Ivan Turgenev - Career

Career

Turgenev first made his name with A Sportsman's Sketches (Записки охотника), also known as Sketches from a Hunter's Album or Notes of a Hunter, a collection of short stories, based on his observations of peasant life and nature, while hunting in the forests around his mother's estate of Spasskoye. Most of the stories were published in a single volume in 1852, with others being added in later editions. The book is credited with having influenced public opinion in favour of the abolition of serfdom in 1861. Turgenev himself considered the book to be his most important contribution to Russian literature; It is reported that Pravda, and Tolstoy, among others, agreed wholeheartedly, adding that Turgenev's evocations of nature in these stories were unsurpassed. One of the stories in A Sportsman's Sketches, known as "Bezhin Lea" or "Byezhin Prairie", was later to become the basis for the controversial film Bezhin Meadow (1937) – directed by Sergei Eisenstein.

In the 1840s and early 1850s, during the rule of Tsar Nicholas I, the political climate in Russia was stifling for many writers. This is evident in the despair and subsequent death of Gogol, and the oppression, persecution, and arrests of artists, scientists, and writers, including Fyodor Dostoyevsky. During this time, thousands of Russian intellectuals, members of the intelligentsia, emigrated to Europe. Among them were Alexander Herzen and Turgenev himself, although the latter's decision to settle abroad probably had more to do with his fateful love for Pauline Viardot than anything else.

In 1852, when his first major novels of Russian society were still to come, Turgenev wrote an obituary for Nikolai Gogol, intended for publication in the Saint Petersburg Gazette. The key passage reads: "Gogol is dead!... What Russian heart is not shaken by those three words?... He is gone, that man whom we now have the right (the bitter right, given to us by death) to call great." The censor of Saint Petersburg did not approve of this and banned publication, but the Moscow censor allowed it to be published in a newspaper in that city. The censor was dismissed; but Turgenev was held responsible for the incident, imprisoned for a month, and then exiled to his country estate for nearly two years. It was during this time that Turgenev wrote his short story Mumu ("Муму") in 1854. The story tells a tale of a deaf and dumb peasant who is forced to drown the only thing in the world which brings him happiness, his dog Mumu. Like his A Sportsman's Sketches (Записки охотника), this work takes aim at the cruelties of a serf society. This work was later applauded by John Galsworthy who claimed, "no more stirring protest against tyrannical cruelty was ever penned in terms of art."

While he was still in Russia in the early 1850s, Turgenev wrote several novellas (povesti in Russian): "The Diary of a Superfluous Man ("Дневник лишнего человека"), Faust ("Фауст"), The Lull ("Затишье"), expressing the anxieties and hopes of Russians of his generation.

Following the thoughts of the influential critic Vissarion Belinsky, Turgenev abandoned Romantic idealism for a more realistic style. Belinsky defended sociological realism in literature; Turgenev portrayed him in Yakov Pasinkov (1855). During the period of 1853-62 Turgenev wrote some of his finest stories as well as the first four of his novels: Rudin ("Рудин") (1856), A Nest of the Gentry ("Дворянское гнездо") (1859), On the Eve ("Накануне") (1860) and Fathers and Sons ("Отцы и дети") (1862). Some themes involved in these works include: beauty of early love, failure to reach one's dreams, and frustrated love. Great influences on these works are derived from his love of Pauline and his experiences with his mother, who controlled over 500 serfs with the same strict demeanor in which she raised him.

In 1854 he moved to Western Europe, and during the following years produced the novel Rudin ("Рудин"), the story of a man in his thirties, who is unable to put his talents and idealism to any use in the Russia of Nicholas I. Rudin is also full of nostalgia for the idealistic student circles of the 1840s.

In 1858 Turgenev wrote the novel A Nest of the Gentry ("Дворянское гнездо") also full of nostalgia for the irretrievable past and of love for the Russian countryside. It contains one of his most memorable female characters, Liza, whom Dostoyevsky paid tribute to in his Pushkin speech of 1880, alongside Tatiana and Tolstoy's Natasha Rostova.

Alexander II ascended the Russian throne in 1855, and the political climate became more relaxed. In 1859, inspired by reports of positive social changes, Turgenev wrote the novel On the Eve ("Накануне") (published 1860), portraying the Bulgarian revolutionary Insarov.

The following year saw the publication of one of his finest novellas, First Love ("Первая любовь"), which was based on bitter-sweet childhood memories, and the delivery of his speech ("Hamlet and Don Quixote", at a public reading in Saint Petersburg) in aid of writers and scholars suffering hardship. The vision presented therein of man torn between the self-centered skepticism of Hamlet and the idealistic generosity of Don Quixote is one that can be said to pervade Turgenev's own works. It is worth noting that Dostoyevsky, who had just returned from exile in Siberia, was present at this speech, for eight years later he was to write The Idiot, a novel whose tragic hero, Prince Myshkin, resembles Don Quixote in many respects. Turgenev, whose knowledge of Spanish, thanks to his contact with Pauline Viardot and her family, was good enough for him to have considered translating Cervantes's novel into Russian, played an important role in introducing this immortal figure of world literature into the Russian context.

Fathers and Sons ("Отцы и дети"), Turgenev's most famous and enduring novel, appeared in 1862. Its leading character, Eugene Bazarov, considered the 'first Bolshevik' in Russian literature, was in turn heralded and reviled as either a glorification or a parody of the 'new men' of the 1860s. The novel examined the conflict between the older generation, reluctant to accept reforms, and the nihilistic youth. In the central character, Bazarov, Turgenev drew a classical portrait of the mid-nineteenth-century nihilist. Fathers and Sons was set during the six-year period of social ferment, from Russia's defeat in the Crimean War to the Emancipation of the Serfs. Hostile reaction to Fathers and Sons ("Отцы и дети") prompted Turgenev's decision to leave Russia. As a consequence he also lost the majority of his readers. Many radical critics at the time (with the notable exception of Dimitri Pisarev) did not take Fathers and Sons seriously; and, after the relative critical failure of his masterpiece, Turgenev was disillusioned and started to write less.

Turgenev's next novel, Smoke ("Дым"), was published in 1867 and was again received less than enthusiastically in his native country, as well as triggering a quarrel with Dostoyevsky in Baden-Baden.

His last substantial work attempting to do justice to the problems of contemporary Russian society, Virgin Soil ("Новь"), was published in 1877.

Stories of a more personal nature, such as Torrents of Spring ("Вешние воды"), King Lear of the Steppes ("Степной король Лир"), and The Song of Triumphant Love ("Песнь торжествующей любви"), were also written in these autumnal years of his life. Other last works included the Poems in Prose and "Clara Milich" ("After Death"), which appeared in the journal European Messenger.

"The conscious use of art for ends extraneous to itself was detestable to him... He knew that the Russian reader wanted to be told what to believe and how to live, expected to be provided with clearly contrasted values, clearly distinguishable heroes and villains.... Turgenev remained cautious and skeptical; the reader is left in suspense, in a state of doubt: problems are raised, and for the most part left unanswered" – Isaiah Berlin, Lecture on Fathers and Children

Turgenev wrote on themes similar to those found in the works of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, but he did not approve of the religious and moral preoccupations that his two great contemporaries brought to their artistic creation. Turgenev was closer in temperament to his friends Gustave Flaubert and Theodor Storm, the North German poet and master of the novella form, who also often dwelt on memories of the past and evoked the beauty of nature.

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