Thursday, March 1, 2012


Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Gogol and "The Art of Kissing" were recommended to me at Leigh's Favorite Books, as was "Hugo Cabret".

Turgenev's 4th period seems to me to be characterized by lengthy passages describing the physical landscape and the "externality" of his characters. The two stories I've read from this period are "The Singers" and "Bezhin Meadow", representing the end of this period of his work. Both have lengthy descriptions of the physical landscape and observations of nature, and I'll comment on this aspect with excerpts from "Bezhin".

In both these stories Turgenev writes lengthy descriptions of all the characters, minor and major. In fact, it is difficult to identify the major characters based on the length of the description (In "Singers", the innkeeper, Booby, Blinker, the wild gentleman, the Turk and the contractor all get equal descriptive time, in Bezhin, there are no main characters.), they become major only due to the percentage of the narrative that develops with them or that they drive. The character descriptions while quite detailed, are mostly "as they are right now", with very little back story or development. So one does not understand how the characters came to be the way they are, nor what motivates them to act the way they do.

This is in compete contrast to the rest of the stories in "First Love and other tales": Mumu, Assya, First Love, Clara Milich. (I am leaving out "Living Relics" as it seems to me to belong stylistically with "Singers" and "Bezhin".) In these latter, and later stories, Turgenev has fewer characters, spends a lot of time with his principal characters, and gives us their development: not just what they are now, but how they came to be that way, why they react, act or behave the way they do in his stories, going back in many cases to their childhoods and formative incidents in their lives.

Turgenev's approach to his characters in his 4th period may initially strike one as lazy. However, there is I think a higher principle at work, that of Truth. He, as the narrator, meets people for only a few hours, in situations that are mostly unusual and unfamiliar to the narrator, in which he also meets a lot of other people. He cannot honestly know which people will play narratively important roles in the future and become characters. He cannot "interview" the characters for their back story without dishonestly exploiting the situation in which he is casually meeting them for the first, and possibly last time. He can only listen when they tell him fragmented bits of their past that they deem important or worth sharing. He has to allow the conversation to flow, the lived events to transpire, tell them about himself, and himself be an actor in the situation.

Furthermore, he cannot honestly invent a fanciful, explanatory backstory for them. The rest of the backstory he could have made up made up is unknowable to him and would be the equivalent of untestable hypotheses. As a natural philosopher, as a scientist and observer of nature,  Turgenev gives us what he sees, that which he can reasonably deduce and defend, and little more.

In the end, Turgenev doesn't develop his characters for his readers, but he remains honest to the people he meets, who after all do not see themselves as characters in a Turgenev story.  Yes, I am in total sympathy with this Turgenev the writer, and for obvious reasons.

Observations of Nature by Turgenev

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