“On the Eve” by Ivan Turgenev, translated by Gilbert Gardiner, Penguin Classics
I wonder to what extent Turgenev was interested in plot. Not a lot, I’d guess, judging from his first three novels, since the central plotline in all three of them is more or less the same – a young girl with a sheltered upbringing in a provincial town awakens emotionally, and falls in love with a newcomer into the closed society she inhabits, but it all ends sadly. However, what is of interest is not so much the plot but what the author makes of it, and in these three novels, Turgenev uses this basic plotline to make quite different things. In his first full-length novel, Rudin, he had explored the character of the “superfluous man” – a man who is intelligent, articulate, and capable, but who is, nonetheless, curiously ineffective; his next novel, Home of the Gentry, is more a “pure” love story, for the most part, as far as I could see, unadulterated with political and social concerns: I got the impression reading that novel that had these concerns not been so pressing, and so weighing so heavily on Turgenev’s mind, this is the kind of novel he would have preferred to write. But these concerns could not be dismissed: in his next novel, On the Eve, the very title vibrating with social and political resonance, these issues return, as it were, with a vengeance. The dreamy melancholy of balmy evenings and singing nightingales has not gone away, but there are other matters simmering furiously below the surface.
The principal character here, Elena, is, like Liza in Home of the Gentry, pure-hearted and loving, recently grown into adulthood; but unlike Liza, hers is a restless soul, not at peace either with those around her, or, indeed, with herself. The older generation, once again, has little to offer, but where Liza’s mother had merely been foolish, Elena’s father is immoral, openly keeping a mistress while at the same time demanding respect for himself and deference to his social standing. The future this father demands for his daughter is one of unaspiring mediocrity and moral corruption, and the husband he proposes for her is every bit as uninspiring and as mediocre as himself; Elena, a somewhat less gentle soul, perhaps, than Liza in the previous novel, cannot even begin to take him seriously.
It is easy to see why Elena falls instead for Insarov, the newcomer into her society, and, to a far greater extent than the corresponding figures in the previous two novels, very much an outsider. He is not even Russian: he is a Bulgarian, committed to the cause of his country’s freedom. He is quietly heroic, undemonstrative, but of firm integrity and of unwavering principles, and it is easy to see why Elena falls for such a man: she finds in him a moral seriousness that she longs for, but which she has been starved of.
It is this sense of moral seriousness, or the lack thereof, that marks out the difference between the older generation and the newer. Turgenev was to return to this theme with quite explosive effect in his next novel, Fathers and Sons, which, in its nuanced depiction and its even-handedness managed on publication to alienate both fathers and sons, but here the depiction is more schematic. It’s not that the younger generation are all necessarily admirable: there is, after all, Elena’s proposed husband who appears to have taken on willingly all the shortcomings and absurdities of the older generation (and who is, incidentally, one of Turgenev’s rare forays into caricature, although it is perhaps fair to say that it is not in caricature that his gift primarily lies). But despite the presence of this unpleasant young suitor, all that is genuinely admirable in this novel comes from the young. There’s the talented young sculptor, Shubin, who sees through the hypocrisies of Elena’s father (although he is more amused than outraged by it all); there’s Bersyenev, the student of philosophy, who is himself in love with Elena, but, Sidney-Carton-like (though not in quite so spectacular a manner), forgoes his own happiness for hers; there’s Insarov himself, whose undemonstrative heroism and tenderness for Elena were such that I couldn’t help picturing him as the Paul Henreid character (Victor Laszlo) in Casablanca; and, of course, there’s Elena herself, determined that her own life would be free from the moral turpitude of her father’s, or the submissive acquiescence of her mother’s. The scope for action was far more limited for women than it was for men, but, given this, Elena’s determination not to succumb to what is expected of her, and her actions both before and after tragedy strikes, are every bit as heroic as Insarov’s.
(Chekhov, curiously, picked up this theme in one of his finest short stories that is variously translated as “A Marriageable Girl”, “The Fiancee”, “The Betrothed”, and “The Bride”: in this story, a young woman, in order to give herself the education that she had been denied, walks out of an engagement that promises a future merely of comfortable mediocrity.)
The story itself is simply told, with all Turgenev’s gift for gentle lyricism. Admittedly, there are fewer balmy evenings and singing nightingales here than in his previous novel: the political and social tensions simmering under the surface don’t allow too much room for that kind of thing, but, as with Home of the Gentry (although to a somewhat lesser extent), it is hard to read this without feeling that one is in the hands of a consummate lyric poet. The characterisation is deft, particularly of the minor, incidental characters: I couldn’t help feeling that the lovelorn but self-sacrificing Bersenyev would have made an interesting protagonist in his own right in another novel. And once again, Turgenev knew better than to overload so short a narrative and so slender a plotline with too many characters: the errors of judgement in Rudin are not here repeated.
It is towards the end of the novel that Turgenev offers us a major surprise: having set it all up as another novel of love in a provincial town, he suddenly switches the scene to Venice, a sophisticated European city, and, in every way, as far as can be imagined from the setting of the rest of the novel. A writer of Turgenev’s lyrical gifts could easily have given us page upon page of the most exquisite description, but the novelist takes precedence here over the lyrical poet: he gives us only as little as is required to convey a sense of changed locality – albeit a locality very dramatically changed. And here he develops a theme that had only been hinted at earlier: death. I am not sure what it is about the city of Venice that seems to suggest forebodings of mortality, but Turgenev certainly got there long before The Wings of the Dove, or Death in Venice. There is a sense here of decay and of death, but even in this there seems to be a curious beauty:
“Venice is dying, Venice is deserted” – so her inhabitants will tell you; but it may be in the past she lacked such charm as this, the charm of a city fading in the very culmination and flowing of its beauty.
Here, in the city in whose very decay is its beauty, Elena and Insarov attend a performance of Verdi’s recently composed opera, La Traviata – a work Turgenev describes (rather disconcertingly for those of us who love the work) as “in truth rather a commonplace piece”*. But whatever Turgenev may have thought of its artistic worth, he had certainly been struck by its death-haunted quality: it, too, like Venice, fades in “the very culmination and flowing of its beauty”. He gives us a fascinating account of the performance of this “commonplace piece”, and the tragedy is foreshadowed: it is no great surprise when it comes.
But tragic though the plot is, thematically, it is the quiet and undemonstrative heroism both of Insarov and of Elena that seems to me to be at the centre of the novel, and this heroism suffuses the entire work with a radiant, optimistic glow: one is left feeling that where the older generation had failed – where, indeed, they had scarcely even tried – the younger may perhaps succeed. And even if they don’t, their effort to progress morally from the state they have been left in by their fathers has about it an innate nobility. Such sense of optimism and belief in the essential nobility of humans are perhaps somewhat alien to modern sensibilities, and Turgenev himself was to revisit them; but if, indeed, such ideals are out of phase with the modern mind, a novel such as this serves to remind us of what we have lost.
* According to volume 2 of Julian Budden’s invaluable The Operas of Verdi, La Traviata was given its first performance in Venice in 1853, and, for various reasons, it was not a particular success, although Verdi may have exaggerated the extent of its failure. The performance attended by Elena and by Insarov would have been the revival in in 1854, when its qualities became more apparent, although, presumably, Turgenev remained unimpressed.