An Outline of Russian Literature
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In Russia, Turgenev’s work recovered from the unpopularity caused by his Fathers and Sons when Nihilism became a thing of the past, and revolution took an entirely different shape; but, with the growing up of new generations, his popularity suffered in a different way and for different reasons. A new element came into Russian literature with Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and later with Gorky, and Turgenev’s work began to seem thin and artificial beside the creations of these stronger writers; but in Russia, where Turgenev’s work has the advantage of being read in the original, it had an asset which ensured it a permanent and safe harbour, above and beyond the fluctuations of literary taste, the strife of political parties, and the conflict of social ideals; and that was its art, its poetry, its style, which ensured it a lasting and imperishable niche among the great classics of Russian literature. And there it stands now. Turgenev’s work in Russia is no longer disputed or a subject of dispute. It is taken for granted; and, whatever the younger generation will read and admire, they will always read and admire Turgenev first. His work is a necessary part of the intellectual baggage of any educated man and, especially, of the educated adolescent.
The position of Tennyson in England offers in a sense a parallel to that of Turgenev in Russia. Tennyson, like Turgenev, enjoyed during his lifetime not only the popularity of the masses, but the appreciation of all that was most eclectic in the country. Then a reaction set in. Now I believe the young generation think nothing of Tennyson at all. And yet nothing is so sure as his permanent place in English literature; and that permanent place is secured to him by his incomparable diction. So it is with Turgenev. One cannot expect the younger generation to be wildly excited about Turgenev’s ideas, characters, and problems. They belong to an epoch which is dead. At the same time, one cannot help thinking that the most advanced of the symbolist writers would not have been sorry had he happened by chance to write Bezhin Meadow and the Poems in Prose. Just so one cannot help thinking that the most modern of our poets, had he by accident written The Revenge or Tears, Idle Tears, would not have thrown them in the fire!
There is, indeed, something in common between Tennyson and Turgenev. They both have something mid-Victorian in them. They are both idyllic, and both of them landscape-lovers and lords of language. They neither of them had any very striking message to preach; they both of them seem to halt, except on rare occasions, on the threshold of passion; they both of them have a rare stamp of nobility; and in both of them there is an element of banality. They both seem to a certain extent to be shut off from the world by the trees of old parks, where cultivated people are enjoying the air and the flowers and the shade, and where between the tall trees you get glimpses of silvery landscapes and limpid waters, and soft music comes from the gliding boat.Of course, there is more than this in Turgenev, but this is the main impression.
Pathos he has, of the finest, and passion he describes beautifully from the outside, making you feel its existence, but not convincing you that he felt it himself; but on the other hand what an artist he is! How beautifully his pictures are painted; and how rich he is in poetic feeling!
Turgenev is above all things a poet. He carried on the work of Pushkin, and he did for Russian prose what Pushkin did for Russian poetry; he created imperishable models of style. His language has the same limpidity and absence of any blur that we find in Pushkin’s work. His women have the same crystal radiance, transparent simplicity, and unaffected strength; his pictures of peasant life, and his country episodes have the same truth to nature; as an artist he had a severe sense of proportion, a perfect purity of outline, and an absolute harmony between the thought and the expression. Now that modern Europe and England have just begun to discover Dostoyevsky, it is possible that a reaction will set in to the detriment of Turgenev. Indeed, to a certain extent this reaction has set in in Western Europe, as M. Haumant, one of Turgenev’s ablest critics and biographers, pointed out not long ago. And, as the majority of Englishmen have not the advantage of reading him in the original, they will be unchecked in this reaction, if it comes about, by their appreciation of what is perhaps most durable in his work. Yet to translate Turgenev adequately, it would require an English poet gifted with a sense of form and of words as rare as that of Turgenev himself. However this may be, there is no doubt about the importance of Turgenev in the history of Russian literature, whatever the future generations in Russia or in Europe may think of his work. He was a great novelist besides being a great poet. Certainly he never surpassed his early Sportsman’s Sketches in freshness of inspiration and the perfection of artistic execution.
His Bezhin Meadow, where the children tell each other bogey stories in the evening, is a gem with which no other European literature has anything to compare. The Singers, Death, and many others are likewise incomparable. The Nest of Gentlefolk, to which Turgenev owed his great popularity, is quite perfect of its kind, with its gallery of portraits going back to the eighteenth century and to the period of Alexander I; its lovable, human hero Lavretsky, and Liza, a fit descendant of Pushkin’s Tatiana, radiant as a star. All Turgenev’s characters are alive; but, with the exception of his women and the hero of Fathers and Sons, they are alive in bookland rather than in real life.
George Meredith’s characters, for instance, are alive, but they belong to a land or rather a planet of his own making, and we should never recognize Sir Willoughby Patterne in the street, but we do meet women sometimes who remind us of Clara Middleton and Carinthia Jane. The same is true with regard to Turgenev, although it is not another planet he created, but a special atmosphere and epoch to which his books exclusively belong, and which some critics say never existed at all. That is of no consequence. It exists for us in his work.
But perhaps what gave rise to accusations of unreality and caricature against Turgenev’s characters, apart from the intenser reality of Tolstoy’s creations, by comparison with which Turgenev’s suffered, was that Turgenev, while professing to describe the present, and while believing that he was describing the present, was in reality painting an epoch that was already dead. Rudin, Smoke, and On the Eve have suffered more from the passage of time. Rudin is a pathetic picture of the type that Turgenev was so fond of depicting, the g?nie sans portefeuille, a latter-day Hamlet who can only unpack his heart with words, and with his eloquence persuade others to believe in him, and succeed even in persuading himself to believe in himself, until the moment for action comes, when he breaks down. The subjects of Smoke and Spring Waters are almost identical; but, whereas Spring Waters is one of the most poetical of Turgenev’s achievements, Smoke seems to-day the most banal, and almost to deserve Tolstoy’s criticism: “In Smoke there is hardly any love of anything, and very little pity; there is only love of light and playful adultery; and therefore the poetry of that novel is repulsive.” On the Eve, which tells of a Bulgarian on the eve of the liberation of his country, suffers from being written at a time when real Russians were hard at work at that very task; and it was on this account that the novel found little favour in Russia, as the fiction paled beside the reality.
It was followed by Turgenev’s masterpiece, for which time can only heighten one’s admiration. Fathers and Sons is as beautifully constructed as a drama of Sophocles; the events move inevitably to a tragic close. There is not a touch of banality from beginning to end, and not an unnecessary word; the portraits of the old father and mother, the young Kirsanov, and all the minor characters are perfect; and amidst the trivial crowd, Bazarov stands out like Lucifer, the strongest – the only strong character – that Turgenev created, the first Nihilist – for if Turgenev was not the first to invent the word, he was the first to apply it in this sense.
Bazarov is the incarnation of the Lucifer type that recurs again and again in Russian history and fiction, in sharp contrast to the meek humble type of Ivan Durak. Lermontov’s Pechorin was in some respects an anticipation of Bazarov; so were the many Russian rebels. He is the man who denies, to whom art is a silly toy, who detests abstractions, knowledge, and the love of Nature; he believes in nothing; he bows to nothing; he can break, but he cannot bend; he does break, and that is the tragedy, but, breaking, he retains his invincible pride, and and he dies “valiantly vanquished.”
In the pages which describe his death Turgenev reaches the high-water mark of his art, his moving quality, his power, his reserve. For manly pathos they rank among the greatest scenes in literature, stronger than the death of Colonel Newcome and the best of Thackeray. Among English novelists it is, perhaps, only Meredith who has struck such strong, piercing chords, nobler than anything in Daudet or Maupassant, more reserved than anything in Victor Hugo, and worthy of the great poets, of the tragic pathos of Goethe and Dante. The character of Bazarov, as has been said, created a sensation and endless controversy. The revolutionaries thought him a caricature and a libel, the reactionaries a scandalous glorification of the Devil; and impartial men such as Dostoyevsky, who knew the revolutionaries at first hand, thought the type unreal. It is possible that Bazarov was not like the Nihilists of the sixties; but in any case as a figure in fiction, whatever the fact may be, he lives and will continue to live.
In Virgin Soil, Turgenev attempted to paint the underground revolutionary movement; here, in the opinion of all Russian judges, he failed. The revolutionaries considered their portraits here more unreal than that of Bazarov; the Conservatives were grossly caricatured; the hero Nezhdanov was a type of a past world, another Rudin, and not in the least like – so those who knew them tell us – the revolutionaries of the day. Solomin, the energetic character in the book, was considered as unreal as Nezhdanov. The wife of the reactionary Sipyagin is a pastiche of the female characters of that type in his other books; cleverly drawn, but a completely conventional book character. The redeeming feature in the book is Mariana, the heroine, one of Turgenev’s finest ideal women; and it is full, of course, of gems of descriptive writing. The book was a complete failure, and after this Turgenev went back to writing short stories. The result was a great disappointment to Turgenev, who had thought that, by writing a novel dealing with actual life, he would please and reconcile all parties. To this later epoch belong his matchless Poems in Prose, one of the latest melodies he sounded, a melody played on one string of the lyre, but whose sweetness contained the essence of all his music.
Turgenev’s work has a historic as well as an artistic value. He painted the Russian gentry, and the type of gentry that was disappearing, as no one else has done. His landscape painting has been dwelt on; one ought, perhaps, to add that, beautiful as it is, it still belongs to the region of conventional landscape painting; his landscape is the orthodox Russian landscape, and is that of the age of Pushkin, in which no bird except a nightingale is mentioned, no flower except a rose. This convention was not really broken in prose until the advent of Gorky.
Reviewing Turgenev’s work as a whole, any one who goes back to his books after a time, and after a course of more modern and rougher, stormier literature, will, I think, be surprised at its excellence and perhaps be inclined to heave a deep sigh of relief. Some of it will appear conventional; he will notice a faint atmosphere of rose-water; he will feel, if he has been reading the moderns, as a traveller feels who, after an exciting but painful journey, through dangerous ways and unpleasant surroundings, suddenly enters a cool garden, where fountains sob between dark cypresses, and swans float majestically on artificial lakes. There is an aroma of syringa in the air; the pleasaunce is artistically laid out, and full of fragrant flowers. But he will not despise that garden for its elegance and its tranquil seclusion, for its trees cast large shadows; the nightingale sings in its thickets, the moon silvers the calm statues, and the sound of music on the waters goes to the heart. Turgenev reminds one of a certain kind of music, beautiful in form, not too passionate and yet full of emotion, Schumann’s music, for instance; if Pushkin is the Mozart of Russian literature, Turgenev is the Schumann; not amongst the very greatest, but still a poet, full of inspired lyrical feeling; and a great, a classic artist, the prose Virgil of Russian literature.
What Turgenev did for the country gentry, Goncharov (1812-91) did for the St. Petersburg gentry. The greater part of his work deals with the forties. Goncharov, a noble (dvoryanin) by education, and according to his own account by descent, though according to another account he was of merchant extraction, entered the Government service, and then went round the world in a frigate, a journey which he described in letters. Of his three novels, The Everyday Story, Oblomov, and The Landslip, Oblomov is the most famous: in it he created a type which became immortal; and Oblomov has passed into the Russian language just as Tartuffe has passed into the French language, or Pecksniff into the English language. A chapter of the book appeared in 1849, and the whole novel in 1859.
Oblomov is the incarnation of what in Russia is called Halatnost, which means the propensity to live in dressing-gown and slippers. It is told of Krylov, who was an Oblomov of real life, and who spent most of his time lying on a sofa, that one day somebody pointed out to him that the nail on which a picture was hanging just over the sofa on which he was lying, was loose, and that the picture would probably fall on his head. “No,” said Krylov, not getting up, “the picture will fall just beyond the sofa. I know the angle.” The apathy of Oblomov, although to the outward eye it resembles this mere physical inertness, is subtly different. Krylov’s apathy was the laziness of a man whose brain brought forth concrete fruits; and who feels neither the inclination nor the need of any other exercise, either physical or intellectual. Oblomov’s apathy is that of a brain seething with the burning desires of a vie intime, which all comes to nothing owing to a kind of spiritual paralysis, “une infirmit? morale.” It is true he finds it difficult to put on his socks, still more to get up, when he is awake, impossible to change his rooms although the ceiling is falling to bits, and impossible not to lie on the sofa most of the day; but the reason of this obstinate inertia is not mere physical disinclination, it is the result of a mixture of seething and simmering aspirations, indefinite disillusions and apprehensions, that elude the grasp of the will. Oblomov is really the victim of a dream, of an aspiration, of an ideal as bright and mobile as a will-o’-the-wisp, as elusive as thistledown, which refuses to materialize.
The tragedy of the book lies in the effort he makes to rise from his slough of apathy, or rather the effort his friends encourage him to make. Oblomov’s heart is made of pure gold; his soul is of transparent crystal; there is not a base flaw in the paste of his composition; yet his will is sapped, not by words, words, words, but by the inability to formulate the shadows of his inner life. His friend is an energetic German-Russian. He introduces Oblomov to a charming girl, and together they conspire to drag him from his apathy. The girl, Olga, at first succeeds; she falls in love with him, and he with her; he wants to marry her, but he cannot take the necessary step of arranging his affairs in a manner which would make that marriage possible; and gradually he falls back into a new stage of apathy worse than the first; she realizes the hopelessness of the situation, and they agree to separate. She marries the energetic friend, and Oblomov sinks into the comforts of a purely negative life of complete inaction and seclusion, watched over by a devoted housekeeper, whom he ultimately marries.
The extraordinary subtlety of the psychology of this study lies, as well as in other things, in the way in which we feel that Olga is not really happy with her excellent husband; he is the man whom she respects; but Oblomov is the man whom she loves, till the end; and she would give worlds to respect him too if he would only give her the chance. Oblomov often defends his stagnation, while realizing only too well what a misfortune it is; and we sometimes feel that he is not altogether wrong. The chapter that tells of his dream in which his past life and childhood arise before him in a haze of serene laziness is one of the masterpieces of Russian prose. The book is terribly real, and almost intolerably sad.
Goncharov’s third and last novel deals with the life of a landed proprietor on the Volga, and its main idea is the contrast between the old generation before the reforms and the new generation of Alexander II’s day – a paler Fathers and Sons.
To go back to criticism, the name of Bakunin, the apostle of destruction and the incarnation of Russian Nihilism, belongs to history; that of Grigoriev must be mentioned as founding a school of thought which preached the union of arts with the national soil; he exercised a strong influence over Dostoyevsky. Katkov, whose influence was at one time immense, originally belonged to the circle of Herzen and Bakunin; he became a professor of philosophy, but was driven from his chair in the reaction of ’48, and, being banished from erudition, he took up a journalistic career and became the Editor of the Moscow News. He was a Slavophile, and when the rising in Poland broke out, he headed the great wave of nationalist feeling which passed over the country at that time; he doubled the number of his subscribers, and dealt a death-blow to Herzen’s Bell. After 1866, he headed reactionary journalism and became a Nationalist of the narrowest kind; but he was of a higher calibre than the Nationalists of later days. Slavophile critics of another kind were Strakhov and Danilevsky, like Dostoyevsky, disciples of Grigoriev, who preached the last word of Slavophilism and were opposed to all foreign innovations.
On the Radical side the leaders were Chernyshevsky, Dobrolyubov and Pisarev. Chernyshevsky, who translated John Stuart Mill, and published a treatise on the ?sthetic relations of art and reality, served a sentence of seven years’ hard labour and of twenty years’ exile. His criticism – socialist propaganda, and an attack on all metaphysics – does not belong to literature, but his novel Shto dielat– “What is to be done?” – had an immense influence on his generation. It deals with Nihilism. Dobrolyubov, who died when he was twenty-four, belonged to the same realistic school. His main theory was that Russian literature is dominated by Oblomov; that Chatsky, Pechorin, and Rudin are all Oblomovs. Both Pisarev and Dobrolyubov followed Chernyshevsky in his realistic philosophy, in his rejection of metaphysics, in his theory that beauty is to be sought in life only, and that the sole duty of art is to help to illustrate life. Pisarev recognized that Turgenev’s Bazarov was a picture of himself, and he was pleased with the portrait. Both Pisarev and Dobrolyubov died young.
Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900), critic as well as poet, moral philosopher, and theologian, is one of the most interesting figures in Russian literature. What is most remarkable about him, and what makes him stand out, a radiant exception in Russian criticism, is his absolute independence. He belonged to no camp; he was a slave to no party cry; utterly unselfish, his sole aim was to seek after the truth for the sake of truth, and to proclaim it. In an age of positivism, he was a believing Christian, and the dream of his life was a union of the Eastern and Western Churches. He deals with this idea in a book which he wrote in French and published in Paris: L’?glise Russe et l’?glise Universelle. He admired the older Slavophiles, but he severely attacked the Nationalists, such as Katkov. His range of subjects was great, and his style was brilliant; like many great thinkers, he was far ahead of his time, and in his criticism of the Intelligentsia anticipated some tendencies, which have become visible since the revolution of 1905. He reminds one at times of Mr. A. J. Balfour, and even of Mr. G. K. Chesterton, with whose “orthodoxy” he would have much sympathy; and he deals with questions such as Woman’s Suffrage in a way which exactly fits the present day. He never became a Catholic, holding that the Eastern Church qua Church had never been cut off from the West, and that only one definite schism had been condemned; but he believed in the necessity of a universal Church. He was the first intellectual Russian to point out to a generation which took atheism as a matter of course that they were possibly inferior instead of superior to religion. He believed in Russia; he had nothing against the Slavophile theory that Russia had a divine mission; only he wished to see that mission divinely performed. He believed in the East of Christ, and not in that of Xerxes. He died in 1900, before he had finished his Magnum Opus, a work on moral philosophy written on a religious basis. He preached self-effacement; pity towards one’s fellow men; and reverence towards the supernatural. His whole work is a defence of moral principles, written with the soul of a poet, the knowledge of a scholar, and the brilliance of a dialectician. It is only lately that his books have gained the appreciation which they deserve; they are certainly more in harmony with the present generation than with that of the sixties and the seventies. His Three Conversations has been translated into English. Vladimir Soloviev stands in a niche of his own, isolated from the crowd by his own originality, his brilliance, and his prematurity; he was intempestivus.
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