads beautifully. Newer translations there are, doubtless; publishers are always ready to open up old spent mines to extract new copyrights. I found ‘Lear’ at:
A Lear of the Steppes








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