Turgenev’s Smoke

Returning to Turgenev after a long break I have reached the extraordinary Smoke (1867). This novel was badly received at the time and does not appear to have been much rehabilitated in the century and a half since its publication. One does not have to search far for the reasons for the contemporary hostility: in Smoke Turgenev attacks his fellow-countrymen with a deadly, sardonic eye and spares no faction or element of Russian society. This is the work of a deeply disillusioned man and it is not surprising that friends as well as enemies reacted with varying degrees of hostility. Apparently a bitter personal quarrel with Dostoyevsky was merely one example of this. The book’s plot is simple. A young man, Litvinov, is travelling back to Russia having spent some years studying Western agricultural methods. He is due to meet his fiancée Tatyana in Baden-Baden where he has stopped for a brief stay. In Baden, which was obviously a popular destination for Russians in the 1860’s, he encounters groups of both radicals and aristocrats; among the latter is Irina a young woman with whom he had been in love in his youth, but who had left him when she was taken up by a rich relative. She has subsequently married a general and is making her way in Russian aristocratic circles. Irina induces (I merely repeat the plot!) Litvinov to fall in love with her again and he tells Tatyana that he cannot marry her; but at the last-minute Irina refuses to run off with him into penury. Litvinov returns to Russia and finds solace in work. In a fairly obviously tacked-on happy ending he finally goes back to Tatyana who accepts his repentance. 

This plot summary is misleading in that, as I have said, a good part of this fairly brief book is given up to highly satirical observation of both the radical and aristocratic circles Litvinov encounters in Baden. Both are shown as stupid, selfish, self-obsessed, destructive, arrogant and obtuse. The only characters who escape Turgenev’s wrath are Tatyana and Potugin: the latter is in one way an example  of Turgenev’s characteristic ‘failure heroes’, but he is different because he spends much of his conversation in criticism of all things Russian – society, art, culture, politics. He speaks for the Europeanisers and it is not surprising that Dostoyevsky with his mystical Slavophilism would have found such views highly offensive (as would Tolstoy; even Herzen would have had some problems). I have read that the book is sometimes seen as a ‘swing to the right’ by Turgenev, but although he certainly does attack the radicals (and shows them to be complete hypocrites) he also assails the nobility so I am not convinced by this analysis. It feels more to me as the work of a man who has lost hope. Of course there has always been a dark side to all Turgenev’s writing but it has not emerged in quite the same harsh satiric light as this to date. 

However for me the strongest and most interesting feature of Smoke is Turgenev’s portrayal of Irina. I have pointed before to the unfortunate tendency for his women, at times, to approach the Madonna/Whore dichotomy and one could see this in Tatyana/Irina ; however in my view this would be to do the depth of Turgenev’s characterisation of the latter a grave disservice. What Turgenev does is to take an  intelligent, spirited, very beautiful young woman born into a family of run-down and penurious minor aristocrats and ask whether it would seriously be possible for her to resist the temptations of wealth and a place in society. We are given Griselda Grantley in glorious 3D as it were. But that again is seriously misleading. Because Turgenev is oh so much franker than Trollope! It is very clear that Irina is physically drawn to Litvinov (as he is to her) and very obvious that they have sex on at least two occasions. What Irina wants is to have it all – she wants to continue with her marriage and have Litvinov as her lover. This is not a solution which ever gets presented to us in Trollope. Glencora can have either Palliser or Burgo; the possibility of both is never really considered (Trollope would probably have found such a suggestion inconceivable as well as immoral, and it probably was by the time of his novels; although pretty much of a common-place among the English aristocracy of the early 19thC). I am not saying that Turgenev condones such a solution; he does not and his protagonist Litvinov firmly rejects it. But by allowing Irina to consider it and not condemning her outright nor making her die nor having her lose her money, status or looks, Turgenev gives us a much fuller, more rounded character. In fact his summary of Irina’s eventual fate is fascinating. She is very much part of Petersburg high society but is regarded with increasing suspicion because of her ‘ironical intellect’, particularly among the devotees of spiritualism which is the new rage (and which Turgenev once again satirises brilliantly). Irina sees fully the emptiness, the intellectual and cultural vacuity of the society in which she lives, but she also recognises that she cannot live without the material benefits that it provides. In some senses she is a highly destructive force, certainly as far as Litvinov is concerned (and she has been in respect of Potugin): a typical, or even stereotypical, femme fatale, but because Turgenev gives her such vitality and portrays her dilemma with such accuracy, she dominates the novel. Again my suspicion would be that making a character like Irina so central was hardly likely to recommend Smoke to Turgenev’s contemporaries. The comparison to Trollope is particularly interesting because of the very different treatment of the subject matter. Certainly what needs to be emphasised is that she is one of the only characters in the book to be fully rounded: most of the portraits, including arguably that of the noble Tatyana, tend to the caricature and most of them are deliberately so.

Smoke, despite its tacked on happy-ending coda (and even here Turgenev actually ends with Irina and Potugin not with Litvinov and Tatyana), is a highly pessimistic, even bitter, work. It is scathing about all elements of Russian society and the stunted love-affair at its heart is tragic. But it ends not with some great bang but with life going on in a meandering way. The train smoke which gives the novel its title and forms its  central metaphor has changed shape and direction but continues to be produced. The characteristic note of Smoke is melancholy, and for me the book is yet another example of Turgenev’s wonderful creative ability.

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