Turgenev’s shorter fiction

I’m never quite sure what the difference is between the short story and the novel – whether the difference is merely a question of length, or whether there is something else involved. For if it is merely a question of word-count, the borderline isn’t clearly defined: where exactly is the demarcation line between the two? And if there is no clear demarcation line, how do we classify those works that seem too long for short story, and yet not long enough for a novel?

To resolve this issue, a third category was introduced – the novella. But this doesn’t really improve matters, as where, previously, there had been one undefined demarcation line, now there are two. And even if we know roughly – since all questions of taxonomy in these matters are inevitably imprecise – where these demarcation lines lie, we may question why they lie where they do, and not elsewhere. For instance, we can all agree that Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer”, say, is a short story, Heart of Darkness a novella, and Nostromo a novel. Yet, although we take the trouble to separate out these works, we lump  together Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Tolstoy’s War and Peace in the same category, even though the latter is some seven times as long as the former. It all seems so arbitrary that I can’t help wondering whether these classifications purely in terms of length serve any purpose at all.

So maybe it isn’t merely a question merely of length, but of scope. But if we follow this line of thought, we run into even greater problems:  length is, at least, quantifiable; heaven only knows what we mean by “scope”. And yet, it does seem reasonable to assert that War and Peace has a broader scope than Fathers and Sons: the former addresses a great many themes, and the latter only one. (Or, at best, only a few.) Tolstoy’s novel has a great many narrative strands and focal points of interest; Turgenev’s doesn’t. This is not to say that Turgenev’s novel is, for this reason a lesser work of art: a songwriter is not attempting to compose a symphony, and it would be foolish to judge a song and a symphony by the same criteria. But a distinction along these lines may, perhaps, give us an insight into why we feel it natural to distinguish between the short story (or the novella) on the one hand, from, on the other hand, the novel. The former contracts, focusing our attention on a single issue, or on a small handful of issues: the latter expands to take in more.

Such a definition does not, I fear, stand up too well to close scrutiny. Many of Chekhov’s stories, for instance, imply so much more than is directly stated, that they seem to have the scope of novels. On the other hand, a novel such as The Golden Bowl by Henry James spends its immense length focusing on the interactions of just four characters – although such is the significance that James finds in the course of his painstaking dissections, that the few focal points upon which he closes seem to imply an entire universe. In short, differentiating the short story and the novel in terms of scope is fraught with all sorts of difficulties and inconsistencies. But in discussing the short fiction of Turgenev, it is, I think, useful. For Turgenev’s literary imagination was such that it eschewed vast canvases, with its intersecting strands and multiple themes: he preferred limiting his focal points, concentrating on fewer things, and achieving, in the process, a unity and a perfection of form that is usually denied those writers whose scope is broader. Turgenev is, in short, a songwriter rather than a symphonist.

This is apparent even in his full-length novels. If many of Chekhov’s short stories seem like novels in miniature, Turgenev’s novels often give the appearance of long short stories. Indeed, I am not entirely sure why Rudin is counted as a novel, and The Torrents of Spring a novella: although I haven’t counted the words, they seem to be of similar length, and in neither is the scope particularly broad. In both, Turgenev deals with the theme of the sadness of life – of our inability, due either to fate or to the weaknesses in our characters, to seize happiness when we can, so all we are left with in the end is a regret for what might have been. This, indeed, seems to be a running theme in virtually all of Turgenev’s work, and it usually presents itself in the form of a sad love story. For Turgenev delighted in writing love stories: he had a natural gift for lyricism; he could write prose as exquisite as any nocturne by Chopin (and this lyricism survives even in translation); and he could describe with a disarming openness and poignancy the most tender and intimate of thoughts, feelings, sensations. The battlefield of Borodino may well have been beyond his range, but there aren’t many who could depict so perfectly the gentle, nocturnal musings of a pained and stricken heart.

If all this makes Turgenev sound a bit twee, perhaps, a bit precious, then yes, our modern sensibilities, hardened as they are by the abrasive and the garish, may well perceive his writings as such. But I can’t help thinking that that is our loss, and that we should, at least for a while, put the neon lights out of our minds so as better to perceive the softness of a moonlit night.

In the course of pursuing his theme of the sadness of unfulfilled lives, he strikes upon another theme that is often regarded as archetypally Turgenevian – that of the “superfluous man”, the man who, despite being intelligent and even gifted, is, nonetheless, for reasons not easy to articulate, curiously ineffective. Indeed, one of his novellas is actually titled The Diary of a Superfluous Man, and, once again, it takes the form of a love story – in this case, a rejected love. Both the title and the form recall Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman”, but the content could hardly be different. Gogol’s story is phamtasmagoric, garishly coloured, and nightmarish: Turgenev prefers pastel shades, gently probing into the seemingly unanswerable question of why a human, not noticeably deficient in any obvious way, should nonetheless be “superfluous”.

The theme of the “superfluous man” has political and social implications as well of course, but, while Turgenev explored these implications in some of his novels, I distinctly get the impression that he was drawn into political themes simply because, as an intelligent an living in those times, he could not very well avoid them; but that he was happier focusing on the personal, the intimate. In Asya, we see the narrator too indecisive to respond adequately to a love that is offered him: the narrator is ostensibly at the centre of the story, but, very subtly, it is the title character, Asya, whom we see purely through the narrator’s eyes, who is really at its centre: the focal point is not the narrator’s “superfluity”, as such, but the pain of rejection experienced by Asya.

First Love too is about unrequited love – in this case, of a teenage lad, unused to and puzzled by the sudden stirrings of the heart. It is often regarded, with good reason, as a perfect example of Turgenev’s art: the narrative line is clear, uncluttered, and elegant; the psychological depictions are acute; and, in terms of form, it is about as close to perfection as is possible. But perhaps the best of all – at least, the one that affected me most – is the late novella Torrents of Spring. This was one of Turgenev’s last works, and the narrator, like the author, is a man in his late middle age, and lonely. He tell of his youth, when he might have found the happiness that he now lacks, but which, through the weakness of his own character, he threw away even as it was within his grasp. The story itself is deeply poignant, and the storytelling is absolute perfection: the uncluttered elegance of the narrative line, and its sense of artless ease, could only have been achieved by the most refined and sophisticated artistry; and its evocation of sadness, regret, and of loneliness, continues to haunt the mind long after one has finished reading. Fathers and Sons is often held to be Turgenev’s masterpiece, partly, I suspect, because of its political and social implications, but I am not sure that his masterpiece isn’t The Torrents of Spring: here, Turgenev isn’t concerned either with politics or with society: he focuses instead on what, I think, interests him most – the vagaries of the human heart.

There are two novellas that aren’t love stories – Mumu, a heart-rending story of a mute serf (i.e. slave) forced by his unfeeling and uncaring mistress to kill his own dog, because its barking disturbs her. (By “mistress”, I don’t mean, of course, a woman with whom he is having an affair, but, rather, the woman who owns him, body and soul.) And there is King Lear of the Steppes, a late masterpiece, which tells a story the narrator had witnessed when still a young lad, and not mature enough to understand the significance of what he sees. It is a tale of a peasant family, told with Turgenev’s characteristically direct and uncluttered style. However, it lacks his usual lyricism: we have here, instead, a story of immense power. It is also bleak and pessimistic: the “Lear” of this tale, an aged peasant, does not even have the consolation of a Cordelia. Turgenev was not always the soppy romantic he is sometimes made out to be.

***

Turgenev is often ranked with his great contemporaries Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, but this comparison does him no favours. For trying to compare Turgenev’s fiction with that of the other two is, essentially, comparing songs with symphonies: inevitably, the song is drowned out. But Turgenev’s voice, though quieter and less powerful, and, perhaps, more difficult to appreciate in our more abrasive times, remains potent. Certainly, few writers have conveyed with such artistry and refinement the sheer sadness of our unfulfilled human lives.

***

The translations I read:

“First Love and Other Stories” translated by Richard Freeborn, Oxford World Classics (contains The Diary of a Superfluous Man, Mumu, Asya, First Love, King Lear of the Steppes, The Song of Triumphant  Love)

“The Torrents of Spring” translated by David Magarshack, published by Folio Society (originally published by Hamish Hamilton)

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12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Janet on January 16, 2017 at 5:11 pm

    So good to have you back, Hamadri. I tend to define the difference by focus rather than length. A short story has a shallow depth of field but a single sharp image; whereas a novel has much more depth of field and everything in the image is important, though the composition will lead the eye to the points of interest that give a reason to the rest. I think “novella” is a squishy term invented to ease the discomfort of trying to classify a short story that is too long to be short or a novel that doesn’t require a hefty word count to do its thing. And then there’s Moby Dick.

    I’ve had trouble in the past with Turgenev and Lawrence, but you encourage me to revisit them both. I am trying to read more short fiction, but all these darn novels keep getting in the way.

    Reply

    • Hello Janet, it is, indeed, good to be back – although I don’t know that I’ll be putting out posts at quite the same rate as I used to.

      I too think it better to differentiate between novel and short story in terms of focus rather than in terms of length, but I can never hit upon any definition that entirely satisfies me: no matter how I formulate it, up pops an example that refuses to fit! But I suppose that classifications in the field of literature will always be approximate: they’re there to give us a general pattern, but each work must then be considered in its own right.

      I’ve read a fair amount of Turgenev in the last year or two, and, while he had a narrow range (and appeared to feel uncomfortable when venturing outside that range), what he achieved within that range is rather fine. But I think modern tastes are for works that are more abrasive, more hard-hitting. I think, though, that I remain a soppy Romantic at heart!

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

  2. Posted by A Slac on January 16, 2017 at 5:37 pm

    Why has your blog put me in mind of The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock?

    Reply

  3. To resolve this issue, invented to ease the discomfort, etc.

    That is definitely not the history of the term “novella,” which is centuries older than “short story,” term or concept, and I think older than “novel.”.

    Spring Torrents has that odd problem that it is split in the middle, two novellas with a makeshift join. The first one is a beauty. I have doubts about the second.

    Reply

    • Posted by Janet on January 16, 2017 at 10:30 pm

      Tom, you are correct. Technically, it is a very old term, but the modern use of the term doesn’t align well with its original use. You can pluck novellas from the Decameron or the Canterbury Tales, but they won’t bear much resemblance to Heart of Darkness or Turn of the Screw, except in the use of a frame. Metamorphosis doesn’t even have a frame. But it may be that I have it turned around backward. Because the term preceded and gave rise to both novels and short stories, perhaps it makes more sense to propose that short stories are sharply focused novellas and novels are expansive novellas. Backwards or forwards, I think length is the wrong criterion for classifying a work, and it doesn’t make sense to have a squishy middle category for works that are too short or too long to fit in a word-count driven category. Thanks for catching that.

      Reply

      • I must say this is my understanding also. While the term itself may be long established, it’s current usage – to refer to works somewhere between a short story and a novel in length – is relatively recent. None of Dickens’ Christmas Books, for instance, were referred to as “novellas”, as that was not how the word was used then. I am, though, as ever, happy to be corrected.

    • I’d be interested to know your doubts about the second. The first part depicts the narrator almost attaining happiness, and the second shows him throwing it away. And then there was a coda that I found particularly affecting. I liked both parts, and they seemed to complement each other rather nicely.

      Reply

  4. Demarcation lines are silly, really – something that’s 50 pages long can have more depth than 250 pages of a bestselling piece of tripe. Turgenev intrigues me – although I’ve read some of his stuff, he doesn’t seem to have the status or gravitas of the Russian greats. I shall explore further.

    Reply

    • I get the feeling that Turgenev’s delicate lyricism, which really is his strongest suit, is a bit out of step with modern tastes. I decided some time back to revisit Turgenev, simply because there had been a time when he was regularly classed (mistakenly, in my view) with Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy; and also because writers as fastidious as Flaubert and James thought very highly of him. I have still got his two later novels, Smoke and Virgin Soil, to re-read, as well as his play A Month in the Country.

      I also like the man’s political outlook. Politic stories in 19th century Russia (or even ma dean Russia) tended towards extremes, but Turgenev remained admirably moderate and level-headed in the midst of all the madness. Recently, I found, to my great amusement, that, on my Facebook profile, I had described my politics as “Turgenevia liberal”. I don’t remember writing that, and it made me laugh: I think I must have been drunk when I wrote it! But “in vino veritable”, as they say … I am more than happy to be a Turgenevian liberal!

      Reply

  5. Even closer to current usage, “novella” precedes “short story,” the former introduced by Goethe circa 1800 and developed extensively in German literature, the latter having something to do with U.S. magazine publishing at the end of the 19th century. The “tale” and “sketch” slowly turned into the “story,” but when a short “story” became a “short story,” the staple of the creative writing program, I do not know.

    Nor do I have any idea what terms Russians used for anything. What did Turgenev call First Love?

    My doubts about the second part of Spring Torrents – rather less than half, I see as I return to the book – are purely artistic. It’s not as well written. Less imagery, more chatter. The imagery is less original – the snake, the cup. Maybe there is some web of imagery I don’t see. Someone should write a post about that.

    I also have doubts about my doubts, since a lot of the artificiality of the second novella comes from the characters deliberately re-enacting Romantic clichés – Dido and Aeneas, Lenore – so then of course the surrounding style is also more stale. Fresh, original beauty comes from Italy; the old stuff is Germanic. The split is conceptual, and intentional. I don’t know.

    Reply

    • Thanks for the information on the usage of “novella”. I had thought it was much more recent.

      On Spring Torrents , the second part is certainly written in a very different style from the first. Although there is as much incident in here as there is in the first part, it is, as you note, much shorter. Where the first part is lyrical, often lingering lovingly on details, the second part is almost all narrative: we don’t even get any extended description of the narrator’s state of mind. It gives me the sense that the narrator doesn’t want to linger on this part of the story, because he feels ashamed of it. It is something he has to tell only because it’s part of the story: the sooner he can get it over with, the better.

      It is the coda that particularly moved me, but of course, the coda only works in the context of all that had gone before. And he doesn’t need to tell us that he feels ashamed of what he had done, because the narrative style he employs at that part of the story has already told us that.

      Reply

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