Sunday, 21 August 2016

FATHERS AND SON by Ivan Turgenev

I went to an exhibit recently about 19th century Russian portraiture, and suddenly found a great gap looming in my knowledge of the western cannon. In the same breath as Tolstoy and Dostoevesky, the captions spoke of someone called Turgenev. Who is this Turgenev? I've never read any Turgenev! What am I missing?

Not a whole hell of a lot, based on FATHERS AND SONS. A young man, Akardy returns home from medical school with a friend, Bazarov, who he admires. Bazarov is a nihilist, and his disavowal of traditional Russian values is as thrilling to Arkady as it is horrifying to Arkady's parents. Bazarov meets a lovely young lady and a powerful struggle ensues between his hormones and his nihlism. Nihilism briefly triumphs, and then - just when he is beginning to regret this - he conducts an autopsy without careful enough hygiene. This is the nineteenth century, so he dies. Arkady meanwhile has been busy falling in love with the lovely young lady's sister, and due to his lower commitment to nihilism, and higher commitment to hygiene, he lives to marry her.

It actually sounds like a pretty good book in this summary, and I guess it was. It was the novel that really established the word 'nihilism,' and the character of Bazarov was hugely influential in the development of that idea. Perhaps it now seems rather tired and elderly simply because it created so very many imitators. Now, to a new reader, it seems like an imitation of something else; and that something else is itself. Now that people have truly given up on the idea of life having a meaning, Bazarov's early gestures in that direction seem a bit half-hearted. He's so full of ideas and hopes and passions that by our standards it's hardly nihilism at all. I can't decide whether or not to feel sad about this. I think perhaps I do.

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