“Sketches From a Hunter’s Album” by Ivan Turgenev, translated by Richard Freeborn, published by Penguin Classics
While Turgenev is generally recognised as among the major European novelists of the 19th century, his work seems curiously under-appreciated. Few readers – even knowledgeable readers – seem to have read, or even for that matter know about, any of his novels apart from Fathers and Sons and, possibly, First Love. His last two full-length novels, Smoke and Virgin Soil, aren’t even easy to get hold of in English: the translations I have – by, respectively, Rochelle Townsend and Natalie Duddington – seem to have been, till very recently, the only translations available, and they both date back several decades. The more recent translations of these works, by Michael Pursglove, seem to have passed by virtually unnoticed.
Perhaps it is Turgenev’s misfortune to have been both contemporary and compatriot of Dostoyevsky and of Tolstoy: it is difficult making oneself heard when flanked by two such thunderous voices. And what makes it worse is that Turgenev’s own voice is gentle, and refined: he is not one for shouting, or for drawing attention to himself. But once one has adjusted one’s ears to the lower volume, his voice, one finds, is firm, and eloquent, and often deeply lyrical. And disconcertingly sane. No visionary moments of epiphany, no delving into the mysterious recesses of the human consciousness, no mad questioning into the nature of the universe, no vast epics encompassing movements of entire peoples, but, rather, a gentleness, a level-headedness, and a moderation that, in comparison with the work of his compatriots, can appear at first glance merely insipid.
But if insipidity is indeed the reader’s first impression, it is a very mistaken one. For Turgenev’s moderation is a passionate moderation, a consequence not of aloofness nor of indifference, nor yet of cautiousness, but of a passionate belief that only through moderation can the truth be apprehended. Certainly the picture of Turgenev that emerges in Isaiah Berlin’s essay on Fathers and Sons (it is included in the excellent collection Russian Thinkers) is that of a quite remarkable man. He had grown up in an aristocratic family that treated its serfs – in effect, slaves – with horrendous cruelty: his maternal grandmother had once murdered a serf boy with her own hands simply because she was annoyed with him, and, he being her property, she could do as she pleased with him without being answerable to anyone. Turgenev’s mother was, from all accounts, also a monster: as a boy, Turgenev witnessed regularly the most atrocious cruelties inflicted routinely on serfs. He knew full well, from first hand observation, the institutionalised horrors of Russian society, and longed for radical change. And yet, at the same time, what the radicals had to offer horrified him. Moderation became for him not merely a default position, but a moral duty. Naturally, as a sane voice in an insane world, he was reviled from all sides. Relations with Tolstoy were never particularly warm, while Dostoyevsky excoriated him on every possible occasion – while not being above, it seems, borrowing money from him – and caricatured him very cruelly and unfairly (although, admittedly, also very funnily) as the author Karmazinov in Demons.
It was with Sketches From a Hunter’s Album, written mainly in the late 1840s and early 1850s (with a few extra additions some 20 years afterwards), that he first made his name. These short pieces are, as he insisted, sketches rather than stories: quite frequently, Turgenev is content depicting a situation without feeling the need to extend or to develop it. Rarely is there anything that we may understand as a plot: when a character is described, it is not so that the reader can understand the character’s subsequent actions: rather, the description is an end in itself. We don’t even always get an epiphany, as Joyce was later to call it – some moment of revelation that becomes the crux of the story: a situation is been described, and characters are presented, and that, for Turgenev, is enough. However, it is noticeable that the additions made to this series in the 1870s are very different in nature: in these later sketches, there is most certainly a narrative arc, and, on occasion, narrative tension; but it is hard to say whether this change came about because Turgenev had now become more adept at storytelling, or because he had merely lost the ability to maintain interest without narrative. A bit of both, perhaps. The earlier and the later stories are different in nature, but there isn’t, I think, any question of either being superior to the other.
The sketches are written in the first person: the narrator is, like Turgenev himself, one of the landed gentry. He is also a keen hunter, who travels far and wide with his servant looking for some good shooting; and the sketches tell of the various people whom he meets in the course of his travels. These people he meets with are landowners, often on the lower end of the social scale; and peasants , serfs – or, in plain English, slaves. Possibly Turgenev is the only major Russian writer of his times to depict the lives of peasants: even in Tolstoy’s panoramic novels, peasants appear mainly as peripheral characters. Tolstoy did, admittedly, depict peasants in his later shorter works, but by that stage his fiction had become too didactic to allow for objective depiction. There’s little didacticism, however, in Turgenev’s depictions in these sketches. This is not because Turgenev did not feel strongly about the oppression of the peasantry, but rather because he was not by nature a didactic writer: using fiction to preach was not an aspect of his aesthetics. Of course, one could depict the cruelties and injustices without explicitly preaching, but even here, Turgenev had to be careful: stories critical, even implicitly, of the social order would not have got past the Czarist censors. However, one doesn’t need to read too deeply between the lines to get some picture of the relationships between serfs and masters:
Arkady Pavlich poured himself a glass of red wine, raied it to his lipe and suddenly frowned.
“Why has this wine not been warmed?” he inquired of one of the manservants in a fairly sharp voice.
The man was confused, stood rooted to the spot and turned pale.
“Well, I am asking you, my dear chap,” Arkady Pavlich continued quietly, without taking his eyes off him.
– from “Bailiff”
The detail of the servant turning pale tells us all we really need to know.
Although the oppression and the cruelties are never far away, it is not really the central purpose of these sketches to highlight these matters, either explicitly or implicitly: Turgenev was not writing a Russian version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He was interested in these characters not as props for an ideology, but as people. And he is interested also in the landscape in which they live. I don’t think I have ever come across descriptions of light and of landscape that are quite so sheerly beautiful as the ones Turgenev gives us here: the beauty of the prose comes through even in translation (and of course, translator Richard Freeborn deserves much credit for this). The light in the forest steadily diminishing as evening falls; a hot summer day on the plains turning into darkness; the rivers, the woods, the skies – these depictions are not mere scene-setting, but integral parts of these sketches. This focus on the joys and sorrows ordinary people, and on the beauty of the landscape they inhabit, may even remind the Anglophone reader of Wordsworth, but Turgenev does not find in them, nor even seek, intimations of immortality: he is happy to see the landscape just for what it is, and take delight in it for what it is. Unlike his two great contemporaries, Turgenev’s vision of life, as far at least as may be judged from these sketches, was not in any sense religious.
And in some stories, there is, indeed, great delight. In “Bezhin Lea”, for instance, one of the most famous of these sketches, the opening pages are given to the most exquisite description I think I have read of landscape and light: there is no narrative as such, nothing in particular that the story is aiming towards – the delight is simply in the glorious representation in prose of the visible world. Then, after darkness falls, the narrator comes across a small group of peasant lads keeping watch over their flocks by night; and he spends the night with them, listening to the stories and the bits of folklore the boys exchange with each other. And that is it: that is the whole story. No build-up of tension, no climax – nothing of that nature: not even some sort of revelation, some Joycean epiphany. And there is something about it that is very warm and open-hearted, and generous of spirit. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky may have presented visions of greater depth and breadth, but one can’t help feeling that it is Turgenev who is the most companionable of this trio.
And yet, his picture of the peasants is by no means idealised. In, for instance, one of the later stories, “The End of Chertopkhanov”, the main character hears a hubbub in the near distance, and asks a peasant woman, who is sitting with a child and apparently unconcerned about the rumpus, what is going on:
“The Lord knows, sir,” the old woman mentioned and, leaning forward, placed her dark, wrinkled hand on the little boy’s head. “It sounds like our lads are beatin’ up a Jew.”
“What d’you mean – a Jew? What Jew?”
“The Lord knows, sir. Some Jew’s dropped in here. Who knows where he’s come from. Varya, to Mum now, there’s a good boy. Shoo, shoo, you bad thing!”
The old woman shooed away the chick and Varya seized hold of her skirt.
“So there they are, beatin’ him up, my good sir.”
“Why? What for?”
“I dunno, sir. Probably it’s over some business. An’ why shouldn’t he be beaten? Didn’t he crucify Christ, sir?”
A Zola might have given us a horrific detailed description of the beating itself, but there’s something utterly chilling about Turgenev’s handling of the scene that no direct description could, I think, match.
The stories range from the comic and satiric to the ironic, the sad, and, at times, the tragic. A composite picture emerges of a section of Russian society that I don’t think I have found in the works of any other Russian writer. And through it all shines the genuine decency and gentleness of the narrator. Perhaps the most touching of these sketches in “An Old Relic”, in which the narrator comes across a peasant woman whom he had previously known as a beautiful and lively young girl, but who is now paralysed after a freak accident, and spends all her life in bed, living on the charity of other peasants, and uncomplainingly waiting for death. Turgenev endows her with a nobility and a heroism. He does so not to make a point, but because he genuinely loves people. For all the evils depicted in these sketches, it is this love of the landscape, of people, and, indeed, of life itself, that comes through most strongly in this remarkable collection.