Russians redux

Two more Russians from the TBR!

On the Eve, by Ivan Turgenev, transl. Michael Pursglove (1860 [2017]). Evidently one of Turgenev’s least successful novels, and I can sort of see why. Based on a story given to him by a young soldier of his acquaintance who thought he was about to die in the Crimea, it reminded me structurally of Tolstoy’s Resurrection: the bit of the plot that ought to be the most interesting occurs right at the end and gets virtually no development. Insarov, a Bulgarian fighting for the liberation of his homeland from the Ottoman Turks, captures the heart of young and idealistic Yelena; she leaves home, family, and two suitors (the irrepressible sculptor Shubin and the studious Berzyenev) to secretly marry Insarov. They travel to western Europe and try to return to Bulgaria when full-scale war breaks out, but Insarov dies of complications from pneumonia in Venice. Yelena vows to carry on his life’s work, becomes a nurse with the Sisters of Mercy, writes a farewell letter to her family, and disappears. Those last two sentences take about three chapters to wrap up and form something of an epilogue to the main action of the book, which is much more fully involved in the development of Yelena’s and Insarov’s love for each other, often focalised through the eyes of the sympathetic and devoted Berzyenev. Why?! The romance-of-manners is an infinitely less interesting, potential-filled story than that of Yelena’s independent choice, flight, and life after widowhood. If the novel had started with their arrival in Venice, or just before, it could have been something genuinely extraordinary. It’s hard not to shake the suspicion that Turgenev doesn’t do that because he can’t conceive of a woman as the avowed hero of a story (despite the fact that most critics, at the time of its publication, recognised Yelena as more interesting by far than Insarov). The first disappointment I’ve had with Turgenev’s work, which in itself says a lot about the usual quality of his writing.

Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, by Anton Chekhov, transl. Ronald Hingley (OWC edition 1998). My first Chekhov collection, but it won’t be my last. The translation by Ronald Hingley is brilliant: spirited, vivid, idiomatic, it makes all of the characters feel immediate. (His introduction is a bit weird; a lot of the page count is spent defending Chekhov against charges of political apathy, which feels a bit like academic bee-bonnet-having.) Of course, Chekhov’s writing is largely responsible for that immediacy, too: he’s so efficient, without ever giving the impression of thinness or underdevelopment. “The Butterfly” and “Ariadne” both have a faintly misogynistic flavour to them, about shallow women who desire only admiration and who ruin good men, but other tales—”A Dreary Story”, “An Anonymous Story”, and “Neighbours” in particular—show women in a more complex and human light. Men, particularly educated men, in these stories come off poorly: the doctor-narrator of a “A Dreary Story”, who is dying, cannot connect with his emotions enough to show his foster-daughter Katya the love he really feels; the would-be revolutionary assassin in “An Anonymous Story” bottles his task (though more out of an excess of humanity than out of any character failing, I think); the protagonist of “Neighbours” is stymied by his sister’s calm determination to live with a married man. “Ward No. 6”, which gives the collection its title, is a fantastically effective story of another doctor, Ragin, whose philosophical indifference to life gives way almost immediately when he experiences genuine trouble and suffering, and the so-called madman, Ivan Gromov, who both diagnoses Ragin’s spiritual failing and outlives him. “Doctor Startsev” ends the collection on a rather sad note of provinciality and wasted opportunity, in which a local doctor’s proposal of marriage is rejected by a woman ambitious to become a professional musician; several years later, she has changed her mind, but by then it’s too late for both of them. These characters and their voices felt the most real, in their strangeness, of almost any Russian writers’ that I’ve read so far. The world doesn’t need me to tell it that Chekhov’s reputation is well deserved, but, for what it’s worth, it totally is.


10 thoughts on “Russians redux

  1. I’ve only read a few of Chekhov’s short stories, but (unsurprisingly) they were all excellent and so brilliantly observed. I can definitely relate to the sense of immediacy you describe here!

    1. Absolutely super. This was one I got from an Oxfam and there were several other Chekhov short story volumes there, but I didn’t get them (in case I didn’t like this one). Kicking myself now!

    1. Yeah, hundreds and hundreds of stories! I’ve so far gotten on very well with Turgenev, and when he’s great, he’s great, but this feels like a missed opportunity (does anyone write Russian classic lit fanfic…?)

      1. I’ve never seen or read any Chekhov plays, but definitely would rather see them than read them (as is the case with most plays, really).

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