Turgénieff Anew

SOME writers, it is said, build their castles in lands where the air is suffused with a beautiful mist which transfigures everything; others compile lists of facts like inventories; some again do their star-gazing from the wrong side of a little known planet, and, seeing new universes, endeavor to describe them; some grin or weep as they dip their pens; others even write upside down, and the mirror of a clear understanding only can reflect their truth. The rare ones so marshal their realities, so regard the world from new stars, and feel with it, that their craft and words live on after them. Of these is Turgénieff.

At least in their English garb, reissued afresh by the Scribners, in Miss Isabel Hapgood’s translation, the novels of Turgénieff are familiar and easy of narrative, whole-handed and large and generous in attitude, and even to the dimmest soul, poetic in their fresh buoyancy. No air, no landscapes, no life of creatures dumb and eloquent are like his. Also no young people, boys and young girls; these last white-clad, with blood beneath their skins, and maiden eyes. No man so well understands the swift and awkward changes from poetry to prose which are in real life, and so unfrequently in the life of books; no man is so charitable, so wide and keen of vision. The great English Shakespeare is an unquestioned part of Russian Turgénieff: witness his Lear and Prince of Denmark.

The trilogy formed by Rudin, Smoke, and Virgin Soil takes our attention. In the first, windy speech and rhetoric, so Russian and so common there, finally brings a desolate old age to arid wanderings on the vastness of the plains; in the second, Litvénoff’s years of study and honestly attempted practice come to naught; he at any rate has not talked, but has labored and has failed; and in the last, Nezhdánoff, engaged in huge, nameless causes, sees that they are futile, but perseveres mechanically till the end, dying only just freed from the harness. Thus the Hamlet of the steppes.

Questions as to form and the conventional disposition of all the characters before the book closes, one does not argue with Turgénieff. His work breathes an essence compounded not by a chemistry of laws and formulas, but by an alchemy known to the few mages. In passage after passage, like a solemn bell ever sounding the same serious perplexed note, the old theme recurs. In the noble death scene of Bazároff: “I am necessary to Russia. . . . No, evidently, I am not necessary. And who is ? A shoemaker is necessary, a tailor is necessary, so is a butcher; ... he sells meat ... a butcher; . . . stay, I am getting mixed up. . . . Yonder is a forest.” In Rudin: “ Thou hast done what thou couldst, thou hast striven as long as thou wert able. . . . Our roads have lain apart.” And again: “I have fallen under the wheel. . . . Death is an ancient jest, but new to each person.”