25 January 2007

Book Review: Fathers and Sons by Ivan S. Turgenev

Winter Classics Reading Challenge #2

Fathers and Sons The titular characters are minor landowner Nikolai Petrovitch Kirsanov and country doctor Vasili Ivanitch Barazov, and their respective offspring Arkady and Evgenii. The latter two serve as the link between the two families, having become friends at the university. Through the course of the novel, the two friends travel around the mid-nineteenth-century Russian countryside, visiting each other’s family as well as various acquaintances. At first glance it might seem that very little happens, but this is deceptive; much of the plot’s action takes place within and between the characters, with little input from outside events. Obviously there are the two father-son relationships, with the inevitable clashes between the generations; as well as the other members of the Kirsanov household, Bazarov’s doomed relationship with Anna Sergievna, and Arkady’s luckier one with her sister Katia.

In spite of the title, the greatest changes occur between the two young friends. At the start of the novel, Arkady is very much in awe of the older man and aspires to imitate all of his Nihilist views, unaware how little such philosophy actually suits him. By book’s end he has effectively grown up - developed into his own person. Even Bazarov steps down from his pedestal before the end. Turgenev manages to make their growing apart seem inevitable and necessary rather than something to be regretted.

The title is actually somewhat inapt; the story spends far more time with the Kirsanovs than with the Bazarovs, perhaps because there are more of the former. Their household includes Nikolai’s mistress Thenichka and their son, and Arkady’s uncle Paul Petrovitch, who uses his coldness to conceal a broken heart of the kind that he will do anything to save his brother from experiencing. Although really a secondary character, he was my favourite.

All the characters were very well-drawn, which I think added to the intimate, almost insular feel of the novel. Its entire content is the shifting relationships between a smallish group of people and covers a restricted geographical space, and after finishing it I couldn’t help thinking of a miniature painting: Fine detail, delicate portraits, all contained in a limited area. Either that, or self-contained world within a snow dome. I’m not sure why this should be the case, as plenty of novels feature limited numbers of characters and settings and don’t produce this impression. And in this novel, those characters had pasts and futures, some in places beyond the range of the novel itself. Perhaps the snow-dome effect is due in part to the dashes of authorial intrusion, which sets the reader another step back from the characters. Instead of viewing them directly, I was seeing them through Turgenev.

The only thing really not to like about this book was the recurring discussions about political and philosophical views. Philosophy having fallen off the education department’s radar, and politics being something I’ve managed to avoid learning much about, this could get tedious, and a little confusing. I found myself wondering if it was possible to find a classic Russian novel the didn’t feel the need to drag in philosophy and politics. Other than these dull bits, Fathers and Sons was charming, albeit slow-moving.

Rating: B-

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776