"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

August 3, 2012

Best Stories of Ivan Turgenev (2): Lyrical Stories

Lyrical Stories (1855-1870) - In this group belong Turgenev's three masterful love stories: Torrents of Spring, First Love and Asya, the best works he ever wrote. Other stories continue the trend from Turgenev's earlier phase, to portray typical Russian types, such as "indolent young men" or  "superfluous men."

The Three Meetings (1853) The narrator has three chance meetings with a mysterious woman, with whom he has fallen in love - of course without being able to satisfy his desire. The romantic effusions in this story are somewhat atypical of Turgenyev.

A Quiet Backwater (1854) The "quiet backwater" is of course a typical place in the Russian countryside. A young, absent landowner makes his annual visit and is invited by a neighbor - where he meets Marya, a "wild beauty of the steppes" and also Nadyezhda, a sort of mocking Amazon.  In contrast, her brother Veretyev is portrayed negatively as a lazy, indolent character. Told in an objective style, the story reads like the start of a novel, which however does not really come off the ground.

Two Friends (1855) A young landowner has decided to start living on his estate in the countryside, where he befriends a neighbor of the same age. The neighbor, hearing that the landowner wants to get married, introduces him to various houses in the vicinity, but the ladies are rather eccentric and do not pass muster. Finally he meets a simple girl, with a goodhearted smile, who lives with her widowed father. He marries her against counsel, then indeed finds "there is nothing in her." He dislikes living with her and starts traveling abroad where he finally dies. The friend marries the now widowed "simple girl."

Yakov Pasinkov (1856). The narrator is in love with the rather puritanical Sophia, but by chance reads a letter she has written to a friend, and so finds out she really loves another, Asanov. He is so foolish to confront her with this knowledge. A mutual friend, Yakov Pasinkov, helps to smoothen things a bit, but Sophia of course marries Asanov. Seven years later the narrator is present at the deathbed of Pasinkov and learns that he, too, was very much in love with Sophia. This, too, is a tragedy of the "superfluous man."

A Tour in the Forest (1856) The narrator is a hunter, like in the Sportsman's Sketches, who is taken by farmers on a hunt in a deep forest. The most interesting element of this story is the description of the endless, majestic forest.

A Correspondence (1856) Correspondence between a young man and a woman who having to cope both with broken engagements, find intellectual solace with each other. They become quite close and Alexev promises to visit Marya, but that is the last she hears from him, until, more than a year later a letter with an explanation reaches her: Alexev confesses he had madly fallen in love with a beautiful but uneducated dancing girl. He has followed her to Dresden where he now lies dying from tuberculosis. Interesting is Alexev's idea that love is not something pleasant but a malady like cholera, which takes possession of a person against his or her will... Here we see the theme of Torrents of Spring already foreshadowed.

Faust (1856) A novel told in nine letters written to a friend. After returning to his estate, the narrator meets an old acquaintance who has married Vera, a woman he himself had long ago been in love with. Although in her late twenties and with three children, her looks have not changed. The narrator becomes the house-friend of the couple, visiting almost every day. Vera has no knowledge of literature (her mother used to be against poetry), so the narrator starts reading Goethe's Faust with her. Gradually the old feelings of love are rekindled by the tender scenes in Faust. This shocks Vera so much that she falls ill and pines away. The narrator concludes that he should have practiced resignation, and left when he felt his love revive.

Asya (1858). The narrator has come to the beautiful Rhine valley to seek relief from a broken love affair. He finds two other Russians here, brother and sister (in fact a half-sister, she has been born out of wedlock as later is divulged). The narrator is interested in the 17-year old Asya, who has fast changing moods: she can be wild, naive, and coquettish. Although Asya is rather strange and mysterious, he falls in love with her. At a secret rendez-vous, he hears that she also feels love for him. But now, at the decisive moment, he hesitates to set the next step and ask her to marry him. The following morning, when he feels regret and wants to redress things, brother and sister have disappeared from the village and he never finds Asya back - they apparently have mistakenly concluded that the narrator is not interested in marriage as Asya is an extramarital child. Turgenev's first story of resignation. Asya's situation was the same as that of Turgenev's daughter Polina, who was born out of his relation with a serf.

First Love (1860). A 15 year old boy harbors feelings of "first love" for Zinaide, a beautiful, but five years older neighboring girl who has a whole circle of admirers around her, a sort of salon, with whom she plays games, making the men in a dictatorial way do all kinds of silly things. She treats the narrator as her page-boy. When he starts thinking she may have some kind of special feelings for him, and follows her secretly, he discovers she has an unexpected lover: his father! The world of the narrator falls apart. The story is based on Turgenev's bittersweet childhood memories - Turgenev was at age 15 indeed in love with a woman who had an affair with his father.

The Torrents of Spring (1871) - The melancholy reminiscences of a superfluous man, a story of romantic regret. In Germany, the narrator falls in love with a beautiful, pure Italian girl, Gemma. He fights a duel for her with German officers who have insulted her and so wins her love (she was originally engaged to a stiff German "with good prospects"). They decide to marry. In order to make that possible, he travels to a neighboring city where a large Russian community is, to sell his estate. An old acquaintance introduces him to his wife, Polozova, who has an independent fortune. She is a dark vampish woman and after toying with him for a few days, she manages to seduce the narrator, something she had put a bet on with her husband. The narrator is lost in dream of lust and becomes one of a group of admirers she has constantly around her. He never meets Gemma again and after many years returns to Russia, his life in shambles. Then, when finding a keepsake, he remembers Gemma and is consumed by immense regret. By the way, in this story Turgenev satirizes the Germans, who had become arrogant after their victory in the war with France (1870). Turgenev had lived for many years in Baden-Baden, but as the atmosphere had become uncongenial, he now moved to Paris, as did the Viardots.
See my post about this beautiful story.
Interesting series of articles about the literature of Turgenev (German)