“Sketches From a Hunter’s Album” by Ivan Turgenev

“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.

056Perhaps 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.

18 responses to this post.

  1. This is a warming evocation of Turgenev, a writer I’m guilty of ignoring over the more bombastic Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Thanks for writing this.


    • I don’t think you’re the only one guilty of ignoring Turgenev in favour of the other two: I often describe myself as a fan of Russian literature, and yet I have barely touched Turgenev now since my first acquaintance many, many years ago. i really do need to put that right!


  2. Thank you for appreciating Turgenev. Not that he needs any help from us, but I am glad there are a few of us who do value him. He was probably the first of the great Russians that I read, a translation of Sportsman’s Sketches (as it was called then) many years ago. I went on to enjoy many more of his stories and from him on to Tolstoy and others.

    Turgenev also gives me the feeling of knowing, understanding and loving Russia, but also of having seen and known another world, as indeed he had. To me, it suggests that he didn’t see Russia’s best future as coming only from Russia, but as based on a more universal understanding.


    • I’m sorry to say that I myself have not valued Turgenev as I should have done: while I have been frequently revisiting the likes of Gogol, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, etc., Turgenev on the whole tends to get overlooked. I really have to remedy this..


  3. Posted by Carl McLuhan on August 1, 2014 at 4:16 am

    Thanks for posting this interesting introduction to Turgenev, Himadri. I will confess that I haven’t read him yet, so I went digging into my library and came up with the following: 1) Fathers and Sons, trans. Avril Pyman & W.R.S. Ralston
    2) Liza by the same trans.
    3) First Love and other tales, trans. David Magarshack

    Can you comment upon these translators? And these works? For starters, would you recommend any of these?


    • The Ralston translation of “Liza” is about a hundred years old now, I believe. the title “Liza” is Ralston’s: Constance Garnett translated it as (I think) “A Nest of Gentlefolk”, while Richard Freeborn in his Penguin edition goes for “A Nest of the Gentry”.

      I remember a few years ago starting to read Avril Pyman’s translation of “Fathers and Sons”, but found the dialogue rather stilted; I switched to my old Penguin edition translated by Rosemary Edmonds, and that read far better. (Of course, I am in no position to say which is closer to the original, but I find it hard to believe that Turgenev’s dialogue is as awkward as it appeared in Pyman’s translation.

      The rosemary Edmonds version has now been replaced with a translation by peter Carson (which i have not read); meanwhile, Richard Freeborn’s translation in Oxford World Classics – if it is as good as his translation of “Sketches From a Hunter’s Album” – should be worth a look. There are a few other modern translations of “fathers and Sons”.

      Of the earlier novels, Penguin offer is “Rudin” and “A nest of the Gentry”” translated by Richard freeborn, and “On the Eve” translated by Gilbert Gardner. They all read very well – but it has, admittedly, been many years since I last read them. And I shal lcertainly be rushing out to get the new translations of teh later novels – “Smoke” and “Virgin Soil” – by Michael Pursglove in Alma Classics.

      For the short novels, there is a translation of “Spring Torrents” by Leonard Shapiro in Penguin Classics; and one of “First love” by Isaiah Berlin, no less. I’m afraid “First love” is the only one I have read. There’s a very useful collection of many of his short novels, including “First love”, in Oxford World Classics, translated by Richard Freeborn.

      I must also read his play “A Month in the Country”. I have Stephen Mulrine’s translation of that, and I’d better get round to reading it soon.

      As I say, I can’t comment on the accuracy of any of these translations, as I know no Russian. generally, I prefer recent translations to the older ones, but would be glad to have a few recommendations from those who do know these works in the original.


  4. Lovely write…right, you got me started – ‘Sketches from a Hunter’s Album…’ Freeborn …Still can’t face the half dozen Sholokov hardbacks tho…blimey. I have inherited a case full of the stuff…


  5. A nice overview of the collection and Turgenev. I looked back at my notes on Sketches and I can’t believe it has been 5 years since I read them…they still feel fairly fresh in my mind.

    In my summary I ran across Turgenev’s apt description of this collection: “Much has come out pale and scrappy, much is only just hinted at, some of it’s not — right, oversalted or undercooked — but there are other notes pitched exactly right and not out of tune, and it is these notes that will save the whole book.”

    I think there’s more “notes pitched exactly right” than he hints at.


    • Oh – Turgenev was being a bit severe on himself there!

      It’s true, I guess, that not every sketch is of the same high standard, but I don’t think there was any I didn’t enjoy reading. And as you say, there are more “pitched exactly right” than he hints at.


  6. I am guilty of only reading “Fathers and Sons”. I didn’t know Turgenev was depicted in Dostoevsky’s “Demons”. I wonder which character.
    Your excellent review has inspired me to look this book up and buy it. Thanks!!
    I also would now like to read more on the history of the serfs in Russia. Gruesome!


  7. I’ve read only First Love by Turgenev, about a year ago, but I found I liked him immediately – his quietness and his lack of insistence and his perceptive sympathy. It’s interesting that you find his descriptions of the landscape so memorable, as I think apart from the impassioned plea to Youth at the end of First Love, it was the subtle and beautiful description of the distant lightning which the narrator sees from an upstair’s window that I remember most (this part actually reminded me of Lawrence, where evocative descriptions of external Nature are used to symbolise something deep within a character: I remember Walter Allen called this sort of symbolism the rarest sort of artistic creation, claiming that it was ‘everywhere’ in Lawrence.)

    Anyhow, your piece certainly makes me want to read more Turgenev.


    • I am afraid I am rather ignorant of Turgenev myself: I read his full-length novels and “First Love” back in my teenage years, when I was busy gobbling up as much as I could find of 19th century Russian literature, but, “Fathers and Sons” excepted, I haven’t returned to any of them. I really need to reacquaint myself with this obviously great writer, and also to read the various other works of his that i have so far been neglecting.


  8. […] Argumentative Old Git has a lovely essay on the “disconcertingly sane” Turgenev, reviewing Richard Freeborn’s 1967-1990 translation of Sketches from a Hunter’s Album […]


  9. You make an excellent case for him, and count me as one of the many who though aware of him have neglected him.

    The epiphany to my mind is a perfectly fine literary tool, but one whose ubiquity has become an absolute burden on the contemporary short story. It’s so bloody predictable in terms of structure, even if the actual epiphany itself might not be from story to story.

    Still, clearly a warm and human collection. I’ll pick up a copy.


    • I’d certainly like to read more Turgenev novels. The problem, as ever, is finding the time, given how much else I have on my to-be-read list… As well as the novels, I want to read his shorter fiction (“King Lear of the Steppes”, “Spring Torrents”, etc.) And I’d be very keen to read the play A Month in the Country, which is often regarded as a forerunner to the plays of Chekhov. All of these are currently on my shelves, looking down at me accusingly…

      But yes, Turgenev was “warm and human”, as you say.


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