“Smoke” by Ivan Turgenev

Smoke by Ivan Turgenev, translated by Michael Pursgove, published by Alma Classics

*** SPOILER WARNING: This post inevitably reveals some details of the plot ***

I actually remember well the first time I read Turgenev’s Smoke: it was shortly before the UK release of Woody Allen’s Manhattan in 1980. I remember watching he film and being struck by how similar the storylines were. In both, there’s a male protagonist (aged around thirty in the novel, but a bit older in the film); a very young lady to whom he is attached; and a far more sophisticated lady, who is closer to his own age, with whom he falls in love, and for whose sake he turns his back on his younger love. And the storylines develop in much the same way. I suppose it is a fairly standard storyline, and I am certainly not accusing anyone of plagiarism. And it is the sort of storyline one comes to expect from Turgenev: the flowering of love, innocence betrayed, the vagaries of the heart, regret, missed opportunities, sorrow, unhappiness brought upon one’s own self by one’s foolishness and lack of moral purpose … it’s all present and correct. What matters, of course, is not the storyline as such, but what is made of it.

What Turgenev makes of it seems to me a gentle, charming love story, nostalgic and melancholy, and aching with wistfulness. Yes, we’ve all been there before. Possibly, after the greater depths broached in his previous novel Fathers and Sons, we may have been entitled to expect something a bit more thematically ambitious. But, then again, art is not to be judged on its novelty alone: there’s always room for yet another wistful love story.

But what surprises nowadays is that a novel so seemingly inoffensive as this should, at the time, have caused such a political storm. Fathers and Sons had done the same, of course, but there, many of the themes had been explicitly political. How is it, one wonders, that a book so apparently innocuous, written by a writer who insistently aligned himself with moderation in all things – moderation not out of indecisiveness or pusillanimity, but because he felt it his moral duty to avoid extremes of all sorts – should have caused such controversy? Perhaps my inability to answer that question indicates my inability to understand adequately the Russian mind of the nineteenth century, and the fury of the entrenched battle lines then drawn between West-looking liberalism, and the Slavophilism that rejected the West, and looked for salvation within the traditions of the Mother Russia. No-one seemed to deny that salvation, of some sort of other, was needed: but there was no agreement on where it was to be found. Turgenev’s gigantic contemporaries, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, went their own extreme ways: Dostoyevsky rejected the idea of a brotherhood imposed from above, and seemed to favour a brotherhood that could only spring spontaneously from below, in the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church – although, given the multiplicity of voices to be found in his novels, no single idea seems able to keep its shape intact for very long; Tolstoy, meanwhile, seemed to turn towards a sort of Christian anarchism. Both geniuses were touched with madness. In contrast, Turgenev seems the most level-headed of them all – no mean feat given the untrammelled lunacy all around him. Perhaps this is the very reason why his works attracted such opprobrium.

But what seems particularly strange, given the intense controversy of the time, is how small a part politics seems to play in Smoke in the first place. In Fathers and Sons, the whole thing did turn on the conflict between different perspectives on the world, and, by implication, different politics: but here, even that seems to be absent. Turgenev does, it is true, introduce some reactionary aristocrats, and satirises them; but he introduces a group of radicals also, and similarly satirises them. These are not, frankly, the most memorable sections of the novel: Turgenev’s gifts for satire, certainly compared to, say, that of Gogol or Dostoyevsky, seem distinctly limited. And, indeed, so little a part do these scenes play in the novel, and so far are they from what I take to be its central themes, one can’t help wondering whether it would have been better without these scenes. For Turgenev was at his best, it seems to me, with smaller canvases – in his short stories and novellas: why expand the size of the canvas for no particular reason?

For the central themes of this novel is neither liberalism nor conservatism: indeed, it is not politics at all. It is about the mistakes one makes in life; it is about being led astray by one’s emotions, by the weakness of one’s moral purpose, by the inability to perceive matters truly, as they are. And with these themes, which I used in my Dostoyevsky-and-Tolstoy-obsessed youth to dismiss as slight, Turgenev was very much on home ground: no other author has ever conveyed with such delicacy and lyricism the sadness of it all. Of course, Turgenev had dealt with themes before, and, in his late novella, The Torrents of Spring, he addressed them again: but, despite what I may have thought in my youth, these themes are not slight, and are worth revisiting. We do not, after all, criticise Monet for painting those waterlilies so endlessly.

The action takes place in a spa town in Germany, and the drama is played out amongst expatriates. The protagonist, Litvinov, is betrothed to Tatyana, a name that to any educated Russian would instantly conjure up Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. And, like Pushkin’s Tatyana, Turgenev’s Tatyana is young and inexperienced, but also perceptive and intelligent, and possessed of a moral purpose that Litvinov clearly lacks. The third point of this triangle is Irina, whom Litvinov had loved some ten years earlier, but who had been married off to a wealthy aristocrat. (As ever, Turgenev fills us in on the past with a quite leisurely flashback.) Irina is still married, to a husband she does not care for, and, despite his feelings for Tatyana, Litivinov’s old love for Irina again wells up. Turgenev, as ever, conveys these subtleties of the heart with the most delicate of touches. He introduces another character, Potugin: he, too, is in love with Irina, but he is resigned to his passion remaining unfulfilled; and he follows round Irina and her husband wherever they go, asking for nothing, and receiving nothing. He is, I suppose, an image of what Litvinov may himself one day become: no matter how much we may extol love, there is no reason or logic in human passion, and it could, Turgenev knew, be deeply humiliating.

Once we strip away the politics from this novel – and it is easily stripped away – what remains is another sad and gentle love story. It would be easy to mistake this as slight, as I did once, but it isn’t. The vagaries of the human heart are always important, and always worth revisiting.



17 responses to this post.

  1. I had read Smoke and ended up thinking the story was just as you said, a sad and gentle love story, with foolishness and confusion as to what’s right on Litvinov’s part. I didn’t see the politics as anything more than a minor background issue.

    I can see why Fathers and Sons was controversial, but this one. . ?


  2. Thanks for reminding me of this book! I confess that, while I must have read it, that fact had slipped my mind till reading this review. Turgenev is as always worth a look.

    As for the politcal side of things, this is pure speculation, but here goes. Political passions were running very high amongst the intelligentsia in Russia at the time, but they had little outlet in the autocracy. So people concentrated on subtle signs in literature and culture, and got really worked up over seemingly insignificant things. Comparisons could be made to the social media flame wars going on right now between members of the Russian opposition, or the way a certain segment of American college students, heavily in debt, with gloomy job prospects, and unable to effect change at a systemic level, chooses to focus with near hysterical passion on ever more minute instances of cultural appropriation. They desperately need to make a stand somewhere, and this is the only place they can find where their voices will be heard, but not too loudly.


    • Hello Elena, and welcome.
      Yes, I too very much get the impression that political passions were running very high amongst the Russian intelligentsia. It’s hardly surprising, though, given the state of the country. What does surprise me is that given the times, when all sorts of people were driven to extremes of oe sort or another, it’s the moderate and level-headed Turgenev who seemed to arouse the greatest controversy!

      Many were driven into revolutionary movements, as the young Dostoyevsky himself had been (although Dostoyevsky had very harsh things to say about them later in his life). The parallel you draw is an interesting one: I am not sure what it is, to be quite frank, that draws so many people, especially young people, into identity politics. Perhaps one can’t blame the young when so many professors seem intent on churning out so many questionable ideas in such inscrutable prose.

      The more I read Turgenev, the more I find myself liking him. He certainly had shortcomings and limitations, but in mad times, he kept his head, and his humanity, and never allowed ideological concerns to compromise his respect for individuals as individuals. His voice was quiet, but firm, and immensely civilised.


  3. I attribute Turgenev’s level-headedness to the fact that he is not religious. And in my opinion there are never enough silly love stories written by the gentle giant..


    • Oh, I’m sure if you looked round, it wouldn’t be too hard to find people who rejected religion, and yet held some rather extreme views: Nietzsche, for instance! But I do take your point. Turgenev was not religious, but neither did he rail against it: in all things, he was moderate. And his love stories are exquisite: I don’t think we’ll ever get so sophisticated as not to respond to a good love story!


  4. When it’s too late for everything but regrets, Tatiana tells Onegin: “And happiness was so possible, So close!” Turgenev had an acute sense of bliss that might have been. In Smoke, he lets Litvinov – although not Potugin – to have another chance at happiness. No devastating ending here, unlike The Torrents of Spring.

    Smoke was published in 1868, a great time for Russian prose (Lady Macbeth of Msensk in 1864, Crime and Punishment in 1866, War and Peace in 1865-69) but not exactly the apex of Russian literary criticism. Most of it now seems childish, so simplified and politicized it was. It didn’t help that Potugin, a Russian expatriate and a hopeless admirer of a woman who keeps him in tow, resembled Turgenev to those Russians who knew of his relationship with Viardot. For more details, see Erik McDonald’s 2014 post. I wrote three short posts based on that (this one has all the links).


    • Bad editing on my part: there should be no “to” after the dash in my comment.


    • Turgenev was very fond, wasn’t he, of an epilogue that takes place some time after the main action? Edith Wharton does the same in The Age of Innocence, which struck me as a very Turgenevian novel. This epilogue is often melancholy and wistful (as in A Nest of the Gentry, or in The Torrents of Spring), but he allows Litvinov a second chance here, a chance to redeem himself.

      Thanks for the links, by the way. I had known of Turgenev’s relation with Pauline Viardot, and the way he used to follow her and her husband around. It seems inconceivable that Turgenev should have created a character doing exactly the same, and not use his own experiences to inform the characterisation. Potugin emerged in the novel, for me at any rate, as a rather pathetic figure. Maybe Turgenev saw himself in such terms also.

      The 1860s were certainly a wonderful time for Russian prose. As well as the works you mention, Fathers and Sons appeared earlier in the decade, and The Idiot later. And looking outside Russia, the 1860s also saw Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend, Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and, in France, Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale. there must have been something in the air…


      • That’s one of the ironies of Potugin’s invective: as he spoke of Russia’s negligible contribution to civilization, what would later be termed the “great Russian literature” was being created. Obviously, Turgenev was one of its creators, even though his late output remains underappreciated.

        Turgenev’s simple trick – lending his views to a less than ideal character – confused Russian critics. One serious, liberal-minded journal close to the government’s reformist wing ran a long article refuting Potugin’s views. That’s what passed for literary criticism in 1867.

      • I think Dostoyevsky (rather surprisingly, given how much he hated this novel) does something similar: when Shatov expresses Dostoyevsky’s own religious nationalism in Demons, it is made to sound absurd.

        I found Potugin a fascinating figure, and, indeed, wished that Turgenev had given him more time centre-stage. Turgenev must have known that Potugin would be seen as a sort of self-portrait, and making him so absurd a figure is either a means of distancing the main character from himself, or, more likely perhaps, self-deprecation. It is fascinating nonetheless that in what is otherwise a love story, Turgenev should present the humiliation to which this noblest of emotions can lead us.

  5. […] C., the Argumentative Old Git, is taking another look at Turgenev’s Smoke, a short novel from 1867. (Old Smoke links: Erik McDonald; yours most humbly.) Back in 1830, […]


  6. Posted by alan on July 31, 2017 at 8:39 pm

    For some reason I’m reminded of this:



    • I think the issues were important enough. That readers such as myself can’t really see what the political fuss was about merely indicates, I think, just how sensitive the Russian readership, and, by extension, Russian society of the 19th century were to issues of Slavophile politics and Western liberalism. It was a maelstrom. Even though I cannot see this novel as primarily political in content, I cannot help but admire Turgenev for remaining level-headed, and insisting on moderation, despite the sheer lunacy on all sides.


  7. An appendix to one of the threads above: Shatov’s views are only superficially similar to his creator’s. Dostoevsky believed in Christ in a personal way. He probably saw the common people as fellow believers. Shatov makes it clear, when asked by Stavrogin, that he is seeking to believe in God but so far only believes in the people, who are God’s body.


    • Yes, I agree, Shatov’s views and Dostoyevsky’s views were not identical. Nonetheless, Shatov comes closest of all the characters to articulating Dostoyevsky’s own views. While ideas are obviously important n Dostoyevsky’s novels, nothing is ever clear-cut: all voices seem equally present, and equally valid. ideas in Dostoyevsky are far from abstract – they seem like real entities: it really makes for an extraordinary experience!


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