Saturday, 22 April 2017

Fathers and Children by Ivan Turgenev


To see things clearly you must get yourself out the way. That was Matthew Arnold’s dictum but those great writers and artists who have affected us deeply and permeated our aesthetic sensibility are in the vedic phrase the eye of the eye. In Fathers and Children (Constance Garnett’s trans.) we see what we have been trained to see and that is something we have to admit before our natural guile or critical intelligence subverts the author’s leadingi. We notice then that Turgenev’s own soft hearted love of the rising generation and Bazarov his ‘favourite child’ can rebut materialist ideology by following with a lyrical passage. Nikolai the father of Arkady represents this aspect of Turgenev:

In vain, then, had he spent whole days sometimes in the winter at Petersburg over the newest books; in vain had he listened to the talk of the young men; in vain had he rejoiced when he succeeded in putting in his word too in their heated discussions. 'My brother says we are right,' he thought, 'and apart from all vanity, I do think myself that they are further from the truth than we are, though at the same time I feel there is something behind them we have not got, some superiority over us.... Is it youth? No; not only youth. Doesn't their superiority consist in there being fewer traces of the slave owner in them than in us?'

This regret is balanced immediately by the evocation of a beautiful evening:

'But to renounce poetry?' he thought again; 'to have no feeling for art, for nature ...'
And he looked round, as though trying to understand how it was possible to have no feeling for nature. It was already evening; the sun was hidden behind a small copse of aspens which lay a quarter of a mile from the garden; its shadow stretched indefinitely across the still fields. A peasant on a white nag went at a trot along the dark, narrow path close beside the copse; his whole figure was clearly visible even to the patch on his shoulder, in spite of his being in the shade; the horse's hoofs flew along bravely. The sun's rays from the farther side fell full on the copse, and piercing through its thickets, threw such a warm light on the aspen trunks that they looked like pines, and their leaves were almost a dark blue, while above them rose a pale blue sky, faintly tinged by the glow of sunset. The swallows flew high; the wind had quite died away, belated bees hummed slowly and drowsily among the lilac blossom; a swarm of midges hung like a cloud over a solitary branch which stood out against the sky. 

He can also cast a cold eye on the progressive:

The town of X—— to which our friends set off was in the jurisdiction of a governor who was a young man, and at once a progressive and a despot, as often happens with Russians.
The woman question gets a mention:
Bazarov scowled. There was nothing repulsive in the little plain person of the emancipated woman; but the expression of her face produced a disagreeable effect on the spectator. One felt impelled to ask her, 'What's the matter; are you hungry? Or bored? Or shy? What are you in a fidget about?' Both she and Sitnikov had always the same uneasy air. She was extremely unconstrained, and at the same time awkward; she obviously regarded herself as a good-natured, simple creature, and all the while, whatever she did, it always struck one that it was not just what she wanted to do; everything with her seemed, as children say, done on purpose, that's to say, not simply, not naturally.

Arkady gets a glimpse of the cruelty that is not too far away from the behaviourism that Bazarov espouses. They are about to quarrel; enacting an anticipation of of class war:
Fighting?' put in Bazarov. 'Well? Here, on the hay, in these idyllic surroundings, far from the world and the eyes of men, it wouldn't matter. But you'd be no match for me. I'll have you by the throat in a minute.'

Bazarov spread out his long, cruel fingers.... Arkady turned round and prepared, as though in jest, to resist.... But his friend's face struck him as so vindictive—there was such menace in grim earnest in the smile that distorted his lips, and in his glittering eyes, that he felt instinctively afraid.

Madame Anna the aristocrat and Bazarov the Nihilist are hobbled by their cool rationalism and unable to move towards ordinary human happiness. Ideology and prudence are a non combustible mix. Some people are pursued by happiness but they manage to keep ahead of it.

At many points in this novel I was moved but did not feel that I was being cozened into emotion. Being a father you have to stay where you are and let your child come to you. Bazarov was coming back, doctoring in the district, helping his father out and then well ...









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