Fathers and Sons – Ivan Turgenev

14 October 2011
Chapters 1-11
Just over a quarter of the way through, and it seems a good place to stop because Arkady Kirsanov and his Nihilist friend Bazarov are about to leave the Maryrino farm for a while. This is where we’ve been since Arkady’s return from university: Chapter 1 begins with Nikolai Kirsanov, his father, anxiously waiting for him at the staging post out in the middle of nowhere. And anxiety is something he does rather well. He’s in his early 40s, but of the three men – Arkady has brought Bazarov with him unannounced – he seems the least composed, most eager to please. Bazarov, as it happens, is the precise opposite in both respects. I’ll come back to all of that.

Turgenev takes his time letting us in on details about the set-up at the farm. In some ways it’s like a play: the main plot device so far has been this entrance of these new characters into a situation that is already established, and most scenes consist of conversations that allow Turgenev to explore questions about – what? – how men should live. That isn’t how it starts off, but that’s how it’s evolved over these chapters, as the arrival of the two young men causes the kinds of ripples it’s bound to cause. We begin to realise is how much uncertainty there is in the lives of the people who haven’t been away at university all this time. Things have changed and moved on since Arkady left – and not always in ways the characters might have hoped.

The farm is a new project, built after the reform of serfdom, and it’s easy to see Nikolai as too easy-going a landlord in the new order of things. (This is what Bazarov thinks; for a man with negation as his watchword he has opinions on everything – which is one of his USPs.) The farm isn’t thriving, the peasants are probably cheating him…. And I’m suddenly reminded of a novel set 5,000 miles to the west, and a few decades earlier. In The Long Song, Andrea Levy gives us the story of the emancipation of slaves in Jamaica from the slaves’ perspective – and in that novel, the landlords who tend to succeed are the ones who are most brutal, who treat the freed slaves exactly as they always have done.

But the main driver of these chapters is character. Nikolai is the son of a successful army man and had been destined for a life in the officer class – but his commission is taken up by his younger brother Pavel instead after Nikolai has an accident that leaves him with a limp. But, reader, despite good looks, popularity and a notorious way with women, Pavel’s steady rise comes to an abrupt end. In fact, he now lives on the farm with Nikolai in what seems to be a bubble of good taste and impeccable manners – all based on English fashions – that seem nothing short of bizarre in the middle of nowhere. He and Bazarov develop an instantaneous dislike for one another when they meet, and this leads to the sort of barbed philosophical debate you seem to get in Russian novels. (In The Brothers Karamazov, which I read earlier this year, you can hardly move for them. And that’s another novel about how we should live.)

One way or another, women are responsible for the unsatisfactory way that things have turned out for the brothers. Nikolai had been blissfully married – constant companionship, duets on the piano… that sort of thing – but Maryrino goes and dies on him. All that’s left of her now is the name of the farm, so called in memory of her. As for Pavel, well, his easy career of one sexual conquest after another – Russian novelists adopt the French style of frankness in these matters rather than the English – he meets a woman who stops him in his tracks, literally. He ends up giving up his career, follows her across Europe, then spends what should have been the best ten years of his life washed up and full of regrets. (As in a play, this story is conveyed as one character tells it to another: it’s Arkady explaining the presence of his foppishly dressed and manicured uncle.)

So, life on Bachelor Farm, as the peasants apparently call it, is a men only affair, right? Wrong. One of several sources of anxiety for Nikolai is how he should introduce to Arkady the new set-up that has come about in the last year or two: there’s a new woman in his life, Fenichka, and she’s living in the house. Arkady is fine with this: as the disciple of a Nihilist he isn’t going to start criticising an unconventional ménage like that…. But Nikolai is too shy to mention certain other little matters: she’s young, was a servant at the house – and she’s had a son with him. Arkady only finds this out when he goes to see her on impulse… and, again, he’s all right with it. It’s only when Bazarov points it out that he realises there might be issues over his inheritance, and I don’t know if that’s important yet.

There’s something back-to-front about all this that Turgenev is obviously setting up deliberately. Nikolai seems to be the one seeking approval from his son as part of a longed-for project: he wants them to become close, to be friends. Hmm. In the few weeks that Arkady has been staying this seems to be getting nowhere: in Bazarov, Arkady has a new mentor whose main characteristic is to treat everyone as he considers they deserve. He is unembarrassedly arrogant in his judgments, speaks to Arkady about Nikolai with no hint of tact or reserve…. It doesn’t bode well, because Arkady almost idolises Bazarov, seems to rely on him for the formation of all his opinions. (It’s another reminder of The Brothers Karamazov, in which Alyosha spends most of the novel looking for a viable role model in place of his hopeless father.)

It reaches a crisis at dinner not long before Arkady and Bazarov leave. Nikolai, as you would expect, is willing to tolerate Bazarov, to look to his qualities, which are as undeniable as his faults. He is going to be a doctor, spends hours studying or collecting specimens for his experiments and talking to every class of person in the village more or less as an equal. But Pavel only sees a wilful destructiveness: everything from the younger man’s militant egalitarianism to his carelessness in dressing is anathema to the uber-correct ex-soldier, and he decides to have it out with him. He tries to prove to Bazarov that his Nihilism is a fad, one that has come and gone countless times in Europe. To Bazarov and, by implication, to Arkady, the argument is pointless. The older generation might try to hold back inevitable forces – Arkady gauchely lectures his uncle about it, as though Turgenev wants to illustrate how simplistic the arguments can become in these inter-generational conflicts – but the old men need to face it: they might as well give up. (In Bazarov’s version of things, anyone over 40 is old.)

It’s clear that neither side is going to shift the other, and the dinner comes to an end. Turgenev follows the various participants as they prepare for bed, or not. The interesting one seems to be Nikolai, outside the house and thinking about the idea, as presented by the young men, that nothing has any meaning. Despite not having the means to formulate any argument against it, he knows what he knows, knows it isn’t true. His fond memories of his marriage, the joy to be derived from surveying a beautiful scene like the beloved arbour he can see now seem to be Turgenev’s way of giving us a timely reminder of the hollowness of Bazarov’s glib materialism. But Nikolai’s marriage is only a memory and he has a new relationship now. He thinks about it, and is sure he doesn’t feel guilty about his thoughts as Fenichka comes out to speak to him. Later – or earlier – Pavel sees him, says he looks pale as a ghost and should be in bed. Nikolai, for reasons we can only guess at, is full of a sense of foreboding…. In this book it seems that most of the important matters are covered inside people’s heads. Nikolai’s unease over what is happening in his relationship with his son is standing for something much bigger that Turgenev is worrying away at: what should we believe? The young men might be going away for a while, but I’m guessing that the big questions aren’t.

17 October
Chapters 12-19
The next quarter, approximately, and… we need to talk about women. They’ve been important in the first quarter, but mainly in the sense that bad things that happen to men because of them. Once Turgenev takes Arkady and Bazarov to a town with a bit of society, he decides to hold up for scrutiny the changing attitudes to women and their rights. At first I wasn’t sure I could be bothered to piece together the historical background of whatever it is that’s concerning the Russian bourgeoisie. And, when ‘our friends’, as the author calls them, get to the provincial town of X we have to deal with Turgenev’s habit of satirising the petty snobberies and other absurdities of a society that lost all its battles a very long time ago.

But anyway. Once Turgenev moves the action to a new location, he likes to spend a few chapters there. In X we are shown a society struggling to come to terms with modern ideas that seem to have their origins somewhere very far away. With regard to everything from taste and social matters to science and philosophy the centres of gravity are in France or Germany, but there is also pride in being Russian. So one character’s choice of a jacket in the Slav style seems to represent a kind of statement – until we realise that the man, Sitnikov, is too empty-headed to have given it any thought beyond whether it flatters his figure or not.

Sitnikov is one of the people allocated to introduce Arkady and Bazarov to different strata of society in X – and it really does feel that carefully arranged as Turgenev has them meet, not quite by accident, on the street. They already have their entrées into high society at the governor’s ball later, having met the deputy governor, or whatever he is, in all his pomp and petty despotism. (One of the things Turgenev insists on poking fun at is the reluctance of those given any power at all to give up the old hierarchies, however ‘modern’ they pretend to be.) Now Sitnikov is there to show them – what? – a different stratum, represented by Madame Kukshina.

Sitnikov is proud of his contact with this free-thinking woman. In advance of the meeting – basically, they are going to cadge lunch and champagne off her – Bazarov is dismissive of the idea. One of his deep prejudices – it’s Turgenev’s joke that for a Nihilist, Bazarov is full of prejudices – is that women simply cannot think. His first response on hearing of her is to ask whether she is pretty – and when he hears that she isn’t, to ask Sitnikov what can be the point of meeting her. The lunch-party is not a success as Sitnikov does his best to show off his discovery’s charm and intellect while Bazarov concentrates only on the food and wine. Arkady… what? He says little, and we wonder whether he is in danger of becoming like the absurd Sitnikov, who idolises Bazarov without subjecting his ideas to any sort of examination. He just likes the idea of rejecting authority of any kind – except, of course, that represented by Bazarov. It turns him into a buffoon.

Madame Kukshina does not come out well. If Turgenev is sending us a message by way of the clothes she wears and the furnishings in her apartment – and such things definitely matter in this novel – it doesn’t bode well for her. She is rich, but affects a bohemian manner of carelessness over such things and plays a game of egalitarianism with the staff, so that the whole household just seems sloppy. Clearly, she isn’t going to be a major force in our friends’ lives, and her fate seems to be the one left alone. A chapter or two later, at the end of a ball where we meet the real contender in Turgenev’s scheme to make his readers think about women’s roles, we see how Madame Kukshina’s methods aren’t working for her. She is appalled – rightly, surely? – that her two new acquaintances have made no effort to speak to her or even show the merest politeness. And after dancing desultorily until four in the morning, she is the last to leave – and I wonder if Turgenev wants us to file this away somewhere safe, and means to punish the two men later for their boorishness.

The new character – Turgenev likes to add a new character to the mix from time to time – is the extraordinary Anna Odintsova. Arkady, only three or four years younger than she is, feels like the clumsy younger brother in her presence – which doesn’t stop him from talking to her for a full hour. Bazarov is sarcastic about the time his friend has spent with her. What else would he be? But he has noticed her as well, has noticed how fine her figure is even as he dismisses the idea that Arkady might have got anything interesting out of their conversation. And, when she invites them both to her big house 20 or 30 miles from X, he doesn’t refuse. She lives not far from his parents’ place, so he can pretend that it would almost be convenient to go. A couple of days later, that’s what they do.

She’s a rich widow. She married sensibly to get out of a dire family predicament – she makes it clear during the chapters we spend at her place that she has never been in love – and now she is very comfortable indeed. But unfulfilled. Ah. As soon as Arkady and Bazarov arrive there we know where this is going. And it goes there: after three or four chapters Bazarov, as self-consious and uncomfortable as he has ever been in his life, declares his love for her. He doesn’t want to, but she’s made him say it. There is – or isn’t, how would I know? – a misunderstanding between them, and he makes a lunge at her that she sees as entirely animal. She moves well away from him… but I’m jumping the gun a bit – it must be catching – and I need to rewind.

What’s to say? The two energetic, full-blooded young men arrive at what turns out to be a house of women – there’s also a younger sister, and an ancient aunt – and everything is the opposite of the carry-on at Madame K’s. It’s as well-ordered and stately as Odintsova herself. Turgenev usually refers to her by her surname alone, as though to signify – what? – her cool dignity. For Arkady, from the moment he first saw her at the ball, her statuesque grace makes her both utterly desirable and forever unattainable. But for him, Turgenev has provided a distraction: her sister Kitty, aged about eighteen. So if we discount the cantankerous old aunt – as all the others do – then there were four…

…and not one of them knows what they want. Odintsova has arranged her life around comforts and routines, and seems to have convinced herself that she is incapable of loving; Arkady is convinced that he is in love with her, and that while Kitty is an amiable companion – she is able to make him forget that Nihilists reject music along with all the other useless arts – that’s all she is. Kitty… well, we don’t know what she thinks – except that on the fateful night when the older ones are talking long into the night, well, she seems very content to carry on playing for Arkady. As it were. Which leaves Bazarov. He’s an idiot who doesn’t understand the first thing about the workings of – what? – anything. When he realises what has happened to him he denies it for as long as he can. What he doesn’t want to face up to, of course, is what we’ve known all along: every single one of his Nihilist theories is unsustainable in the real world.

That’s what these chapters set in the big house are all about: Turgenev makes his characters – especially Odintsova and Bazarov, because that’s whose company we’re in most of the time – begin to reach an understanding of things about themselves that they have always denied. The crisis is not resolved yet – we’re only half-way through the novel, for goodness’ sake – and Turgenev makes sure that everything is left up in the air by having Sitnikov invite himself to the house for what turns out to be the last evening of the visit. They treat him with their usual disdain, and next morning he returns to X to tell Mme Kukshina what terrible people they are while they relocate for the fourth time in the novel, this time to Bazarov’s parents’ place, so that Turgenev can get back to having a look at the other subject on the card: fathers and sons.

But I’m thinking how he’s left the question of women. We’ve had Nikolai’s loving first wife and dutiful young not-wife; the beautiful, passionate, spiritual, self-destructive woman who ruined Pavel’s life; Mme Kukshina, interested in science and art but, apparently, dismissed as irrelevant; Kitty, who doesn’t really count in Turgenev’s presentation of things; and the mould-breaking Odintsova, not only stately and beautiful but also intelligent and good enough in debates to seriously undermine everything Bazarov stands for. Fine. But to have made her so striking that both Arkady and Bazarov have to fall in love with her…. It seems a bit cheap.

21 October
Chapters 20-24…
…which might not sound much, but they’re long chapters taking up at least the next quarter of the novel. At first Turgenev carries on with the established pattern: he has us accompanying Arkady and Bazarov to the next location, where we meet some new characters and get to know them for a while… and then he stops doing that while he takes another look at established characters in new combinations.

The new location, of course, is Bazarov’s parents’ place. Vasily, Bazarov’s 62-year-old father, is a retired army doctor who has taken up farming. His wife Arina is the archetypal doting mother who seems to live for nothing but to see her son – the same son who, well in advance of the visit, has told Arkady it will be boring and that he won’t be staying long. And the visit goes as expected. Bazarov’s parents spend more than they can afford to make the visit pleasurable for their son and his friend, begin to make plans for what they might do over the next couple of weeks at least. And if Arina is a doting mother, well, Vasily is the proud father living through his son’s successes. When Arkady assures him that his son is a most remarkable man, will make a real mark on the world – however vague he is about what mark that might be – Vasily thanks him tearfully.

We know where this is going, even more certainly than we knew where the visit to Odintsova’s was going. There’s nothing at all to make Bazarov deviate from his self-absorbed purpose, and so after three days he’s planning to leave because, apparently, he can’t work at home, Thank you and goodbye. Except… as he and Arkady lie in the shade of a haystack on their last full day at the farm, Bazarov insults Pavel by calling him stupid. Arkady, who seems not to be so easily impressed by Bazarov as before – he’s no Sitnikov to fawn on every word he says – lets him know he isn’t going to accept this. Bazarov, in that mocking way he takes with more or less everybody, sneers at the family feeling his supposedly Nihilist friend is betraying. Arkady doesn’t back down, but is taken aback by the look of almost animal violence on Bazarov’s face. Being a bit of an animal is starting to be a habit with him, and only the unexpected appearance of Vasily stops a real fight.

The parents are so devastated that their son is leaving so soon – basically, he’s a coward and doesn’t mention it until the night before an early-morning start – that even he offers a concession, promising to return within a month. And after the young men have left, Turgenev stays with the parents for a while. To them it seems that just as the younger generation seem to be born to leave, it’s the role of the older generation to be left behind. At least they have each other, Vasily (I think) says consolingly. It isn’t enough – and Turgenev seems to be letting us know that this model of parenthood, in which all life and soul are poured into the children, is no less problematic than any other that we’ve seen.

Next. Turgenev allows Arkady a bit of independence, and the narrative begins to open out into different threads. The friends – if that’s what they still are – decide on a whim to take the road to Odintsova’s place. Bad move: Kitty is ill and unable to see them, and Odintsova looks highly uncomfortable. They pretend they were only going to stay a few hours anyway, then move on in near-silence to Maryino. There, Nikolai is finding it almost impossible to make his farming schemes work: he has no method for establishing new working practices for the freed serfs, seems to spend his time settling squabbles and not being helped at all by his bone-idle bailiff. Arkady makes a show of trying to help, but what can he do?

Return to Odintsova’s alone, that’s what he can do. Kitty is there, and blushes all over before taking him to see her sister. He tells Odintsova that he is bringing her something she doesn’t expect (eh? eh?), and she replies, before Turgenev teasingly draws down the curtain on the episode, ‘You’ve brought yourself; that’s better than anything else.’ My goodness.

Meanwhile…. Turgenev needs to move things on, not only with Bazarov but with two other characters. Fenichka, not much past twenty if I’ve got it right – feminist readers look away now – is doing what young women do: they ‘expand and blossom like summer roses.’ (I’m reminded of the dodgy narrator of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov – not actually Dostoevsky himself – who makes similarly blokeish references to women. I don’t know what Turgenev’s excuse is.) Bazarov has noticed this in her, and we know what he’s like. His first reference to Odintsova was that he’d heard, in my translation, that she is ‘Ooh-la-la’, and we remember him telling Sitnikov that he’s wasting their time introducing them to Mme Kukshina if she isn’t pretty.

So. The way he talks to Fenichka in the secluded arbour comes as no surprise. Except… gallantry fairly quickly morphs into something more serious. To her horror – at least, she appears to be genuinely horrified – he kisses her full on the lips. It’s a good job that Pavel is hanging about in the background, for reasons that we don’t know about yet. He gives a little cough, and the moment is over. Bazarov and Fenichka can’t even be sure he saw the kiss, but it’s the last time we see them alone together.

He did see the kiss, and seems disproportionately furious about it. After a tortured day and night (I think), he comes to see Bazarov. Reader, he challenges him to a duel. You can imagine the way that Bazarov attempts to mock this idea out of existence, but he fails to move Pavel and they agree to meet next morning at six. Pavel will bring the pistols… and, sure enough, next morning we have the duel between the man for whom all meaning drained out of life long ago and the man who affects to believe in nothing. Existentialist, or what?

Not really, Bazarov affects indifference, but he has spent a restless night and, on the day, makes sure he adds a couple of paces to the minimum they agreed. Pavel is the first to fire – and misses. Bazarov, not really taking aim, replies by giving him a flesh-wound in the leg. What happens next is a clue to the state that Pavel is in. He doesn’t lose much blood, but he very quickly loses consciousness. He revives, and is almost complimentary about Bazarov’s gentlemanly conduct in helping him. After some business – servant stupefied, Nikolai in a panic – he gets to bed. Obviously, Bazarov is going to have to go, but not until he’s looked after Pavel before another doctor can be called in. Ok.

And the final section of this chapter is all about Pavel. For a short while he’s delirious, seems to be confusing Fenichka with the woman who brought his world crashing down all those years ago. He sees a resemblance, seems angry at anyone who might attempt anything scandalous…. He doesn’t say anything to make Nikolai suspect, but when he’s more recovered he speaks to her. It’s as though he wants to settle any unfinished business. The duel didn’t do it, so he’s focusing on his family instead. His conversation with Fenichka convinces him that she will be a good and loving wife – so he has another conversation, with Nikolai, making him promise to marry her at last. That’s a good one: it was only Pavel’s aristocratic standpoint that was stopping him. Somehow, Pavel seems to be casting aside such petty things.

Can you see where this is going yet? I couldn’t, until Turgenev spells it out at the end of Chapter 24 – and I still had to read it two or three times: ‘his beautiful emaciated head lay on the white pillow like the head of a dead man…. And indeed he was a dead man.’ Well. If Pavel is another model of behaviour for the older generation – give up and die and don’t leave any kids – he’s not going to fit the bill any better than Vasily. It’s starting to look as though Nikolai might have to get his act together, or it’s going to be 3-nil.


Turgenev isn’t speaking literally: we find out later that Pavel isn’t dead, but might as well be. Glad to have got that one sorted out.

23 October
Chapter 25 to the end
No, Pavel isn’t the dead man. In the obligatory ‘where are they now?’ chapter at the end of the novel he’s in Dresden, living such a meaningless expat life that you can see exactly what Turgenev meant at the end of Chapter 24. Bazarov, on the other hand, isn’t leading any kind of life at all. Existentialist, or what?

No, not Existentialist. Not massively impressive either, in the end, as Turgenev seems to decide that what the second halves of novels need is plot. That’s what we get, anyway. We’re back with Arkady at Odintsova’s at the start of Chapter 25, and the big thing he’s got to say to the woman he loves. As we know from when we were last with them, he has something to give to Odintsova – I should really call her Anna Sergeyevna, because that’s what Turgenev always calls her now – and this turns out to be… the letters from her mother to his. Ah. He’d been making his father search for them before he left, so we should have seen that one coming. And, we realise, it’s only a pretext. He’s really there to propose to Katya which, despite overhearing Anna Sergeyevna saying that he’s the one she could love, is what he does. End of that particular thread.

The person Anna S is talking to is – guess – Bazarov. He’s there only to tell Arkady of the duel before he shoots off somewhere more important, but Odintsova hears he’s on the premises as asks him to stay. Good job he brought the right clothes with him, Turgenev mentions slyly…. In fact, just as before, author and reader understand his motives far better than he does himself. In their overheard conversation comes a little exchange in which Turgenev spells it out. Bazarov speaks first:
‘Who remembers them? And besides, love… surely it’s an imaginary feeling.”
‘Indeed? I am very pleased to hear that.’
Anna Sergeyevna expressed herself thus and so did Bazarov; they both thought they were speaking the truth. Was the truth, the whole truth, to be found in their words? They themselves did not know, much less could the author. But a conversation ensued between them, just as if they believed one another completely.
We’re getting near to the end of these threads too. Bazarov goes off to see his parents again, while Arkady seeks Odintseva’s permission to marry Katka. She is amazed, having told Bazarov she regards Arkady’s attachment to her sister as entirely brotherly, but says yes. That’s one thread tied off, near enough.

The next is to do with Bazarov and his parents. Reader, he tells them he is going to stay for six weeks and, after making them creep around him like mice while he concentrates on his studies for a week or two, he gets bored again – but stays and finds himself helping Vasily treat his patients. We begin to hope for a happy ending for the Bazarov family, and something approaching a kind of redemption for the prodigal son. As if. Turgenev obviously doesn’t think he deserves any such thing, has him cut himself while dealing with a patient suffering with typhus. The rest is history, and so is Bazarov. After the inevitable progress of the disease, including a day or two of illusory remission, he’s at death’s door. Who is he going to write to? Arkady? No, Arkady’s shown his true colours and Baz wants nothing to do with him. Guess who he has his father write to…. Anna S, of course, and she arrives with a top German doctor – who, inevitably, can do nothing for him. And that’s the end of that thread.

There’s only one thread left: the archetypal father and son, Nikolai and Arkady. In one sentence: Arkady comes to live at the farm and, together, they turn it into a going concern. Later, in the tying-up section, there’s a double wedding there. Meanwhile, Odintsova marries a man she doesn’t love, Pavel mooches around the spas of Europe like a lost soul, and Bazarov’s parents can be seen visiting well-tended grave and weeping.

So, how should we live? Damned if I know – and I’m damned if Turgenev knows either.


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