Article abstract: Turgenev combined the lyrical with the realistic in fiction that had a powerful influence on social conditions in his own time and on later writers such as Anton Chekhov and Henry James, who truly ushered in the modern period in literature.
Ivan Turgenev was born November 9, 1818, in Orel, Russia, to Varvara Petrovna, a wealthy landowner, and Sergey Turgenev, a cavalry officer. According to Turgenev’s own comments, he was an enthusiastic reader at an early age, reading not only the fiction and poetry of Russian writers but also the English fiction of Charles Dickens.
His family moved to Moscow in 1827, and in 1833 Turgenev entered the University of Moscow, which he attended for one year, when, upon another family move to St. Petersburg, he entered the university there. He was graduated in 1837 and went to Berlin, where he was enrolled at the University of Berlin, studying philosophy for three years. Upon returning to St. Petersburg in 1841 and failing to find an academic position, he secured a minor post with the Ministry of the Interior. While traveling in Europe in 1843, he met Pauline Viardot, a French singer, who became his lifelong love and inspiration.
Turgenev retired from the civil service in 1845 and began to devote himself full-time to writing poetry. Because his mother disapproved of this decision as well as of his infatuation with Viardot, a married woman, she cut off his allowance. Turgenev followed Viardot, who tolerated his infatuation, to Europe to be near her. He returned to Russia in 1850 because of his mother’s serious illness. When she died, he was left the heir of a substantial fortune and was thus able to follow his literary interests, which at this time he very successfully shifted from poetry to fiction. In 1847, he had begun the writing of the short stories which, in 1852, were to be published as one of his greatest works, Zapiski okhotnika (Russian Life in the Interior, 1855; better known as A Sportsman’s Sketches, 1932).
When A Sportsman’s Sketches were being published in periodical form, they created a social uproar in Russia, for they presented the serf as more than a mere slave and, in fact, as often more human and genuine than the landowners themselves. Because the stories were seen as a protest against the serf system, the authorities began to watch Turgenev closely. In 1852, when he wrote an enthusiastic obituary notice on the death of his fellow writer Nikolai Gogol, he met further disapproval; the authorities banished him to his country estate, where he was forced to stay for a year and a half.
When he returned to St. Petersburg, after the publication of A Sportsman’s Sketches in book form, he found himself to be the leading light of St. Petersburg literary culture. A Sportsman’s Sketches has often been considered historically important for the influence it had on the abolition of the serf system in Russia; in fact, the book has even been compared in this regard to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1852). Yet the aesthetic and critical importance of the stories, the reason many of them continue to be read, lies in their unique blend of the lyrical and the realistic. Such stories as “Bezhin Meadow” and “The Country Doctor,” two of the most familiar in the collection, create a dreamlike and sometimes surrealistic world, even as they manage to remain solidly grounded in phenomenal experience. As a short-story writer, Turgenev historically stands somewhere between the folktale fantasy of Nikolai Gogol and the nightmare reality of Franz Kafka.
For the next few years after the success of A Sportsman’s Sketches, Turgenev, who felt inspired by travel, was forced to stay at home because of the Crimean War. Moreover, many biographers suggest that he was in a deep depression because of the impossibility of his tireless love for Viardot. As a result, he published little during this period, with the exception of his short novel Rudin (Dmitri Roudine, 1873; better known as Rudin, 1947), which appeared in 1856. In a drastic shift—which may have resulted partly from his freedom to travel and partly from his acceptance of the Viardot situation—within the next five years Turgenev alternated between traveling on the Continent and writing some of his most respected works, including the novels Dvoryanskoye gnezdo (1859; Liza, 1869; better known as A House of Gentlefolk, 1894) and Nakanune (1860; On the Eve, 1871), the novella Pervaya lyubov (1860; First Love, 1884), and the essay “Gamlet i Don Kikhot” (1860; “Hamlet and Don Quixote,” 1930). He also finished his best-known novel, Ottsy i deti (Fathers and Sons, 1867), in 1861 and...
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