Turgenev – A Nest of Gentry

(This was actually intended for a March Miscellany but I never got around to writing one)

The next Turgenev I read was A Nest of Gentry (1859 – so it actually predated On the Eve). At the core of this book is the doomed love affair between Lavretsky and Liza – an affair which never reaches fruition and has a tragic outcome. Turgenev in this book opposes characters – something he often does but not so blatantly as in this case – Lavretsky and Panshin, Liza and Madame Lavretksy. In both cases the former stand for  ‘Russian’ values which are represented as noble and deep while the latter stand for cosmopolitan/European values which are represented as opportunistic, hedonist and shallow. The preface contains a fascinating comment by Turgenev on this….

” ‘I am a radical, incorrigible westerner, and I never made a secret of it,’  Turgenev wrote. ‘And yet, in spite of this, I took a particular pleasure in describing the shoddy aspects of occidentophilism as well. I made Lavretsky the Slavophil defeat all of Panshin’s arguments. Why did I do it? Because, above all, I wanted to be sincere and truthful.’ “

It is precisely this obfuscation of his own views which makes Turgenev so difficult to ‘read’. Yet there are important and significant differences in the ways in which he treats and delineates the Lavretsky/Panshin dichotomy as against the Liza/Madame Lavretsky one. The male difference is shown mainly through the arguments to which Turgenev refers in the quotation above; yes, we are also told of their character differences , but it is through intellectual battles and judgements that conclusions are drawn. In the case of the female dichotomy on the other hand the difference is above all moral. Madame Lavretsky is an immoral woman (the first blatant example I have encountered in Turgenev); Lavretsky left her and eventually returned to Russia alone (from a Paris symbolic of immorality) because he discovered that she was having an affair. This is treated as an appalling sin – not only by Lavretsky who is near destroyed by it, but by the gentry family round whom the book is centred (even if this is shown to be a shallow, culturally determined prejudice); however it is also appears to be treated as a grave sin by Turgenev himself – although we should be very careful here given his penchant for misleading (and his own personal life). What we can be sure of is that he sets up in Liza, as opposition to Madame Lavretsky, much the most religious and devout character I have yet encountered in his novels. Liza is profoundly religious and ends the book in a convent (and here the convent is taken as a severe and austere but wholly pious vocation, not as the kind of social immuration which it might be in say a French 18thC novel). In fact Liza is the novel’s dominant character and in my view Turgenev succeeds admirably in creating a believable portrait of someone with deep religious beliefs which are threatened by her passions – always a difficult thing to do. Nonetheless the necessary alignment of female goodness/religiosity/chastity/sexual suppression is a reactionary and problematic one. No intermediate or alternative character models are convincingly suggested; other female characters tend to be lesser versions of the Liza/Madame Lavretsky, Madonna/Whore (and this latter is very real in this particular example) polarity. This is not true of the male characters where we have such gems as Lemm the old German music teacher and Mikhalevich, Lavretsky’s old student friend who has retained his idealism in the face of a series of disappointments and failures. Both these memorable characters and others who Turgenev introduces into the narrative are examples of his genius at memorable minor character creation; but more individually these two are examples of perhaps his most outstandingly individual feature (I think I have now read enough to identify this) the portrayal of failure. Failure is endemic in Turgenev; it is part of his fictional world and all of his important characters – albeit in very different ways – are to some extent examples of failure. It probably hardly needs to be said that failure is very far from negative in Turgenev; indeed the suggestion is rather that success only comes to those who live in an ethical vacuum, even to some extent a spiritual vacuum (though I would not wish to push the latter too far as Turgenev is by and large a secular writer). Certainly the attainment of power is only possible, it would seem, for the shallow and egotistical. There is much here that connects – and I think the comparison is fascinating – to Trollope. A character like the Reverend Crawley (from The Last Chronicle) would be very at home in Turgenev. The differences are important and revealing though too; Turgenev is a wonderful nature writer and the Russian landscape is central to his fiction, where Trollope is almost completely uninterested in landscape and his descriptions banal. On the other hand Trollope’s analyses of power and those who seek it are infinitely more satisfying, complex and developed than Turgenev; indeed while Turgenev’s studies of failure and its many hues are wondrous his counterposing characters (the power seekers, the successful) tend to the one-dimensional if not the caricature (as is somewhat true of Panshin in this book). Still it is another gem of a novel – moving, full of interest and with a deeply melancholic but perfectly realised conclusion.

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