The Novels of Turgenev

Virginia Woolf

Rather more than fifty years ago Turgenev died in Paris and was buried in Russia, appropriately it may seem if we remember how much he owed to France and yet how profoundly he belonged to his own land. The influence of both countries is to be felt if we look at his photograph for a moment before reading his books. The magnificent figure in the frock coat of Parisian civilization seems to be looking through the houses far away, sadly and patiently, at some wider view. “C’est un colosse charmant, un doux géant aux cheveux blancs, qui a l’air du bienveillant génie d’une montagne ou d’une forêt. II est beau, grandement beau, énormément beau, avec du bleu du ciel dans les yeux, avec le charme du chantonnement de l’accent russe, de cette cantilène où il y a un rien de l’enfant et du nègre,” the brothers Goncourt wrote of him when they met him at dinner in 1863. And Henry James noted later the great physical splendor, the Slav languor and “the air of neglected strength, as if it had been part of his modesty never to remind himself that he was strong. He used sometimes to blush like a boy of sixteen.” Perhaps something of the same combination of qualities is to be found if we turn to his books.

At first, after years of absence it may be, they seem to us a little thin, slight, and sketch-like in texture. Take “Rudin” for instance—the reader will place it in the French school, among the copies rather than the originals, with the feeling that the writer has set himself an admirable model but in following it has sacrificed something of his own character and force. But the superficial impression is replaced as the pages are turned by one that is deeper and sharper. The scene has a size out of all proportion to its length. It expands in the mind and lies there giving off fresh ideas, emotions, and pictures much as a moment in real life will sometimes yield its meaning long after it has passed. We notice that though the people talk in the most natural speaking voices what they say is always unexpected; the meaning goes on after the sound has stopped. Moreover, they do not have to speak in order to make us feel their presence: “Volintsev started and raised his head, as though he had just waked up”—we had felt him there though he had not spoken. And when in some pause we look out of the window, the emotion is returned to us, deepened, because it is given through another medium, by the trees or the clouds, by the barking of a dog, or the song of a nightingale. Thus we are surrounded on every side—by the talk, by the silence, by the look of things. The scene is extraordinarily complete.

It is easy to see that in order to gain this simplicity and complexity Turgenev has gone through a long struggle of elimination beforehand. He knows all about his people so that when he writes he chooses only what is most salient without apparent effort. But when we have finished “Rudin,” “Fathers and Children,” “Smoke,” “On the Eve,” and the others, many questions suggest themselves to which it is not so easy to find an answer. They are so short and yet they hold so much. The emotion is so intense and yet so calm. The form is in one sense so perfect, yet in another so broken. They are about Russia in the Fifties and Sixties of the last century, and yet they are about ourselves at the present moment. Can we, then, find out from Turgenev himself what principles guided him—had he, for all his seeming ease and lightness, some drastic theory of art? A novelist, of course, lives so much deeper down than a critic that his statements are apt to be contradictory and confusing; they seem to break in process of coming to the surface, and not to hold together in the light of reason. Still, Turgenev was much interested in the art of fiction, and one or two of his sayings may help us to clarify our impressions of the famous novels. Once, for example, a young writer brought him the manuscript of a novel to criticise. Turgenev objected that he had made his heroine say the wrong thing. “What, then, ought she to have said?”, the author asked. Turgenev exploded. “Trouver l’expression propre, c’est votre affaire!” But, the youth objected, he could not find it. “Eh bien! vous devez la trouver…. Ne pensez pas que je sais l’expression et que je ne veux pas vous la dire. Trouver, en la cherchant, une expression propre est impossible: elle doit couler de source. Quelquefois même, il faut créer l’expression ou le mot.” And he advised him to put away his manuscript for a month or so when the expression might come to him. If not—“Si vous n’y arrivez pas, cela voudra dire que vous ne ferez jamais rien qui vaille.” So that it would seem that Turgenev is among those who hold that the right expression, which is of the utmost importance, is not to be had by observation, but comes from the depths unconsciously. You cannot find by looking. But then again he speaks of the novelist’s art, and now he lays the greatest emphasis upon the need of observation. The novelist must observe everything exactly, in himself and in others. “La douleur passera et la page excellente reste.” And he must observe as impartially, as objectively as possible. “Si l’étude de la physionomie humaine, de la vie d’autrui vous intéresse plus que l’expression de vos propres sentiments et de vos propres idées,… s’il vous est, par exemple, plus agréable de peindre justement et exactement l’extérieur non seulement de l’homme, mais encore d’une chose ordinaire, que de dire élégamment et chaudement ce que vous ressentez à l’aspect de cette chose ou de cet homme, ça veut dire que vous êtes écrivain objectif et que vous pouvez entreprendre un conte ou un roman.” But still the accurate and dispassionate observer is only at the beginning of his task; “il faut encore lire, toujours étudier, approfondir tout ce qui entoure, non seulement tâcher de saisir la vie dans toutes ses manifestations, mais encore la comprendre, comprendre les lois d’après lesquelles elle se meut et qui ne se montrent pas toujours.” That was how he himself worked before he grew old and lazy, he said. But one has need of strong muscles to do it, he remarked, nor, if we consider what he is asking, can we accuse him of exaggeration.

Turgenev's books are curiously of our own time, undecayed, and complete in themselves.

He is asking the novelist to do things that are different—that seem incompatible. He has to see the fact itself and to interpret its meaning. Crude as the statement is, it serves perhaps to throw some light upon the famous novels. The qualities that we find in them seem to be the result of this double vision. Turgenev is doing two very different things at the same time. His eye is insatiable; it observes everything. Solomin’s gloves were “white chamois-leather gloves, recently washed, every finger of which had stretched at the tip and looked like a finger-biscuit.” But the observer is never allowed to heap up facts indiscriminately; the interpreter is at his elbow to insist that each shall be relevant to the idea or to the character. On the other hand, the interpreter is never allowed to mount unchecked into the realms of imagination; the observer pulls him back and reminds him of the other truth—the truth of fact. The two partners work in closest alliance. Thus we get the impression that we are looking at the same thing from two different angles; and that is why the short chapters seem to hold so much. They contain so many contrasts. On one and the same page we have irony and passion; the poetic and the commonplace; a tap drips and a nightingale sings. And yet though the scene is made up of contrasts, it remains the same scene; our impressions are all relevant to one another.

Such balance, of course, between two very different faculties is extremely rare, especially in English fiction, and demands some sacrifices. The great characters, with whom we are so familiar in our literature, the Micawbers, the Pecksniffs, the Becky Sharps, will not flourish under such supervision; they need more license; they must be allowed to dominate and perhaps to destroy other competitors. With the possible exception of Bazarov in “Fathers and Children” and of Harlov in “A Lear of the Steppes” no one character in Turgenev’s novels stands out above and beyond the rest, so that we remember him apart from the book. The Rudins, the Lavretskys, the Litvinovs, the Elenas, the Lisas, the Mariannas shade off into each other, making, with all their variations one subtle and profound type rather than several distinct and highly individualized men and women. Then again, the poet novelists, like Emily Brontë, Hardy, or Melville, to whom facts are symbols, certainly give us a more overwhelming and passionate experience in “Wuthering Heights” or “The Return of the Native,” or “Moby Dick” than any that Turgenev offers us. And yet what Turgenev offers us often affects us as poetry, and his books are perhaps more completely satisfying than the others. They are curiously of our own time, undecayed, and complete in themselves.

For the other quality that Turgenev possesses in so great a degree is the rare gift of symmetry, of balance. He gives us in comparison with other novelists a generalized and balanced picture of life. And this is not only because his scope is wide—he shows us different societies, the peasant’s, the intellectual’s, the aristocrat’s, the merchant’s—but because we are conscious of some further control and harmony. Yet directly we have said this we are reminded, perhaps by reading “A House of Gentlefolk,” that such symmetry is not the result of a supreme gift for story-telling. Turgenev, on the contrary, often tells a story very badly. There are loops and circumlocutions in his narrative. “We must ask the reader’s permission to break off the thread of our story for a time,” he will say. And then for fifty pages or so we are involved in great grandfathers and great grandmothers much to our confusion until we are back with Lavretsky at O—“where we parted from him and where we will now ask the indulgent reader to return with us.” The good story-teller, who sees his book as a succession of events, would never have suffered that interruption. But Turgenev did not see his books as a succession of events; he saw them as a succession of emotions radiating from some character at the centre. A Bazarov, a Harlov seen in the flesh perhaps once in the corner of a railway carriage, becomes of paramount importance and acts as a magnet which has the power to draw things mysteriously belonging, though apparently incongruous, together. The connection is not of events but of emotions, and if at the end of the book we feel a sense of completeness, it must be that in spite of his defects as a story-teller Turgenev’s ear for emotion was so fine that even if he uses an abrupt contrast, or passes from his people to the sky, or to the forest, all is held together by the truth of his insight. He never distracts us with the real incongruity, which is the introduction of an emotion that is false.

The man who speaks is not a prophet clothed with thunder but a seer who tries to understand.

It is for this reason that his novels make us feel so intensely. His heroes and heroines are among the few fictitious characters of whose love we are convinced. It is a passion of extraordinary purity and intensity. The love of Elena for Insarov, her anguish when he fails to come, her despair when she seeks refuge in the chapel; the death of Bazarov, and the sorrow of his old father and mother—remain in the mind like actual experiences. And yet, strangely enough, the individual never dominates; many other things seem to be going on at the same time. We hear the hum of life in the fields; a horse champs his bit; a butterfly circles and settles on a flower. And as we notice without seeming to notice life going on, we feel more intensely for the men and women themselves because they are not the whole of life, but only a part of it. Something of this, of course, is due to the fact that Turgenev’s people are profoundly conscious of what is outside themselves. “What is my youth for, what am I living for, why have I a soul, what is it all for?” Elena asks in her diary. The question is always on their lips. It lends a profundity to talk that is otherwise light, amusing, full of exact observation. Turgenev is never, as in England he might have become, merely the historian of manners. But not only do his lovers question the aim of their own lives, but they brood over the problem of Russia. The intellectuals are always working for Russia; they sit up arguing about the future of Russia till the dawn rises over the eternal samovar. “They worry and worry away at that unlucky subject, as children chew away at a bit of india-rubber,” Potugin remarks in “Smoke.” Turgenev among the chimney pots of Paris still has the vision of the steppes before his eyes—he has the almost morbid sensibility that comes from a feeling of inferiority and suppression. And yet he never allows himself to become a partisan, a mouthpiece. Irony never deserts him. There is always the other side—the contrast. It is a difficult business, he hints, to know the people, not merely to study them. The intellectual who tries to simplify himself, like Nezhdanov, is apt to be ridiculous. Moreover, though Turgenev could have said with Marianna, “I suffer for all the oppressed, the poor, the wretched in Russia,” it was for the good of the cause, just as it was for the good of his art, not to expatiate, not to explain. “Non, quand tu as énoncé le fait, n’insiste pas. Que le lecteur le discute et le comprenne lui-même. Croyez-moi, c’est mieux clans l’intérêt même des idées qui vous sont chères.” Thus he stood outside; he laughed at the intellectuals; he showed up the inconclusiveness of their arguments and the sublime folly of their attempts. But his emotion affects us all the more powerfully now because of that aloofness.

Yet if this method was partly the result of discipline and theory no theory, as Turgenev’s novels abundantly prove, is able to go to the root of the matter and eliminate the artist himself; his temperament remains ineradicable. Nobody, we say over and over again as we read him, even in translations, could have written this except Turgenev. His birth, his race, the impressions of his childhood pervade everything that he wrote. Nevertheless, though temperament is fated and inevitable, the writer has a choice and a very important one, in the use he makes of it. I he must be; but there are many different I’s in the same person. Shall he be the I who has suffered this slight, that injury, who desires to impose his own personality, to acquire power and popularity, or shall he suppress that I in favor of the one who sees, as far as he can, impartially and honestly, with what is most final in himself? Turgenev had no doubt about his choice; he refused to write “élégamment et chaudement ce que vous ressentez à l’aspect de cette chose ou de cet homme.”

He used the other self, the self which is so rid of superfluities that it is almost impersonal in its intense individuality; that self of which he speaks in describing Violetta the actress: “She had thrown aside everything subsidiary, everything superfluous, and found herself; a rare, a lofty delight for an artist! She had suddenly crossed the limit, which is impossible to define, beyond which is the abiding place of beauty.” That is why his books are still so much of our own time; no hot and personal feeling has made the emotion local and transitory; the man who speaks is not a prophet clothed with thunder but a seer who tries to understand. Of course, there are weaknesses. One grows old and lazy, as he said; sometimes his books are slight, confused and perhaps sentimental. But they hold good for us now because he chose to write with the most fundamental part of his being as a writer; nor, for all his irony and aloofness, do we ever doubt the depth of his feeling.

Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) was an English novelist and essayist, known especially for Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, and A Room of One’s Own.
Originally published:
December 1, 1933


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