Turgenev: Fathers & Sons

November 17, 2013

I’ve been re-reading this ready for the next meeting of a Russian literature group to which I belong. I have read quite widely (I think) in Russian literature; it’s very different, often obscure and challenging, and always an insight into another society and culture far removed from our own. Sometimes I gain insights into my own past family history, too.

It’s remarkable how different nineteenth century Russian novels and novelists were from the English ones we read today: no Jane Austens, Brontes, Eliots, and the themes wide in scope, philosophical, with an awareness, it seems, on the part of many writers that things could not go on much longer as they were, that major societal upheaval was on the cards, and this a couple of generations before the 1917 revolutions.

We see the generations of Russian aristocrats and peasants trapped in their traditional roles and behaviours, or trying to be a little bit different and usually failing, and the nihilist Bazarov is a breath of fresh air against this background. However, he reminded me, in his behaviour and approach, of the twentieth century existentialists, who also did not seem to be offering a terribly attractive alternative way of living one’s life, and who have also faded into obscurity. I like Bazarov: he’s a fore-runner of a different way of being, and at least really struggling with the contradictions of his times and himself.

The subtle interplay of the generations (see the title of the novel) is well done; Turgenev draws the reader to see the similarities and differences between them, and perhaps reflect on this interplay in her/his own life, what things change and which remain the same, passed unconsciously down through time. Class differences, too, are revealed – Bazarov’s origins are very different from his friend’s…

And I’m left with the question (often the same one at the end of many Russian novels) ‘what is this writer saying, in the end?’ Are we prisoners of our pasts, doomed to repeat usque ad infinitum, or can there be another way?

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