“The greatest of the nineteenth century Russian novelists wrote out of the profundities of a silent country,“ writes translator Richard Freeborn in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Ivan Turgenev’s Home of the Gentry. "In a real and literal sense Dostoyevsky wrote out of the nocturnal silence of St Petersburg, Tolstoy from the rural silence of Yasnaya Polyana and Turgenev from the summer quiet of Spasskoye.” (Turgenev’s estate was located at Spasskoye, south-west of Moscow.) “Their novels have the special, spell-binding absorbtion of voices speaking out of a natural stillness,” continues Freeborn. “None of Turgenev’s novels is more eloquent of such stillness than Home of the Gentry.”
Stillness seems to suggest that nothing much happens in Home of the Gentry, which is far from the case. For Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev (1818-1883) was a master story-teller, poet and dramatist. A Month in the Country is undoubtedly his best-known play. Other notable works include his first novel Rudin, The Torrents of Spring, Fathers and Sons - regarded by many as his best work - and the delightful short stories, Sketches from a Hunter's Album.
After 1856, the writer lived mostly abroad, and he became the first Russian author to gain a popular reputation in Europe. Serfs and nobles, and how they interacted and addressed each other in the remote fastnesses of the steppes; an endless fascination with Europe, a flirtation with Paris and the French language as a means of communication; religion and revolution – these are all familiar themes and tropes in the work of Turgenev. First and foremost, a love story always glows at the heart of each of his novels, from its heady beginnings to its complications and inevitable disappointments.
In Home of the Gentry, the nobleman Lavretsky is swept off his feet by the charming but scheming Varvara Pavolvna. The couple move to Paris, but she is unfaithful. On discovering her infidelity, he insists they separate. He is an honourable man, however, and she does very well out of the settlement, despite Lavretsky's bitter contempt for his spouse.
Back in his native Russia, in a town near the estate he has inherited at Vasilyevskoye, the disilllusioned nobleman falls for Liza, an extremely devout young woman of nineteen. She has reciprocal feelings for the older man, but her conscience insists that Lavrestsky reconcile with his estranged wife, and she tells him so. The novel builds towards its climax - and indeed a love triangle of sorts - when Varvara Pavolvna comes looking for her husband with the child she claims is his.
Such a summary of the bare bones of the plot of this 180-page novel - first published in 1858 - excludes perforce Turgenev's mastery of style and pace, and his great poetic sensibility. Typically, he can move quickly and with striking economy from a scene of domestic unease or embarassment to one where his young protagonist walks alone with his own thoughts, in the full flush of love. The young man communes with the summer night, hears the soft rustle of trees, or the nightingale's song, as he contemplates the object of his rapture.
No modern novel treats of love in such a romantic fashion, and the style has indeed gone out of fashion. But when you come across such set pieces, as the reader regularly will in the works of Turgenev, they seem boldly individualistic. Because we are unused to them from contemporary fiction, they come as a refreshing draught.
The critic Maurice Baring (1874-1945) wasn’t writing today or yesterday when he made a similar point in Russian Literature. He too experienced a similar sensation, when reading Turgenev. “Any one who goes back to his books after a time, and after a course of more modern and rougher, stormier literature will, I think, be surprised at its excellence and perhaps be inclined to heave a deep sigh of relief.”
The above passage is quoted by translator Gilbert Gardner in his fascinating introduction to On the Eve. That novel was first published in 1859, and happilly is also another Penguin Classic. This 200-page novel evokes Moscow life in the months immediately preceding the Crimean War, which began in 1854 and saw Russia pitted against an alliance of Western powers.
Turgenev seduces the reader with the languorus beauty of the Russian summer in the evry first, luminously suggestive sentence. “It was one of the hottest days of the summer of 1853," he begins. We meet 23-year old sculptor and social butterfly Pavel Shubin, who is relaxing by the Moscow river, under the shade of a lime tree with his philosopher friend, Andrei Bersyenev.
Shortly thereafter, we meet 20-year old Elena Nikolayevna, the impulsive but tender-hearted heroine of the novel. A few pages later again, we encounter the young Bulgarian revolutionary Dimitry Insarov. The story of these four characters proceeds apace but will end in tragedy.
Most of all what lingers on after reading Turgenev is elusive yearning, and the endlessly dreaming, restless element in the nineteenth century Russian soul.