"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

February 22, 2012

Classic Fiction: "Torrents of Spring" (1872) by Turgenev

Torrents of Spring (or "Spring Torrents;" 1872) was written by the Russian author Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883). Turgenev was born into a wealthy landowning family. He was the most cosmopolitan among Russian literati, studied in Germany and from the mid-fifties on, lived mainly in Europe. He was a pure artist who did not approve of moral or religious propaganda in literature and he was closer to Flaubert than to his countrymen Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.


Torrents of Spring is a novella on the theme of "romantic regret." Turgenev wrote it in his fifties and that is also the age of his protagonist, Dimitry Sanin, at the beginning of the story, when he finds a little cross in a drawer and is reminded of the great love of his youth. The story is then told in retrospect.

Sanin, a wealthy landowner in his early twenties, is returning to Russia from a tour in Italy. When he breaks his journey in the German city of Frankfurt, he has a chance encounter with the beautiful Gemma Roselli, who works in her family's patisserie. Dimitry falls hopelessly and deliriously in love with the pure, young woman.
Her nose was rather large, but handsome, aquiline-shaped; her upper lip was shaded by a light down; but then the colour of her face, smooth, uniform, like ivory or very pale milky amber, the wavering shimmer of her hair, like that of the Judith of Allorio in the Palazzo-Pitti; and above all, her eyes, dark-grey, with a black ring round the pupils, splendid, triumphant eyes. [...] Even in Italy he had never met anything like her!
He is warmly accepted into the small family (mother, daughter, son and an elderly manservant) because he has saved the life of Gemma's brother Emilio. In fact, Gemma is already engaged to Herr Kluber, a very stiff and strict young German with good prospects, but she is not averse to the attention Dimitry pays her. Dimitry wins the day when he defends Gemma's honor in a duel with a German soldier who has insulted her - the fiance is too cowardly to react, so exit Mr Kluber. Only the mother, Signora Roselli is not immediately convinced, as she worries about the financial future of her daughter. But she is won over when Dimitry promises to begin a new life in Frankfurt, and sell his Russian estates to get the necessary money. Having received assurances of Gemma's love, Dimitry feels himself at the highest pinnacle of human happiness. But here ends the fairy-tale.

Dimitry has a chance encounter with an old acquaintance, the weird Polozov, who is somewhat famous for the marriage he has made, with a rich and gorgeous woman who seems ill-matched to the pig-like husband. After Dimitry tells him about his circumstances, including his marriage plans, Polozov hints that his wife might be interested in Sannin's estates and invites him for a few days to Wiesbaden to clinch the deal. Maria Nikolaevna Polozov is vamp-like and intriguing personality, with an overwhelming femininity, a total contrast to the pure and almost childish Gemma (with whom Dimitry has never shared more than a simple kiss). What Dimitry doesn't know is that she has an understanding with her husband that she is free to take lovers. Husband and wife even bet on the success of the wife to seduce the naive Dimitry - the point of interest is the great love for Gemma of which Dimitry has been bragging: will Polozova be able to destroy that?

As it turns out, Dimitry is a relatively easy prey for the experienced seductress. She keeps putting off the final business talk to keep him longer in Wiesbaden - he has to attend on her at dinner, the theater, etc. - and then, during a ride in the forest (as in Madame Bovary), he falls for her, and becomes prey to a dark and destructive infatuation. He feels too ashamed to contact Gemma and tell her what has happened, so he silently sneaks out of her life. He even forgets her, for now he is the slave of Polozova:
'I am going where you will be, and will be with you till you drive me away,' he answered with despair and pressed close to him the hands of his sovereign. She freed her hands, laid them on his head, and clutched at his hair with her fingers. She slowly turned over and twisted the unresisting hair, drew herself up, her lips curled with triumph, while her eyes, wide and clear, almost white, expressed nothing but the ruthlessness and glutted joy of conquest. The hawk, as it clutches a captured bird, has eyes like that.
And then, thirty years later, Dimitry who has wasted his whole life running after Maria Nikolaevna Polozov, following her to various European cities, until he is freed by her death, finds the small cross Gemma gave him at their parting. He is consumed by remorse and regret...

P.S. There is an interesting parallel between the story and Turgenev's own life. Turgenev had a lifelong affair with the celebrated opera singer Pauline Viardot. He followed her throughout Europe and never married.

Available as a Penguin and also free at Gutenberg