A sort of spiritual hush has come upon me since I moved in here; I don't want to do anything, I don't want to see anyone, there's nothing to dream about, I'm too idle to have ideas - but I'm not too idle to think: these are two different things, as you know very well yourself. Memories of childhood crowded in on me at first... wherever I went, whatever I looked at, they rose up from all sides, clear, clear to the tiniest details, and seemingly fixed in their sharp definition... Then these memories were replaced by others, then... then I gradually turned away from the past, and there only remained a sort of drowsy weight in my breast. Imagine! Sitting on a weir underneath a willow tree, all of a sudden I unexpectedly burst out crying.
The much-delayed second instalment of my Russian Reading Challenge list was the beautifully-packaged Hesperus volume, Faust, containing a pair of novellas - 'Faust' (1956) and 'Yakov Pasynkov' (1855) - by Ivan Turgenev (1818-83).
[For reference, Faust, italicised, will be used to refer to the volume as a whole, and 'Faust' for the individual novella.]
Turgenev is probably best known today for his excellent novel Fathers and Sons (1862), which explores and humanises contemporary divisions in political and social attitudes through the conflict between progressive/"nihilist" young Bazarov and his traditionalist father. (Parents thinking their children are hooligans lacking proper values and respect, and children thinking their parents are so boring and behind the times: one of the oldest stories in the world?) Turgenev was himself politically engaged, being a passionate opponent of serfdom - driven in part by guilt, perhaps, since he was born into a wealthy, landowning family. In the repressive political climate of the early 1850s, his writing on the latter subject forced him into exile in Europe, although ultimately his words apparently contributed to the Tsar's decision to abolish serfdom, in 1861. (I suspect that Russian writers getting exiled, for one reason or another, is likely to be an overarching theme of these posts...)
Turgenev came increasingly to admire Europe - he had also been a student in Berlin - and spent much of his later life there, often in the company of his long-time paramour, the actress Pauline Viardot (he never married). This stance was a source of tension in his relationships with his author-contemporaries like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, who considered Turgenev to be overly enamoured of Western ways. Both of the stories in Faust come from this turbulent period of Turgenev's life, surrounding his exile and return. Both of them have rather melancholic overtones, and each is deeply engaged with Western European - particularly German - literature, in variously referential (in 'Faust') or thematic (in 'Yakov Pasynkov') ways.
'Faust' is told through a series of letters, written by one Pavel Alexandrovich, a middle-aged scholar returned to his rural childhood home and duly wallowing in a mixture of nostalgia and lofty smugness, to his friend Semyon Nikolayich. While Pavel clearly now considers himself an educated urban sophisticate, risen above his origins, his return home re-opens old wounds, and his narrative is - as the quotation at the top of this post shows - if not quite artless then certainly open about his emotional vulnerabilities.
The most difficult of these old wounds, it turns out, is a remembered (and soon rekindled) childhood crush, whose object, Vera Nikolayevna, remains in the area and is now married with children. In his introduction, translator Hugh Aplin comments that Pavel's feelings probably reflect Turgenev's own, since at the time of writing he, too, had just returned to the scene of an old, doomed love affair (with Tolstoy's sister). Pavel recalls - in typically solipsistic style - how, as a youth, he became aware of his feelings, and how her mother, Yeltsova, put him off:
Finally, one morning, everything suddenly became clear to me. "What more I am to seek?" I thought. "Where am I to aspire? After all, the truth is hard to come by. Wouldn't I do better to stay here and get married?" And just imagine, this idea of marriage didn't scare me at all at the time. On the contrary, I was glad of it. Moreover, that same day I announced my intention, only not to Vera Nikolayevna, as might have been expected, but to Yeltsova herself. The old woman looked at me.
"No, my dear," she said, "you go to Berlin, do a little damage to yourself. You're kind; but a different sort of husband is needed for Vera."
I dropped my eyes, blushed, and, what will probably surprise you still more, inwardly concurred with Yeltsova straight away. I left a week later.
(As an aside, I do find the tendency of Turgenev's male protagonists, in both these novellas, to blush and cry and otherwise be demonstrative about their emotions quite fascinating; I wonder whether this is a reflection of different cultural gender norms, or another sign of how Romanticism influenced the author - on which more below - or both?)
The formidable Yeltsova, dead by the time of Pavel's return, overshadows the story in more ways than one:
In the drawing-room above the sofa hangs a portrait of that strange woman, amazingly like her. I was struck by it as soon as I went in. She seemed to be looking at me sternly and carefully. We sat ourselves down, reminisced about the old days, and little by little our conversation developed. I kept on involuntarily glancing at the gloomy portrait of Yeltsova. Vera Nikolayevna sat directly beneath it: that's her favourite place.
Vera's choice of seat is, of course, representative of how her mother has shaped her life and continued to do so. Growing up, Vera was forbidden to read any work of fiction, since Yeltsova
feared like the devil anything that might affect the imagination; and so her daughter, right up to the age of seventeen, had not read a single story, nor a single poem, whereas in geography, history and even in natural history she would quite often have me stumped - me, a graduate, and quite a good one, as you perhaps recall.
When Pavel meets Vera again in adulthood, he finds that she has continued to abide by her mother's preferences (because, she says, she believes that "'everything Mother did, everything she said, was the truth, the holy truth'"), and still has not read "'these invented works'". There is also a strong suggestion that being a wife and mother has left Vera with no space in her life for the luxury of reading, but naturally the unattached Pavel refuses to countenance this. He tells her, "'I'm convinced you're depriving yourself of the purest, most legitimate pleasure.'"
Before long - with her husband's indulgent blessing - Pavel cajoles her into reading both poetry and prose, including Goethe's Faust. Vera drinks it all in, and Pavel finds his appreciation for great writing boosted, and altered, by the fresh insight she brings. He, of course, trots out all the misogynistic cliches of his time, writing rapturously of her "innocence of a child [...] and an innate feeling for beauty", her "feminine charm" like "the white wings of an angel", and glossing their relationship as one in which he is"educating" her, and she changing him "without noticing it herself" - since a woman can only be edifying to a man through her purity of spirit, never through conscious intelligence, of course.
Although new worlds of imagination, aesthetics, and possibilities now open up to Vera, the emotional strain of all that Romanticism - and repressed romance with Pavel - takes a toll; Vera becomes "pale almost to the point of transparency [...] tried, inwardly disturbed" (something Pavel finds immensely "pretty") and suffers languidly:
"I've been awake all night," she told me. "I've got a headache; I came out into the air - perhaps it will pass."
"Surely it's not because of yesterday's reading?" I asked.
"Of course; I'm not used to it. In that book of yours there are things I simply can't escape from; I think they're what is burning my head so," she added, putting her hand to her forehead.
"That's splendid," I said, "but this is the bad part: I'm afraid this insomnia and headache might dispel your desire to read such things."
"Do you think so?" she said, and, in passing, broke off a wild jasmine twig. "God knows! It seems to me that anyone who once steps onto this road will never turn back."
Pavel is too self-absorbed, and too smitten ("How wretched I am! How I love her!" he writes), to see the warning signs; he is, moreover, undergoing a something of a mental paradigm shift of his own. Just as Vera finds new access to emotion through the imaginary, so Pavel discovers that there's nothing quite like the real thing:
Manon Lescauts, Fretillons - these were my idols. Such idols are easily smashed; but now... only now have I learned what it means to fall in love with a woman. I feel ashamed even to talk about it; but it is so. I feel ashamed... Love is, after all, egotism.
Like any good tortured Romantic hero, Pavel produces plenty of anguished tears and overwrought commentary (again, note the interestingly gendered gestures of emotion here):
I cannot re-read this letter; it has been torn from me involuntarily, like a groan. I cannot add anything, relate anything... Give me time: I'll come to my senses, take a hold on my soul, I'll speak to you like a man, but now I should like to lean my head on your breast and...
Naturally, the whole thing is palely doomed from the start, and the crisis point proves suitably melodramatic. One evening, the pair share a kiss ("our first and our last"), only for Vera to leap away "with an expression of horror in her widened eyes", having seen (imagined) a vision of her mother in her moment of bliss. She duly falls ill and wastes away, while Pavel angsts about - further adventures in solipsistic misogynistic cliche! - the fact that Vera was a "precious" vessel that he has "thoughtlessly" broken. (I was put in mind of nice, noble, strangleable Angel Clare in Tess of the D'Urbervilles.) Nineteenth century love, eh?
'Faust' is a rich, lucid example of its type that, in this reader's opinion, works all the better for being so short; it is much easier to appreciate and enjoy such intense, self-centred emotion when it is fleeting. The second novella, 'Yakov Pasynkov', packs a similar amount of compressed sensibility into its even briefer page count. The title character here is equally moved by poetry, but in a very different way than Pavel, even if the outcome of his tale is no less unhappy.
In the terminology of Turgenev's later essay 'Hamlet and Don Quixote' (1860), Pasynkov is the sincere, idealistic idiot savant - "ever cheerful in spirit" - to the brooding, self-absorbed Hamlet of the narrator (and of Pavel in 'Faust'). Again, in 'Yakov Pasynkov', the motive and emotive power of literature in the characters' lives is central, as is the nostalgic weight of the past and of lost youth; furthermore, a minor theme of 'Faust', that of the conflict between love and duty, between the individual and wider society, receives much greater attention. As Sofia, object of the narrator's thwarted affections, put it near the end:
"Our life does not depend on us; but we all of us have one anchor, from which, unelss you yourself wish it, you will never break away: a sense of duty."
Most of the story is taken up with an interlinked series of disastrous romantic tangles - everyone loves the wrong person, every misses opportunities through chance or others' deceit, etc. - that are greeted with the expected anguish and longing. But arguably the central love story of the piece, just like its thematically-contrasting personalities, lies between the title character and the unnamed narrator.
Pasynkov has been a dearly-loved and much-admired friend of our impetuous narrator since the pair were students together at a German-run boarding school. One day in their teenage years, out in the garden under the lilac bush, Pasynkov won the narrator's heart - I use the phrase advisedly - by reading him some of Schiller's poetry:
From that day, from that very reading, alone together in the garden in the shade of the lilac, I came to love Pasynkov with all my soul, became good friends with him and subordinated myself to him completely.
If Pavel is given to rapture when describing Vera in 'Faust', he has nothing on the narrator's extravagant infatuation for Pasynkov. One passage particularly struck me, both for how it conveys the transcendent power of reading (or hearing), and for, once again, the overtly 'feminine'-coded - that is, written in the mooning, swooning way that women are conventionally portrayed in such stories - response of the male narrator to the one who excites his admiration. It is worth quoting at length, I think:
But it was a particular joy for me to go for a walk alone with him or to pace up and down the room beside him as, without a glance at me, he recited poetry in his soft and focused voice. It truly seemed to me then that he and I were slowly, little by little, becoming detached from the earth and carried away somewhere, to some radiant, mysterious wonderland... I remember one evening. He and I were sitting under the same lilac bush: we had come to love that spot. All our fellows were already asleep, but we had got up quietly, fumbled our way into our clothes in the darkness and stolen outside 'to dream a little'. It was quite warm outside, but a fresh breeze blew at times and made us huddle still closer to one another. We talked, we talked a great deal and with fervour, so that we even interrupted each other, although we did not argue. Countless stars shone in the sky. Yakov raised his eyes and, gripping my hand, exclaimed softly:
Heaven and the stars eternal...
And then above the stars their Maker...'
A reverential tremor ran through me; I turned quite cold and fell onto his shoulder... My heart was overflowing...
All this is seen, undoubtedly, through the rose-tinted gaze of a middle-aged man recalling the intensities of adolescence from the perspective of a jaded, stunted middle age. But as a portrait of a friendship - and, arguably, something more - it is a beautiful piece of writing and much more compelling than any of the other supposedly romantic attachments in the story. That Pasynkov's charismatic idealism cannot long survive the rigours of the real, adult world will come as no surprise to anyone, I'm sure; while he remains cheerful to the end, end he does - in a high fever Romantic manner.