Saturday, May 1, 2010

Turgenev Unveils Trouble with Being a Father and Being a Son

Russian literature all day long. That's where we're at, again. Last time was Chekhov and now is Ivan Turgenev (next is Andrev Platonov, as I trek into the 20th century Russian lit milieu a bit).
(Further aside: The shrewd, discerning reader might note that I've read and reviewed Nabokov in between Chekhov and Turgenev, but I dunno, for some reason I can't help but classify Nabokov as something other than a Russian writer, something altogether different. Perhaps this is due to the nearly-his-entire-life of time he spent in places other than Russia?)

The funny thing about reading the writing of the Russian sort 19th-century-style is that you begin to get a sense of how the narrative voices seem to coalesce into one (although I suppose I might blame the blandness of the translations for it, can't be sure of that). Based on my interpretive experience, then, certain conventions of description seem to bind writers like Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol, Dostoevsky, and now, Turgenev -- although I don't doubt this might also be one interesting outcome of having a more or less homogeneous people with a shared history and culture, living in a given era, and all the baggage of that -- and which people of a more pluralistic society like ours here in the USofA might have a difficult time appreciating, though I do try. ( M over at Only Words to Play With has a better handle on stuff like this, I think, ethnography and s'orth; what with her seriously erudite analysis of Russian lit -- complete in one recent post with Gogol excerpts in the original Russian, which once again reminds me of how much I wish I spoke/read Russian.)

Let's begin analysis of "Fathers and Sons" with an exchange I was amused by. It's between Nikolai and Pavel, father and uncle respectively to Arkady, who is a friend of Bazarov the nihilist on whom the narrative is centered (the cold & clinical worldview of nihilism, then, at the heart of the novel's philosophical rumination).

Bazarov has just bested and superficially wounded Pavel in a duel (Symbolism!?!?), and Nikolai is rushing up to his brother, having only just been informed of their conflict by Piotr, a servant assigned the task of verifying the assent of both parties' involved in the event that one had been slain. Nikolai says, "But good heavens, you're bleeding!" To which Pavel sarcastically replies, "Did you think I had water in my veins?" HAHAHAHA! Hmmm, well I thought it was funny. Maybe this had something to do with timing in the context of the story. In fact that most definitely is so, which I would attribute to the aristocratic nature of the two characters, representing the land-owning class of feudal lords, who by Pavel's retort make a moment when anything is taken less than seriously very funny, and especially so in the ironically dire but not absolutely calamitous circumstance the outcome of the duel presents.

The point is, as becomes fairly clear early on and which I don't think was unintentional on the part of Turgenev, the landowners are a humorless group, Nikolai deferential and eager-to-please and Pavel aloof and mercurial. Also not coincidental, I should think, is Pavel's magnanimity and newfound respect for Bazarov after he shows himself to be "honorable" with his conduct during the duel.

It's clear that in "Fathers and Sons" we're talking generational gaps, of the divides that separate one generation from another, certainly, but it no doubt concerns that revolutionary spark chipped from flint and steel intellectuals who were growing dissatisfied with the status quo. Bazarov, for all of his many flaws, represents this proto-revolutionary. As Anna Odintsova quite nicely puts Bazarov's disposition and what it arouses in others when she says to him, "You mean you're leaving? Why don't you stay now? Stay . . . it's entertaining to talk to you. It's like walking on the edge of a precipice. At first one's timid, and then one gets courage from somewhere. Stay."

Bazarov might have the right idea about the inefficacy of a society that relies solely on the mores of the past in dictating contemporary behavior, but his acerbic bent isn't exactly the best way to win friends, not that that's what he's after, much the same as a petulant child's not, though. Don't agree? Your prerogative, of course, but I think the forthcoming exchange between Arkady and Bazarov nicely illustrates the depths of the his loathing, and his inability to concede that a part of him wants what others want, too, despite its leaden traditionalism. Their exchange goes as follows, beginning with Arkady remarking about his own decision to wed Katya, Anna's younger sister, and his awareness of what Bazarov must think of his doing so:

"[B]ut why are you being crafty yourself and saying, 'It's a good thing,' as if I weren't aware of your opinion of marriage?"

"Ah, my good friend!" Bazarov said; "the things you say! You see what I'm doing: there was an empty space left in the trunk which I'm filling with hay; that's how it is in our life's baggage; no matter what we stuff it with, it's better than having an empty space."

I consider Bazarov's relationship with his parents, to which I think he plays the paradoxical role of being both a metaphorical father and a literal son, the primary impetus and emotional heart of the story. Bazarov's mother and father, Arina and Vassily, go to great pains to please him, and wish only for his approval so that he might stay near to them, as he has shown a wayward desire to globe-trot after being away from them for a full three full years upon his homecoming put forth in the story. Why anyone would want the choleric Bazarov kept so close is a mystery to me, but his parents do, nonetheless. In their eyes he represents all that is promise.

His father, even when condescended to, is described thus, "Bazarov's jeering did not disturb Vassily Ivanovich in the least; it was even a comfort to him." Vassily is enamored by every feat of Bazarov's, similar in his effusive praise as the first-time parents of a newborn. After Bazarov, a doctor by trade, had removed the aching tooth of a traveling cloth peddler, his tooth being described by the narrator as "average in every respect," Vassily takes possession of the tooth and remarks to a friend, Father Aleksei, "Look at that root! What strength Yevgeny has! The merchant shot up in the air . . . I think even an oak would have flown right out!" To which Father Aleksei responds, "Remarkable!" -- though the narrator adds, "Father Aleksei said at last, not knowing what to answer or how to get away from the ecstatic old man."

(SPOILER ALERT) Vassily and Arina's love and devotion for their son is so clearly and artfully brought to bear that it makes the tragedy of Bazarov's death about as heart-rending for me as stories get. Every scene depicting Vassily father aiming to please but being met with Bazarov's temper is difficult in its own right. What's more, Bazarov visits with his family twice in the novel. The first time he arrives with Arkady, but feels he can get no work done with his father and mother overeagerly fussing over him, and takes leave abruptly after only a short three-day stay. As you might guess, this leaves the elder Bazarovs devastated. When he returns the second time, they have resolved -- Vassily in particular -- to be no burden to him, although they find that a difficult thing to achieve, since they care so fully for him. The worst happens when Bazarov is exposed to typhus, and rapidly he deteriorates to death.

The philosophical transcendence Bazarov undergoes on his deathbed notwithstanding, which I admit I could probably write a whole new post on just that, Bazarov's parents' loss provides epitaph to "Fathers and Sons." Describing the fenced off area within which Bazarov is buried and visited by his bereaved parents the narrator says, "[T]hey go up to the fence, fall on their knees, and kneeling, cry endlessly and bitterly, and look endlessly and intensely at the mute stone under which lies their son." Which is obviously not so peachy. But the narrator offers a solace to them and their plight, saying also:

But can their prayers, their tears be fruitless? Can love, holy, dedicated love not be all-powerful? Oh no! However passionate, sinful and rebellious the heart hidden in that grave may be, the flowers growing on it look at us undisturbed with their innocent eyes; they do not speak to us of eternal peace alone, of that supreme peace of the "impassive universe"; they also speak of eternal reconciliation and eternal life.
Pure poetry.

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