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Do not think badly of me if I reveal my favourite Russian author is neither Leo Tolstoy nor Fyodor Dostoevsky. Following my heart and not my head, as always, I have allowed a considerable amount of space in my world for a Russian novelist who is considered not-so-great - Ivan Turgenev.

I love Turgenev because unlike most Russian writers in the first half of the 19th century who focused on male characters, with women acting as flowery wallpaper, Turgenev created women who were strong and independent. Elizaveta Kalitina from ‘A Nest of Gentlefolk,’ and Natalya Lasunskaya from the novel ‘Rudin’ are all educated women who have grown up in rural surroundings and are not constrained by secular conventions. They are capable of real actions for the sake of love. Above all, they appreciate a man’s genuine nature, and not his ostentatious outer shell society deemed as proper.

But this does not mean Turgenev approved of women who went to extremes and who, thereby appeared ludicrous. Kukshina from the novel Fathers and Sons is a caricature of the overly emancipated woman. She smokes, tries unnaturally to be like a man, and makes random quotes from high-brow literature that always miss the mark. “I’m free, I have no children,” declares Kukshina, which, from a conservative perspective, is almost a sacrilegious statement.

In ‘Fathers and Sons’ Turgenev also raises a question that speaks to all times and nations: the contradictions and antagonisms between parents and children, between two different generations that are intractable; one side is from the North Pole, the other from the South.

The literary ‘hot potato’ that was ‘Fathers and Sons’ also opened the eyes of the public to the existence of nihilists – people who deny all religion and social etiquette, and even love (“It’s chemistry, nothing more” says Bazarov of that most exalted emotion in the universe).

What’s more, Turgenev introduced the term “superfluous man” an intellectual skeptic who feels superior to others. He portrayed them in many of his works, in particular, Bazarov in ‘Fathers and Sons’, Lavretsky in ‘A Nest of Gentlefolk,’ and Chulkaturin in ‘The Diary of a Superfluous Man.’

Moreover, in his collection of stories ‘The Hunting Sketches’, he shone a light on the oppressed Russian people, politicized the diligence and kind-hardheartedness of ordinary people, and described their terrible suffering at the hands of tyrannical landowners.

Needless to say, among all his stories, my favourite is ‘Fathers and Sons,’ a 200-page book that explains just about everything you need to know about families, love, heartache, religion, duels and the institution of serfdom in 19th-century Russia.

The novel’s two main characters are Arkady and Bazarov. They are the “sons” in the title, back from university in St. Petersburg to visit their families in the hinterland. Bazarov is a nihilist, whose friends discuss topics such as “Is marriage a prejudice or a crime?” Arkady has fallen under Bazarov’s spell, but he’s still deeply attached to his kind, loving father, a very minor and incompetent landholder, who laments his son’s new urbanity. “I’ve fallen behind, he’s gone ahead,” the father says, which could be the lament of any sensitive father whose kid has just come home from his or her first year in university.

In the meantime, the young people do the things young people do. Even the seemingly heartless Bazarov who renounces everything but scientific progress, manages to lose his heart to a cold but highly intelligent widow named Odintsova, while Arkady arouses the attentions of her sweet sister Katya. As a character in a comedy might say: Katya loves Arkady, Arkady loves Bazarov, Bazarov loves Odintsova, Odintsova loves Odintsova.

Bazarov may be a man of the future who says chivalry is a kind of deformity and tries to make friends with the peasants, but in their eyes he’s just a simple buffoon who could never understand their hardships. In the end, Turgenev’s gift is his enormous compassion. In ‘Fathers and Sons,’ no one is right and no one is wrong. Some people are laughable to be sure, but Turgenev’s psychological reach is so great that we never feel derision for anyone. Bazarov may cringe at the institution of the family, but his homecoming and the simple, unwavering, comically inept love of his parents, form some of the most heartwarming scenes in Russian literature. When Bazarov finally meets his end (I won’t reveal how), the devastation his parents feel is so complete one may be compelled to close the book before reaching its final pages.

As writer Gary Shteyngart says talking about his favourite book, “If there’s a real villain in ‘Fathers and Sons,’ it’s not the Czarist government or the herd of fashionable poseurs with their clever ideas, it is life itself in all its cruelty, randomness, indifference and, most of all, its brevity.”

Close friends with Flaubert, Turgenev, who never married, became a familiar figure in the literary circles of France, where he died on September 3, 1883, near Paris, after a year battling spinal cancer. He was 64. The question is, how did the restless man about town, famous for his sketches and his extensive travels, turn to fiction? Here’s how. An obituary he wrote on the death of Nikolai Gogol in 1852, the same year that saw the publication of his collected ‘Notes of a Hunter,’ proved so contentious that it was banned and resulted in Turgenev being exiled for two years to his estate of Spasskoye-Lutovinovo. There he wrote four extraordinary novels — ‘Rudin,’ ‘Home of the Gentry,’ ‘On the Eve,’ and ‘Fathers and Sons’ — as well as the novella ‘First Love.’

According to his critics, Turgenev was an instinctive stylist who created his characters by infiltrating their psyches and, crucially, examined their behavior. His interest in Western European culture outraged Dostoevsky, but he became an inspiration for Henry James, who referred to Turgenev as “the beautiful genius.” Turgenev’s influence on Chekhov is obvious. And if one were asked to nominate a work that immediately suggests the Russian master among Western literature, the answer would be ‘The Great Gatsby.’ Nick Carraway could easily be a character created by Turgenev.

More than two hundred years after his birth, Turgenev remains revered — an artist capable of dissecting human emotions with a delicate, candid brutality. For, in Turgenev’s eyes, the artist can only hope to teach “by giving the world images of beauty,” which he did in melancholic narratives that achieve the profundity of, in my eyes, John Lennon’s ‘Imagine.’

Compared with the (literal) cut-throats and madmen in Dostoevsky’s lengthy novels, Turgenev’s stories are mild. Undoubtedly he was one of the nicest of the Russian writers.

Hence my undying love for Turgenev and his Bazarov – the young man who might not have achieved great things, but who refuses to toe the line and who knew his own insignificance so poignantly. Here’s Bazarov voicing the thoughts of all of us who have grave doubts about what we are supposed to do in this wild wide universe.

“I’m lying here in a haystack... The tiny space I occupy is so infinitesimal in comparison with the rest of space, which I don’t occupy and which has no relation to me. And the period of time in which I’m fated to live is so insignificant beside the eternity in which I haven’t existed and won’t exist... And yet in this atom, this mathematical point, blood is circulating, a brain is working, desiring something... What chaos! What a farce!”

In my view, Bazarov is second only to Martin Wickramasinghe’s Aravinda.


 

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