“Rudin” by Ivan Turgenev. Translated by Richard Freeborn, Penguin Classics
The “superfluous man” is a recurrent figure in Russian literature, especially in the writings of Turgenev, and the eponymous hero (if “hero” is the right word here, which it probably isn’t) of Turgenev’s first full-length novel is often considered the epitome of this curious character. He is a specifically Russian figure, so much so that Dostoyevsky once remarked that it is not possible for a non-Russian reader to understand Rudin. As a non-Russian who cannot even speak the language, I cannot tell whether or not I have adequately understood Rudin: I can only report on what I perceive, and trust those with a better understanding to correct me if I am wrong. But, for what it’s worth, my understanding of the character of the “superfluous man” is that he is intelligent, idealistic, and even passionate about his beliefs; he may, indeed, throw himself into various activities with the greatest of enthusiasm; but, for all that, he remains curiously detached from reality, and is, as a consequence, ineffectual. He is incapable of leaving behind any distinguishing mark, anything substantial. And he is intelligent enough to be aware of his ineffectuality, although unable to understand it.
Rudin himself was described by Turgenev as a mixture of Hamlet and Don Quixote. It is a curious mixture, and a paradoxical one: Hamlet and Don Quixote are – at least in simplified form – epitomes of, respectively, reflective inaction on the one hand, and unreflecting action on the other. And this apparent contradiction informs the figure of the superfluous man.
Turgenev had depicted the “superfluous man” before, most notably in the story “Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District” from Sketches from a Hunter’s Album. But here, in a full-length novel, the treatment is more extensive; and the greater space allows Turgenev also to depict more fully the context of the drama – the supporting cast, as it were. We are in a country estate, with a collection of various landowners, relatives, and hangers-on that we are all familiar with from the plays of Chekhov. Or, indeed, from Turgenev’s own A Month in the Country, the play he had written only a few years before this novel. Rudin seems very much conceived as a play, with a sequence of individual scenes depicting the characters interacting with each other, and both the characterisation and the action presented almost entirely through dialogue. Even when, having introduced Rudin as a character, Turgenev wants to tell us something of his past, instead of giving us a flashback, as might have been expected, he gives us a long narrative speech from someone who had known him earlier – exactly as he would have done had he been writing a play, Were it not for the occasional descriptive passage of luminous lyricism (I doubt there has been any other author who could match Turgenev when it comes to communicating of the beauties of nature), the reader may well be left wondering why this story hadn’t been written as a play in the first place, rather than as a novel.
The plot, such as it is, is very simple. Into a provincial country estate comes Rudin, who impresses everyone by his idealism, his eloquence and his intelligence; the young and impressionable daughter of the house predictably falls in love with him (inevitable echoes here of Pushkin’s Tatyana: it’s hard to come across any Russian novel that doesn’t have somewhere the ghosts of Pushkin or of Gogol); but, as time progresses, Rudin appears not quite so admirable as he previously had done, and by the time he leaves, under something of a cloud, general opinion has turned against him. As an epilogue, we see him again many years later – still idealistic, still eloquent, and still ineffectual; but now, he is sadly aware of his own failure, though unable to account for it.
And the question is left open for us also: why is Rudin such a failure? What can account for this paradoxical mixture of ardency and detachment? Is it, as Dostoyevsky thought, so specifically Russian a characteristic as to be inaccessible to the rest of us? Suspicious as I am of the very concept of unique national characteristics, I find myself unwilling to accept this. At some deeper level, I can sense that the seemingly contradictory aspects of Rudin to merge to form a unity, and yet, I am not sure how this happens: he remains to me an enigma. Unlike Oblomov in Goncharov’s novel, he is not lazy, either intellectually or physically; neither is he cowardly; and he certainly isn’t foolish. However, under certain circumstances, he can give the impression of being all three. I’d genuinely be interested to know if Russian readers find the character of Rudin as elusive as I do. I suspect he is an enigma regardless of the reader’s background: after all, he remains an enigma even to himself.
In other respects, the writing is masterly. Arguably, Turgenev introduces too many characters in the first chapter: this would not have been a problem in a play where the audience can distinguish the characters by sight, but in a prose narrative it’s a different matter, even when, as here, each character’s appearance is carefully described. However, I suppose allowances may be made for a first novel; and in any case, it isn’t long before one stops referring to the list of characters – the dramatis personae, in effect – that translator Richard Freeborn thoughtfully provides for us. The characters, once introduced, are all delineated and brought to life with the most economical of touches: there’s the impressionable young tutor, who has to keep to himself his dissatisfaction with the family he serves, and who becomes devoted to the idealist Rudin; there’s an ageing aristocratic widow, who is happy to have Rudin as a house guest and is a gracious hostess, but who knows where to draw the line; there’s a local landowner who is happy to live up to his reputation as an engaging eccentric, but who is in reality a boor and a bigot; and, perhaps most importantly, there’s a neighbouring landowner, Lezhnev, who comes closest to representing the authorial voice: he had known Rudin previously, and, initially unsympathetic to his former acquaintance, tries to distance himself; but when Rudin’s failure becomes apparent, his estimation of Rudin becomes more generous: a human cannot be judged, after all, purely on the basis of how effective they are. If Hamlet’s inaction is reprehensible, the depth of his thinking isn’t; if we regard as absurd Don Quixote’s inability to see reality for what it is, we may at least admire his nobility of spirit. Rudin, by the end, is a failure; but the failure, as far as Lezhnev (and, most likely, Turgenev) is concerned, is not contemptible.
The novel is short – it may even be described as a novella – and, rather like its protagonist, it remains a puzzle. But a most intriguing puzzle, all the same.