(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Ivan Turgenev is certainly one of the major Russian writers of the nineteenth century, not quite the equal of Tolstoy and Dostoevski, but an important bridge between them and the generation of Pushkin and Gogol, and the first Russian writer widely known and admired in the West. His subtle characterizations and detached, economically constructed depictions of Russian life in Sketches from a Sportsman’s Notebook (1852), A Nest of the Landed Gentry (A House of Gentlefolk) (1858), Fathers and Children (Fathers and Sons) (1862), and other works made him a favorite of such mid- to late-nineteenth century realists as Flaubert, George Eliot, and Henry James. However, this reputation, based as it was on his writings and on his presence in European literary circles, points to a central problem in his career: if, as James observed, the West knew him primarily through his novels and stories and felt his charm in part because those works seemed to open windows on the still mysterious Russia, what were his attitudes toward and role in the mounting social and political turmoil in his homeland during the time in which he wrote? Admired abroad as an accurate social observer, a literary realist, an advocate of reform, and a political liberal, he found himself alternately praised and damned, supported and suspected by both the right and the left in Russia.

Thus, a somewhat confused picture has emerged, and Leonard Schapiro, drawing on a wealth of new material made available in France and Russia, has attempted to dispel some of the confusion. The main thrust of Schapiro’s biography is to place Turgenev in the context of his times—mainly the political-social issues of nineteenth century Russia. He avoids psychoanalyzing Turgenev, preferring instead to present the facts of his life as known and leave interpretation to the reader. Unfortunately, he also avoids literary analysis of Turgenev’s works, beyond their biographical and political elements; this oddly skews his study, leaving the most interesting and significant part of Turgenev—the fiction writer—underdescribed and, therefore, inadequately explained as an expression of his life and times.

Turgenev was born on October 28, 1818, in Orel, a provincial capital some two hundred miles south of Moscow, and grew up in nearby Spasskoe, his mother’s family estate. Although Schapiro draws few extensive conclusions, Turgenev’s early years suggest plenty of psychic pain. His father, Sergei Nikolaevich, a handsome military officer of the lesser nobility, married his mother, Varvara Petrovna Lutovinova, six years his senior, apparently for her considerable wealth. He maintained his reputation as a ladies’ man after the marriage and died when Ivan was sixteen. Turgenev remembered his father as distant and uninvolved—attractive, admirable, and much loved by his son, but always unapproachable. His mother, on the other hand, was malicious and tyrannical not only towards Ivan, who suffered frequent unexplained and unjustifiable beatings, but also toward her serfs, which distressed Turgenev more and more as he grew and did much to shape his attitudes toward social reform.

From an early age Turgenev read both Russian and English authors voraciously, but his formal education was largely through private tutors until 1833, when he entered the University of Moscow; a year later, he entered St. Petersburg University, from which he obtained a degree. After continuing his studies in Berlin and traveling in Europe for the first time between 1839 and 1841, he returned to St. Petersburg and earned a Masters degree, apparently aiming for a university professorship but soon entering government service. Perhaps the most important aspect of his studies was his gradual opening up to the new intellectual current of his day, associated with such writers as Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol and especially the critic V. G. Belinsky, which looked away from the conservative Russian past to Europe for enlightenment. There were, in fact, two rather sharply defined intellectual-aesthetic camps in Russia: the Westerners and the Slavophiles, who represented roughly the poles of Realism versus Romance, liberal versus conservative, and reform versus maintaining the status quo. Turgenev’s European travels, studies of the German masters in Berlin, friendship with Michael Bakunin, and enlarged sympathy for the plight of serfs no doubt contributed to his Westerner orientation. When Parasha, a verse romance which appeared in 1843, first established Turgenev’s reputation as a writer, Belinsky’s warm review was largely responsible for its success.

Turgenev’s assumption of a literary career was somewhat gradual. He maintained his government position until 1845 but continued to publish articles and stories in Annals of the Fatherland and the more important Contemporary, which had been founded by Pushkin but was revitalized by the younger generation of Russian intellectuals in 1847. More sketches dealing primarily with rural life in Russia were produced while Turgenev traveled in Europe between 1847 and 1850, and he tried his hand at playwriting without great success. The 1852 publication of the Sketches from a Sportsman’s Notebook (a collection of stories published earlier), however, firmly established him as an important writer. It was widely popular, and its sympathetic portrayal of serfs and subtle attacks on the landowners and nobility earned Turgenev acclaim as the Harriet Beecher Stowe of Russia.

Those attacks also caught the attention of the government censors, and three months before the publication of Sketches from a Sportsman’s Notebook, Turgenev was arrested, imprisoned briefly, and exiled to Spasskoe until 1853. The more immediate cause of the...

(The entire section is 2376 words.)