"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

July 31, 2012

"Clara Militch" (After Death) by Ivan Turgenev (Best Novellas)

Clara Militch (also called After Death; 1883) is one of the late stories of Ivan Turgenev, in fact his "swang song" (see my other posts about the stories of Turgenev: Early Stories) and a mix of two of the themes that fascinated him: love and the unconsciousness - in this, he was a forerunner of Arthur Schnitzler.

Clara Militch tells the story of the 27-year-old Muscovite Aratov, an independent scientist (read: university drop-out) who leads a secluded life together with his overprotective aunt. Then, one day, a friend named Kupfer, who is his only contact with the outside world, after some effort entices him to visit a charity concert, where the promising young singer and actress Clara Militch will perform the Love Letter part from Pushkin's Yevgeny Onegin. Unlike the rest of the audience, Aratov is not impressed by her performance and is not interested in being introduced to her, despite the fact that during her recitation the interestingly dark woman kept staring at him.
She was a girl of nineteen, tall, rather broad-shouldered, but well-built. A dark face, of a half-Jewish half-gipsy type, small black eyes under thick brows almost meeting in the middle, a straight, slightly turned-up nose, delicate lips with a beautiful but decided curve, an immense mass of black hair, heavy even in appearance, a low brow still as marble, tiny ears ... the whole face dreamy, almost sullen. A nature passionate, wilful — hardly good-tempered, hardly very clever, but gifted — was expressed in every feature.
In fact, Clara was modeled on opera singer Pauline Viardot, Turgenev's own life-long love, whom he met first in 1843 in St. Petersburg.

The next day Aratov receives an anonymous letter, asking him to come to a rendez-vous, a request to which he reluctantly complies. As suspected, he meets Clara, who declares her love for him, but unsocial Aratov only answers in broad platitudes, with an aloofness that makes Clara walk away in anger and disappointment:
‘I am ready to listen to you,’ he began again, ‘and shall be very glad if I can be of use to you in any way ... though I am, I confess, surprised ... considering the retired life I lead....’
At these last words of his, Clara suddenly turned to him, and he beheld such a terrified, such a deeply-wounded face, with such large bright tears in the eyes, such a pained expression about the parted lips, and this face was so lovely, that he involuntarily faltered, and himself felt something akin to terror and pity and softening.
‘Ah, why ... why are you like that?’ she said, with an irresistibly genuine and truthful force, and how movingly her voice rang out! ‘Could my turning to you be offensive to you?... is it possible you have understood nothing?... Ah, yes! you have understood nothing, you did not understand what I said to you, God knows what you have been imagining about me, you have not even dreamed what it cost me — to write to you!... You thought of nothing but yourself, your own dignity, your peace of mind!... But is it likely I’ ... (she squeezed her hands raised to her lips so hard, that the fingers gave a distinct crack).... ‘As though I made any sort of demands of you, as though explanations were necessary first....
“My dear madam,... I am, I confess, surprised,... if I can be of any use” ... Ah! I am mad!— I was mistaken in you — in your face!... when I saw you the first time ...! Here ... you stand.... If only one word. What, not one word?’
She ceased.... Her face suddenly flushed, and as suddenly took a wrathful and insolent expression. ‘Mercy! how idiotic this is!’ she cried suddenly, with a shrill laugh. ‘How idiotic our meeting is! What a fool I am!... and you too.... Ugh!’
She gave a contemptuous wave of her hand, as though motioning him out of her road, and passing him, ran quickly out of the boulevard, and vanished.
Three months later, Aratov happens to see an obituary in the newspaper informing him that Clara Militch has taken poison while on stage - allegedly out of unrequited love. Now Aratov starts thinking much about Clara, he tries to figure out the reasons for her drastic act, and she appears in a sort of prophetic dream telling him to visit her hometown.

By the way, this incident was based on a real event, which took place in 1881 and was reported in the papers: a certain scientist had fallen in love with a famous Russian actress, after she had very theatrically committed suicide on the stage and died in front of the spectators!

Aratov decides to visit Clara's home town Kasan. He speaks with Clara's sister, who gives him her portrait and also lends him Clara's diary. The diary confirms his worst fears: it was his rebuff that caused her to take her own life. As soon as Aratov has returned to Moscow, Clara starts to haunt him, inspiring remorse as well as passion. Now, posthumously, he starts loving her and ends up in the power of the dead. Here is how she haunts him:
And now he began to speak, not loudly, but with solemn deliberation, as though he were uttering an incantation.
‘Clara,’ he began, ‘if you are truly here, if you see me, if you hear me — show yourself!... If the power which I feel over me is truly your power, show yourself! If you understand how bitterly I repent that I did not understand you, that I repelled you — show yourself! If what I have heard was truly your voice; if the feeling overmastering me is love; if you are now convinced that I love you, I, who till now have neither loved nor known any woman; if you know that since your death I have come to love you passionately, inconsolably; if you do not want me to go mad,— show yourself, Clara!’
Aratov had hardly uttered this last word, when all at once he felt that some one was swiftly approaching him from behind — as that day on the boulevard — and laying a hand on his shoulder. He turned round, and saw no one. But the sense of her presence had grown so distinct, so unmistakable, that once more he looked hurriedly about him....
What was that? On an easy-chair, two paces from him, sat a woman, all in black. Her head was turned away, as in the stereoscope.... It was she! It was Clara! But what a stern, sad face!
Aratov slowly sank on his knees. Yes; he was right, then. He felt neither fear nor delight, not even astonishment.... His heart even began to beat more quietly. He had one sense, one feeling, ‘Ah! at last! at last!’
‘Clara,’ he began, in a faint but steady voice, ‘why do you not look at me? I know that it is you ... but I may fancy my imagination has created an image like that one ... ‘— he pointed towards the stereoscope —‘prove to me that it is you.... Turn to me, look at me, Clara!’
Clara’s hand slowly rose ... and fell again.
‘Clara! Clara! turn to me!’
And Clara’s head slowly turned, her closed lids opened, and her dark eyes fastened upon Aratov.
He fell back a little, and uttered a single, long-drawn-out, trembling ‘Ah!’
Clara gazed fixedly at him ... but her eyes, her features, retained their former mournfully stern, almost displeased expression. With just that expression on her face she had come on to the platform on the day of the literary matinée, before she caught sight of Aratov. And, just as then, she suddenly flushed, her face brightened, her eyes kindled, and a joyful, triumphant smile parted her lips....
‘I have come!’ cried Aratov. ‘You have conquered.... Take me! I am yours, and you are mine!’
He flew to her; he tried to kiss those smiling, triumphant lips, and he kissed them. He felt their burning touch: he even felt the moist chill of her teeth: and a cry of triumph rang through the half-dark room.
Finally, Aratov starts longing for death, in order to be reunited with Clara, with whom he is madly in love after death. He dies with a happy smile on his face.

Of course we should not infer from this story that Turgenev really believed in "ghosts." He didn't, as he explained himself, his interest was in dreams and the unconscious. Turgenev clearly leaves his readers the possibility of a rational explanation for a number of seemingly inexplicable events. Out of guilt, or regret because it is too late, Aratov imagines Clara's presence and becomes increasingly mentally unstable. In the end, this leads to his own death.

The passion is as palpable as in Turgenev's other love stories, but there are new elements as well. Besides the already mentioned interest in dreams and the unconscious, that is satire: take for example the way the charity concert is described, with its inept performers. It can even be doubted that Clara, aged 19, is such a great artist - she only performs in provincial theaters. She also seems to mix up literature and life, for at the rendez-vous with Aratov, she in fact reenacts the Love Letter scene from Yevgeny Onegin. Her "love suicide" seems just such a literary cliché.

But given the fact that Clara was modeled on Turgenev's own Pauline Viardot, is it wrong to assume that the writer, in the last year before his death, was perhaps also dreaming of a future union with his great love? (That means Turgenev had to wait a bit for he died in 1883 and Viardot lived until 1910!)
Clara Militch was filmed in 1915 by the famous early Russian director Yevgeny Bauer under the title After Death. (By the way, why have so few of Turgenev's stories been filmed?).
Article (PDF): After Death, the Movie (1915) - Ivan Turgenev, Evgenii Bauer and the Aesthetics of Morbidity by Otto Boele (Leiden University). I am indebted to several ideas from this enlightening article.
Best Novellas
Banville: The Newton Letter   Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel   Bulgakov: A Dog's Heart   Byatt: Morpho Eugenia   Carr: A Month in the Country   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Chekhov: The Duel   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Elsschot: Cheese   Flaubert: A Simple Soul   Gotthelf: The Black Spider   Kafka: The Metamorphosis   Maupassant: Boule de Suif   McEwan: The Comfort of Strangers   McEwan: On Chesil Beach   Nabokov: The Eye   Nerval: Sylvie   Nescio: Amsterdam Stories   Nooteboom: The Following Story   Roth: The Legend of the Holy Drinker   Schnitzler: Dream Story   Storm: The Rider on the White Horse   Turgenev: Clara Militch   Turgenev: Torrents of Spring   Voltaire: Candide   Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau