The Gentle Barbarian

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

In its history, the novel has undergone many permutations; different authors have molded the form to suit the needs of their particular geniuses. Sometimes, in different localities, it developed in quite opposing directions, only again to be transformed by the genius of one person or of a group of writers. In England, the novel originated in the middle-class realism of Richardson and Defoe, while in Russia it can be traced back to the quite different prose and verse novels of Pushkin, with their highly romantic, vividly tapestried, Oriental qualities. These contrasting beginnings determined the later developments of the novel form in these two countries. The English novel always seemed to be rooted in the details of everyday life, while the Russian novel was inclined to fly off into explorations of the supernatural, the bizarre, the psychologically unexpected, and the politically dangerous. But there have been exceptions, the writers who sought to emulate the quiet, reasoned manner of the Western European writers, who were influenced more by the realism of the English novel and the style of the French writers; perhaps the foremost example of the “Europeanized” Russian writer is the “gentle barbarian” about whom Pritchett has written so sensitively and well: Ivan Turgenev.

The work of Turgenev seems more contemporary than ever before; a hundred years after they were written, his novels and stories speak to readers with a freshness and significance that perhaps even his contemporaries did not feel. While we admire the genius of many of his colleagues, often while reading their books we must make concessions to the passage of time from when they were written to our own era, but this is seldom required with Turgenev’s works. Why does Turgenev seem to be “modern” in both subject matter and style? V. S. Pritchett addresses himself to this question, among others, in this extraordinary discussion of the man, the writer, and his times. The Gentle Barbarian may be the definitive study of Turgenev; seldom has there been such a perfect union of literary biographer and subject as in the case of V. S. Pritchett and Ivan Turgenev.

For decades, Turgenev seemed the least important of the four great nineteenth century Russian writers, less profound and obviously great than Dostoevski, with whom he quarreled, Tolstoy, for whom he prepared the way, and Chekhov, whom he influenced. He was the aristocratic, self-conscious artist whose gentle love stories and carefully constructed, exquisite novels drew prose pictures of the strange world of the Russian country gentry and their serfs. But if Turgenev was all of this, he was, of course, much more. He was committed as few writers ever have been to telling the truth. Apolitical, he did not avoid writing of political subjects, but when he did, he nearly always brought down upon himself the wrath of the opposing factions, each believing that he was prejudiced against them. His enemies, and often his friends, could not understand his determination to analyze all aspects of a situation and to present what he found, without holding up any side as right or wrong. You must be committed, they told him. He was committed, more than they knew, but to a higher principle than political dogmas. His integrity was pure in relation to his art, and his discipline was awesome.

Pritchett is fascinated by the process by which a great writer such as Turgenev is created. Certainly, Turgenev was molded to an extraordinary degree by the strange and difficult relationship he had with his terrifying, sadistic mother. Without overemphasizing the point, Pritchett makes clear the influence of Varvara Petrovna on Turgenev’s later life, on his work, the fact of his bachelorhood and his love affairs, even on his psychological makeup; a case in point, for example, was the fact that Turgenev felt that he needed to be a possession, to belong, to any woman in his life, as he and everything else on the great estate had belonged to his mother. She was a tyrant, ruling her estate like an absolute monarch. She enjoyed punishing her serfs for mistakes, either real or imagined, and was capable of completely gratuitous cruelty. Ivan Turgenev’s distaste for the system of serfdom was born in the years during which he watched his mother’s cruelty. When Ivan’s older brother married against her wishes, she cut him off without any money, not relenting even when he gave her three grandchildren. She remained unmoved even...

(The entire section is 1829 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

America. CXXXVII, July 2, 1977, p. 16.

Atlantic. CCXXXIX, June, 1977, p. 94.

New Leader. LX, May 23, 1977, p. 17.

New Statesman. XCIII, June 24, 1977, p. 858.

New York Times Book Review. May 22, 1977, p. 1.

New Yorker. LIII, May 30, 1977, p. 113.

Time. CIX, May 23, 1977, p. 103.