Ivan Turgenev 1818-1883
(Full name Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev; also transliterated as Sergeyevitch, Sergheïevitch, Serguéivitch, Serguèvitch, Serguiéiévitch, and Sergyéevitch; also Toorgenef, Tourghenief, Tourguénief, Turgeneff, Turgenieff, and Turgéniew) Russian short fiction writer, novelist, playwright, poet, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism of Turgenev's short fiction works from 1990 to 1997. For discussion of Turgenev's short fiction career prior to 1990, see SSC, Volume 7.
The first Russian author to achieve widespread international fame, Turgenev was designated his country's premier novelist by nineteenth-century Westerners and is today classified with Fedor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy as one of the triumvirate of great Russian fiction writers of the nineteenth century. Although the success of his novels has in some ways obscured the popular and critical reputation of his short stories and novellas, many of his best-known works are written in the short fiction form. Turgenev's novels generally utilize third-person narration and reflect deep concern with the politics of his homeland, depicting Russia's tumultuous political environment from the 1840s to the 1870s; his short fiction, usually written in the first person, often focuses on the everyday lives of peasants and love affairs of aristocrats. Turgenev's fiction in both genres is noted for its psychological truth, descriptive beauty, and haunting pathos.
Turgenev was born in the city of Orel into a wealthy family. When he was nine years old, the family left its country estate for Moscow, where he attended various boarding schools before entering Moscow University in 1833. In 1834 Turgenev transferred to the University of St. Petersburg. Upon graduation, he decided to study abroad, and in 1838 he enrolled at the University of Berlin in Germany. During the next several years Turgenev studied Latin, Greek, and philosophy, but never finished his degree. Turgenev returned to Russia in 1841, but he spent the remainder of his life moving between his homeland and Western Europe. Although Turgenev had begun writing poetry as a student in St. Petersburg, publishing his first verses in 1838, biographers generally cite the narrative poem Parasha, published in 1843, as the beginning of his literary career. When Turgenev wrote an admiring obituary of Nikolay Gogol that was refused publication by St. Petersburg censors in 1852, he instead published the piece in Moscow. He was arrested and jailed for a month, then placed under house arrest for nearly two years. Although ostensibly arrested for excessive approval of a suspect author, Turgenev was more likely detained as the author of the controversial Zapiski okhotnika (1852; A Sportsman's Sketches). When the serfs were freed in 1861, many credited this volume with having helped to effect their emancipation.
Following the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Turgenev traveled to England, later moving to Paris before settling in his summer estate on the Seine at Bougival. During the last fifteen years of his life, Turgenev returned to the short story as his predominant form. His later stories repeatedly focus on the effect of fate or the supernatural upon helpless individuals, and Turgenev often concurred in his correspondence with the opinions of various critics that these later works were trivial and lacking in social importance. He died on August 22, 1883, in France of spinal cancer.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Between the years 1847 and 1852, Turgenev wrote a series of related pieces that were eventually collected and published in book form as A Sportsman's Sketches. In these sketches, which range from brief, slices of life to fully realized stories, Turgenev drew on his experiences at his family's country estate and expressed his love for the land and people of rural Russia by adopting the persona of an aristocratic hunter in the country. Common to the volume is the theme of the injustice of Russian serfdom. Because of this omnipresent concern, A Sportsman's Sketches is frequently compared with Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852. Unlike the American novel, however, Turgenev's work is understated; its moral message implied rather than overt. At their first publication, Turgenev's stories proved enormously popular with the general populace, albeit not so with government officials. Published in 1858, his novella, Asya (Annouchka), addresses the infeasibility of mutual love and may have some basis in Turgenev's friendship with Mikhail Bakunin at the University of Berlin, with whom he lived closely for a year before courting his friend's sister. In Asya, a young man known as N. N. becomes close friends with a young man named Gagin, whose half-sister, Asya, the illegitimate daughter of Gagin's father and a serf girl, tries to interject herself between the two in a desperate plea for attention. Torn between his close friendship with Gagin and his growing attraction to Asya, N. N. comes to understand Asya's loneliness and frustration. Pervaya lyubov' (1860; First Love), is a novella that details the love of a sixteen-year-old boy for Zinaida, a devious but alluring lover of power and personal freedom who keeps her weak-willed suitors in suspense by toying with their affections.
Throughout the twentieth century, Turgenev's literary reputation has remained generally stable. Modern commentators agree that Turgenev's fiction is distinguished by solid literary craftsmanship, vivid descriptions, and convincing characterizations. Commentators also note that his characters, who are identifiable as both unique human beings and representatives of universal human qualities, are drawn with a psychological penetration made more effective by the suggestive use of word and action, rather than the overt exposition of the narrator. Critics often contend that Turgenev was particularly adept at portraying women in love and at creating an unsentimentalized atmosphere of pathos in his unhappy love stories. Scholars suggest that Turgenev's fiction reveals its author's own sense of the futility of life, but add that Turgenev tempered his essentially pessimistic outlook with an appreciation of life's beauty.