Friday, 28 December 2012

We are the Nihilists - Ivan Turgenev: Fathers and Sons.

Being both the things in the title of this 19th Century Russian Novel and as I am currently meandering through the works of old Fyodor Dost I thought I would make a pitstop at one of his contemporaries (and eventual enemies) Turgenev and this influential work.

I didn't really know what to expect of it but the title does give a clue.  Forget about the Andrew Marr sanctioned view of  Sunday Night TV 20th century history of the 1950s being the era of the "birth" of the teenager this 1862 work blows up the generational gap that was present in Tsarist Russia.  It also creates the role model for James Dean and er John Travolta in Grease's rebellious angry young man in Bazarov (probably).

Much is made that Turgenev popularised (or some would argue created) the term nihilist to describe Bazarov as someone who believes in nothing - thank you Big Lebowski!  But it is actually slightly inaccurate - the young medical student Bazarov does have beliefs essentially in the ultimate authority of rationalism.  That is to say he distrusts and rejects all elements of mysticism or romanticism whether in the form of religion (very controversial at the time) or poetry and art (ironically this would probably be more controversial today) and distills everything down to scientific experiment and reason.  In a sense Bazarov is the post French Revolution age of reason personified.

Leaving that aside because it would sound like Bazarov is purely allegorical a cypher to study these ideas and that would be very inaccurate.  He is a powerhouse of a character though who really dominates the work and the narrative arc, such as it is, revolves around him although the other "son" in the work provides the immediate focus - his friend Arkady.

What is quite refreshing in the book is that it is not really plot driven - a few incidents occur and Bazarov dies in the end in an understated way - but for a nineteenth century novel it is unusal in that it is really an exploration of character and theory.  I guess many radical Russians at that time used fiction as a method of expressing their political views as other ways were blocked by the Tsarist police state, even Dostoevsky although this altered into more spiritual and philosophical views.  Ivan T was definitely one of these - he dedicates his work to the Utopian Socialist radical literary critic - Belinsky.

The novel begins with Arkady returning home to see his widowed father a fairly small scale but wealthy landlord with Bazarov in tow.  In contrast Bazarov is not of the landed gentry - a critical distinction in feudal Russia - but his father is a doctor for the military.  Also thrown into the mix is Arkady's uncle Pavel a retired soldier who had had an obsession with a Princess which lead him to travel around 1800s Europe before returning home.

The timing of the work is also contemporary thus the emancipation of the serfs by Tsar Alexander II had just occured though the details of it all had yet to be worked out.  Thus we are in the midst of a transitional period - a fertile time for art.  What is significant that Arkady's father Nikolai (great name!) and Pavel are not really representatives of the worst elements of feudal society but the liberal wing of established society.  They believe in the emancipation, are influenced by European Romanticism.  Nikolai eventually becomes an official  arbitrator designed to regulate relations between the emancipated peasants and the landowners.  He also has a child with a peasant and eventually (though significantly not immediately) marries her.

But it is this liberalism that Bazarov and for a period Arkady most despises  - "we have decided not to do anything about anything" Bazarov proclaims at one point causing Pavel to shake with anger.  They want to smash things down and subject every institution in Russia to "complete and merciless condemnation".

Thus the older generation simplistically believe in limited reform which does not really challenge the status quo - seen in Nikolai's initial refusal to recognise his loving relationship with the peasant Fenechka - whereas the younger generation want to overthrow everything.

Bazarov has been labelled as the "first" Bolshevik and in many ways that is true.  Although the group were not around until 40 years later and even the birth of the general Marxist movement in Russia was in its extremely formative stage (Trivia fact: Turgenev had the same birth and death years as Marx!) what it shows is the tension between those tied to the power of the feudal state and working to maintain it even using liberal language and those who want to go much further.

It is that tension that lead Trotsky to come up with the concept of permanent revolution - essentially not trusting liberal elements of the Russian feudal state to introduce meaningful capitalist reform as was done in Western Europe in Holland and France and to some extent England.  And for Lenin - the guy who more than anyone formed the Bolsheviks - to argue when revolution did hit Russia to argue for "uninterrupted" revolution using the slogan All Power to the Soviets.  This exposed the closeness of even the Menshevik wing of the Socialist Movement in Russia to the state.

Through the arguments of this 1862 novel all of these tensions are there (quite incredibly).  In fact I saw an Unreported World on Channel 4 last week about Aung  San Suu Kyi trying to disarm a mass community movement against Chinese investment in Burmese capitalism using her liberal authority (well earned with her house arrest) and was reminded of that.

What is missing is that Bazarov has no vision of another society - in fact he rejects that which removes it from a traditional Marxist view - which remember was just being created at this time: Marx was  5 years away from writing Capital.  I also found significant Bazarov's attitude to the peasantry - although not part of the ruling order by not owning land he is elevated as is his father by their education - he is noted for being comfortable mixing with all classes.  But he has no romantic view of this group in fact he openly despises and derides their superstition and mystical nonsense.  This is in stark contrast to the Back to the Land attitude of the early Narodnik radicals in Russia who tended to romanticise the lifestyle of the peasants. Or indeed the "Mother Russia" idea of Dostoevsky of celebrating the unique-ness of Russian culture.  This again puts Bazarov back in the Bolshevik type.

In my view these political disputes and tensions are central to the work and give it an energy and modernist feel which is quite surprising but it is not the only thing within it.   We are introduced to Bazarov's parents  - poorer than Arkady's but still influenced by Russian society particularly the religion - Bazarov has dinner and plays cards with the local priest.  Both Arkady and Bazarov fall in love.  Arkady's love seems to bring him back to his father though rejecting the sharp rationalism of Bazarov.

Bazarov's putative relationship with the widow Anna Sergeevna is interesting as when he first views her he sees her as an object of lust - a possible physical conquest.  As he gets to know her though (as Arkady gets to know and fall in love with her younger sister) he struggles with his feelings of romantic love which he as a nihilist has rejected. His declaration of this is quite disastrous as he himself is not sure where these feelings have come from and are predictably rebuffed by Anna.  Significantly she marries at the end though not for romantic love but political support for a reforming politician and her attraction for Bazarov is largely due to his intellect and different viewpoint.

This part of the work shows Turgenev challenging Bazarov to an extent - it shows he did not fully buy into the philosophy of the "sons" - that maybe the Fathers did have some good elements.  This is also shown in Bazarov's death which he details in a  matter of fact way as he is infected when treating someone with Typhus and knows he is going to die - which he does at his parents' home.

There are also some good set pieces in the novel - a ridiculous duel scene between Bazarov and Pavel - how more symbolic a generational clash could you get; a few encounters with fairly strange fellow travellers of Bazarov. The translator of this Oxford World's Classics edition also does a good job with understated and funny phrasing where appropriate.  The edition of the work also has interesting background work - which shows how Turgenev had driven a background sketch of each character and a rudimentary plot line.  A method much utilised since - Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant did it in the Office for example.

The work was controversial with Dostoevsky and others seeing Turgenev's book as an attack on them and the liberal intelligentsia in Russia satisfied with the Emancipation Reforms.  The writers fell out soon after this. But I have to say FD must have seen the power of this novel - the style of writing and the economy of plot.  Having now read a lot of FD's early works this is much stronger than those with the exception of the semi-surreal piece the Double and parts of the Humiliated and Insulted.  Perhaps FD also saw this book as a challenge for him to lift his game.

For me this book symbolises the power of fiction which can cause heated discussion 150 years on in a way other things simply can't.  Or can cause me to garble on about it for 2 hours during my Christmas holiday - not sure if that is good or bad.  Impressive anyway, Ivan.

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